Our Future: More People, Less Water

What will life be like for our grand-kids and great grand-kids as they approach the year 2100?  First of all, consider predictions made back in 1910 about the year 2000.  Some were pretty accurate, others were hilariously wrong.

Portland boosters thought the city had a shot at becoming the dominant economic force on the west coast, especially after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Witness the streets platted for a massive development in what is now Kelly Point Park.  It never happened.  Then there was the “horse manure crisis” in New York City at the turn of the century. With curb-sides piled five to six feet high, and some empty lots filled with fifty feet of spent animal fuel, concerned civic leaders foresaw a future in which we would literally be buried in horse shit.  It never happened. Neither did rocket-ship commuting, women excluding men from politics and business owing to their demographic majority, or the depletion of oil and iron by the year 1939. History took a different path. For more predictions that never happened, see the fascinating site Paleo-Future.

What could have been predicted with some assurance in 1910?  A couple of things.  Most demographers believed world population would double or triple from the 1.6 billion people on the planet in 1900.  Most public health practitioners thought the application of improved sanitary procedures would reduce disease. Most technophiles believed advances in electronics would revolutionize communications, with “radio telephones” being a common appliance in the not-too-distant future (OK this took longer than expected). And most civic leaders thought the United States would be the dominant political and economic force in the western hemisphere for the next century.

Then there was the unpredictable stuff that profoundly altered the course of history: World Wars I and II, atomic energy, climate change, Elvis. So assuming there are some unknown unknowns out there, what can we say about the next 100 years for our descendants?

First, regional climate change in some places, like the Pacific Northwest, will be inconvenient, but not disastrous. People won’t die, and cities like Seattle and Portland won’t collapse because of a 3 to 5 degree C increase in temperature, and a precipitous decrease in snow-pack.  They’ll adapt.

No, it’s the effects of climate change on other, distant places, coupled with global demographic, economic and energy transitions, that will be much more of a problem for us. Life is going to be much more difficult near the equator, and in arid regions like the southwestern United States.

As most of us know, world population will likely peak at nine to ten billion around 2050, and then decline.  Population decline is good news for earth’s resources, but bad news for economies predicated on growth.  Ask anyone in the former Soviet Bloc.

China’s economy will overtake ours, and they’ll likely beat us badly in renewable energy technology, (but their per capita GDP will remain low). India won’t be far behind.  Both countries have severe energy, water and food problems that will plague them.  That’s a recipe for instability. It’s never good to have unstable, powerful nations looking desperately for key resources like energy, water and food.

Finally, barring an unpredictable happy discovery (safe, commercially viable fusion, a new solar technology), the world will go through a difficult transition from abundant fossil fuel energy to limited renewable energy. It’s likely we’ll compete and fight over energy and water, even more so than now.  And what do we make with energy and water (and sunlight)?  Food. Already, cash-rich, food-poor countries like China and the gulf states are buying farmland in breadbasket regions.  Imagine not being able to buy Hood River apples because the orchards are owned by a Saudi conglomerate (international trade policies could get really ugly at this point).  Or more likely, because global competition for food will make that apple too expensive.

Does this mean a life of deprivation for our descendants? Not necessarily.  Sure, they’ll use less energy than we do, but they’ll probably use it more intelligently. Same with water. Same with food (obesity might be rare in 2100). But it will also mean that, after a century of economic and occasional military struggle, the United States will settle into a more stable role as one of a few dozen global leaders, instead of the world’s superpower.  Indeed we’re almost there now, we just haven’t accepted it yet.

One last very important thing. Remember, climate change will be inconvenient here.  We’ll still be growing grapes and grass seed, still be fishing for a few remnant salmon and trout, still be hiking the Cascades (just a few weeks earlier in the summer). But climate change will be disastrous in other parts of the world and the United States.  What happens when local conditions become intolerable?  People leave. And they migrate to better places.  The Pacific Northwest will be one of those better places.

So the biggest difference between Portland 2010 and Portland 2100?  Two scenarios: Either we send water to Phoenix and Las Vegas and Orange County, or they send five to ten million people to the Pacific Northwest.

We probably won’t send the water. So, hello Phoenix.

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2 responses to “Our Future: More People, Less Water

  1. Great piece of futurism, Peter. Two quick responses: first, the 21st century transition is maybe not best understood as from “abundant fossil fuels” to “limited renewable energy,” but better described as a transition from concentrated stocks (fossil fuels) to variable flows (renewables). Both are “abundant” in their way. That transition will require not just an adjustment from abundance to scarcity, but a whole new set of arrangements (and tweaked mindsets) that are slowly being hammered into shape.

    Second, I agree that according to current projections the Pacific Northwest stands to be one of those “better” places (and thus a magnet for migrants) — UNLESS we have a Magnitude 8-9 earthquake sometime in this century, which would push a big reset button. Without functioning infrastructures, even climatic attractiveness might not make this a desirable destination for Phoenix refugees unless they wanted to relearn the art of hand-harvesting camas bulbs beside the Willamette.

    • Thanks Ted. I simplified the picture for renewables. It’s kind of a known unknown. It’s tough to predict just which path we’ll take. For example, will we wise up – now – and devote more fossil fuel energy to developing renewable energy? If we do, we can smooth out variable flows with more abundance.

      Forgot earthquakes. Right, we’re due for a big one. That’s one of those things, like world war and Elvis, that changes everything. In the best of policy worlds we’d create a Cascadia earthquake bond, and start paying into it now, so we could renew our communities for people who wanted to stick around after a 9.0. You’d think a big subduction quake would send people packing, but that wasn’t the case in San Francisco. But that was a different place at a different time.

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