Health In The Twenty-Second Century
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I was asked recently to participate in a proposal for a television program, one presenting different ideas about life in the years ahead. If we move forward with the project, viewers will hear from various technologists about trends and potential scenarios for the coming decades, and then from me, the naturalist and therefore presumably bringing an anti-technologist perspective.
While I have spoken and written critically about technology and its impacts on our health, I always have viewed technology as a given but malleable force in our lives. I have suggested that technology development should be in service of our health and well-being, and not directed at the creation of wealth as it so often has been and is of course today. I suppose this makes me anti-materialist and anti-consumerist, charges that have a basis in fact and that I must plead guilty to.
In one of my articles, Ahead To Nature, I wrote about our need for thoughtful and future-facing progress in our lives and communities. Since the containment of fire and making of early hunting weapons, our human fate has been sealed (and human psyche shaped) in an interactive and ultimately progressive alliance with technology. As the article title implies, moving “back to nature” is simply no longer a viable or even interesting option, even with the many negative side-effects brought on by civilization and our reliance on technology. Instead, I encourage us look to ahead to nature, to have a future orientation from the lives we live and life choices we have each day, and to consider and use the technologies that will or might enhance our lives tomorrow.
Thinking About The Future
As we await word on the television project, I thought it might be interesting to share my working notes with you. My naturalist viewpoint does produce some very different ideas about possible and desirable future progress than my would-be, more technophilic colleagues. In truth, once any of us begins to re-center on and re-prioritize our health and well-being, new and quite divergent choices and future scenarios immediately come into view, ones that may be very different than those you have been exposed to or considered before.
Because of the advanced technology that is now with us already or likely to come in the years ahead, and in spite of it to some degree, remarkable new personal choices are now possible for most of us in the developed world. In my view, these opportunities for change will continue and expand into the foreseeable future. To prompt your thinking about your options today and the future, I will summarize some of these new choices and discuss how they might combine to create very different life options for us in the years before us and for our children over the next hundred years.
Before I begin, let me say that I know I must take this walk into the future quite gingerly. In this spirit, I’ll acknowledge that most future forecasts have been and will continue to be almost always wrong, and I can hope to do only slightly better than this average. We are all blinded by our present circumstances and a basic inability to understand how the trends we see today, let alone the ones we do not see, will combine or fail to combine tomorrow. It is nearly certain that we will overestimate some trends, underestimate or not recognize others, or fail to appreciate how certain trends will commingle to create entirely new directions in the world.
Even when we do see a future trend clearly, we are so often apt to misjudge its speed. Change can take much longer then we realize, and yet can happen suddenly if a confluence of contributing effects reaches a critical threshold. A survey of our recent history, studded with change that is surprisingly rapid to present day people, is a good indication of this, as is a review of the predictions of past prognosticators. For example, most ideas of what early 21st century life would be like from the standpoint of the 1950s seem funny and naive to us today, either by being wildly inaccurate or simply by not appreciating the potential speed of events. The future might already be here and not just evenly distributed, to paraphrase William Gibson’s delightful quip, but seeing the future and its true velocity, even if it is in our midst and shouting to us, proves to be hard business.
All this said, if we begin today from where we think we are and are going, and keep the idea of a portion of the population continually and iteratively prioritizing greater health and well-being amidst the technology trends and rising general affluence that is likely to continue, certain possible health-oriented developments do come into view, though their speed is indeed hard to judge. To be fair, and as accurate as we can try to be, we must assume that many of the most unhealthy trends in today’s society will continue too, even if they are dampened or slowed by health consciousness, since they are often deeply rooted and can be expected to be quite persistent. To begin a list of such unhealthy trends: materialism, competitiveness, antipathy, alienation, drug use, and fundamentalism of all sorts.
