Why we explored two starkly different futures for the Earth in 50 years

National Geographic questions what lies ahead for the planet—will it be saved or lost? So far, it’s impossible to predict.

Tuesday, 31 March 2020,
By Susan Goldberg
An optimistic illustration of our thriving planet in 50 years (right).
An optimistic illustration of our thriving planet in 50 years (right).
Photograph by Art by Imaginary Forces

The saying is so well known that most of us can finish the sentence: Those who cannot remember the past …

… are condemned to repeat it.

It’s a fitting reminder this month as we mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. For the occasion, we’ve created the first ever “flip” issue of National Geographic—essentially two magazines in one—to revisit environmental milestones of the past half century and to look ahead at the world our descendants will inhabit in 2070, on Earth Day’s 100th anniversary.

Two scenarios emerge.

On the magazine cover, there’s a verdant Earth. Welcome to the optimistic view of writer Emma Marris, who sees a world that is changed—we cannot undo some damage we have done—but one in which technologies will be harnessed to “feed a larger population, provide energy for all, begin to reverse climate change, and prevent most extinctions,” Marris writes. “The public desire for action is bursting forth on the streets ... Just as in 1970, the electric crackle of cultural change is once again in the air. I believe we will build a good 2070.”

Unchecked climate change will hit Africa especially hard (right).

Next, turn the magazine over, to the side with the browner Earth. Elizabeth Kolbert looks to a new normal of “sunny-day flooding,” when high tide will send water gushing across low-lying cities, and most atolls will be uninhabitable. This is the world of longer droughts, deadlier heat waves, fiercer storms, and more. “I could go on and on listing the dangerous impacts of climate change,” Kolbert writes, “but then you might stop reading.” She sees no evidence that we will address those and other threats fast enough to keep them from overwhelming us and the natural world.

It’s impossible to know who is right. The stories in this issue reflect divergent realities. When I read about the young people taking charge of the environmental movement, I feel buoyed. Then I see Pete Muller’s photos of a scarred landscape we will never get back. What I do know is that it is our job to provide a factual framework for what is happening, documentary photography about what is forever changed and what we can save, and information to help empower all of us to make a difference.

Thank you for reading National Geographic.

This story appears in the April 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.
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