Global population reaches 9 billion
For the vast majority of human history, Earth's population stayed below 100 million, and life expectancy was short. Between the mid-19th and early 21st century, however, it mushroomed exponentially. This was driven in large part by fossil fuels, which provided cheap and abundant energy, in turn yielding the biggest economic boom the world had ever seen. Between 1812 and 1930, the number of people on the planet doubled from one to two billion. It took just 30 years to reach the next billion and a mere 14 years to reach the billion after that. Population growth achieved its maximum rate in 1963, peaking at 2.2% per annum.* All around the world, there were unprecedented improvements in mobility, personal income and general quality of life.
The post-WWII economic boom gave way to stagflation in the 1970s. This was due to major petroleum shortages in large industrial nations, followed by an Arab oil embargo and the Iranian Revolution. The United States reached its peak production of crude oil in 1970* – a date famously predicted by M. King Hubbert* – and became a net importer by the mid-1990s. Though improvements were made in efficiency and conservation, the country would never regain its all-time high of 9.6 million barrels per day. Nevertheless, oil prices eventually fell again, economies recovered and the global population continued its relentless upward trajectory.
The peak oil issue would return in the first decade of the 21st century. By this time, major oil fields were beginning to run dry, while discoveries of new fields had substantially declined.** In 2005, global production of conventional crude oil reached a plateau, leading to a massive price spike in 2008. This coincided with the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression – caused by excessive debt, irresponsible lending, a housing bubble and other factors. High oil prices merely exacerbated the situation.
In truth, the world had been living beyond its means for some decades already, as demand for various resources outpaced the Earth's ability to replenish them. The 1970s ought to have been a wake-up call to governments and people everywhere. So, too, should the mid-1980s, as humanity's footprint exceeded the planet's biocapacity for the first time.* Instead, what followed was mostly business as usual. Governments, businesses and consumers gorged themselves on easy credit, while the financial system invented ever more complex means of creating money out of thin air. Although new sources of fossil fuels became available – such as offshore, tar sands and shale oil – these had nowhere near the energy return on energy invested (EROEI) of conventional crude oil.* They were also highly damaging to the environment. The Deepwater Horizon disaster was symptomatic of peak oil and these practical limits of drilling, as was the invasion of Iraq.** Renewable energy such as wind and solar, though showing great promise, was still in its infancy and required years of further development.
The bubble finally burst in 2008. From this point onward, genuine economic progress would remain sluggish at best. Although regions such as China continued to grow rapidly, and a brief "recovery" appeared to take place in the US, this was only temporary and fuelled by yet more debt.** Oil remained volatile as the market approached hard limits in the elasticity of supply and price. An escalating standoff in the Middle East – between Iran, the US and Israel – only added to the instability. By the mid-2010s, the production price floor was exceeding the economic price ceiling, triggering supply shocks and a further degradation of the economy. This reached Depression-era proportions in the second half of the decade.
Food prices began to soar, unemployment reached record highs and people around the world experienced
a decline in living standards. Emergency food, water and energy rationing were introduced by many governments in a bid to avert a catastrophe. Some of the worst-hit countries – such as Greece,* Yemen* and parts of the Middle East – appeared to be in complete anarchy at times. A desperate scramble for remaining oil and gas reserves was initiated, with large-scale drilling in previously off-limits regions such as the Arctic circle. International relations were strained, however, as a number of territorial disputes erupted between Russia, America, Canada and the Nordic nations.** Wind, solar and other renewables grew exponentially during this time, but were still only a relatively minor part of total overall power production.
The 2020s brought further misery as global warming impacted already fragile crop harvests. The US was particularly badly affected, with dust-bowlification of many states,* together with major water shortages in the southwest.* Famine, civil wars, escalating nuclear tensions in the Middle East, and a spate of terrorist attacks due to the deteriorating global security situation all marked this period. The economy continued to limp along, with only a handful of regions experiencing any meaningful growth.