Human progress toward greater health and well-being is thus almost certain to continue in the form of an overall and general clash of values, goals, and choices in our global society, and this clash is thus likely to be a key future dynamic in itself over the next 100 years and more. For the sake of discussion, we might simplify this dynamic of competing choices and say that there will be three general value systems in play over this time period:
- Progressives – promoting more rational, conscious, principled, and communitarian life, with a strong focus on health and well-being, environmental quality, and social justice
- Technologists – advocating economic liberalism and the progression toward increasingly sophisticated technologies, implicitly from a self-oriented and hedonistic world view
- Conservatives – favoring rules-based living and coercive social institutions via a variety of ideologies, including existing and new religious systems, secular philosophies, and combinations of these forms of thought.
The majority of people, in the future as is the case today, will of course belong to none of these movements and will instead form individual and community value systems as an alloy of this triplet of social forces, each of which are evolving historical forces and alloys in themselves
The progress toward greater health and well-being will also continue intermeshed with other long-term global dynamics that we can see plainly today: 1) increasing material wealth; 2) demographic shifts to metropolitan areas; 3) continuing development of robotics and machine based industrial production; 4) greater education levels and rising human consciousness; 5) a gradual resurgence of cooperative over competitive values in the developed world; 6) environmental awareness and degradation; 7) globalization (and extra-terrestrialization) of our industrial infrastructure; 8) expansion of transportation, information, and communication technology; and 9) pressures on traditional energy sources and resources generally.
With this extended preamble, here is one version of how future events might unfold, from the distinct perspective of a natural health point of view:
There is growing awareness among scientists, psychologists, and economists that the current state of civilization, its gradually evolved ideological foundations and physical structure, is fundamentally at odds with a developing consensus regarding our underlying human needs for health, well-being, and meaningful life. This conclusion is supported by widespread research findings over the last 50 years or more, from a wide variety research institutions working in the psychological and social sciences. Where society today is individualist, consumerist, and competitively oriented, emphasizing self-fulfillment, our best science increasingly suggests that people would be far better served and society made both more humane and sustainable by social structures that downplay material wealth and are more communitarian, cooperative, and nurturative, placing greater emphasis on emotional growth and personal transcendence. Discussions and promotion of this idea with people in this time are met with uncertainty and skepticism, but the Internet provides access to millions of people sharing this view and allows for the early formation new online social networks re-prioritizing human and environmental health and well-being. An early “natural path” movement dedicated to personal and environmental health and well-being has begun to form online, but is initially hampered by outdated ideas and stereotypes about natural health and wellness, commercialism and exploitative practices that invaded the natural health movement in the 1970s, and a prevalent anti-technology bias among many traditional natural health advocates, all of which slows online networking.
A stronger than expected demographic counter-trend has developed, running against the general and dominant pattern of global economic and social migration to the world’s largest and ever more sprawling metropolitan areas. This counter-trend, while small, is notable in that it is a welcome surprise to many people. The trend involves the movement of many millions of people, generally educated professionals, out of large urban areas and working cities in the developed world, but no longer to the rural and ex-urban locations around them as had been the trend for more than fifty years. Now, the movement of these health and environmentally oriented affluents is increasingly to traditional resort areas and mid-sized college towns, particularly ones with temperate year round climates and especially ones abutting natural wilderness areas. In familiar and not-so-familiar resort towns from the American west to the Mediterranean to Australia’s Gold Coast and Southern Asia, wellness-based communities are emerging and growing rapidly. These “natural path” communities were first formed and populated by participants in online well-being networks, and now are attracting a broader network of social progressives in search of an enhanced quality of life.
As the natural path communities multiply and expand, some have even become a political force in their area, asserting new values and advocating alternative and very different public policies in locales that often were formerly dominated by the tourism and retirement industries, and dedicated to recreational lifestyles. The typical natural path resettlement pattern is to abandon large and expensive urban and suburban homes in favor of smaller but restful homes in intentional communities emphasizing health and well-being, and often enabling encouraging cooperative and lifelong work. With traditional families now a minority of the population in the developed world and single living the norm in industrialized areas, community members instead chose to live with or very near one another, cooperating in increasingly rich and evolving sets of work and community activities. This arrangement creates an attractive economic and social environment for additional natural path émigrés, and their focus on fairly high density living near high quality natural environments has already promoted a number of high profile expansions of nearby open space and wilderness areas, further attracting interest in the approach.
