One of the most inexplicably human traits is the desire to get scared on purpose. We’re an innovative species. It isn’t just scary films we’ve made, but we’ve also built devilish contraptions like roller-coasters and dentists’ chairs specifically for this purpose. We even have an annual event every October where we try to scare each other by dressing up as monsters, demons and “sexy” versions of otherwise unsexy things.
But this is all stupid. Halloween shouldn’t be a papier-maché, Tim Burton recreation of the Victorian era, as there’s really something much scarier to think about: The Future.
Here’s my pick of the top 10 real-world problems we’re going to have to deal with at some point soon.
1) Antibiotic and Antimicrobial Resistance
Antibiotics are one of the greatest health miracles of the last century, and are responsible for helping wipe out once common diseases, and help us fight many problems that still afflict us. But there’s a problem: microbes that they are designed to fight are evolving to become resistant to them.
According to the World Health Organization, there has been an uptick in resistance to HIV drugs, and in 2013 there were hundreds of thousands of cases of a new, more resilient strain of Tuberculosis. The British government agrees it's important too - even producing listicles telling us why we should be terrified about antibiotic resistance.
The reason for the spread of resistance is partially natural (it is what you would expect to happen, following the laws of evolution), but is also accelerated by human activity. For example, using antibiotics in farming can cause microbes to permeate through the food chain, helping resistance spread throughout. Humans can also transmit microbes through everyday activities, such as being too close to sick people.
So if you take anything away from this article, it should probably be to make sure you wash your hands properly.
2) The World Running Out of Helium
Apparently we only have 25-30 years worth of helium left in the world, and yet we still insist on pissing about with it. No one will think that your squeaky voice is funny when we’re living in a post-helium hellscape.
The problem is that the second-lightest element doesn’t occur naturally, and can only be made by nuclear fusion in the Sun or by waiting for millions of years for the radioactive decay of Earth’s rocks. Both are a bit impractical.
It won’t just be clowns who are screwed by the lack of helium though. We all will be. It's a vital ingredient in cooling the superconducting magnets in MRI scanners and is also used in telescopes and diving equipment. So maybe think about that the next time you’re about to spray it into your mouth for 10 seconds of amusement.
3) The End of American Power
Since the end of the Cold War in 1991, the United States has been the undisputed big dog in international relations. And say what you will about America and its choice of Presidents and policies (or indeed, wars), we in Britain have done rather well out of so-called American hegemony. Though we’re not the biggest country, or the most powerful, we got lucky because America broadly shares our values on big issues like freedom of speech and democracy, and encourages other countries to adopt these practices too.
However, as we continue into the 21st century, this is slowly changing as other countries are rising to challenge America, and the west in general. The obvious one is China, which will soon surpass the US as the world’s largest economy, and is growing increasingly bullish on military matters (such as in the disputed South China sea).
We got a preview of what this could be like a couple of weeks ago when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Britain. Far from challenging him on issues such as human rights and the treatment of political activists, the British government cravenly bent over backwards to be nice to him, and begged for money. In a world that is run according to Chinese norms, don’t expect human rights to be high on the political agenda.
China isn’t the only rising power. The 'old enemy' Russia is also resurgent under Vladimir Putin, who is pursuing the most aggressive Russian foreign policy we’ve seen since the mid-80s. Putin’s so-called 'Vertical of Power' is essentially built on Russian nationalism and the rejection of perceived western values (hence the crackdown on gay rights in the country) -- so don’t be surprised if Russian meddling, the likes of which we’ve already seen in Ukraine and Syria, continues to increase.
Finally, let’s not forget ISIS. Though the so-called Islamic State doesn’t have any nuclear weapons, it has something almost as potent: a hideous ideology and zealots mad enough to follow orders. While it's hard to imagine the ‘Caliphate’ growing much larger than what it already is, don’t be surprised if the almost comically evil regime remains a depressing fixture for some time to come.
4) Potential Slowdowns in Technological Innovation
The smartphone is perhaps the most potent symbol of the early 21st century. Never has the sum total of human knowledge been available to so many people, with such ease. But have you noticed how every year when the likes of Apple and Samsung announce their new devices, they tend to be awfully similar to their predecessors? Sure, the iPhone 6S has a fancy screen and is a little faster than the iPhone 6, but where are the giant leaps?
One hypothesis put forward by the American economist Tyler Cowen was that we've already invented all of the 'low hanging fruit', and that creating new stuff has become much harder. To prove this, he points to how between 1880 and 1940 the world was revolutionised by transport, telecommunications, electricity and sanitation. Despite technological changes and improvements in that time, measures of productivity by his analysis suggest that things have remained much the same.
So could we be looking at a future that looks an awful lot like the present from a technological perspective? Perhaps one example of low-hanging fruit is how getting to the Moon was relatively straightforward (it only takes a few days and all you need is a massive rocket), yet if we want to reach Mars or head further afield in the future, it'll be many magnitudes of difficulty more tricky, due to problems like the length of the journey and the impact of a long period spent in space.
There are, as you might expect, many critiques of Cowen’s hypothesis (I’m not 100 per cent convinced myself), but it does raise an interesting question: What happens if innovation does dry up? What will that mean for a society that relies on a steady stream of new technology to sustain itself? What will happen in the gap between our expectations and reality?
5) New Technologies Empowering Dodgy Countries
When the Edward Snowden revelations broke in 2013, most people were suitably horrified at the scale of blanket surveillance carried out by the US and British governments, but while hugely worrying, the argument was relatively academic. We all know that everything is monitored using these systems now (and many of us think they shouldn’t be), but ultimately the civil liberties debate that has followed has been one between politics and academics over broadly hypothetical problems which could arise from such systems being in place.
