Why I Remain a Long-term Optimist in Troubled Times
Ten trend lines that point almost inexorably to a brighter future
It’s all too easy to read the headlines of the day and despair about humanity’s future. It often appears we are far too stuck in our self-destructive patterns to let them go and make the shifts required to create a healthy future for all.
But I’m a dad to two amazing little girls, which makes me think about the long game we are playing to ensure they have a future worth living. And I also run a company that features thousands of the wisest voices on the planet as well as visionaries and solutionaries who are leading the way forward.
So I am surrounded by things that give me hope that is grounded in reality. The truth is that the torrent of daily bad news often obscures a lot of truly good news about humanity’s future, which tends to show up in the deeper trend lines rather than the grim headlines, which fixate on war, political stalemate, division, massacres, and the most deviant forms of human expression.
For me, I choose to focus on the year 2050 to understand why our long-term future looks brighter than we often think. I’ll be 80 and my girls will be in in their early 30 and the ten trend lines below give me enormous hope by then, especially because each is rooted in facts and cultural and market forces that are difficult to stop.
1. The Clean Energy Revolution will be close to complete by 2050. The world will be powered by renewable energy, electric vehicles and a system of batteries and grids that ensures abundant power at little cost to our ecosystems or planetary health. This isn’t a hippie pipe dream at this point. Burning carbon for power has been outcompeted by renewable sources of energy and the race won’t even be close as we go decades into the future. It’s simply a matter of time to phase out the dirty, noisy, planet-heating, polluting methods of generating power. By 2050, the phase of human history where we explode carbon fuels to power our lives will be nearly completely over, simply based on current rates of adoption. In 2021, solar PV electricity generation increased by around 145 TWh, almost 18%, to approach 1 000 TWh. The world currently uses around 24,000 TWH. So that may sound like we have a long way to go but if we simply keep up the 18% growth per year (and there’s every reason to think that plummeting renewable costs and increasing efficiency will accelerate things), we would hit 50,000 TWH generated by solar alone by 2045, which means the planet could power double our current global use entirely with solar. Here’s one Stanford-led plan that is more of a mix of solar and wind but also shows that consumers save 65% on their power costs by 2050 under their transition scenario. If we look at electric car adoption in the United States, it close to doubled in the first quarter of 2022 vs. the previous year (98K sales to 173K). With strong sales particularly in China, global electric sales are now at 9% of annual cars sold and more than doubled from 2020 to 2021. Even if that superheated adoption rate cools somewhat, we’re on track to have electric automobiles leading new car sales before the end of the decade and by 2035 it’s likely going to be hard to buy a new non-electric vehicle in many developed countries. The future of transportation will clearly be mostly electric by 2040. Even with the problem of vehicles lasting 10 to 20 years, by 2050, carbon emissions will have plummeted, not because of some spectacular intervention but simply staying the course. And the current trends should mainly improve with market forces making electric vehicles cheaper and heatwaves pushing for faster changes.
2. The world’s wisdom at our fingertips – Every year we get easier access to the inherited wisdom of the world. My company, The Shift Network, is part of the leading edge of this quiet revolution in consciousness which involves amplifying the wisest voices in the world and sharing their practices to grow spiritually, psychologically, and in well-being. Consciousness, it turns out, is contagious. Wisdom begets more wisdom. Wiser people live happier and more fulfilling lives, which makes it an increasingly compelling proposition to learn how to live from the wisest. As the growth economy grows, each successive generation of teachers becomes more integrated, balanced, and whole because they build on the last. As more apps, websites, and media operations mainstream practices from meditation to yoga to energy work to sound healing to shamanism, this trend will accelerate. Companies will eventually lead the way in adoption to optimize team performance. Basically, the world’s wisdom traditions and practices will be ubiquitous by 2050 – every lineage, mystic, and teacher at our fingertips and often available in immersive metaverses that allow us to authentically experience monasteries, ashrams, jungle lodges, and dojos from around the world. 14% of the United States population has now tried meditation. Yoga studios have turned up on every corner. For those who choose a path of growth, they will be able to learn and apply the wisdom from anywhere. And that is at the root of a brighter future: more conscious individuals eventually lead to a more conscious planet. This trendline is irreversible at this point.
3. Mostly Veg Diet – We’re at last entering an era when vegetarian options like Beyond Burger are outcompeting resource-intensive meats in taste alone. On the simplest level, eating lower on the food chain uses less of almost all resource inputs from land to water to carbon. A limited-resource planet can feed somewhere in the range of 6 times as many vegetarians as dedicated carnivores. A plant-strong diet has been proven healthier for most individuals and the planet, which is part of why 22% of Millennials in the United States have tried a vegetarian diet and the number of people in the United States who identify as vegetarian has risen from 290,000 to 9 million in 15 years. The research supporting a plant-based diet for health alone is strong and there is a mainstreaming of the recognition that it is better environmentally as well. With India leading the way as home to 40% vegetarians, more of the world is catching up. In Germany, 42% of people have consciously reduced their meat intake. This shift is vital so that we can live within the carrying capacity of the planet and stop the deforestation and pollution that come from excess meat production. By 2050, I don’t see a fully vegetarian world but one in which eating more plant-based diets is the norm. This shift will allow us to be much closer to a system of agriculture that works within the carrying capacity of the planet, even with 10 billion citizens.
