The United States Looks Ahead

Now is but a minute blip on the span of time. It is the product of countless past processes and events. By looking to the past, we can better understand the present, and the past also provides keys to predicting the future. This chapter attempts to answer a very difficult question: What does the future hold for the United States of America? Will the country continue to be a prosperous and powerful beacon of hope within an increasingly troubled and fragmented world? Or, as has happened to all previous powers, will the United States gradually wither away to become little more than another past civilization in the dustbin of historical geography? Pessimists believe that dusk is settling on America’s “moment in the sun.” Optimists, however, see a bright future for the country and its more than 300 million people. Who is right? Perhaps there is at least some support for both positions. Let us closely examine the evidence and attempt to determine what it may foretell.

During the author’s lifetime, great changes have occurred within the natural environment. Many vital mineral resources have dwindled in both quantity and quality. Some natural elements, including woodlands, soils, water, fauna, and even the air we breathe became seriously threatened. Science and technology, however, actually allowed our resource base to expand.

At the same time, the country has been able to import many of the resources (such as petroleum) in which it is now deficient. Only an affluent society can afford the costly luxury of maintaining a clean, safe, and sustainable environment. The United States has spent some $2 trillion to mitigate or reverse pollution and other forms of environmental damage. The result is that, today, much of the country’s water and air are cleaner and there is more forested area and abundant wildlife than existed a half century ago. New forms of energy, including bio-fuels and wind, solar, and geothermal power, are being developed. The increased use of nuclear energy holds great promise if safety of production and waste disposal can be ensured.

Environmental hazards surely will become more severe as fires, storms, floods, earth flows and slides, earthquakes, and tsunamis take an everincreasing toll on life and property. It is doubtful that nature’s fury will increase. Rather, as the population continues to grow, people and property will become increasingly vulnerable to nature’s wrath. They will continue to be drawn to hazardprone amenity areas such as coastal zones, forested areas, volcanic mountains, and geologic faults. One environmental change remains a question mark—the possible impact of warming temperatures. In this context, let us simply accept the fact that data strongly point to a warming Earth and not become entangled in the rancorous debate over its cause. If temperatures continue to warm, several things are certain: Alaska will become much warmer, as will much of the remainder of the United States; the sea level will rise, placing coastal cities and other developments in severe jeopardy (as already has occurred in belowsea level New Orleans); summer tropical storms may increase in number and intensity; some parts of the country will become drier while others receive increased moisture; and ecosystems will change in response to changing temperature and moisture conditions. If you enjoy snow skiing, you had better enjoy it now!

Population, settlement, and culture all will experience considerable change in the decades ahead. Fertility should continue to drop from its current rate that is now below the replacement level of 2.1. Because of migration, however, the country’s population continues to increase at a rate of about 0.9 percent each year. Whether this rate of inmigration ( year-­in, year-­out, the world’s highest) will continue is the subject of heated debate with demographic, cultural, social, economic, and political implications.

One thing is certain: The country’s population is aging. As the workforce grows older and eventually retires, an increasing number of young workers will be needed. Where will they come from? Already, millions of international workers are in the country, an estimated 11 to 13 million of them undocumented (illegal). Were they to leave, the country’s economy would crumble.

This issue begs bipartisan political attention and a resolution that is fair to all parties involved. It can be stated with considerable certainty that racial, cultural, and ethnic diversity will continue to expand as a result of continued inmigration and higher fertility rates among migrants. Both the Anglo-European and the immigrant population will have to adapt to these changes. Of greatest importance is the issue of cultural assimilation. By becoming “American,” people—regardless of their heritage—are much better able to participate in and benefit from the country’s social, economic, and political opportunities.

Settlement patterns—where people live—have changed greatly during the past 50 years, a trend that certainly will continue in the foreseeable future. The average American moves 11 times, a number that may increase in the coming decades as the population becomes even more mobile. Throughout history, most people have moved in search of economic gain. Today, the reasons are changing. For some time now, the United States has been undergoing the transition from an industrial economy to one based on the provision of services. People today are much less tied to factory and service jobs in industrial cities. Many people now hold jobs that are much less place specific—that is, they can live wherever they choose and continue to work at their jobs. Millions of retirees, too, are now relatively free to choose a location that suits their income, desires, and needs.

A combination of these two factors has resulted in a massive change in where people have settled during the past 50 years. Generally, there has been a huge migration from cold to warm climates and from congested urban centers to suburbs and amenity areas—coasts, mountains, lakeshores, and other attractive locations. For the foreseeable future, at least, this trend no doubt will continue. It will result in a much different map of population distribution.

In regard to government, it may seem that nearly everyone is displeased with the way the U.S. political system is working. Most people are tired of costly mudslinging campaigns, the heavyhanded influence of lobbyists, “porkbarrel” politics, leaders who place politics before country, and outright corruption. These conditions contribute to a loss of confidence in the government and result in a political system that often falls far short of successfully addressing national, and international issues, interests, concerns, and needs. Onetime British Prime Minister Winston Churchill reportedly observed that “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” The wisdom contained in his comment certainly holds true for the U.S. government. Some adjustments can and should be made in the way in which the nation’s political affairs and future well-being are being handled. With all of its blemishes, however, the Constitution and the political system it created have stood the test of time. The American brand of constitutional democracy should continue to serve the country well in the future.

