“We should feel privileged to be part of the human transformation emerging now. We all need to recognize the stakes at play and the challenges that go with that. But let’s also recognize that we have everything we need to solve our challenges and make this transformation” – Peter Leyden
Geoff Holland – You always take a big-picture view of things. What’s the big-picture story playing out in the world right now?
Peter Leyden – One way to think about our situation in the world today is that we are essentially in the midst of a civilizational change. And I think we’re going through three world-historic shifts. First is the digitization of everything. Humans are getting all their systems on digital infrastructure, turning everything on through the digital revolution. A digital transformation is basically the foundation of what we’re going to be doing for the rest of the 21st century and beyond. Second, we’re also going through a fundamental shift to make everything sustainable. That means the shift to clean energies, but also to many other ways to be sustainable. That’s a world-historical shift that humans haven’t been through before and will only go through once. And third, I would say we’re becoming more and more global, to the point where we humans will eventually be operating on a planetary scale. So, these are three massive changes that humans have never done before. We are now going through what I call ‘The Transformation’. That is the big picture way to view what’s really going on. Why is this happening? First, we’re still maturing, and only now entering the right stage of human development for it. We’ve got the knowledge now – the kind of understanding that turns into big forward jumps. It’s also because we’re challenged: our old systems have gotten us into planetary-scale predicaments like climate change, and many others for which we still must rise to the occasion.
GH – What’s the significance of the next 30 years when you talk about The Transformation?
PL – Essentially, the next 30 years are the critical period for laying the foundation that will lead to it. It’s making the fundamental shifts toward this civilization-scale change. This will mean we are going through three world-historical technology transformations; transitioning into three fundamentally new technologies, starting with infotech technologies from the human point of view. We have the continuation of the digital revolution as we connect up another 3 billion people on the planet to the internet, and then the next stage of scaling – the digitization of everything. That’s going to include AI and all the many kinds of transformative media power. Then we connect another 3 billion people. We’re going through a transformation in energy technologies with all kinds of new renewable energies. Plus, we’re going through a biotech boom: a transition to the next world of genetic engineering, biological engineering, and synthetic biology. These three tech booms, by the way, will create an economic long boom. We’re now ramping up those core technologies. And alongside that, we must adapt our economy and society to strategically build around them. We are evolving rapidly into our next civilizational stage.
GH – Do you think the world can actually stop global warming and adapt to climate change in that time frame?
PL – I think it’s possible, but it’s not inevitable. So, I would say that will happen in the next decade, rather than in the next 30 years. The next decade is going to be kind of a make-or-break to accelerate and be sure we’re moving fast enough. That’s one key thing. That said, the world has now tipped toward making this sustainable transition in a way that I couldn’t have seen 10 years ago. The scaling up of renewable technologies – solar energy, wind, and others – is happening in a way that we couldn’t have counted on. It’s now hitting inflection points where it’s really starting to take off. There’s the next generation of energy technologies, with hydrogen but also nuclear. On the horizon, there’s even fusion energy, which I think is going to be part of the clean energy transition long-term. And again, there’s essentially a lot of movement in synthetic biology and other techs toward sustainable everything – from meat, materials, and alternatives, to plastics. We’re seeing a fundamental transition to sustainability taking place in so many ways, not just on the energy side, but all through our built environment. The momentum has tipped favorably. I think global finance understands this. The money is starting to flow in sustainable directions. Just this year, almost a trillion dollars went into the global clean energy economy. Recently, I spoke to a bunch of legacy auto industry folks who you would have thought would be dragging their heels. They’re part of the tip toward clean and sustainable. We’re going to have electric mobility. They’re all in with it now, even the legacy companies. It’s now game on in a way that wasn’t expected just 10 years ago.
GH – Can you talk more about the significance of biotech going forward, particularly as we head toward 10 billion people living on this planet?
PL – Well, the evolution in this space could become the most transformational, the most significant technological development of the next 30 years. The way to think about it is we have now had massive breakthroughs in our genetic understanding; not just with the human genome, but with the genomes of all living things. This would have been preposterous, even just 20 years ago. And that’s only the scaling. It’s only getting cheaper and more ubiquitous.
The second thing is we’re now able to genetically engineer with CRISPR and other ways to start creating things – synthetic biology, for example. Let me say it again: we now know how to actually manipulate the living genome, which moves us into the realm of biological engineering. Ultimately the outcome of this is synthetic biology. That can be disturbing to some people. But I would say what’s happening here: humans are going to learn how to build things from the atom up in the way nature does it. That will open up biological production. It’s essentially our biology that we’re going to increasingly understand over the next decades. It’s going to rival and eventually supersede industrial production, The Industrial Revolution. And so a lot of the problems that have been associated for the last 2500-plus years with industrial production – digging up raw materials, smelting metals, tossing all the different waste products into the environment – all of that could go away as we embrace a 21st-century framework.