By the 2030s, many of the world's metals and minerals were becoming scarce,* including phosphorous,* while the damage from climate change had only worsened. However, some technological breakthroughs were now emerging. True substitutes for liquid hydrocarbons were developed, with sufficient energy return on energy invested (EROEI) to replace crude oil. These next-generation biofuels were produced by synthetic genomics.* In any case, electric and hybrid vehicles were already outnumbering traditional petrol-driven machines. Solar PV had grown so rapidly** that it was now among the dominant forms of energy production.* GM crops, vertical farms, in vitro meat, aquaculture and other methods were boosting food, while emerging players such as Canada and Russia had seen their agriculture improve due to melting permafrost and a retreating polar icecap.*
By the early 2040s, orbital solar became available, with the first commercial fusion plants only a few years behind. Genuine economic growth and prosperity remained weak, however, due to a raft of new social, political, financial, demographic, environmental and other problems. Automation had made vast swathes of jobs redundant for example. Many countries still had enormous debts and huge unemployment. The days of rampant consumerism were coming to an end. Humanity's ecological footprint was still too big, and the Earth too small, to support the kind of materialistic lifestyles and throwaway culture that many had enjoyed in the past. It was almost as though civilisation itself was feeling a "hangover" from the boom times.*
In spite of this turmoil, the global population continued on its upward trajectory, reaching 9 billion by 2042.** Though life became hard for many, and plagued with uncertainty, people and communities learned to adapt through each new crisis. Britain, for example, took on a "Blitz spirit" and became self-sufficient in food production – emulating what Cuba had achieved in the 1990s. Among the government programs enacted was the conversion of sports fields, parks, gardens, golf courses and other green areas of land into crop growing and biofuel sites. Extensive recycling of metals, plastics, glass, electronics and other such useful materials became mandatory all over the country – with strict penalties for wastage. The rationing of water became the norm, as droughts became ever more frequent. Amidst a surge in refugee numbers, tight immigration quotas were enforced, with Britain effectively pulling up a drawbridge and admitting only the most highly skilled foreign workers.
Similar programs were enacted in countries around the globe. These measures were the only way to ensure society's survival, in light of the accelerating environmental and resource decline. Social media, communications and information technologies greatly aided the transition – helping to organise people and their projects. From the economic wreckage of earlier decades, new forms of socio-economic progress were beginning to evolve, based on sustainable ways of living. Following the collapse in global trade,* the world was becoming more localised, decentralised and longer-term focussed.
Though Britain was successful in this transition,* many other countries were not so lucky. By 2042, resource wars had plunged some regions into chaos. Parts of southern Europe, Africa and the Middle East were dependent on ever-increasing amounts of foreign support. Thankfully, population levels would begin to plateau in the 2050s.* Together with ongoing technology advances, this would offer hope for longer-term solutions to humanity's problems.
Data sources: Wolfram Alpha, US Census Bureau
White people are a minority in the USA
America is a country founded on immigration.* Today, its population is more diverse and multicultural than ever. Following the 1965 immigration reform (which grew from the civil rights movement), the number of non-white people increased dramatically. This was particularly true of Latinos, who went from 6.3m in 1960* to over 50m by 2010.*
By the early 2010s, non-whites had already begun to outnumber whites in California, Hawaii, New Mexico, Texas and Washington DC, while nearly half of all children in the nation were non-white.* This trend continued over the subsequent decades. By 2042, white people themselves have become a minority.**
This rapid change in the demographic makeup has significantly altered the political disposition of the country. Latinos,* blacks* and other minorities tend to be left-leaning.* Other factors have influenced voters' preferences – such as the growing urbanisation of the country, with cities tending to favour more liberal and progressive policies than smaller, traditional rural communities. Generation X and Generation Y (the latter now entering their middle age) have also reshaped the political stage, most of them favouring the Democrats.*
This and other factors have converged to make the old-style Republican Party unelectable. By now, the GOP has been forced to drastically moderate its policies and rhetoric compared to earlier decades.*