Economically, many natural path community members have adjusted to non-urban life by shifting work to Internet-based creative and intellectual careers, natural healing and health spas, ecotourism, teaching and rehabilitation, medicine and scientific research, and green community and technology development. All of these forms of work have begun to thrive in and around the natural path communities, and have begun to remake the overall economies in some of the host areas, energizing and greening life there and forming a clear counterpoint to the traditional resort and retirement life patterns that had evolved in these places during the twentieth century. Living arrangements are evolving in these resurgent areas, but extended families and multiple partner parenting appear to be a natural and more attractive alternative to traditional family life. An interesting statistic is that natural path community birth rates are much higher than those in the resort and college towns they adjoin or exist within, and in larger metropolitan areas as well. While natural path community members make considerable use of evolving Internet and green technologies, they have noticeably fewer and smaller possessions overall, and are decidedly anti-consumerist and environmentalist in orientation. In these communities, people are generally well-educated, affluent, and mobile, but have less expensive lifestyles and more free time than people in the cities and suburbs of their time. Their work is also more integrated into their lives, there is less of a work-play dichotomy in the lives and values, and far more of their time is spent learning and teaching than their contemporaries. A popular natural path expression is 7/24, referring to the goal of working seven hours a day twenty-four days a month and poking fun at the 24/7 (24 hours a day/7 days a week) culture of the cities, enabled by new classes of stimulants available over the counter or as coffee additives.
On the technology front, one notable development is that self-driving green automobiles (and with watercraft, with airplanes in development) have begun to expand rapidly after an uncertain and controversial start in the early 2020s. This develop is transforming options and ideas about physical movement around the world. For natural health practitioners, self-driving vehicles allow new alternatives for autonomous movement between natural path communities and other destinations, notably without reliance on urban hubs or non-renewable resources. On the other hand, many technologists see the opportunity for roving robotic rooms, “rovooms” as they are called, to supplant the need for a fixed location entirely, creating new lifestyle options but increasing traffic congestion (as both occupied and unoccupied vehicles move or orbit their owners). Moving out of the technology in the physical domain, the Internet itself is now increasingly an audio-visual medium, with talking, listening, and seeing browsers the norm and increasing in sophistication. Because of this, the amount of printed material produced has begun to slow for the first time in history, countering a millennial trend and helping with worldwide reforestation efforts. Though the natural path communities represent only a small portion on the world population, they are a growing and quite visible presence in the world, attracting the attention of the media and urbanites interested in healthier and more humane living. Through their commitment to natural health practices and regular wilderness experiences, natural path community members are impressively fit and well-adjusted, especially compared to their urban-consumerist counterparts, helping to fuel the still growing interest in the natural path approach and resort-based living overall.
Many of the early natural path communities, located mostly in traditional vacation and educational areas, have become larger, better established, and increasingly important and outspoken in their regions. In some cases, they have crowded out or transformed the pre-existing character of their host towns and created a new dominant, wellness-based and communitarian culture in their areas, though rarely at the expense of at least a few strident and usually colorful hold-outs. The natural path communities offer both existing and prospective members a freer and less stressful life than in the urbs and suburbs, the prospect of interaction and new community with people sharing similar pro-environment and anti-consumerist values, and the ability to have far more influence on public policy and the built environment than in the pro-consumerist metropolises. Because of this, the natural path communities now have considerable and growing appeal among a sizeable segment of children and grandchildren of 20th century baby boomers (who are mostly retired or in elderhood careers, and enjoying the benefits of new cell regeneration and life extension technologies). Natural health practitioners continue to prioritize creative, health, and environment-related work, place a significant priority on learning and teaching, and participate actively in public health promotion and wilderness area expansion.