In this new biological age, we’re going to grow many more human artifacts – building materials, manufactured goods, packaging, the materials, the food obviously, the meats in different ways – using biological engineering, not just genetic engineering. Our understanding of biology is going to remake the world around us in new ways – ways that are going to be more sustainable, more biodegradable, more in sync with nature, and in the long run much better for human beings and the planet at large.
GH – Let’s move into the messy world of people and politics. In your view, what’s really going on in America and in American politics today?
PL – One way to think about 2022 America is that it’s nestled into this much larger story. American society is adapting to this transformation that’s going on around us. Another way to see it is that we’re in transition between two different kinds of political eras, which is what we’ve seen repeatedly over time in American history. The era of the last 40 years was more of a conservative era, and one we’ve seen repeatedly over the cycles in American history. And we’re now moving into a more progressive area, which is similar to what we saw after World War II.
There was always this back-and-forth pendulum swinging between conservative and progressive eras. Now it’s happening again in real-time. Though this time the political battle is now, it’s almost getting closer to what I would call a quasi-civil war. The differences between these two sides are so fundamental; just take energy. There is one part of America, ‘Red America’, that is deeply rooted in carbon energy, and they have much to gain by hanging on to that old system. And there is ‘Blue America’ that is much better positioned to take off and prosper with clean energies. So, this is a fundamental battle with big winners and big losers. It’s not just your normal back-and-forth discussion of policy.
I think America is going through something close to the polarization we went through in the 1850s before the Civil War. It also happened in the 1930s when we essentially had a coalition. It was FDR and the New Deal coalition that built the post-war world. But that wasn’t preordained in the 30s. So, these periods before a pendulum swing always come with periods of paralysis and polarization, and the paralysis can get very dramatic and very intense because the stakes are high. There’s a lot to gain for the winners and a lot to lose for the losers. And this polarization and paralysis is where we are in America today. This conflict between the conservatives holding onto the past and the progressives building for the future has got to get resolved in the next 10 years.
GH – You have written extensively on the idea that California is the future. What is the significance of California in your worldview?
PL – Throughout the 20th century, California has been a prototype for America by being roughly 15 years in advance with the newest technologies, the latest social trends, progressive cultural developments, and economic breakthroughs. It’s just what California does for America.
It also does it with politics. For example, the actual Reagan Revolution and the conservative kind of tax-cutting trends that started in California and eventually washed over the rest of America, with about a 15-year time delay. I would argue that what the world is now seeing is a very blue kind of progressive California that is the future of America. People might object and say, how can that be? You know, California is so different, so progressive. It’s an oddball. Well, California used to be a very conservative state. Then, in the 1990s and the early part of the 2000s, California was a polarized, paralyzed state. It was a kind of a governmental basket case – like the United States is now. California couldn’t get anything done. Now, California has emerged as a state that is adapting quickly to the 21st century: climate change, the diversity of the population, and all these various new challenges. California is adapting early, and I would argue doing very well on all those fronts, certainly compared to states in Red America. We’re seeing that blue brand of politics move through the rest of the country, even into the red states, starting with their cities, counties, and suburbs. We’re watching an inexorable movement in that direction.
California itself is a huge state – the fifth largest economy in the world, with 40 million people. It has a huge influence. It has most of the giant tech companies. It has many of the big media companies with global reach. California is influential not just in America, but all over the world. And so, I would pay close attention to what’s happening in California, not just for what it foreshadows for America, but for its repercussions globally. I would just add, for a little kicker: keep an eye on the current California Governor. His name is Gavin Newsom. He is the kind of leader who may well emerge quite quickly in this decade to have a national and ultimately a global impact. If not him, just think of his style, values, vision, and commitment to people and the planet as a prototype. A prototype for the kind of leader who’s going to emerge in this next phase.
GH – Let’s go global. What are the major global developments outside of America that we should be tracking in the coming decades, particularly the ones you see as encouraging?
PL – We need to solve climate change so we must look globally. It turns out there are some megatrends that fortuitously are moving in an encouraging direction.
One of these developments that could be controversial with some is the rise of China as a superpower. There’s a lot that goes with that from an American perspective. What has happened to China in the last 25 years is a good thing from a world-historical vantage point. China took 800 million peasants living on less than two dollars a day and moved them into their industrial economy and into the cities, and many of them into a rising middle class. This was a phenomenal achievement in a historical context and created a model for other kinds of developing countries on how to actually transition, as they must. A second fortuitous trend we’re watching all around the world is rapid urbanization. Maybe 80% of humanity will be living in cities by 2050. This is a good thing for the planet and the climate. It’s a good thing for many reasons.
