As we approach the end of 2008, it's a good time to look back ... and also to look ahead. That's what members of the World Future Society do. Each year the group's magazine, The Futurist, publishes its top forecasts for the years and decades ahead. This year, the outlook includes changes in technology, environment and society.
The future can be scary. Everything you say and do will be recorded by 2030, says one forecast. Another predicts new kinds of biological warfare that will be based on genetically-engineered organisms.
But future technologies will also provide solutions to future problems. Climate change, for example, will reduce the world's supply of fresh water. But Futurist magazine senior editor Patrick Tucker says there could be new ways to meet the demand for water.
"You're going to be hearing a lot more about desalination as a means to fight against these water shortages, and nanotechnology is actually a factor in that," says Tucker. "So that's just an example of a technology that you wouldn't normally associate with the environment will actually help us survive in an environment that's water-stressed and help civilization continue to thrive in that situation."
One of the great social trends of recent centuries, urbanization, is projected to increase in the decades ahead. Tucker explains that urbanization is more than just people moving to cities.
"In a broader economic sense, what that really refers to is people moving from an agricultural economy to a more modern, industrial economy. But without question, our global economy is going to shift more and more away from an agricultural economy toward an urban economy. More people will be going toward urban centers. And that's how you get that 'urbanization will hit 60 percent by 2030' number."
All those people will need specialized services, and the futurists say training will increasingly be done not with books in classrooms, but with video-game-like simulations that will provide increasingly realistic simulations of, say, surgery. That means the best training will be available in more places.
"What that does is it allows people to gain sort of immediate visceral experience in medical procedures that formerly you would have to go to a big medical campus to gain access to."
Cars and trucks won't be going away, but the future could see better communications that reduce the need for travel.
China is projected to be not just the world's biggest tourist destination, but also the biggest source of tourists. In fact, tourism worldwide is expected to double by 2020. Tucker says it's part of a continuing need to fill leisure time.
"Ideally, when you have a working economy, you have more people with leisure time, and it may not seem like this is something that's likely at the moment, but, you know, ironically, despite perceived loss of time over the past 10 years, the amount of leisure time people have has stayed roughly the same; we have about 40 hours of leisure time a week. And that's one of the reasons why travel may be a real bright economic spot in the future."
China may become more religious as a counterweight to dramatic changes in Chinese society. At the same time, futurists say the Middle East may become more secular, and religion's appeal will continue to decline in the United States.
Farmers could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by adopting more environmentally-friendly practices. More nuclear power plants will come online, with 1,000 operating by 2025. Alternatives such as wind and solar will increase, but not as much.
The Futurist magazine projects that more consumers will make purchasing decisions based on ethical factors, including the charitable giving and hiring practices of the companies from which they buy.
"You'll be able to make a much more informed choice about whether consuming that product in that way really fits in your values," he says.
And finally, Futurist editor Patrick Tucker reports that people will be having more sex. Partly that's a result of women being more free to express their sexuality. But he says, it's also related to increasing longevity.
"The longer you live, it's not exactly rocket science: the more time you have for sex. As we look toward a lifespan of possibly 130 years in the next — which may be a reasonable lifespan for someone born 30 years from now, you can imagine 120 years of unrestrained, hopefully safe sexual activity. "
Patrick Tucker is senior editor of The Futurist magazine. More of their projections are online at wfs.org, or get the link from our site, voanews.com.