Environmental & Political Challenges to Human Progress

An excerpt from the online hypertext Human Knowledge: Foundations and Limits.
Environmental Challenges
Global Warming. Accumulation of greenhouse gases is causing a rise in global temperature of a few degrees celsius. This may by 2050 melt enough antarctic ice to raise sea levels by a few feet and cause some coastal flooding. Warming may make weather cycles more extreme but may also make land more useful in the northern expanses of Asia and North America. Projected greenhouse warming is not severe enough to lead to runaway effects like on Venus.

Heat Pollution.  Over the next millennium and for the rest of human history, earth's major environmental problem will be warming due not to greenhouse gases but rather to increased waste heat from non-solar energy (initially petrochemical, but then fusion). The problem emerges when a world population in the high tens or low hundreds of billions all enjoy an energy budget equivalent to the industrialized West in 2000.  All the waste heat from all the energy uses adds up, and the laws of thermodynamics guarantee that energy use always creates heat exhaust. Heat pollution will have to be managed to prevent a runaway greenhouse effect like on Venus.

Population. The primary long-term environmental problems caused by human population increase will be heat pollution and pressure on habitats and ecosystems. By contrast, the traditional environmental worries of pollution and resource scarcity are subject to increasingly-effective technological and economic solutions. As Earth's population stabilizes, some will worry that decreasing birth rates will lead to declining population. Any actual decreases in population will be minor and temporary, and underpopulation will never be a long-term problem.

Some ignorant humans fear that "inferior" races are outbreeding their own race. Others fear that decreased reproduction among humans with high incomes or IQs will mean that humanity will be overrun by the poor or the stupid. These fearful humans fail to understand that environment and culture are more important than genes, and that human evolution long ago changed from biological to cultural and will soon change to biotechnological.

Resource Scarcity. The scarcity of a resource is measured by the cost of satisfying the need that it satisfies. By this measure, almost all resources have throughout human history been getting less and less scarce. Fossil fuels will remain abundant at least through 2050, and will likely not be very scarce before fusion replaces them as humanity's primary energy source starting around 2150. Arable soil will through conservation remain abundant, and minerals will continue to decrease in scarcity (i.e. cost). Many species of fish and game will become increasingly less abundant in the wild, but the cost/scarcity of food in general will continue to decline. Demand for fresh water will outpace most of its natural supply, but the cost of fresh water will eventually plateau at and decline with the energy cost of its desalinization and transportation.

Biodiversity. While food will continue becoming less scarce, the wild plants and animals that constitute earth's ecosystem will come under increasing pressure from humanity's increasing population. Loss of forest and wetlands will threaten fragile ecosystems that harbor rare species. The lost information content of extincted species is effectively impossible to replace.

Pollution.  Pollution levels in humanity's air, water, and land will continue to decrease as per-capita income increases and as government requires that economic transactions internalize their polluting externalities. Earth's crust has sufficient volume that solid waste disposal will be simply a problem of transportation.  Human population will be limited much more by heat pollution much than by solid waste pollution.  Property interests will ensure that soil erosion is mitigated.  Government will successfully prevent destruction of the ozone layer.

Infectious Disease. Pathogens will continue their natural evolutionary race against humanity's immunological and pharmacological defenses.  Further progress against some pathogens may be frustratingly slow, but genetic engineering will by 2300 make most infectious diseases subject to treatment and many subject even to prevention.

Political Challenges
Populism.  As industrial capitalism becomes mature and ubiquitous, humanity will continue to face the popular temptation to redistribute unequal wealth and income or at least regulate association between economically unequal parties.  Protectionism will be less of a problem, as governing elites increasingly recognize the utility of free markets, and as the world economy becomes increasingly integrated.

Neophobia.  Humans who misunderstand the interplay of economics, ecology, and technology will continue for centuries to oppose technological progress and economic development.  Opposition to techno-economic development will continue to be motivated by

Opposition based on religious faith will grow weaker after trying to stifle biomedical advances like genetic engineering and cloning.

Moral Securitarianism.As fideist religions continue to weaken, their remaining adherents will react with increasing fundamentalism. They will agitate for legal prohibitions against victimless behaviors and technologies that they believe have been banned by their non-existent gods. Except for temporary victories, their agitations will ultimately fail.

Ethnic Conflict.Nationalism and freedom will continue to be the dominant political forces at least until global economic convergence occurs by around 2300. Ethnic conflicts will continue to erupt throughout the 21st century, but they will be increasingly mitigated by political, economic, and communications globalization.

Terrorism. Terrorism will decline with the weakening of ethnic repression and fideist religions. Terrorism by neophobes may continue indefinitely. Ambitious terrorists will attempt to use chemical, biological, cyberactive, and nuclear weapons.

Discrimination. Overt discrimination will abate sharply as societies modernize their communications and converge economically with the industrialized West. America is an example of how much progress can happen in only two generations. The ultimate test for the elimination of discrimination is intermarriage. Intermarriage and the end of discrimination will cause each other, but the process will take most of the third millennium.

Cyberspace. Communications technology will dramatically undermine jurisdictional and repressive aspects of political authority. Certain jurisdictions will for nationalistic, religious, or neophobic reasons attempt to control how cyberspace affects them. These attempts will be disruptive but will ultimately fail. Repression will decline and political institutions will federate and globalize, but the institution of spatially-defined political sovereignty will continue.

Vice. Human temperance will be increasingly and perhaps severely tested by new technologies. Video games will evolve into virtual reality systems that command as much of some humans' time as do sleep and work. VR will allow perverts and psychopaths to commit virtual crimes that are unspeakable, lifelike, and completely victimless. Neurochemistry will allow the use of psychotropics without problems of addiction and withdrawal. Fideists and neophobes will cite these new technologies as evidence that progress is bad.

Forgery. With digital photography, images will be considered increasingly unreliable as evidence in courts. By 2040, sound and video too will be easy enough to forge that their authenticity will be open to question. Digital certificate techniques will be able to ameliorate these problems only in very limited ways.

Privacy. Privacy will be affected by technology in two ways. First, information processing technology will allow businesses to track customer interactions to arbitrary levels of detail. Customers who consider this a problem will seek businesses offering privacy guarantees, or will patronize intermediation services that offer to protect their identity. Public-key cryptography will always allow secure and private communication and e-commerce even if network traffic can be intercepted.

Second and more disturbing, miniaturization of sensor and storage technology will allow anyone to set up hidden audiovideo surveillance of almost any location to which they ever have physical access. By 2050, this will include locations that can be reached by remote-controlled insect-sized flying sensors. Sensors will use storage technology to avoid the need for the radio emissions that in the past made it possible to "sweep" for bugs. Privacy will only be assured in clean rooms that can be inspected and monitored for intrusion.