Elevated birth rates continue in the natural path areas and there have been several successful experiments in alternative child care and community based schooling, which are now being used as a model in many natural path communities and some progressive suburban towns. With the well-publicized success and growth of the natural path communities, along with concurrent success promoting wild land reclamation, there is a new trend of land price pressures in the area surrounding natural path communities, forcing displacement of rural people from the land and closing traditional farms, and raising the ire of rural fundamentalists around the world. The generally affluent and moderate-to-high density community living of the natural path areas, combined with the significant tax base the creates and their unequivocal demands for increased open space reclamation, have now clearly begun to tip the economics of some of these areas in favor of highly compact communities surrounded by significant wilderness and free-range farming space. This acceleration of the long established trend of rural people moving to larger towns and metropolitan areas is not without controversy, of course, especially as small “family” farms are assimilated to create large, cooperative, and partially automated food production basins. As part of this trend, zoning rules in many of the natural path areas have been put in place to curtail sporadic attempts to build large, urbanist properties and to actively limit the potential for township sprawl. This zoning scheme reflects and reinforces the generally egalitarian and communitarian values of the natural path areas, including the green and human-scaled living arrangements in them. In the natural path areas, advanced solar technologies and the generally artisan and low consumption lifestyles there offer a clear alternative to the more dominant trend of techno-consumerism in and around the world’s large and ever growing cities.
Within the natural path communities, work is increasingly in three areas: professional work on the Internet, medical and wellness work in healing centers, and outdoor work in ecotourism and land management. The most advanced natural path communities themselves have clearly begun to resemble large and open health resorts and many are highly appealing aesthetically. These communities often grace the pages of home and travel zines, but are routinely snubbed in architectural contests by organizers and judges who favor techno-urbanism and computer generated, irregularly-shaped designs built in glass and steel. People in the natural path communities do use advanced medical technology to treat and cure chronic illnesses, as do people in metropolitan areas, but are often quite resistive to new pharmacological, techno-surgical, and bioengineering practices increasingly in vogue among celebrities and the affluent in the metropolitan centers. Elsewhere, automated manufacturing, farming, mining, and transportation are all increasing rapidly. New micro-mobile technology allows people remain to wired at all times with small hands free devises and to travel for extended times autonomously, whether on land, sea, or air (even in the wild by tracking natural and man-made sources of water, food, and shelter). A movement is underway to connect the various natural communities of the world by long-distance footpaths, “hikeways” as they are called. The goal is to create a global trail system with preserved wilderness surrounding them, connecting the world’s most compelling natural areas in a continuous global greenway.
After two full centuries of industrialization and globalization, the world’s human population is now highly concentrated in 200 large urban areas. In these areas, consumerism is the dominant ideology and lifestyle, and now extends deeply into cosmetic and bio-enhancement medicine and pharmacology. In the cities, most work, socialization, and entertainment are increasingly done in virtual reality or hybrid reality (overlaid physical and computer based space accessed on foot and in vehicles). This rapidly evolving urban techno-reality is in sharp contrast to life outside the cities, where traditional agrarian life is slowly and sometimes painfully ending in fundamentalist violence, but where natural path communities and wilderness reclamation movements are now firmly established around the world. People living in natural path communities have grown to about five percent of the world’s population, with another fifteen percent pursuing natural path lifestyles in metropolitan areas. These natural communities and natural path living generally is highly visible and has a romantic allure to many urban people, and is a clear counter-trend to technologically-enhanced life in the metropolitan areas. Because of the appeal of the natural path areas as educational and vacation centers, they are now are an important part of the experience and transformation economy that has emerged in the world over the last 50 years, a natural consequence of technological progress and rising general affluence. Still, their appeal is far from universal and a majority of people chose to vacation in any of the several hundred theme parks and metropolitan entertainment zones around the world.
