Look ahead five years... ten years... fifty years, perhaps. You will be different. Older. Perhaps no longer alive. Now think about where you will live in years to come. Think about the world as a whole. It too will be different, but it's harder to imagine how.
When we try to imagine the future, we tend to look to the past for clues and extrapolate forwards. But we are living at a time of planetary change. Over the past century, humans have utterly transformed the planet on such a scale that many believe we are entering a new geological era, the Anthropocene. In recent decades we have been polluting the atmosphere and changing global climates, reducing biodiversity, re-plumbing rivers and other waterways, raising sea levels and acidifying the oceans, depleting the world's mineral and natural resources, among many other things.
Will we continue on this trajectory? Or will something happen to shift us onto a new course?
We’ve experienced similar moments before. In 1700, no one could have predicted the impact that James Watt's steam engine would have on industry, broader society and the global environment. Similarly, who would have foretold how transformative Thomas Edison's inventions, such as a commercially practical electric light bulb, would prove to be?
With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to pinpoint global transformers that shifted the trajectory of this human planet, for example by spurring globalisation or city building, or by increasing the human population. I'm thinking of things like World Wars I and II, the creation of the Suez Canal, the invention of elevators, air travel, reinforced concrete, the internet, antibiotics, etc.
In August 1859, Edwin Drake, a railroad conductor-turned oil prospector, drilled into ground near Titusville, Pennsylvania, and struck black gold. It was a discovery that would change the world. The crude oil was refined primarily into clean lamp oil, which spelled the death of the highly lucrative international whaling industry – just in time to prevent extinction in a number of species. It wouldn't be long before petroleum and countless other products were made from the subterranean deposits.
Crude oil dramatically changed the way we manufacture things, transport them and generate energy. Just one gallon (3.79 litres) of crude oil contains the same energy as would take a man eight days of labour to produce. Burning oil became one of the main drivers of the international economy. It transformed desert settlements of Bedouin tribes into some of the richest cities on the planet, with sky-high buildings of marble, steel and glass, and fountains that defy the sands. Oil sped up the human world. Cars replaced horses, and planes replaced sails. Plastics allowed food and other goods to be transported and kept good for longer. But their indestructible nature means that our planet is now littered with the stuff. And burning oil releases global warming gases. Burning it on such a prodigious scale is changing the world's climate, altering monsoon patterns, melting glaciers, and acidifying the oceans. Drake could never have imagined his find would transform the world in such ways.
Giant leaps for mankind
Another example is the process invented in Germany at the beginning of the 20th Century by Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch. The pair came up with a way of artificially “fixing” nitrogen from the air to make ammonia. Before the Haber-Bosch process, nitrogen could only be fixed by bacteria that live in soils and the roots of plants. Because nitrogen is an essential component in all living cells, this meant that all plants and animals on Earth were limited by what could be recycled from waste organic material, or what could be taken up by plants from the bacteria. Humans experienced periodic famines and 19th-Century scientists looked far afield for precious useable nitrogen. An entire industry was set up to harvest guano – bird poo – from the coastal fringes of the Atacama Desert in South America.
In 1909, Haber worked out a way of making liquid ammonia, and the era of artificial fertilisers was born. The effect on crop production and hence population growth was immediate. The number of humans that could be fed from a hectare of land rose from 1.9 to 4.3. Half of the protein in our bodies now comes from ammonia made in the Haber process. The amount of reactive nitrogen on the planet has been increased by 120%. Great swathes of global land surface have been given over to food production and the extra people the planet now supports are transforming the world in new and unpredictable ways, far beyond what Haber and Bosch could have imagined.
But it is worth remembering that not all events or innovations turn out to be as globally transformative as predicted at the time. In 1969, Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon, a “giant step” for our species. Many predicted the dawning of a new Space Age in which humans would colonise the Moon and even Mars, commuter trips would be made to extraterrestrial locations, other planets would be mined for mineral resources and Earth would be relieved of the pressures of our massive population. Yet the Space Age failed to meet those predictions. There were just six manned moon landings, the last in 1972, and it’s only in recent years that we’ve begun to see real interest in missions going back to the Moon, and beyond.
Taxes and death notwithstanding, nothing is certain about the future. But it can be fun predicting what might shake things up.
So, for my next series of columns, I am going to imagine the global transformers of the future – technologies or events that could profoundly alter the state of our human planet. I'd welcome your suggestions.
What technology or event do you think will transform our planet? If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on Future, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.