Another thing we’re seeing is the rise of a global middle class; people who can afford a more prosperous way of being. That could be a scooter, a refrigerator, a kind of air conditioner: a decent life. Half the people on the planet now live like that or better. Think about what it means, this amount of prosperity. And in fact, we’re expected to add up to another 2 billion people to that middle class, perhaps in just this decade. As long as that growth is emerging on sustainable technologies, I think that’s a good thing. Ultimately, it’s the values of middle-class people who choose stable and prosperous societies. They value education, and they are a stabilizing force in politics. This is something we all want – we want people to be relatively well off in our future world. The final thing I’ll mention is that the MAHB is always thinking about population. Alongside the urbanization we see, we’ve got a rising middle class. Think about the improvement in the lives of the women coming to the cities from these rural areas. I think what’s happening is actually having a huge impact on bringing down the rate of childbirth. Women get more opportunities in cities to actually diversify their lives, benefit from the economy, and get educated. This is bringing down the birthrate all over the world, even in the developing world. This is already having a massive impact in the developed world. It appears we’re peaking on population in a way that also will get us to a sustainable transformation with a world of probably 10 billion people. Human population growth will stabilize and will likely even shrink over the many decades ahead in this century. So, these are developments that too often people overlook, yet they are positive. The human culture is moving in the direction of solving climate change and other troubling, civilizational-scale threats we talk about every passing day.
GH – Let’s pull back to the really big picture. You have written about the significance of the period between 1980 to 2100, as another way to talk about The Transformation. Why that time frame?
PL – When you’re talking about civilizational change, this is a slow build. Civilization on a planetary scale changes slowly. It takes time to adapt through a broad range of nations and societies, particularly to a transition that’s happening on a global scale. I think the best parallel to our era is the age of Enlightenment which took place in Western Europe. Those were essentially the years from about 1680 to 1800. In the Enlightenment period, the culture evolved with humans inventing six, what I would call mega innovations, that became the new foundational pillars of the civilization we still live in today. They invented mechanical engines and steam engines. They invented coal energy [technologies] and then oil technologies. Then, with the power of these carbon energies, they created the Industrial Revolution, in which production could be scaled in ways that humans had never done before. They invented financial capitalism as a reliable way to invest wealth and to scale money and commerce in ways humans had never done previously. The American contribution was to invent representative democracy, which had never been tried before. That was a fundamental innovation. And then more nation states emerged as well. In many ways, the Enlightenment was essentially a new kind of civilization coming out of Western Europe.
The cultural stresses that drove the Enlightenment are becoming acute in the world we know right now. All six of those mega innovations are breaking down and running into trouble. To take just one example, the scaling up of carbon energies has ended up warming the climate of the planet. So many troubling issues, most particularly climate change, that require ending our dependence on carbon fuels like coal and oil. So, I would argue that our era is going to supersede every one of those old mega innovations and their cultural rubbing points, with mega innovations of our own. Their mechanical engines are our digital computers, the core technology underpinning almost everything. Their carbon energies are going to be superseded by our clean energies. We don’t have a lot of time to get it done. Our mechanical engineers and digital advancements are driving human culture away from dirty carbon to clean renewable energies at a world-historic pace. We’re going from industrial production to inventing biological production. We’re going from financial capitalism to what I would call sustainable capitalism, which is going to move wealth through societies differently. It’s going to take time, measured in decades, to figure this out. I would also argue we’re eventually going to go from a representative democracy into some kind of new form of digital democracy. Ultimately, I think our Earth’s nation-states are going to be superseded, with much of their power supplanted by some kind of global governance. Everybody’s a citizen. We share the same consensus and common commitment. This human evolution is going to take not just the 30 years we’ve talked about, but probably through the end of this century. So, when I talk about that 1980 to 2100 span, it goes from the beginning of the digital age with the arrival of the personal computer and the beginning of the early stages of the internet. It continues to roll from the digital revolution all the way through our era today, and through the emerging sustainable transition to a sustainable everything – driven by climate change. These institutional changes in democracy and global governance, I see happening by the end of the second half of the century. That entire period will create the foundations of a truly new civilization that will be very distinct from the Enlightenment civilization we’re still trapped in. People in 2100 will view that whole transformation as civilizational change. I just call that whole period The Transformation for short. That’s the Earth-scale, biggest-picture idea.
GH – Can you say more about the transformation of democracy and global governance that’s potentially coming?
PL – We in the West are still living in liberal democracies, and particularly in the United States, in a system that was devised in the 1780s. That was a time when humans didn’t understand what electricity was, let alone what electronics was. They did the best they could at the time, and they came up with representative democracy, not a bad innovation for the 18th century, and a huge leap forward from the monarchy.
