The 20th century saw more development than perhaps all of the rest of mankind’s history. In 1900 for instance, the world’s population was just over one and a half billion, but by the year 2000 that figure had risen to six billion people. Massive technological change also came about – it was only in 1903 that the Wright Brothers successfully flew the very first aeroplane. However not even 60 years later did the cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, partake in the first ever manned space flight in 1961. But for as many positive developments the century saw there were also some seriously negative repercussions of human endeavours. 160 million people died in conflicts, 40 per cent of the world’s rainforests were lost, and we pumped millions of tonnes of greenhouse gasses into our atmosphere.
The developments made over the course of the 1900s would have been incomprehensible to those living at the start of the century. Could the 21st century be the same? Will things stay relatively similar, or will our planet be not even remotely recognisable by the year 2100?
Certainly when making predictions about the future, one should tread with caution. Particularly when it comes to technology, making educated guesses can prove surprisingly difficult, as made evident recently with the hype around ‘Back to the Future Day’.
There are some things that are significantly easier to speculate about though. Demographically speaking for instance, predictions place the world’s population at anywhere from 9 billion to 13 billion people by 2100. There won’t just be 13 billion young and energetic people in the world at this point though. As life expectancy continues to improve the percentage of people alive over the age of 65 will rise from the current seven and a half per cent to over 30 per cent, nearly 4 billion elderly people. The ageing process too will be drastically slowed with some scientists even claiming that the first person to live to the age of 200, has already been born. This in turn will just mean more people, taking up space and using resources. Whatever the case may be, scientists predict that by 2100 at the very least an additional 1.5 billion people will be alive.
The 7.3 billion people already alive are having a monumental impact, not only on other humans, but also on the other species that call Earth home. There have been five mass extinction events thus far over the course of the planet’s life. However, biologists now believe Earth has entered its sixth mass extinction with animals dying out at 100 times the normal rate. We as a race have made extinct at least 250 different animal species since the 16th century, these include; the Dodo, the Tasmanian Tiger and the Baiji River Dolphin, which was only formally declared extinct in 2006. This is the biggest mass loss of species since the Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinction which wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, and it’s only set to get worse. If biodiversity continues to deteriorate at the current rate, some scientists predict that by the end of the 21st century we will have lost up to half of all species currently on the planet.
Climate change will play a massive role in the state of the world by the start of the next century. If no action is taken to slash carbon emissions, it is estimated that there will be a four and a half degree increase in average global temperatures by 2100. This warming will lead to the melting of the polar ice caps, which in turn will cause sea levels around the world to rise. If sea levels were to rise only two meters; then cities such as London, New Orleans and Shanghai will be mostly underwater in a few decades. The burning of fossil fuels is also having a more corrosive effect on our planet as well. About 30 to 40 per cent of the carbon dioxide that is released into the atmosphere dissolves into our oceans, rivers and lakes. It reacts with the water to from carbonic acid in an ongoing process known as ocean acidification. So, not only are we heating our planet to dangerous levels but we are also turning our beautiful oceans into acid. If this carries on, our planet will be a hellish place by the end of the 21st century; hot, overcrowded and hostile.
Unfortunately, we can’t undo the damage that has already been done, and even if we do manage to fully cut our emissions; sea levels and temperatures will continue to rise, animals will continue to die out and the world will become an increasingly toxic place. However, a defeatist attitude is not the way forward. By addressing the problem do we have any hope of truly making the world a better place for future generations. I wouldn’t be surprised if the world is unrecognisable in 85 years’ time; I just hope (optimistically as I might) that change will ultimately be for the better.