Meta: this is the first part of a history of the future. It’s tapered rather dramatically – the next century will take several posts, the last centuries will take one post for several hundred years. The second part of this will be a summary of some of the major cultures of the 30th century – but I haven’t written most of that yet, so it’ll be a while. So here’s what I’ve got right now.
Alternate histories are written in loving detail; possible futures are more often written in broad strokes, and preferably long leaps through time. No surprise: the future is harder to write about than the past. This Future should not be read as “what will happen”, nor even what “might” happen. It is a fiction, guided by aesthetics as well as fact. However, I’d like to think that it’s plausible. Not necessarily possible or probable, as it relies on humanity inventing some things and not inventing other things, which of course we cannot know about in advance. But I’d like to think it’s not just pulled out of a hat.
Last time I tried this, I went about it in far more detail: but the world is just too big for that, and I found myself with far too many areas about which I knew too little or cared too little – not to mention that every section would require me to rewrite all the others. So, this time, I’m going about it in a more synoptic fashion. First, the general economic and technological movement; next, the superpowers; next, religion.
The Coming Century
The 21st century was a time of limitation, and of two opposing forces: the forces of possibility unleashed in the preceding century, and the increasing power of the forces of poverty that came to the fore as the preceding boom exhausted the planet’s resources.
Exhaustion manifested itself most clearly in the scarcity of oil, the resource that had fuelled the 20th century. Oil prices rose continually and dramatically, and this rise neatly divided the era into two parts: the Second Age of Oil and the Long Winter. The Second Age of Oil, unlike the First, was chiefly dependent upon what were then known as ‘unconventional’ oil sources: tars, shales, sands and super-heavy fractions, the expense of extracting and processing which had not previously been profitable when ‘light’ oils had been so available. Unconventional oils continued to supply the world’s needs, but their awkwardness forced prices to rise steadily. Moreover, these resources brought a re-alignment of world finance, with most oil reserves now located in Canada, Venezuela, and above all the United States of America. Lesser reserves in the EU, the Congo, Brazil and Russia completed the picture, alongside the last light reserves in the Middle East.
Although “renewable” resources were increasingly developed to provide electricity, along with nuclear fission, the limitations of batteries prevented these developments from lowering the costs of transportation, which continued to rely on petrochemical combustion engines. Nor did the increasing use of bioethanols lower transport costs substantially, as the price of bioethanol rose itself, as with the prices of all other farmed products. Petrochemical-derived fertilisers were becoming more expensive, many agricultural areas were experiencing soil degradation, food transport costs were increasing, and water resources were horrifically stretched.
Increasing transport costs necessarily led to reduced transport (in proportion, at least, even if not at first in absolute numbers). Heavy industry, which had once chased the cheapest wage, now chased the cheapest resource costs: what could be made locally was made locally, and what could not be made locally was made wherever the raw materials were found. In effect, oil prices killed globalisation.
Within countries, urbanisation continued to be a powerful force, but it interacted strangely with oil, food and water prices, thanks to the development of vertical farming. High-intensity energy-expensive vertical farms proved profitable in those cities big or rich enough to repay the initial investment; and in these places, travel costs forced more and more farmers and commuters to move permanently into the cities. No longer would rich businessmen live in suburbs or commuter-belt towns: now, all but the richest would dwell in super-high-density city centres, where their jobs, their services, and now increasingly their food were all cheaply available. The remaining horizontal farms were cleared of their owners in the greatest consolidation since Enclosure, and turned into more organised, efficient, industrial super-farms. Not, of course, that these farms were uninhabited – with higher energy costs, cheap human labour seemed more attractive than machines, despite theoretical advances in mechanisation. The super-farms at first were corporate, but with so much money in the agricultural sector, there was little need for efficient competition, and the billionaires who chose to live in the countryside, connected to the cities only electronically, soon began to invest once more in the ancient capital of land.
But in poorer countries, the situation was different. Expensive vertical farms could simply not be built at first, at least not in the quantities necessary to support the exploding populations of developing cities. The migration to the cities ended and reversed: when food is scarce and is expensive to transport, it is better to be poor on a farm than in a city. This ‘great return’ of urban populations to their rural homelands was the source of immense cultural vitality – but also, in many places, of great upheaval, as the settled farmers competed for jobs and land with the flood of ex-urban poor: a conflict made far worse by soil degradation and water shortages. Many parts of the world were in permanent warfare. Eventually, of course, when vertical farming had been developed successfully in richer countries, and oil prices had finally become entirely insane, vertical farming was introduced in the remaining poor cities, which became able to support themselves, and even began to grow again – but early predictions of African mega-cities had been derailed for a century.
Because oil prices did become insane. Eventually, even heavy oils could supply earth’s needs, and resources peaked. The result was calamity. The century had been marred by economic heartache – the New Depression of the 2020s and the shorter but harsher Great Autumn of the 2050s could both stand comparison with the depressions of the preceding two centuries, but the Long Winter that began with the Collapse (also known as the Fall of Man) of 2073 surpassed them all. As rising demand hit falling supply, oil prices exploded, and with them transport costs and food prices, while energy prices underwent a lesser but still dramatic shock. Mass starvation occurred – even rich countries struggled to ward off famine. Unemployment, even in the developed world, was between twenty and forty percent, depending on how quickly the countries de-mechanised, as oil-powered machines became obsolete beside masses desperate for food.
The terrible times only ended with two new discoveries, both made in the early years of the 22nd century: nuclear fusion, which provided virtually-free energy (so free that even with inefficient and expensive batteries, transport became possible once more), and faster-than-light travel, which enabled profitable asteroid mining, ending the scarcity of many rare metals and chemicals. Although the immediate effect of these two was to lengthen the depression (as manufacturing prices plummeted, factories mechanised and employment shrank), eventually they ushered in a new age of human history.