While natural path communities (and many fundamentalist religious communities) are solidly communal and cooperative in orientation, and people there live in extended family structures, their counterparts in urban areas increasingly live alone, do not have children, and have shrinking and more superficial physical social networks. This urban trend is driven by technology innovation and the dominant consumerist-hedonist ethos. In vogue now is a lifestyle completely booked with professional, social, and informational exchanges, managed by computers, who work to prevent their person from becoming “offline” during the 21 hours urban people are now typically awake each day. Because all low or no activity periods are viewed, and experienced, in increasingly negative ways, urban people are also increasingly forced to develop extravagant pastimes or to medicate themselves to maintain their psychological composure in the increasingly technologically enshrouded environment in which they live. Because of the pressures of this frenetic world, there are now two strong counter-movements within the dominant pattern of urban-virtual life. One utilizes elements of the natural path centers and eastern mysticism to promote more tranquil lifestyle approaches, and is dubbed “Ezen.” The other counter movement builds on fundamentalist thinking and life practices to promote a very structured way a life. Called by a number of names around the world, for example “Cruise” in Europe in reference to the crusades, techno-fundamentalism appeals to less educated and affluent urbanites, is more localized and disconnected, and often has hard and soft sides corresponding to acceptance of violent behavior. Both trends are controversial to all concerned, for some because of the anti-commercial and anti-hedonist bent of these counter movement, and for others, because these themes are increasingly delivered and managed by computers in virtual reality and therefore are viewed as becoming corrupted and assimilated into the dominant culture.
In the natural path centers, the average age is now more than ten years less than in the urban areas, even with emigration from cities, due to much higher birth rates in the natural path and much greater use of life extension technologies in the cities. While the natural path and rural areas are less affluent materially than the cities of this time, there is general material abundance throughout much of the world, enabled by modern technology, though tensions and questions around distributive justice flair from time to time. Many of the natural path communities have, in fact, enhanced the wealth of their members through an ethos that limits material consumption and encourages capital and wealth accumulation, helping them to keep pace politically and economically with the higher income but higher consumption of people in urban areas. In the natural path world, circumvention of the earth on foot becomes a new mark of distinction, while low orbit space flights have become affordable to and a status symbol for the middle class in the urban world. A nuclear device is detonated by terrorists, destroying a mid-sized city and prompting new arms proliferation controls.
Gradually intensifying resource pressures have caused a new dynamic around the world. In the past 20 years, energy prices have increased five-fold in real terms. Because of this, earlier conservation measures have been reversed in some areas to enable more aggressive resource extraction and farming practices. In other areas, particularly ones with strong natural path populations, conservation structures have held and even have been strengthened. In this more stressed environment, pro and anti-materialist lines are increasingly well-drawn, with two dominant ideologies emerging in the world. One is urban and consumerist, advocating human freedom and limited regulation of technology and resource use. This stance is used to rationalize and fuel the development of new forms of artificial human stimulation products and services in the urban environment. These investments are, in truth, now needed to ensure stability in the urban environment and counter the growing and intractable problem of habituation at each new level of virtual reality. The other dominant ideology is naturalist, advocating communal life in nature, and deemphasizing advanced technology, especially implantation and human re-engineering. A third ideology is more reactionary and conservative, mixing pre-industrial religious beliefs and 20th century technologies in poorer rural and urban areas around the world. Overall, in the world, perhaps 5-10% of the world are each in the pro-tech, naturalist, and conservative camps. Life for the remaining majority of people is a varying mixture of these competing themes and lifestyle elements.
In heart of the world’s most liberal cities, technologically-altered and bioengineered people and pets are increasingly common, though this trend has not been without problems and unintended side-effects. Massive class action lawsuits against technology and biomedical companies have resulted, but in the end have not dampened profitability, capital investment, and the pace of technological modification. The technological problems have also worked to the benefit of the natural path movement, which now has strong advocates among urban people as a model even for metropolitan areas, though they are still significantly in the minority. The dominant urban trend remains in the direction of info-sensorial technology and increasing immersion in virtual and hybrid reality, which are now highly pervasive in all metropolitan areas. This trend has been helped by the fact of increasingly precious energy resources, since virtual reality reduces the need for physical travel, but also as a consequence has worked to further isolate urban people from the natural environment.
