Alastair Bonnett considers three big changes that are going to have major impacts on how we understand the world
What will geography look like in 50 years time, or 100? Tim Marshall was right when he wrote in his latest book, The Future of Geography, that astropolitics will open new horizons. But geography isn’t just going into orbit. In the expanded edition of What is Geography?, I set out three other big changes that are coming our way.
The first is virtual and AI geographies. Real-time and three-dimensional maps based on continuous monitoring from street level and other sensors will accommodate ever more granular levels of detail and be dynamic, updating and ‘understanding’, for example, small and temporary hazards, and the positions of everything from lamp posts to parked vans. These innovations will facilitate the transition to driverless and automated traffic.
The proliferation of virtual and AI geographies will mean more areas of life will be navigated and experienced via a computer. From waste management to energy supply, from architecture to real estate, self-learning and ‘intelligent’ systems will offer more efficient outcomes. It will also mean less direct human input or control.
Some people will want to opt out. They will turn their back on virtual life. The twin of modernity is nostalgia; great change births a great sense of loss. What we might call ‘geo-nostalgia’ will come ever more out of the closet, as the permanent ‘excitement’ curated by the tech industries – upgrades and advances are always just around the corner – becomes less convincing. Concerns about our contact with the ‘real world’, organised around ideas of authenticity and loss, and that push back against ‘inauthentic’ landscapes, and ‘alienated’ and ‘imitative’ nature, will keep bubbling to the surface.
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The future is unlikely to be simply won by high-tech geography. There will be a continuous rediscovery and reclaiming of the real and the natural. Geography will be able to offer many forms of substitute experience in the coming years – and they will get better – but geography has always been about getting out into the real world, feeling the cold rain and walking in dark and pine-scented woods. It’s the one slot in the curriculum that allows kids to breathe freely.
The second big shift will be towards diverse geographies. This may sound like a familiar topic, but I don’t frame it as a moral thing – arising from the beneficence of self-critical Westerners – but as an inevitable consequence of changes in global power.
The majority of the world’s population now lives in middle- or high-income countries. The ‘Asian century’ has seen false starts, but it’s undeniable and will shape the decades to come. This shift will refashion geography, re-writing traditions and interpretations of environmental change and re-configuring international knowledge. Thus, for example, the familiar Western story of environmentalism is already being joined by non-Western histories that offer their own claims on environmental care. According to a Chinese government website, the ‘world’s earliest environmental protection concept, ministry and legislation were all born in China’, including the creation of the world’s first ‘national park’ (established in 1783 in Mongolia). The point isn’t that the Western story will disappear, but that others will gain more visibility.
Another area where Western dominance will end is travel. Air passenger numbers are set to boom across Asia and Africa. Our ideas about what explorers, researchers and students look like and where they come from is also going to be radically expanded. University enrolments across the world are ballooning. It’s projected that by 2040, there will be about 600 million university students. This points to a world of multi-polar educational influence and prestige. There are plenty of Asian and African cities, and Asian and African universities, that we rarely hear about today whose names will become familiar.
The effects of this re-orientation on Western geography are difficult to predict. In Western capitals today, diversity is cast as an inherently good thing. But it’s easy to be inclusive and cosmopolitan when the world is being shaped in your image. What happens when that stops? There’s a clear momentum towards diverse geographies but the politics and destinations of this transition are going to be equally diverse.
Finally, and most fundamentally, an ancient root of geography will be rediscovered. I’m talking about survival. We’re on course to make this planet a difficult place for humans to thrive in – perhaps as difficult as we’ve made it for other species. The question of how we can avoid this fate will be at the core of geography for decades and, probably, centuries.
The demarcation of human and physical geography will be reassessed and, perhaps, erased, not as a matter of choice but of necessity. Understanding why, for example, some places are seeing rapid sea-level rise or their soils baked dry and depleted, and some are not, and why some places are being defended and others not, requires that we link policy, politics and environmental science.
Future geographers will take a keen interest in the link between decreasing habitability and human mobility. How and where environmental refugees will be accommodated, and what we do with degraded and desertified land, will provoke fractious debates about who is responsible and what will make things better.
The abandonment of the countryside across large swathes of the world has many consequences. The most pressing is how growing cities, surrounded by depleted farmland, are going to be fed. At the moment, the term ‘sustainable city’ evokes wealthy places where everything appears plentiful – place such as Copenhagen, where sustainability is scored by reference to green space and how many people commute by bicycle. In the future, sustainability will involve harder and more urgent choices, such as the conservation and recycling of precious resources such as potable water. The concept of a ‘circular economy’ isn’t new, but, so far, its impact has been minimal. Of the 100 billion tonnes of stuff we use each year – from washing machines to mobile phones – the great majority is ‘virgin material’, much of it dug out of the ground. These resources are finite. In the future, circularity will have to be the default mode and conversations about limiting consumption will have to be frank.
The question of how 11 billion people (the UN’s population forecast for 2100) can be fed on a planet where climate change is locked in and may accelerate, has no easy answers. Alongside an easing of population pressures and innovations in crop breeding, it appears that a significant shift to diets that have a lighter footprint on the Earth is going to be required. This means a less animal-based diet. Consideration of the relationship between environment, agriculture, what we drink and the species that end up on our plate point to new urban realities and new recipes for geography lessons.
The only way to imagine the future is to re-imagine the past. Futurologists select from existing patterns and project them forward. It’s the only plausible approach, but it’s also intrinsically unreliable, provoking pitying smiles from those who, looking back from the year 2100, will see what we don’t – the freight train coming around the corner. I’ve picked out three big changes coming our way. They are likely candidates, but there are likely to be more, for some of which we don’t yet even have names.
Alastair Bonnett is a professor of geography at Newcastle University and the author of numerous books, including Unruly Places, Beyond the Map and Multiracism: Rethinking Racism in Global Context. His updated and expanded What Is Geography? was published last month