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2020 Visions

In Nature's January 7, 2010, issue (in an opinion section called 2020 Visions):

...Nature asked a selection of leading researchers and policy-makers where their fields will be ten years from now. [Nature] invited them to identify the key questions their disciplines face, the major roadblocks and the pressing next steps.

Several of the items caught my attention.  The first was the section on demographics by Joshua R. Goldstein.  Recently I'd already been thinking about how demographic changes are on track to create an explosion of debt via health care costs in the coming decades (link).  In Nature, Goldstein writes:

As population growth marked the twentieth century, population ageing will mark the twenty-first. By 2020, the average European will have fewer years of life expectancy remaining than years he or she has already lived. East Asians will soon follow. Humankind will spend much of the coming decade grappling with questions about how to organize and pay for the care of an increasing elderly population and about who will produce what the elderly consume.

In the longer term, a return to moderate fertility rates in those countries with very low fertility, and increases in immigration can do much to moderate population ageing. Sweden and Japan face quite different demographic futures, because fertility in Sweden is closer to replacement and a small but steady stream of immigrants will make up the difference. In Japan — the world's leader in longevity — fertility remains low, and immigration a major social challenge.

We need demographic research on four fronts addressing population ageing. Low birth rates can perhaps be increased by measures that reconcile work and family, enabling people to have the children they say they want. Fostering the social and economic integration of immigrants is another priority. Health research, helping people to stay younger longer, is already a priority of ageing societies; indeed, so far, the healthy period of life has been lengthening as fast or faster than life expectancy itself. But now — as the first 65-year-old baby-boomers prepare to blow out their birthday candles — we must address the larger question of rescheduling life's turning points, so that people can remain active and productive. The societies that respond to ageing successfully will be those that take advantage of longer life.

The last line of the first paragraph ("Humankind will spend much of the coming decade grappling with questions about how to organize and pay for the care of an increasing elderly population and about who will produce what the elderly consume.") reminded me of references to Atlas Shrugged.  Although I still haven't read it, in the wake of the US government's response to the current economic crisis I see it frequently invoked by pundits (link) and common-man political conservatives as a prophecy that the "producers" will eventually rebel against being taxed to support the "poor" and "lazy."  It's ironic that the big crisis that is coming is not whether or not the "producers" will be willing and able to support the poor and the immigrants (another common target of conservative scorn) but rather whether they will be willing and able to support the elderly (who, coincidentally, have recently been flocking to the Republican party: link)...and that our ability to successfully attract and integrate young immigrants will be crucial to facing this challenge.

Another item that caught my attention was soil.  David R. Montgomery writes:

To avoid the mistakes of past societies, as 2020 approaches, the world must address global soil degradation, one of this century's most insidious and under-acknowledged challenges. Humanity has already degraded or eroded the topsoil off more than a third of all arable land. We continue to lose farmland at about 0.5% a year — yet expect to feed more than 9 billion people later this century.

During the twentieth century, the Haber–Bosch process (allowing the mass production of nitrogen-based fertilizers) and the Green Revolution effectively divorced agriculture from soil stewardship. Increased yields were supported by intensive fertilizer inputs and mechanization that simplified and devastated soil life, reducing native soil fertility. For example, research in some conventional agricultural settings shows that other species such as bacteria have virtually replaced mycorrhizal fungi, which deliver soil nutrients to most plants. In a post-petroleum world, as the era of cheap fossil-fuel-produced fertilizers comes to an end, conventional, high-input agriculture is neither sustainable nor resilient. Ensuring future food security and environmental protection will require thoughtfully tailoring farming practices to the soils of individual landscapes and farms, rather than continuing to rely on erosive practices and fertilizer from a bag.

This sentence - "In a post-petroleum world, as the era of cheap fossil-fuel-produced fertilizers comes to an end, conventional, high-input agriculture is neither sustainable nor resilient." - really caught my attention.  It's not a question of if but when we will be operating in a "post-petroleum world"...and the arrival of that day will require a massive shift in our agricultural practices.

These two topics - demographics and agricultural practices - are examples of the huge problems we have before us.  There's no doubt that government will have to play a huge role in solving these problems.  However, there is little evidence that it's up to the task...our politics seem to be broken and incapable of producing bold and timely responses to our major problems.  The fact that half of us see government as being more of a  problem creator than a problem solver makes me wonder how we can possibly respond effectively to our changing world.

The third topic from the nature story that piqued my interest was lasers and their potential to be part of the solution to our energy problems.  Thomas M. Baer and Nicholas P. Bigelow write:

Next-generation lasers will allow the creation of new states of matter, compressing and heating materials to temperatures found only in the centres of massive stars, and at pressures that can squeeze hydrogen atoms together to a density 50 times greater than that of lead. The resulting fusion reactions may one day be harnessed to provide almost limitless carbon-free energy. Enough fusion fuel is present in the oceans to supply the current energy needs of the entire world for longer than the age of the Universe.

When so many of our pressing problems can be reduced to problems of energy supply, breakthroughs like this seem to be critical.  I realize that enormous sums of money are already devoted to research like this, but I wonder if we are making appropriately-large bets given the enormous payout of success...and if research funding can be sustained at appropriate levels in the coming decades.


Imagine if we had a process to remove billions of tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere safely, quickly and cost-effectively - while at the same time building soil, reversing desertification, boosting biodiversity, enhancing global food security and improving the lives of hundreds of millions of people in rural and regional areas around our planet?

And all this without artificial fertilisers...

We do - it's called changed grazing management and soil carbon.

Please take a look at the presentations on to learn more.

This is what I lived through in the 70's. I'm still here in 2010.

Dire predictions may not come true because the underlying assumptions were faulty, or they may not come true because actions are taken to prevent them. The latter is often the case.

Apolyptic predictions make news and money in certain situations. Doomsday is around the corner. Look up the program list for the history channel. Next big apolyptic crisis is going to be the end of the Mayan calendar on 12/21/12. I predict :) this one will be huge, but also false.

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