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The World in 2050

Date: 10-16-10
Host: Ian Punnett
Guests: Laurence C. Smith

Ian Punnett welcomed UCLA geography professor Laurence Smith, who discussed how trends in population, global trade, resources, and the climate will profoundly shape the world by 2050. He explained that the premise behind his work was a "broad, sweeping thought experiment of what the world might be like in 40 years, should things continue as they are now." While each trend has its own effects, Smith noted that it is when these trends work in concert with each other that the outcome is particularly potent. He used water scarcity as an example and noted that, in the future, the problem will be more the result of population growth and industrialization rather than the usual suspect that is climate change.

One part of the world that Smith sees as poised to benefit by 2050 are the countries that have "land holdings or access to oceans north of the 45th parallel," such as Canada, Russia, Scandinavia and the northern United States. Due to the changing climate, Smith said, these countries should see greater agricultural benefits due to more arable land. While this may be news to the human population, Smith revealed that "on average, mobile plants and animals are moving north at 6 kilometers per decade," which breaks down to a stunning five and a half foot northbound migration per day. Conversely, he said that land along the US Gulf Coast is in danger due to the "triple threat of rising sea level, ground subsidence, and sediment starvation." On a global scale, major port cities such as Shanghai, Tokyo, and Bangkok also face these same difficulties in the future.

Looking at how demographics will change over the next 40 years, Smith pointed out that the combination of an aging population alongside shrinking family sizes will create significant upheaval in numerous countries. He said that Germany and Japan are already seeing their population shrink as a result of these factors and that Russia will have lost 20% of its population by 2050. As such, he was dismissive of the "population bomb hypothesis of the 60's and 70's," saying that the concern about overpopulation "seems to be working itself out." Despite the immigration debate being a contentious issue in contemporary times, Smith theorized that these demographic trends indicate that, in the future, "developed countries may find themselves in this odd situation of competing for global immigrants" due to the sheer lack of available native workers.

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