4. Psychedelic healing will be one of the most common ways to help people navigate psychological challenges, heal traumas, and open them to a more expanded and healthy worldview. Legalization and research are accelerating at an incredible clip around the world, which is reflected in the billions of VC and public market dollars pouring in. While this work is gaining traction for treating tough issues from PTSD to depression, the really big benefit to the world will eventually be the ability to open people into a wider, deeper, and more sacred way of living at scale. Processes of growth that might take years of spiritual practice can unfold rapidly in a well-facilitated setting with sacred plants or psychedelic pharmaceuticals. This has long been an underground force propelling the human potential movement. The legalization of psychedelic medicine with proper supervision can move humanity towareds a more unified, sustainable and peaceful future perhaps faster than any other single movement. Envision 100 million people receiving a life-changing experience and healing core wounds every year in a safe and supervised way. That’s what I think we’ll see well before 2050 as science continues to prove their efficacy to treat a lot of psychological issues safely. Given how many of our societial ills are sourced in unresolved traumas and mental illness, the implications of the psychedelic medicine renaissance are vast. By 2050 it will be very common and perhaps even the norm for people to engage in psychedelic healing work, which will also help humanity rid itself of a great deal of distorted mental patterns that have tortured us.
5. The trendlines for intermarriage between races will begin to put racism much more in humanity’s rearview mirror. As the boundaries of skin colors increasingly blur, the idea of racial superiority will melt right along with them. Intermarriage in the United States went from 5% of marriages in 1970 to 18% in 2015. Based on that trendline of more than 3x growth in 45 years, we’ll be looking at something in the range of 50% of marriages being “intermarriages” by 2050, which will make that term increasingly irrelevant. The future of America (and the world) is various shades of brown, which will help us to phase out the long history of madness that came from seeing skin color as meaning anything more than varieties of pigmentation. Global media will increasingly reinforce the sense that skin color as a group-defining characteristic is on the wane, which itself will contribute to harmony, cultural exchange, and reduction of violence. This is not even assuming major moves towards social healing, which I think will accelerate the trendline.
6. Cryptocurrencies will become globally accepted and help to empower a free-flowing global exchange without the excessive “tax” of financial intermediaries. We’re now at essentially the same stage of adoption of cryptocurrencies as the Internet was in the late 90s, with something around 3.9% of people in the world owning one or more. Despite the current crises and market meltdowns, the longer-term trendlines look solid. As we accelerate down the adoption curve, powered by mass investment in the ecosystem, new, more useful and more ethical currencies will emerge that help to mitigate the destructive forces of finance and remove the state-backed monopolies that keeps national governments strong relative to the global commons. In short, cryptocurrencies will push us towards a unified global economy, perhaps even faster than global trade. The s-curve of adoption points to a decade at most before we see real diminishment of the power of national currencies. I wouldn’t bet necessarily on any of the current coins being dominant by 2050 but what is clear is that crypto is the future of financial exchange and that it will shrink the monopoly power of nations and empower a fluid global exchange of value.
7. Peace through shared language - While the accelerating global adoption of English has the shadow of colonialism behind it, I believe it will eventually also help us to create a more peaceful world by reducing the fear and otherness between cultures. Currently 1.3 billion speak English and close to 1 billion of that is as a second language. When people can truly understand the thought processes of others and share cultural understandings more easily, the friction between cultures diminishes. Otherness tends to breed suspicion. A shared language dissipates that suspicion and seeds a shared culture. The rate of adoption of English as the dominant language of the world is quite fast now. To be in business globally now almost requires learning English. The number of English speakers rose by 25% from 2011 to 2021, from 1.05B to 1.3B, far faster than any other language. English is the language of science, technology, business and increasingly politics. If we just project that rate forward to 2050 without any acceleration, we would have 2.5 billion English speakers. With network effects, the Internet, and global media, the adoption curve will undoubtedly go much faster. For example, the business of training people in English is estimated to be growing at 6.2% compounded annually, which means the size of the market will double about every 11 years. By the time we reach 2050, likely more than 50% of people in the world will have a working understanding of English which will reduce the forces of fear that feed war. It is now almost inevitable that we will we unify around English as the lingua franca of the world.
8. More gender-balanced politics – The current trendlines don’t make this look like it will be complete by 2050, but we will definitely be much closer to 50% of our global politicians being women, which will lead to a better way of making decisions for the common good. Simply put, women political leaders tend to collaborate more effectively than men. Countries with women heads of state in the pandemic clearly outperformed their male counterparts. As we get closer to gender balance in politics, it will naturally temper, soften, and realign our public decision-making processes with less toxic competition. The best case study in this area is Rwanda, which went from the 1994 genocide to being called the Switzerland of Africa, with a greater than 50% female congress and a healthy culture, in less than a generation. Here are various stories about how women rebuilt the country. Healthier democracies are central to a more sustainable future and female representation in the leadership ranks is central to that evolution of democracy.
