In Alternate Futures, we take a look at incorrect predictions from the past in order to better understand what we can foresee and what we cannot.
“Population pressure will force increasing penetration of desert and polar areas. Most surprising and, in some ways, heartening, 2014 will see a good beginning made in the colonization of the continental shelves. Underwater housing will have its attractions to those who like watersports, and will undoubtedly encourage the more efficient exploitation of ocean resources, both food and mineral.” - Isaac Asimov, Visit to the World’s Fair of 2014, 1964
In some ways, Asimov was eerily close to the mark. He was pretty right about population pressure — and even pretty close in his population predictions (he predicted a US population of 350 million, 2014 census puts it at 318.9 million). But he might have overestimated both human ambition and the speed of technological advancement. He didn’t understand how we could alleviate population pressure or just how much we could stand.
Underwater housing is limited to a few submarines and a lab in the Florida Keys. And people aren’t exactly migrating en masse to deserts and polar climates, so what made Asimov think we’d be living underwater by 2014? And why aren’t we?
Hostile environments are challenging and challenges are expensive
Underwater, polar, and desert environments are hostile towards human life. Hostile environments necessitate advanced design, engineering, and the creation of supply lines. There’s a good reason as to why cities form around major waterways, ports, and railroads: We rely heavily on trade and imported goods. There are no underwater railroads and Antarctic infrastructure is almost nonexistent.
The complexities that come with building habitats capable of withstanding conditions like sub-zero temperatures, significant heat, permanent or long-term submersion or underwater pressure are vast. Add our dependence on outside resources and a total inability to grow food without major allowances (tons of water without rain, robust greenhouses, etc.) in hostile environments. We’re talking about a lot of money. We’re also talking about building systems for sanitation and sewage, food production, water treatment, and transportation in hostile environments, which, again, means a lot of money.
To be fair, just because it’s expensive doesn’t mean it’s impossible (though we’re still pretty damn far away on the underwater colonization front). But it does mean that someone needs to put up the money. Given our government’s state of affairs, monetary resources for moonshot colonization projects seems much more unlikely than living underwater, so we’re probably talking about private sector funding, which requires interest and opportunities for profit. That brings us to our next point: human nature.
Humans Adore a Vacuum
Perhaps the most important thing that Asimov didn’t consider? Humans beings, by and large, hate change and love comfort and cleanliness. Without a real kick in the ass, we tend to just carry on as usual; it would likely take a pretty major event for us to make a home in a place that’s naturally antagonistic towards human life. Take a look at our global inaction on the issue of climate change, for example. Clearly things have to get very, very bad before we get our shit together, and apparently the strain of a growing population on our global infrastructure hasn’t reached the call-to-action breaking point yet.
Beyond that, it takes a special person to commit to life underwater or in sub-zero temperatures, even if we solve the loads of expensive R&D problem. Sure, there are mavericks, those people willing to go on one-way trips to Mars and the like. But for the most part, we’re a bunch of lazy blobs who prefer to be close to amenities and creature comforts, thanks very much.
Population Density Isn’t All Bad
There’s a reason why city populations have skyrocketed and continue to grow: they have a lot to offer. They provide excitement and opportunity, whereas pushing into sparsely-populated areas presents many challenges, no matter the environment. Venturing further into desert environments is probably the most plausible of Asimov’s three scenarios, but it hasn’t come to pass in a significant way because humans are drawn to opportunity, not strife.
To be fair, his visions of these desert, polar and underwater habitats themselves probably weren’t places of great hardship. He talks about the General Motors “model of an underwater hotel of what might be called mouth-watering luxury” at the 1964 World’s Fair. Even if “mouth-watering luxury” were the case, though, we’re looking at a pretty serious overestimation: Of the resources for proper infrastructure to build grand, comfortable colonies in inhospitable environments.
Whether it’s a matter of dedication, funding, resources, solving hostile environments, or human nature, Asimov’s prediction for 2014 wasn’t quite right. Perhaps Asimov overestimated the spirit of adventure inherent to human beings. Maybe he just hoped we’d have more interest in an amphibious lifestyle than we seem to. His predictions weren’t laughably off-base, but they certainly didn’t come to pass in this universe. Maybe in an alternate one.