I have spent a lot of time thinking about humanity’s future. I outlined how we need to improve Capitalism in Confronting Capitalism (2015), how to enhance democracy in Democracy in Decline (2017), and how to improve the common good in Advancing the Common Good (2019).
I now realize that these meditations answer only pieces of the larger question: “What is the future of humanity?” Recent events are pointing to a dismal picture of humanity’s future that go beyond the pain of inflation and recession. Here are three developments that present a bleak outlook of the future.
The persistence of deadly diseases. Covid-19 was first reported by the local government in Wahun, China on December 27, 2019. It quickly spread around the world and millions of people died. The rapid development of vaccines reduced the death rate in the more advanced nations. But Covid-19 generated new variants of the disease that continued to spread among many citizens who refused vaccinations or wearing masks for protection. Many people thought the pandemic would be over by 2021 or 2022 but it is still showing recurrent impact on people’s lives. Now we have the appearance of a new viral disease, monkeypox, a cousin of smallpox. Some virologists are predicting the continuation of various diseases for a number of years, with all of their calamitous economic, social and political dehumanization consequences.
The damage of climate change. The industrial revolution brought many benefits to mankind: new products, lower costs, widespread abundance, and global growth. It also brought disbenefits in poorer quality air and water and in the huge growth of cities and traffic problems. A debate occurred in the 1970s on whether governments should place limits on growth to keep down pollution and other risks. Increases in human activity and production release more carbon and greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere that cause the planet to retain heat. A hotter planet will produce adverse climate effects, including more fires, floods, storms and hurricanes. Temperatures in equatorial areas will rise to make living and breathing difficult. Affected persons will flee in droves for cooler climates in Europe, North America, and Australia. These areas will refuse refugees and bitter conflict will occur. As more refugees settle in cities, the cities will lack the resources to feed, clothe and shelter so many new arrivals. Living standards will fall around the world.
The question of population size and food supply. The world’s population grew from 3 billion people in 1960 to close to 8 million people in 2022. The food supply grew during this period even with far fewer farm workers. At the same time, world soil has downgraded through desertification and insufficient soil renewal programs. Water for agriculture is increasingly scarce in many areas, reducing the productivity of agriculture. Population growth is slowing down in industrial areas where families have two, fewer or no children while developing countries often have large families receiving very poor or no education. This means that the people in developing countries will continue to lack the skills of modern economies and women will continue to work in agriculture and give birth to many children. Most governments in developing nations do little to reduce the high birth rates. Ironically, industrial countries like Japan, France, Germany, and Italy are busy setting incentives to raise their birthrates.
The Decline of Democracies
There is clear evidence that many democracies decline and transmute into authoritarian regimes. Turkey is now ruled with an iron hand by Toyyip Erdogan, Hungry by Victor Orban, and Brazil by Jair Bolsonaro. They have setback political rights and civil rights. Dictators aren’t pretending anymore about obeying their Parliament or their courts. Orban won his fourth election and clearly could change Hungary’s constitution at will. Citizens in Tunisia just voted to give their leader all the power that he wants. Other countries with authoritarian leaders include Cuba, Belarus, Eritrea, Syria, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, China, North Korea, Laos, Russia, China, North Korea, Pakistan, and Myanmar.
These dominant leaders can use their power to convince their people that their leader is working in the interests of the people. Russia is a prime example where Putin wages a war against Ukraine and convinces many Russian citizens that the war is justified to fight Nazis. Russian citizens cannot hear the foreign press and even Russians who are against this war are hesitating to speak out against Putin.
With so many autocratic leaders, how should democratic countries relate to them? The U.S. cannot stop selling goods to these countries. U.S. corporations have the right and the need to sell their products to all countries, except for certain defense and other specifically prohibited products and services. Also, the U.S. wants to continue diplomatic relations with almost all of these countries, hopefully to make a case for restoring universal human rights.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine posed a challenging problem to Biden and Europeans. Putin had two things in mind. He wanted to prevent Ukraine from moving toward the West and NATO. Also Putin believes that Ukraine belongs to Russia historically and would aid Putin’s aim to restore Russia’s greatness. In response, the West adopted a new strategy to discipline a wayward country. The U.S. negotiated with allies around the world to boycott Russia, to capture Russian funds and to go after superrich Russians assets. By pinching Russia’s resources, the allies hope that Russia will come sooner to the bargaining table. Russia was shocked by the Ukrainian resistance and by learning of its own military weakness but still hasn’t come to the bargaining table.
The Fragility of Humanity’s Future
How can the weakening democracies get the leaders of many authoritarian countries to take seriously the possible collapse of human civilization? Authoritarian leaders know about the raging diseases, the carnage of climate change, and the possible future food shortage. Yet these dictators will not give up their power and restore human rights.
One hope could come from a reinvigorated United Nations. The UN is the largest sounding board for the problems of the world. The UN has already published and committed to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. UN members vote on many issues and are members of many committees. Could the countries in the UN agree that a future deadly crisis will affect all countries and greatly depress living standards throughout the world? Could these countries agree to specify changes in individual nations’ behavior that will help mitigate this crisis? Can the UN set up working committees to define conditions that would help avert new crises?
Another hope is that major multinationals will recognize the financial crisis they will experience with persistent levels of disease, damaging climate conditions, and imminent food shortages. The CEOs of these companies can have a huge influence in spelling out the need for company and country collaboration in dealing with this crisis. They can harness their media resources to make citizens everywhere aware of these problems and the need for collaborative action.
Unfortunately, collaboration usually doesn’t take place until visible damage occurs and deepens. Just like we had a peace movement throughout the 20th century to prevent war and yet had two terrible world wars, we need to worry that campaigning for a disease-free world without air or water pollution or food shortages will only get started when much damage has already occurred. Hopefully it will not be too late to pick up the pieces and start working together to build a better future for humanity.