On US television news this autumn, wildfires and hurricanes have replaced terrorism and — mostly — even mass shootings as primetime content. Climate change is making natural disasters more frequent, and more Americans now live in at-risk areas. But meanwhile, Donald Trump argues on Twitter about what he supposedly said to a soldier’s widow. So far, Trump is dangerous less because of what he says (hot air) or does (little) than because of the issues he ignores.
He’s not alone: politics in many western countries has become a displacement activity. Most politicians bang on about identity while ignoring automation, climate change and the imminent revolution in medicine. They talk more about the 1950s than the 2020s. This is partly because they want to distract voters from real problems, and partly because today’s politicians tend to be lawyers, entertainers and ex-journalists who know less about tech than the average 14-year-old. (Trump said in a sworn deposition in 2007 that he didn’t own a computer; his secretary sent his emails.) But the new forces are already transforming politics.
Ironically, given the volume of American climate denial, the US looks like becoming the first western country to be hit by climate change. Each new natural disaster will prompt political squabbles over whether Washington should bail out the stricken region. At-risk cities such as Miami and New Orleans will gradually lose appeal as the risks become uninsurable. If you buy an apartment on Miami Beach now, are you confident it will survive another 30 years undamaged? And who will want to buy it from you in 2047? Miami could fade as Detroit did.
American climate denial may fade too, as tech companies displace Big Oil as the country’s chief lobbyists. Already in the first half of this year, Amazon outspent Exxon and Walmart on lobbying. Facebook, now taking a kicking over fake news, will lobby its way back. Meanwhile, northern Europe, for some years at least, will benefit from its historical unique selling point: its mild and rainy climate. Its problem will be that millions of Africans will try to move there.
On the upside, many Africans will soon, for the first time ever, have access to energy (thanks to solar panels) and medical care (as apps monitor everything from blood pressure to sugar levels, and instantly prescribe treatment). But as Africa gets hotter, drier and overpopulated, people will struggle to feed themselves, says the United Nations University. So they will head north, in much greater numbers than Syrians have, becoming the new bogeymen for European populists. Patrolling robots — possibly with attack capabilities — will guard Fortress Europe.
Everywhere, automation will continue to eat low-skilled jobs. That will keep people angry. Carl Benedikt Frey of Oxford university’s Martin School recalls workers smashing up machines during the British industrial revolution, and says: “There was a machinery riot last year: it was the US presidential election.” American workers hit by automation overwhelmingly voted Trump, even though he doesn’t talk about robots.
Soon, working-class men will lose driving jobs to autonomous vehicles. They could find new jobs servicing rich people as cleaners (a profession that’s surprisingly hard to automate), carers or yoga teachers. Young men will develop new notions of masculinity and embrace this traditionally feminine work. But older working-class men will probably embrace politicians like Trump.
The most coveted good of all — years of life — will become even more unfairly distributed. The lifespans of poor westerners will continue to stagnate or shorten, following the worldwide surge in obesity since the 1980s. Many poorer people will work into their seventies, then die, skipping the now standard phase of retirement. Meanwhile, from the 2020s the rich will live ever longer as they start buying precision medicine. They will fix their faulty DNA and edit their embryos, predicts Vivek Wadhwa, thinker on technology. (I heard him and Frey at this month’s excellent Khazanah Megatrends Forum in Malaysia.) Even if governments want to redress inequality, they won’t be able to, given that paying tax has become almost voluntary for global companies.
The country hit hardest by automation could be China (though Germany could suffer too, especially if its carmakers fail to transform). China’s model of exploiting cheap factory labour without environmental regulations has run its course, says Wadhwa. “I don’t think we need Chinese robots.” Even if China’s economy keeps growing, low-skilled men won’t find appealing careers, and they won’t even have the option of electing a pretend system-smasher like Trump. The most likely outcome: China’s regime joins the populist trend and runs with aggressive nationalism.
Troubled regimes will also ratchet up surveillance. Now they merely know what you say. In 10 years, thanks to your devices, they will know your next move even before you do. Already, satellites are monitoring Egypt’s wheat fields, so as to predict the harvest, which predicts the chance of social strife. Meanwhile, western politicians will probably keep obsessing over newsy identity issues. My prediction for the 2020s: moral panics over virtual-reality sex.