Identifying the Problems of the 21st Century – A Commentary on James Martin’s 16 Challenges

When I was a younger man working in the world of information technology I was an avid reader of James Martin’s books on computers and telecommunications.

Dr. James Martin, author of “The Meaning of the 21st Century”

Recently I came across “The Meaning of the 21st Century,”  in which he outlines 16 challenges that humanity faces in 21st century. I’ve added comments of my own in Italics.

  1. GLOBAL WARMING Global warming will lead to severe climate change. Unless stopped, it will upset the basic control mechanisms of planet Earth.
  2. EXCESSIVE POPULATION GROWTH World population may grow to 8.9 billion people, with a growing demand for consumer goods and carbon-based energy, far exceeding what the planet can handle. Forecasts of population growth indicate human population will start to peak around mid-century, level out and then slowly decline. Peak variable projections indicate a population as little as 9 billion or as high as 12 billion.
  3. WATER SHORTAGES Rivers and aquifers are drying up. Many farmers will not have the water essential for food growing. There will be wars over water. Freshwater is one of the most challenging issues we face.
  4. DESTRUCTION OF LIFE IN THE OCEANS Only 10% of edible fish remain in the oceans, and this percentage is rapidly declining. Aquaculture is only a partial solution to the problem of the collapse of fish stocks. Climate change influencers like CO2 are acidifying the ocean changing impacting krill, coral and shellfish, principal food sources for most marine life.
  5. MASS FAMINE IN ILL-ORGANIZED COUNTRIES Farm productivity is declining. Grain will rise in cost. This will harm the poorest countries. Agricultural production in the Developing World needs to reach the same yield levels as in the factory farms of the Developed World replacing subsistence agriculture.
  6. THE SPREAD OF DESERTS Soil is being eroded. Deserts are spreading in areas that used to have good soil and grassland. Grazing and improper land use including deforestation continue to impact soils in the Developing World contributing to desertification.
  7. PANDEMICS AIDS is continuing to spread. Infectious pandemics could spread at unstoppable rates, as they have in the past, but now with the capability to kill enormous numbers of people. Although pandemics will always put humans at risk we have the means today to contain outbreaks and develop rapid response to them when they occur.
  8. EXTREME POVERTY 2 to 3 billion people live in conditions of extreme poverty, with lack of sanitation. The difference between rich and poor is becoming ever more extreme. This is even a problem in the Developed World as indicated by the recent Wall Street protest movement and Arab Spring.
  9. GROWTH OF SHANTYCITIES Shantytowns (shantycities) with extreme violence and poverty are growing in many parts of the world. Youth there have no hope. We need a global commitment to addressing informal urban environments and the poverty and despair associated with these areas.
  10. UNSTOPPABLE GLOBAL MIGRATIONS Large numbers of people are leaving the poorest countries and shantycities, wanting to find a life in countries with opportunity. Migration from rural to urban is happening today at the rate of 80,000 per day. Migration from the Developing World to the Developed is increasingly more difficult although illegal immigration continues at a steady if not increasing pace.
  11. NON-STATE ACTORS WITH EXTREME WEAPONS Nuclear or biological weapons are becoming easier to build by terrorist organizations, political groups or individuals, who are not acting for a given state. The evidence of this development frames the beginning of the 21st century and may be with us for a long time to come.
  12. VIOLENT RELIGIOUS EXTREMISM Religious extremism and jihad may become widespread, leading to large numbers of suicide terrorists, and religious war between Muslims and Christians. This is nothing new. Religion, nationalism, and tribalism have been a part of the human condition and will continue. The real challenge will be to overcome our baser nature.
  13. RUNAWAY COMPUTER INTELLIGENCE Computers will acquire the capability to increase their own intelligence until a chain reaction happens of machines becoming more intelligent at electronic speed. Artificial intelligence and humanity will experience convergence throughout the century. The question will become can we distinguish one from the other?
  14. WAR THAT COULD END CIVILIZATION A global war like World War I or II, conducted with today’s vast number of nuclear weapons and new biological weapons, could end civilization. War in the 21st century will be fought in entirely new ways. Cyberattacks, militarization of space and new weapon technology (robotics, lasers) will change war just as the first atomic bomb altered the rules of warfare in the 20th century leading to the disappearance of global conflicts only to be replaced by regional wars.
  15. RISKS TO HOMO SAPIEN’S EXISTENCE We are heading in the direction of scientific experiments (described by Lord Martin Rees) that have a low probability of wiping out Homo sapiens. The combination of risks gives a relatively high probability of not surviving the century. Humanity will survive the century. This is just too pessimistic.
  16. A NEW DARK AGE A global cocktail of intolerable poverty and outrageous wealth, starvation, mass terrorism with nuclear/biological weapons, world war, deliberate pandemics and religious insanity, might plunge humanity into a worldwide pattern of unending hatred and violence – a new Dark Age. We are just as likely to emerge at the end of the 21st century with entirely new purpose as we look outward bound beyond our planet while using technology to restore much of what the Industrial Age has wrought.

In my blog I don’t just point out the problems but show how our human inventiveness is finding solutions. Nonetheless, James Martin has pointed out challenges we must face and overcome for humanity and the other travellers on our planet.


Len Rosen lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is a researcher and writer who has a fascination with science and technology. He is married with a daughter who works in radio, and a miniature red poodle who is his daily companion on walks of discovery. More...

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