9. Science will increasingly build bridges with spirituality. Research on everything from meditation to the biofield to the efficacy of distant prayer, to qigong healing, and the reality of psychic abilities is going to expand our understanding of human beings to include aspects of us that extend and exist beyond our bodies. There will be increasing validation of the concept that our consciousness survives bodily death and something like reincarnation is a fact. I have been in rooms with leading scientists and the actual scientific data is increasingly airtight. It’s simply a matter of the scientific community catching up to the vast body of work already done and overcoming the legacy of antipathy to spiritual understandings of the world. The facts in this matter will eventually triumph I believe. What this next scientific revolution will do is usher in a more holistic understanding of human beings and our place in the universe. A view of humans as beings that transcend our bodies leads to a very different worldview that can provide more meaning and purpose vs. the culture war of atheistic science vs. religion that has defined the previous era.
10. Massive micro-financing of entrepreneurs - Small-scale businesses create resilience and sustainability at a hyper-local level. The emergence of massive micro-finance programs such as Kiva, which has now crowd-funded micro-loans of $1.6B to 1.6 million entrepreneurs worldwide, is only going to accelerate with the ubiquity of cell phones, distributed finance, and crytpocurrencies. Mass investment in small businesses can be de-risked and made profitable such that hundreds of millions of tiny entrepreneurs can build a world in which all our basic needs are met. This is particularly valuable for women entrepreneurs globally, who tend to repay at high rates and spread the benefits to create more community wealth. Simply put, as it becomes clear that micro-loans are profitable and reasonably predictable, there’s no reason why entrepreneurs around the world won’t have the ability to get their micro-enterprises established. And that can effectively create a more resilient economic system and end mass poverty. There is already positive progress on global poverty, with a reduction from 16% of global citizens living in extreme poverty in 2010 to 9% now. It is plausible that we can banish extreme poverty globally by 2050.
At the deepest level, all of the above trend lines will be difficult if not impossible to stop globally as they are being driven by widely disparate market and cultural forces, often funded by major investments as well. Where there is a solid financial return to be made, it is difficult to stop a trendline.
And what they all point us inexorably towards is a world that can be sustainable, peaceful, and prosperous, with the scourges of war, racism and extreme poverty largely in our rearview mirror. They point towards a holistic, scientifically validated worldview of humans as spiritual beings on a journey of growth into wisdom and even enlightenment.
We’ll be able to more effectively heal the scars and traumas in humanity and catalyze major shifts in people’s worldview. We’ll have decision-makers and political processes led more by women and a massive empowerment of micro-entrepreneurship globally that lifts people out of poverty. We’ll each have access to the wisest people in the world and the most effecive practices for growth at our fingertips, 24/7.
Of course, we’re going to have to do some serious cleanup of the environment. It’s going to be deadly hot in parts of the world. Coastal cities may submerge. We’ll have mass dislocation of populations from areas that are no longer inhabitable and a lot more species extinctions.
But I think the current trend lines alone point to us cleaning up our planetary act by 2050 and having the world economy on a long-term sustainable footing. We’ll be able to regrow the forests of the world with less pressure from excessive cattle-grazing or woodfires for cooking. We’ll learn to live more lightly, even with a population approaching 10 billion. We’ll understand each other better as one global civilization, tied together by language, global currencies, media, and trade, as well as a deeper appreciation of our shared wisdom traditions.
Will we have to navigate more mass shootings, power-mad dictators, uncontrollable fires, seemingly endless droughts, and political quagmires to get there? I definitely believe we’ll have to deal with all those in the years ahead as the forces for evolving human consciousness are slow.
We are surely going to have to navigate more waves of humanity’s ugliness, stupidity and greed to get to the brighter future.
But I believe our world is going to be a brighter place by 2050 not because something magical is going to happen overnight but because the steady and even accelerating progress of these 10 trendlines alone (plus many more) are pushing us forward out of the war-ridden, self-destructive, polarized mess we find ourselves in towards a global future with dignity for all.
With that vision as a baseline, it becomes a matter of speeding up the positive progress wherever we can. Can we knock a few years off the transition to electric vehicles? Can we help to heal cultural wounds that fuel war? Can we support entrepreneurs in the developing world?
Some folks will say we are screwed on the environment alone. But there are also a lot of levers we can use to slow down the environmental damage while the positive trend lines gain momentum. For instance, reforesting 1 trillion trees globally at a cost of less than $500 billion dollars could give us an extra decade on some of the other changes required to avert the worst-case climate scenarios. That may sound like a big number but it’s less than 1% of global GDP for a year and less than .1% in a decade - very doable to avert systems collapse.
If we use each new crisis as a source of inspiration to focus more on root causes and awaken actions on solutions, we can make the transition described above faster and less painful.
I find that framing keeps me hopeful as I read about the latest terrible headline.
We are, very slowly, growing up as a species. A new dawn is coming.
Let’s be patient and persistent in doing the work to birth it.