A deeper appreciation for science and less unnecessary spending could be in our future.
- The "Fauci effect" has helped produce a record number of medical school applications.
- We'll soon no longer be able to avoid the reality of climate change, prompting more decisive action.
- Work from home trends are likely to continue and, in many cases, become permanent.
That was either the longest or shortest year in history. Most people are happy to say goodbye to 2020, but what does 2021 hold in store? Given how woefully inaccurate we were rolling into 2020, let's not be too sure of ourselves. That said, a few predictions can't hurt. Let's see what we can create.
These five predictions offer big-picture views of potential societal shifts in America. There are many other trends to take note of: Is this the beginning of the end of the movie theater? Are travel subscriptions the future of tourism? Are millennials ready to step up and rule the world? Will antitrust suits finally put a dent in Big Tech? Will we finally have more women leaders in C-level positions? Given the horror of Christmas Day, is a third Wonder Woman really necessary?
Let's be honest: We don't know what's going to happen in January, much less the duration of 2021. We can consciously help shape the five trends below, however. Here's to a prosperous and progressive New Year.
A deeper appreciation for science
As we're well aware, the media focuses on the tragic and boisterous far too often, stories that consume the most oxygen and frighten us most. There's no indication that this will change; fear and uncertainty draw our attention, and attention is its own economy. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in coverage of the pandemic in America, which Brown University researchers showed to be far more pessimistic than in any other nation.
While anti-vaxxers tend to grab headlines and dominate social media, there are signs that Americans appreciate medicine and science more than ever. The "Fauci effect" has resulted in a record number of medical school applications being submitted this year. The intent to get a vaccine is also rising, up to 60 percent this month (one poll claims 73 percent)—nowhere near the 90 percent Dr. Fauci says might be needed to reach herd immunity, but still moving in the right direction.While many Americans are rightly suspicious of pharmaceutical companies—the rollout of these vaccines require transparency and accountability, as evidenced by problems with the Astra Zeneca trials—the reason a vaccine was created in record time is due to good science. Consumers rarely complain when chip processors speed up their phones, which is how R&D is supposed to work. The same can be said for medicine: Researchers have more tools and knowledge at their disposal than ever. This is cause for cautious celebration, not fear-mongering.
A renewed focus on climate change
Speaking of sucking all the oxygen out of the room, the last four years have been dominated by Trump. Coverage of climate change has been cut. That must change. The pandemic is a wake-up call that we're not as in control of nature as we thought, with one-third of the global population predicted to become climate refugees by 2070.
Climate change continues to ravage the planet even as we pay less attention. We're not going to have that option much longer, especially as warming temperatures and biodiversity loss contribute to the proliferation of viruses.
Interestingly, the congressional spending bill (currently being held up) includes key provisions to help curb climate change, including funding for carbon capture storage and a drawdown on HFCs. Joe Biden has vowed to make climate change an immediate focus of his administration. He's staying true to his word by appointing key staff members to senior positions to address the environment on day one.
International businesses and governments are already addressing such issues: The first zero-carbon social housing project is underway in Italy while the Dutch government is replacing 10 percent of asphalt roads with green spaces (more is planned). Here in America, engineers are creating concrete variants out of bacteria in hopes of promoting more sustainable architecture. A marriage between public and private efforts is going to be needed.
Letting go of the unnecessary
As with climate change, consumer spending is down out of necessity more than desire. While online shopping is up since the pandemic began, overall average spending is down in food and beverages, digital entertainment, media and books, fashion, household products, and online education. The travel industry has been hit especially hard.These trends have created even more outsized economic imbalances, with centibillionaires (people worth more than $100 billion) adding trillions of dollars to their already unimaginable wealth. For most, however, the pandemic has forced people to reconsider their spending habits by focusing only on the necessary. While the initial pain point of such an exercise is emotionally challenging, this is a net positive, especially given the fact that man-made stuff now outweighs natural biomass. Humans can't continue to produce so many goods without consequences; this spending slowdown is a wake-up call to that fact.
Photo: dottedyeti / Adobe Stock
Remote working is our new reality
The work-from-home (WFH) phenomenon has been expedited thanks to the pandemic. Now that half of the US labor force is accustomed to remote work, it's going to be difficult to convince many employees of an imminent return to the office.
WFH is not without its challenges. The social aspect of many workplaces is irreplaceable; Zoom just doesn't cut it. Social comforts aside, WFH is a positive trend in many aspects. Commercial real estate is taking a hit—well, some cities are merely seeing a shift, not an exodus—but benefits include no commute time (which has a positive impact on carbon emissions) and spending more time with your family.
Not every career will allow for WFH. Tech, finance, and media companies will allow continued WFH or at least flex time between home and office. Supply chain companies will have no such luck, at least not on the ground. For many businesses, it's up to C-level executives, with some believing that communing together in a shared space is essential for the health of the company and others happy to save on office costs. The future of remote work will be decided on a case-by-case basis, but one thing is certain: More companies will choose to try out this model.