But now 250 years later, we have a human cultural design that is so plagued with problems and difficulties, it’s just begging to be superseded. If the founders appeared today and were creating some new kind of democracy in the 21st century, they would be insane not to use the unbelievably powerful technologies of digital computers and instantaneous global interconnections through the internet.
I have to believe they would probably even use AI to help pull together the best ideas that emerge and those that would engage and win over the majority of people. That’s in essence what a true democracy would try to do. So, I don’t know exactly the form that digital democracy would take, but I do believe we will see some kind of evolution in this century. It could be as early as the next several decades, or it might come a little bit later in the century. I’m convinced we’re going to supersede representative democracy with a different kind of democracy that will be much truer to democratic ideals, and much more effective.
It will be designed to be democratic and also to be as culturally effective as authoritarian regimes like China, which can get a lot of things done fast by decree. Ultimately, that kind of governance can create other problems. Who wants to live in an autocracy or totalitarian state?
There is another thing to consider about global governance. What will it look like? This is something I think is hard for people to wrap their heads around, and I don’t know the form it will ultimately take. I know what it won’t be: it’s not going to be like the United Nations running everything in the future. That’s the old 20th-century bureaucratic way. But no question, there will be new forms of global coordination, highly coordinated global efforts, that will allow humans to scale up and coordinate action at a planetary level. They probably will take advantage of digital technologies as well. It isn’t inevitable. If our world is going to continue on any kind of sustainable trajectory for centuries or further, humans will have to learn how to work on a planetary scale. Governance must transcend what we have now, which is a haphazard, crazy patchwork of human interests moving in a million different, and often dysfunctional, directions. I believe this cultural evolution will eventually happen this century, but it may very likely happen in the coming decades.
GH – You are very optimistic about the future and seem to be positive about what’s going on in the world today. Can you explain why?
PL – I’ve been in this futures business for many years. I’ve been playing this game now for decades. Here are some key things that most people, particularly the media and politicians, but also average people, don’t understand about the future: There is an insane amount of innovation just ahead. Just because you can’t see it today, or you don’t see how it’s going to happen soon, doesn’t mean that we humans aren’t going to figure out how to make things work with time.
How will we figure it out? How will we correct course and shape a new form of planetary democracy? How will we figure out global governance? At this moment, we might not see it, but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to figure it out. Compare our era to all previous human eras; humans have never ever been even remotely close to where we are today. We have 250 million knowledge workers all over the world. We know so much about the science of the universe – we can now look back to the beginning of time. And we can look down to the microscopic atomic level. We can understand the genomes of all kinds of living things. We are doing things that are unbelievable just with the human knowledge accumulated up to right now. That’s only going to grow by leaps and bounds in the years ahead. Add to that our tools. Our tools are just unbelievably powerful. They are helping us in transforming the world: just computers and AI alone. We have capabilities we people couldn’t even dream about 20 years ago. The idea that we can parse through all the world’s data instantaneously and get answers back in a second is just the beginning. We’re also going to see simultaneous language translation become available during this decade, between all people on the planet. All cultures and all classes will be able to speak fluidly with each other by the end of this decade. Think about the explosion of innovation that will come from that.
People always underestimate human ingenuity, underestimate how much innovation is ahead of us, and how much humans can accomplish in a relatively short time. I think that’s where we are now. I am very confident that, despite all the gloom and doom, there are so many new ideas emerging all the time, every day, all around this planet. We’ll be able to scale up and deal with all our acute challenges, like climate change. It doesn’t seem like it now, just like it didn’t seem like it in the 1930s before World War II, and just like it didn’t seem possible in the 1850s, before the Civil War. But human history has been on a consistent path of progress, decade after decade, generation after generation. There’s no reason to think we won’t continue that upward trajectory of progress. There’s supporting evidence all around. It would be foolish to bet against human ingenuity as we enter this next phase of the 21st century, and begin building the transformation into a new civilization that may be with us for centuries to come.
People in 50 years, 100 years, or 1,000 years from now, are going to look back on our era the way people now look back on the era of the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, or the Roman Empire for that matter. They are going to view our era as an extraordinary moment in human history. We should feel privileged to be part of the human transformation emerging now. We all have to recognize the stakes at play and the challenges we are up against. But let’s also recognize that we have everything we need to solve our challenges and transcend to the next level to make this transformation. Now let’s get to it.
Peter Leyden is a visionary futurist, a leading expert in new technologies, and a senior advisor in strategic foresight. He’s a frequent keynote speaker with Keppler Speakers, and an author and writer. Leyden recently has been the Host of the Civilization Salons at The Long Now Foundation and is a Senior Fellow for Strategic Foresight at Autodesk. He was the former Managing Editor of Wired magazine. More at PeterLeyden.com