Increasingly, urban centers and virtual meeting areas resemble sprawling casinos or entertainment districts. Virtual celebrities, based a new and more personalized form of artificial intelligence, are becoming common and one has political aspirations. In the virtual world, fantasy destinations and artificial worlds are the most common entertainment formats. Many allow participants to commit gratuitous violent and sexual acts, drawing obvious comparisons with the late roman empire and triggering ineffectual calls for new regulation. Reflecting the impact of sociopathic behavior in virtual space on physical reality, combined with the wide difference in wealth in the cities, the citizen-to-police ratio of New York fell below 100:1 in 2087, half that of a century before (and not counting the parallel rise of private security forces and anti-terrorist agents who must oversee the screening of all people and materials entering downtown areas). A nano-protein spill at the port of Los Angeles is checked only by the surrounding desert and covers the city with a green slime, forcing evacuation and a two-year decontamination of the city. The clean-up is hampered by eco-terrorists seeking to destroy the nearly empty city through coordinated brush fires delivered by small “firebots” carried on the hot Santa Anna winds. Despite these problems, urban people and the urbanist ethos remains dominant in the world, with many urbanites viewing the more tranquil natural path centers derisively as staid and unexciting, as they do the non-virtual world generally.
Resource pressures of the last generation have come to a head. Even with declining urban birth rates and greater reliance on virtual consumption and recreation, medical and bioengineering technology is greatly extending life spans, and electrical and mineral demands have increased to the point where there are insufficient unprotected resources to support the urban consumerist lifestyle enjoyed to varying degrees by 80 percent of the world’s population. Climate change has required levies to be built around several large coastal cities and, notably, these have been constructed almost entirely by machines. Because of overuse of unprotected farmland over the last 20 years, increasing amounts of food is now grown indoors using hydroponics and genetically modified, super-fast growing plants, with the positive health benefit of increased fish consumption (who are cultivated in parallel in the hydroponic fields) but also with greater risks to the food supply because of a general reliance on cloned fish. As a consequence of rising general affluence and life extension, status as a trillionaire is now a rite of passage for captains of industry, particularly those in the energy, technology, medical, entertainment, and financial service industries.
Importantly, two new and distinct types of people are emerging in the early twenty-second century. One is a people who were born and grew up within natural path communities, living without technological implants and only limited exposure to virtual reality. Their expectations are of life that is generally communal and gregarious, with a new emerging pattern of nomadic movement between the natural path centers of the world and extended wilderness experiences. Most of their work is based on ecotourism, creative and human service activities, and land and resource management, although increasing natural path wealth, generous social welfare systems, and automation have begun to make work a matter of preference and not necessity. The natural path generation occasionally visits urban areas and some emigrate there, but most find urban places hostile and disconcerting. A related and growing risk in the natural path communities is the potential for an influx of crime, drugs, and pollution from urban areas. In response to increased crime and urban influences, the gating of a few natural path communities has occurred, making them less open than they where in the previous century. Another trend is the creation of new floating natural path towns in inland coastal areas, based on solar light harvesting and symbiotic hydroponics and sea farming. Overall, the quality of life in the natural path communities is quite high and emigration to these areas continues at a steady pace.
Likewise, in the metropolitan areas, a new generation of people has grown up spending much of its waking life in virtual and hybrid reality, and experiencing life exclusively within the built environment of the city and transportation-communication grid. Most of this generation’s time is spent creating and consuming electronic entertainment, in technology development, in politics and law, and in a vast and increasing variety of service work. Most of these technophiles will not have children, except in virtual reality, and many can expect to live for 250 years or more through advanced medical technologies. Unknown to most people, a breakthrough allowing reliable energy production from nuclear fusion will be achieved late in the year, offering the promise of nearly unlimited low-cost electricity for further urban progress, but also enabling accelerated reclamation of wilderness areas. Overall, the world of the early 22nd century is one of both increasing urbanity and natural preservation, a much more highly contrasted world than a hundred years before. Natural path and urban path advocates each claim increased health, but measure health differently: the first by life engagement and satisfaction measures, the second by longevity and psychometric ones. In truth, the average person of 2110 aspires for both longevity and personal satisfaction, and lives in a middle ground between the natural and technological paths. Not surprisingly, a trend has developed in some metropolitan suburbs: lush enclaves modeled after natural path communities at the edge of large cities, but with a far more liberal use of technology than in traditional natural path communities. Critics pan the developments as superficial, self-indulgent, and missing the communal aspects of the natural path, but others applaud the so-called “McEdens” as a step forward in the general direction of health and well-being.
Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.
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