Remembering that community matters
In the most fractured time in modern history, will Americans come together? While there's no clear answer, we can hope.
"Calling in" is one sign that we're progressing. Instead of the famous (some would say infamous) trend of calling people out, women like Smith college professor Loretta J Ross are helping create a call-in culture. Instead of alienating people, they're looking to empower them.
This follows up decades of business research by Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who coined the terms "flow" and "flow states" in 1975. In his 2003 book, Good Business, he points out that managers are more successful in implementing better work habits when inspiring employees, not chastising them for flubbing a duty. Extrapolating from this research, we can apply such a mindset broadly. Shame certainly has a place in society, just not as dominant a one as we currently believe.
This is no easy task in an age governed by quick trigger fingers on social media. That said, perhaps necessity will once again inspire us; many people are tired and frustrated by the constant bickering and call-outs. A time when everyone is called in is unlikely given our tribal nature, but any uptick in attempts of creating genuine community is worthwhile.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His new book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
Bret Weinstein says that we're at the end of a massive technological and geographic boom, and that we should prepare for the next step in our societal evolution. Yet the future may not be optimistic for all. A cultural backlash to change, he says, is inevitable.
In this wide-ranging talk, controversial professor Bret Weinstein covers several topics: politics, technology, and tribalism, just to name a few. But ultimately the former Biology professor at Evergreen College talks with us about why this particular decade is so interesting. Given the explosive growth of the 20th century, he argues that we've come to the end of that particular boom and have just started searching frantically to keep the pace that we've come to expect. When that change doesn't come, Weinstein posits that we search for scapegoats, turn inwards, and start to attack ourselves. And that's paraphrasing just some of the half-hour talk we have for you.
It turns out Winston Churchill wrote an essay of predictions titled 'Fifty Years Hence'—and while he was off on the timing, some are finally coming true.
Humans have been tinkering in laboratories for millennia. Before then nature was—in many ways, remains—a laboratory itself. Agriculture was a hard-fought discovery that’s still being understood through trial and error. Given agriculture’s role in climate change, our understanding of lab work is shifting again.
We remain between two worlds, that of nature and that of meddling with nature. Sometimes a harmonious relationship exists; often it is fraught with danger. A “back to the earth” movement persists in social consciousness. The same thinkers who believe we’ve destroyed ecosystems and animal populations often welcome scientific intervention—lab-grown meat and leather are two ideas animal rights activists and environmentalists alike applaud.
Foreseeing the future is not particularly challenging in our digital age. If it can be dreamed it can be produced (or reproduced). But understanding which predictions will have large-scale consequences is another story. Richard Branson has long relied on foresight, and he sees lab-grown meat not only impacting agriculture and economics, but actually replacing animal consumption:
"I believe that in 30 years or so we will no longer need to kill any animals and that all meat will either be clean or plant-based, taste the same and also be much healthier for everyone."
Branson is no speculative ideologue; he has a financial stake in lab-grown meat, with recent investments in Memphis Meats. Yet just as his vision of space travel could net him profits, technology and emerging markets are old bedfellows. In this case, a boon for companies that reduce suffering and carbon emissions is a win for everyone.
Today what could have taken decades seems to occur in months. Life seems to be speeding up. Nearly a hundred years ago—December, 1931, to be exact—Winston Churchill knew time is fluid, or, as he puts it in an article titled 'Fifty Years Hence', published in Strand Magazine, “constantly quickening.” Churchill witnessed civilized nations rising above the need for the bare necessities of survival to experience what he calls “culture.” Cultures have to keep progressing, he insisted, as sliding backwards would be devastating:
"Mankind has gone too far to go back, and is moving too fast to stop. There are too many people maintained, not merely in comfort but in existence, by processes unknown a century ago, for us to afford even a temporary check, still less a general setback, without experiencing calamity in its most frightful form."
Churchill’s anthropological reckoning on the economics of past societies has been updated by recent research. Yet he was an ardent devotee of history. He expresses particular adoration for Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall,” of which he said the poet's predictive couplets have come to pass—a slightly premature assessment, given the coming world war. Churchill uses Tennyson as a springboard for his own predictive powers, which he says combines historical education and scientific instinct.
Churchill proved (or is proving) prescient in his social sorcery. In an ode certainly pleasing to animal rights activists, he knew food production was about to take a serious turn:
"We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium. Synthetic food will, of course, also be used in the future… The new foods will from the outset be practically indistinguishable from the natural products, and any changes will be so gradual as to escape observation."
