Hope Again

When I was about 15 I read a book projecting the world 50 years hence. I think it had been published in 1980, so we are now two thirds of the way to the date it was trying to foresee.

The book had about a dozen chapters, and the thing that struck me was that most were overwhelmingly positive. Here and there things were lost we might regret, but mostly it seemed the future would be a pretty exciting place, certainly better than the world as it was. The exception was on the environment, where the future looked gloomy indeed.I can’t remember much of the specifics, particularly how much climate change was factored in, but there was a lot on the species we might lose, as well as entire ecosystems and the build up of pollutants.

I can’t remember enough of the details of the book to know how well it is turning out. I think they were past the whole “everyone will have a jetpack” thing, and for the most part the ideas were thoughtful, but that doesn’t mean they were right. In particularly I remember speculation about ten “mega-engineering projects” on which I think only one has partially come to pass (and that, the diversion of some of Russia’s rivers, has been a disaster). Certainly there is no bridge across the straights of Gibraltar, nor a space elavator, and neither will occur by 2030, if ever. On the other hand, I doubt the authors could possibly have got close to predicting the influence of ICT and particularly the web, so in some ways things are more exciting than expected.

One of the things they predicted was a decline in deaths from disease, and reading the book at the height of the west’s AIDS epidemic, this was something to cling to. Again I cannot remember the details, but I wonder if the authors had the courage to be as confident as this. As revealed here, we are making progress – huge, rapid progress – against some of the world’s largest and seemingly most intractable problems.

It’s clear we cannot, even for a minute, relax. Look at the way immunization rates soared from 1980 to 1990 and then actually dropped for twelve years. The failure to continue that rise, even at a slower pace, amounts to millions of dead children, millions of grief-stricken parents, with many others crippled for life. However, given that one of the biggest obstacles to movement on absolute poverty has been the perception that “there is nothing we can do” and “aid doesn’t work” this is important information. Moreover, we have yet to see most of the benefits from the research side of the Gates foundations funding, for example the malaria vaccine my friend Krystal will be trying when she gets back from maternity leave.

If we are not careful climate change could unravel all these benefits, or at least create disasters larger than any of them. However, the easy to miss fact caught up in this list – that ozone depleting gas emissions are down 85% makes clear we can do something there as well, if only we have the will.

Hat tip Lee Cath.

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About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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