Even if a politician did want to do something nefarious, the assumption is that there are at least some laws in place to stop them, or that good old British respect for rules and democracy would put a stop to it.
However, for the rest of the world, the fact that governments have access to all of our devices is less of an abstract problem. Ubiquitous connectivity is the norm in the developed world, and is increasingly the case the developed world. Millions of people in countries with unpleasant regimes in charge now carry around portable eyes and ears that could conceivably let the government spy on them for having the wrong political opinions.
As the Internet of Things comes of age in the next few years, our homes will become even more connected, theoretically enabling anyone who can access our devices to figure out, for example, when we’re home or what we’re doing. It is easy to imagine an authoritarian regime like Russia or Saudi Arabia using this sort of technology to track dissidents to an extent that the East German Stasi could only have dreamed of.
6) The Housing Bubble is Still Overheated
We can all remember where we were when the financial crisis kicked in and Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008. Or at least we can remember watching the news in the days following it and not really understanding what was going on.
But is it good news that seven years on, the world economy hasn’t collapsed and that we've merely experienced a severe recession followed by sluggish growth? Well, yes and no. The reaction to the crisis was to slow the breaks a little bit, but underlying the world economy, not a lot has really changed. So, surely we should be poised for more of the same in the not-too-distant future?
Most people attribute the shitstorm (that’s a technical economics term) to bad mortgages in the US, but you only have to glance at the continuing property bubble in places like London to see that something is still clearly out of whack. Exacerbating this is government policy. Rather than do something on the supply side to make houses more affordable to normal people without insane mortgages, the British government at least has launched schemes to help lend people more money so they can buy houses at wildly-inflated prices.
Given all of this, it has led some to speculate that the bubble will only burst once again, and this time, given already low interest rates and slowing Chinese growth, there may be less tools to get the economy out of the toilet.
7) Demographic Timebomb
The astonishing improvement in life expectancy over the last century has obviously been brilliant news for everyone, thinking as individuals, but it looks set to cause problems for society at large. This isn’t a paradox, because think about how society security works. The idea is that the people who are working pay taxes to support those who are unable to. The problem though is what do you do when there's an increasingly large number of old people to support?
Because old people aren’t dying as quickly, that means more state pension, more support and more pressure on health services for treatment -- and all of this has to be paid for. If you want to see a scary chart, check out the population pyramid on the Office of National Statistics website, drag the slider forward in time and notice how the glut of elderly people at the top balloons disproportionately to the working age population. The Economist cites figures that suggest Britain’s 'support ratio' (the number of workers for each person who needs support) is set to continue to fall, and the same is true for every other developed country too.
This is going to be something that is increasingly talked about as the post-war baby boomers start to retire over the next couple of decades. The good news is that there could be ways to mitigate the impact of this, such as increasing the retirement age or taking in more immigrants. However, short of compulsory euthanasia, it is hard to see an obvious solution.
8) Nuclear Armageddon Still isn’t Unthinkable
The Cold War might be over, but nuclear weapons haven’t gone away. In fact, in addition to the ‘Big 5’ and Israel, since the end of the war several new countries have joined the nuclear club: India, Pakistan and North Korea.
But who would be crazy enough to launch such a weapon? The risks associated with nukes don’t just come from escalating tensions between nations, but also from the maintenance of the weapons: As Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control tells us, we’ve narrowly avoided an accidental mushroom cloud on a frightening number of occasions. And what if a nuke fell into the wrong hands? Pakistan has had nuclear weapons since 1998 and is not only geographically close to Afghanistan and the Taliban, but its intelligence services have long been rumoured to have people inside who sympathise with the likes of Al-Qaeda.
Scarily, a nuke wouldn’t even need to be launched at Britain to cause chaos. The film The War Book dramatises British civil servants simulating a response to a limited nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan (based on real papers from the 70s). Even if any nuclear exchange was nothing to do with us, the knock-on effect and chain reaction would fundamentally change our way of life for the worse.
And if you want to be really bricking it? Consider this: we’ve known how to make nukes since the 1940s, and there are probably instruction manuals online explaining how to build a bomb. The only thing stopping people and dodgy regimes from doing so is politics. By persuading countries that it is not within their interests to pursue a nuclear programme and by using (American) political power to make obtaining the necessary material difficult. So this is something that we as a species are going to have to be constantly vigilant about.
9) Climate Change
Surprise! Even though everyone stopped talking about climate change when the world economy collapsed in 2008, we’re still slowly sliding towards melted ice caps and beach holidays in Luton. This year is already predicted to be the hottest year on record -- and last year was a record too.
Worse still, despite previous hopes being pinned on humanity getting its act together enough to stay below a 2-degree rise in global temperatures, a new report suggests that we have missed the target. As we all know from years of news stories, this could mean more volatile weather, more fighting over scarce resources and future economic turmoil. Thanks a lot, previous generations.
There is some hope in the form of the Paris climate conference, which is due to take place in December as an attempt to establish a new international deal on carbon emissions, but whether talks will be successful remain to be seen. The last time politicians tried, in Copenhagen in 2009, they weren't successful.
10) The Force Awakens Might be Bad
And finally, perhaps the most terrifying scenario of all: What if Star Wars: The Force Awakens simply isn’t very good? What if despite Han, Luke and Leia, and despite the casting of some excellent young actors, and despite the lack of Jar Jar on December 17th, it emerges that JJ Abrams has farted out a clunker?
Only joking. I mean… it can’t be bad… can it? The prospect is simply too nightmarish to consider.