Frozen, processed foodstuffs would be next, however, changing the face of the planet as World War II raged on. Rather than creating foods, manufactures utilized chemistry to delay the spoiling of existing foods while injecting animals with antibiotics and growth hormones to increase their yield. If Churchill foresaw this he gave no hint, for his vision is more Paradiso than Inferno. If lab-grown meat is on the horizon, as it appears to be, it took the clearing of a large roadblock to arrive.
Production in many forms is Churchill’s great hope of the future. Not only food, but work will change dramatically. Nuclear energy replaces coal. Engines and machinery make slavery unnecessary. Robots will offer us more leisure time and less physical strain. So great is our mechanical engineering, in fact, he saw all of nature bowing to us:
"Geography and climate would obey our orders."
True, they have, the problem being we weren’t aware what orders we’ve been giving. Churchill might have missed greenhouse gases because his focus was on the structural side. He believed sunlight would be inconsequential when food is grown with “artificial radiation.” Agricultural bunkers would shorten the distance between city and country, as urbanites gain acres:
"Parks and gardens will cover our pastures and ploughed fields. When the time comes there will be plenty of room for the cities to spread themselves again."
Churchill was even clued into the development of artificial life. A London play clued him into the possibility of test tube babies. Humanoid creatures will be developed for the purpose of employment "without other ambitions.” He believed Christian civilization would prevent such an ethically indeterminate development, but we’d better stay upon on the technology as Russians might welcome robotic human beings. He writes, with more than a hint of disdain,
"There is nothing in the philosophy of Communists to prevent their creation."
Churchill’s apocalyptic message remains timely. Sure, there were oversights: Our brains are quite different than those of our ancestors “millions of years ago,” and the idea that “modern man we know so well will do the most terrible deeds, and his modern woman will back him up” would not even go over even a decade later when the women’s rights movement picked up steam during the Second World War.
Yet Churchill knew science changes the world, just as he knew that we’re doomed without an understanding of history. These messages remain particularly meaningful in a world being ravaged by climate change, piece by piece by piece, as well as tribal infighting fueled by nationalistic anxiety across the globe.
Materialistic progress is irrelevant if humans can’t get along. Not so much a prediction as Churchill simply opening his eyes. He knew technology and science offer both “Blessing and Cursing,” that we are ultimately the deciders of our fate. Optimist he was, he concluded with a sense of hope, which is sometimes all we have to keep us pressing forward.
"No material progress, even though it takes shapes we cannot now conceive, or however it may expand the faculties of man, can bring comfort to his soul. It is this fact, more wonderful than any that Science can reveal, which gives the best hope that all will be well."
Derek is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
Global security expert Richard A. Clarke explains the traits of a "Cassandra"—someone who predicts colossal disasters—and why people very rarely listen to their warnings.
Before Bernie Madoff got caught, before Hurricane Katrina and Fukushima devastated cities, and before ISIS formed, there was an expert for each one of those events warning people in power that it would happen. What did those powerful people do? Absolutely nothing. These experts are called 'Cassandras' in hindsight, because as global security expert Richard A. Clarke explains in a previous Big Think video: "Cassandra in Greek mythology was a woman cursed by the gods. The curse was that she could accurately see the future. It doesn’t sound so bad until you realize the second part of the curse, which was no one would ever believe her. And because she could see the future and no one was paying attention to her, she went mad." So how can we graduate from sheepishly identifying Cassandras in hindsight, to recognizing and acting on their real predictions before the impending chaos hits? It's tough because everyone and their uncle is trying to get in on the prediction game. Who can you trust? Fortunately, Clarke and his research partner R.P. Eddy have used case studies to build a detailed template of the four aspects that determine whether we can avoid a Cassandra event: the quality and personal traits of the Cassandra themselves, the reaction of the audience or decision makers in power, the nature of the predicted event (is it too ridiculous to believe?), and the critics of the Cassandra. Even today, there are potential Cassandras predicting events that could be catastrophic to humanity this century. Can we learn from our mistakes in time? Richard A. Clarke and R.P. Eddy's new book is Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes.
If we could jump 50 years into the future, what will our world look like? Flying cars? Hologram phones? Bill Nye sees two technological paths ahead – and we're in the fork between them at this very moment.
Bill Nye is always hesitant to make predictions about the future, but especially now, when America is at such a fork in the road. What happens in the next four years will affect the technology we fund and develop – will we pioneer clean energy systems, or stay bedded down with coal? Will we prioritize oil profits over electric cars? Will the promised tax cuts narrow the wealth gap, or widen it? All these decisions will affect the way life 50 years from now looks. A lot hangs in the balance of the next U.S election in 2020; will Americans re-elect Trump, someone like Trump, or will there be a liberal reactionary choice? There are more questions about the future right now than answers, but Bill Nye is confident that if young people get involved in politics, science and show up to vote, that life in 2060 and 2070 can be one of greater equality and technology like we’ve never seen. Bill Nye's most recent book is Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World.
Bill Nye's most recent book is Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World.