Seeing the future

Some thinkers have already decided that we have made such a mess of the Earth that our future lies elsewhere. They are wrong for many reasons, not least because the solution they propose is far too complex. We do not know of any other place in the universe remotely as nice for humans as this one. There is everything to be gained by curing the problems we have created, not running away from them. In a million years, it may well be that most people will not be living on the Earth, but for decades to come, they certainly will be.

As we have seen, the global population looks likely to rise by at least another third. But the Earth can support a population of this size with rational technology used in a sustainable way. The question is not how numerous we might be in the future but what we will be doing. If we are clever about how we use the Earth and its resources there is no reason why there can't be a future for us here.

The good news is that we are in a position to solve the problems that lie ahead of us. As we have seen in these pages, we now understand the Earth in a very complete and satisfying way. Just think: today we know that the Atlantic is widening at a few centimetres a year and can use laser beams bounced off satellites to measure it as it does so. In the Earth's scheme of things it is only a tick of the clock since Columbus set out across that same ocean under a complete misunderstanding of how large the Earth was – hence his belief that he had got to the Indies when in fact he had reached the Caribbean. We can now model with exquisite accuracy parts of the Earth's interior that we have no way of reaching, and can predict the climate, this time with less accuracy but with a good idea of where the problems in our forecasts lie. Equally, our ability to explore other planets and to see our own with godlike gaze from space has transformed the way we think about the Earth.

At the same time as we are gaining all this knowledge, people all over the world are getting better educated and more able to understand the choices ahead of us. And the spread of the web – which is only in its infancy as a source of information – means that more people can find out more up-to-date facts than ever on which to base their opinions and reactions. Our ambition as a species may have brought about many of the problems our planet now faces, but it will also help us to solve them.