Predictions Are Very Hard

Predictions are very hard, especially about the future – Niels Bohr but often attributed to Yogi Berra

The latest paper to predict the inevitable collapse of civilization comes from Paul Ehrlich: “Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?”

Ehrlich has a history of making dire predictions and fortunately he has been mostly wrong about almost all of them. In The Population Bomb, he predicted massive famines in the 1970’s. Ehrlich’s prediction then were remarkably like those of Thomas Malthus over a hundred years earlier. The inevitable growth of population would outstrip food production and eventually epidemic, famine, or war would intervene to correct the imbalance. Given the spectacular failure of his predictions, we might expect Ehrlich to be more cautious. Yet his latest predictions are mostly along the same lines as his previous predictions with the added nuance of climate change thrown into the mix.

Should we take these predictions at all seriously?

Some could argue that predicting a future in itself might alter that future. In other words, just thinking about the future drives us to take action to alter the future. For example, we might take action through the United Nations to reduce population growth so the predicted famines do not occur. While this might be true to limited degree, the problem is what often drives the future state are events and changes that happen outside of the actions we take. In fact, the population growth predicted by Ehrlich did happen. The famines were prevented by a revolution in agricultural production that was not foreseen.

The history of science, technology, and discovery should cause us to be very humble in our predictions.

Of course, we do know that civilizations collapse, tipping points do occur, peaks happen. Knowing when or if, of course, is difficult.

Actually I mostly agree with Ehrlich’s view about where we should be going. We need fewer people in the world. We need to have less impact on the ecological systems of the planet. We need more sustainable technology that can do more with less. We need wealth more evenly distributed around the world.

Can we force ourselves to get there by prescriptive action? That I doubt. The means of getting there is where I disagree with Ehrlich. We can’t predict the technologies and economic forces that will unfold in the next hundred years. The chance of our decisions we make now being able to affect that future is not good. In fact, it might be more or less even odds whether decisions we make now might even affect the future adversely. This is mostly what I argue in regard to the attempt to severely limit greenhouse gas emissions in another post.

This is what I hope and expect:

  • Technology and economic growth will reduce population growth
  • Solar and alternative energy will become economically feasible and replace fossil fuel burning
  • Robots and automation will make human labor almost unnecessary for production of goods
  • New forms of business will arise that will assure meaningful, productive work for all
  • Medical advances will increase the human life span and these advances will spread around the world to drive a reduction in population growth
  • We will let sizable parts of the Earth return to a managed natural state
  • Agricultural production will become more intensive, require less land, and be closer to the point of consumption
  • We will become more decentralized and move out from our cities
  • We will become a global community connected through communications with humans able to move about freely
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12 Responses to Predictions Are Very Hard

  1. Marilyn says:

    I really like your predictions. If you were president could you have a viable way of steering us in a direction more human and manageable with compassion. If your answer is yes, you are my write in vote for 2016. If it is no I still hope they all come true. I agree that forward positive thinking is what helps us create new ways of thinking and being. This is actually very spiritual in nature even though you might not say it that way. Being conscious of our equality as humans, sharing resources, feeling connected to each other and behaving as if we were all connected is the answer to every crisis.
    Thanks for your post. Always enjoy your writing.


  2. James Cross says:

    Thanks for commenting.

    I am afraid if I were President I doubt I could do much more than our current one is doing.

    I do not expect the road forward to be easy. I conveniently left out of my post any actions we could take to bring about what I hope and expect. I hope that technology and forces of history will do most of the heavy lifting. But we all should take whatever small actions we can. It all adds up in the end.


  3. hyperzombie says:

    Excellent predictions except for solar/alternative power. never going to happen. We need reliable power.
    If you want a wealthier humanity to have a smaller ecological footprint with more sustainable technology, wish for MORE people. The evidence clearly points in this direction.


    • James Cross says:

      Can you explain the MORE people comment? I think we could sustain our current population and more in a sustainable way but why would we want to? I think it would put us too much on an edge that might result in a catastrophe if something unforeseen happened. I don’t see even then how it would be a smaller ecological footprint.

      Regarding solar and alternative, I am talking in terms of 100 years and I think all sorts of alternatives will be reliable in that time frame.


    • David Jenkis says:

      The “we need reliable power” argument is perfectly invalid. The sun shines more energy on Earth in a day than we can use in a year. But the “we need reliable power” argument implicitly assumes that we can only use it as it’s coming from the Sun. What we need is energy storage technology. But our fossil fuel overlords don’t want you to realize that.


      • James Cross says:

        Basically agree with you.