America’s economy is the world’s strongest, having produced nearly $13 trillion in goods and services during 2006. For decades, the primary threat to the country’s economic supremacy appeared to be from Japan. Today, however, the challenge comes from China ($10 trillion), rather than from Japan ($4.5 trillion). Spend a few moments looking around your home—how many items can you find with a “Made in China” label? Americans have turned to China for countless manufactured goods simply because they can be produced at a much lower cost in a developing country with the world’s largest labor pool.

Economically, the United States does, indeed, face a number of challenges, changes, and opportunities. Increasingly, the country must turn to foreign sources for energy that is essential to economic growth. To reduce this dependence, bold steps must be taken to ensure energy self-­sufficiency. Many of the alternative energy sources (such as wind and ethanol) also will reduce or eliminate atmospheric and other forms of pollution. Until self-­sufficiency is achieved, it is essential that the country maintain stable access to foreign sources such as the Middle East, Mexico, Nigeria, and Venezuela.

This country also is increasingly dependent on foreign sources for workers. This is true for blue-collar, low-wage laborers and also highly skilled white-­collar workers. In many respects, the U.S. educational system has failed to adequately prepare young people to compete in a postindustrial, information-
age, global economy. The country is unable to meet its demand for highly skilled scientists, engineers, technicians, physicians, and others, yet these highly educated workers are desperately needed to provide the brainpower on which economic growth and development depend. In addition, test after test has shown that America’s young are woefully ignorant of the world they are about to inherit. It is imperative that geography be (re)introduced into the curriculum.

Other dynamics are at work changing the face of the U.S. economy. The country has undergone a transition from primarily small, family-­owned and -operated businesses to huge corporations. Gone are the “mom and pop” motels, restaurants, grocery and drug stores, and service stations that once dotted the landscape. They have been replaced by huge, often multinational, impersonal, chain retail and service outlets. There are signs of change, however: Throughout the country, specialty shops and services are increasing in number and variety.

Perhaps no industry better illustrates these changes than does beer brewing. During the first half of the twentieth century, nearly every community had its own brewery. Thousands of brands were available, most of them sold within a small marketing area, often only within the community itself. Several decades ago, however, nearly all of these small breweries were gone. Most of the nation’s beer was manufactured by a handful of huge companies. This resulted in the same few brands being marketed throughout most, if not all, of the country. Today, however, hundreds of microbreweries and brand labels once again offer a huge variety of beers. The future appears to hold an everincreasing number of options.

Further consolidation, fueled by the “cult of bigness,” certainly will continue. The economy of scale will benefit consumers by offering lower prices but may also offer fewer choices. At the other extreme, specialty shops of all kinds will make available an ever-increasing variety of high-quality products and services, although at a higher cost.

Finally, what does the future hold for regional changes? Looking back through time, changes have occurred at a blurring pace. California’s population and economy boomed to become the nation’s most populated state and the fifthrichest political unit on Earth. With water control and diversion and the advent of air-conditioning, the once sleepy, dusty, parched desert Southwest boomed. For a variety of reasons, the once very traditional, relatively poor, and socially restrictive South blossomed as well. With migration to the Sun Belt, however, what once was the nation’s economic heartland dwindled in importance to become the Snow Belt or Rust Belt. Today, the South, Southwest, and Mountain and Pacific West are the multiple engines of the country’s demographic and economic growth, and what once was the nation’s population and economic heartland—the interior plains and lowlands and the industrial Northeast—are now regions of out-­migration and waning economic importance. Fifty years ago, coastal zones and remote mountainous and hilly areas (such as the Mountain West and “hillbilly” country of the Ozarks and Appalachians) supported very few people. Today, these areas are experiencing explosive population and economic growth. The next half century will bring many additional regional shifts. Changes in social and economic conditions, real estate prices, urban environments, and a host of other factors will serve as push-and-­pull factors that alter the settlement landscape and character.

Cultural geographer and urban planner Kyle Ezell foresees several major changes in settlement. What he called “Escape Lands” will become increasingly attractive as people seek a more comfortable, less stressful, slowerpaced life; that is, a rural or small-­town life. Ezell also foresees rebirth of the inner city as redevelopment projects vastly improve midcity living conditions. In regard to population shift, the author (a South Dakotan by choice) will go out on a limb and make a prediction. Despite their often harsh weather and seemingly bleak and endless terrain, within the next few decades, much of the Midwest and Great Plains will be (re)discovered and experience a “boom”! In conclusion, the future of the United States of America rests in the hands of the generation of young people for whom books in this series are designed. I am optimistic that your generation will serve your country well, thereby ensuring not only its future prosperity, but securing your own destiny as well.