Laurence C. Smith’s The World in 2050 is quite a calm book, considering the world changes it envisions. A professor of geography and earth and spaces sciences at UCLA, Smith attempts to assay what is most likely to happen on a global scale over the next 40 years. Some of his predictions are disturbing, but none is apocalyptic.

Smith points to four major engines of change: population growth; the increasing demand for natural resources; economic and cultural globalization; and climate change. He looks into conventional and experimental energy sources and concludes that oil and coal will continue to dominate for the foreseeable future; wind and solar energy will only be marginally important. Fresh water will run perilously low, leading in some cases to the privatization of water supplies. Securing sufficient potable water, Smith says, “is very possibly the greatest challenge of our century.”

The most fortunate region of the world by 2050, Smith speculates, will be the northern rim of nations that includes the upper United States, Canada, Russia and the Scandinavian countries. Here there are still plenteous stores of oil, natural gas, water and arable land. The melting of ice in the Arctic Ocean has opened that area up for mineral exploration and extraction and increased the number and reach of shipping lanes. The nations sharing this area have so far opted for negotiation over confrontation, and in most of them, the aboriginal inhabitants have successfully asserted control over large portions of their original tribal lands.

In the end, Smith does not see humanity as merely a passive observer and victim of all these seismic shifts. “To me,” he says, “the most important question is not of capacity, but of desire. What kind of world do we want?


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