        I think eventually we will be able to run fuel cells from water for home, small scale businesses, and vehicle needs.

        I am not completely opposed to nuclear power, maybe fusion eventually, for electrical grid needs, along with solar.

        In the short run, even natural gas puts less greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than coal or oil.

        There are a lot of alternative energy options and there are constantly new developments and breakthroughs which I am certain our fossil fuel overlords are monitoring and investing in.


      • hyperzombie says:

        Yes the sun does provide us with that much energy, but you have to do the math.
        70% of the planet is ocean
        Solar panels are only 30% efficient
        Transmission losses 10%
        So are you willing to remove another 16-24% of the habitable parts of the land masses just to generate solar power? Imagine what that would do to the environment?


  4. James Cross says:


    I don’t know what you are looking at but look at this:

    “Dividing the global yearly demand by 400 kW•h per square meter (198,721,800,000,000 / 400) and we arrive at 496,804,500,000 square meters or 496,805 square kilometers (191,817 square miles) as the area required to power the world with solar panels. This is roughly equal to the area of Spain. At first that sounds like a lot and it is. But we should put this in perspective.

    If divided into 5,000 super-site installations around the world (average of 25 per country), it would measure less than 10km a side for each. The UAE has plans to construct 1,500MW of capacity by 2020 which will require a space of 3 km per side. If the UAE constructed the other 7 km per side of that area, it would be able to power itself as a nation completely with solar energy. The USA would require a much larger area and approximately 1,000 of these super-sites.”


    • hyperzombie says:

      First of all 400kW/m, Insanely high, but lets go with you numbers. So you are willing to pave with solar panels, support equipment, and transmission lines the size of 2 Spains? Are are willing to steal a million square K of nature just to generate power? That is the equivalent of 113 “Yellowstone National Parks” worth of land.
      P.S. You admit that Ehrlich was wrong (is “wrongest” a word,cause wrong doesn’t sum up how wrong he was) yet you agree with his ideas on how to proceed into the future?? Hmmm.
      Maybe you should think about that for a bit.


      • James Cross says:

        Look I am not proposing solar as the only alternative solution. I think solar is just one type of alternative along with natural gas from biological waste, geothermal, fuel cells, nuclear, and eventually fusion power, I would not be surprised if something like cold fusion becomes eventually possible. I am looking at a long period here.

        I also think panels will get more efficient so less will be required. What’s more it makes the most sense to put large installations where they are appropriate in desert areas. However, small installations could be on the roofs of buildings or seamlessly integrated with architecture. Solar does not need to be implemented always in large landscape transforming arrays.


        • hyperzombie says:

          In my opinion solar is only useful as a power source in a few instances,eg. charge batteries, cottages away from the grid, etc.
          It should never be a major power supply because it has 2 massive problems. 1. No matter how efficient the panels get, it generates 0 power at least 50% of the time. (I don’t know about you, but I like lights and heat at night). 2. it is very diffuse power. Every time you turn on the hair blower, desert creatures lose 15 sq m of habitat at a minimum. that is not a trade off that I am willing to make. Solar is also extremely expensive at the moment.

          Nuclear, excellent base load power, bit expensive, awesome for the environment.

          Biogas, great idea, but not enough of it to make a real difference (cellulosic biofuels Horrible for the environment) .

          Geothermal, If Iceland can’t power their whole island with it, what chance do we have? (not many volcanoes near my house)

          Fuel cells, great idea, if they can ever make them work reliably.

          Fusion, would be great, but it doesn’t produce any power now. I believe thats a huge problem.

          Cold fusion, Santa and the Tooth Fairy got that one covered. Might happen, way into the future.\

          IMHO, if you are truly for the environment, and a prosperous society, you have to be pro nuke and pro natural gas including fracking. All the other “alternative” power sources are expensive and harmful to the environment,or just wishful thinking.


      • James Cross says:

        I am not opposed to natural gas, particularly as a bridge technology until other alternatives come online. Natural gas has less environmental impact than other technologies. Fracking needs tight control for environmental side effects or, if we want loose controls, let’s make the companies post bonds so that if something goes wrong the injured are compensated. We can let the insurance industry/free market set the costs for the bond.

        Nuclear is also fine with proper regulation. If you actually look at my Far Future post, you will see I am predicting fusion power to be viable by the end of the 21th century.

        I think fuel cells will make inroads in a decade and in maybe two or three decades they will become widespread.

        I am not sure we are that far apart. I think I am talking in terms of 50-100 years and you seem to be thinking of the present or next decade.


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