Globalization has brought the world closer together over the last 500 years through trade and the exchange of ideas and culture. The recent success of globalization is largely due to the emergence of a powerful global supply chain that has linked large multi-national corporations with cheap manufacturers, laborers, and raw materials in developing nations that help produce finished products, parts, agricultural products, food products, and energy.
Many critics believe globalization and free trade are to blame for unfair working conditions, while blaming global outsourcing for the loss of jobs in wealthy countries. Supporters of globalization say that advanced medicines and technologies are more easily and widely available while lifting many people out of poverty in developing countries. They also argue that free trade has lowered prices in wealthier countries and improved the economy of poorer countries.
Regardless of what side of the debate you’re on, there are emerging technologies that, when combined, will make countries – as well as states, towns, and communities – self-reliant while potentially killing globalization by diminishing global trade to a level not seen since Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492.
Clean Energy & Micro-Grids
The first thing countries need to truly be independent is energy, and the costs of producing clean energy are rapidly declining, making it feasible for most countries who cannot afford the massive infrastructure for large electrical grids.
Clean energy produced by solar and wind is fast becoming a large part of new energy production, where solar density is increasing at a pace similar to Moore’s law and wind turbines and batteries to store the capacity are also becoming increasingly cheap. Combine these advances with microgrids, where clean energy is produced and controlled locally, which means towns, cities, and countries can disconnect from the traditional grid and operate autonomously.
In order to sustain a healthy population independent of outside support, it requires developing a reliable and scalable food source. With the global population set to increase by 3 billion by 2050, suitable farming land will continue to be scarce, where an estimated 109 hectares of new land (same size as the U.S.) will be needed to grow enough food to feed them using traditional farming.
Vertical farming is the solution, and involves producing food and medicine indoors in vertically stacked layers by using indoor farming techniques and controlled-environment agriculture (CEA) technology. All environmental factors can be controlled –regardless of weather conditions or season – by utilizing artificial control of light, environmental control (humidity, temperature, gases…) and fertigation. Vertically farmed produce can be either exotic varietals or local favorites, does not need to be engineered to reduce spoilage during transport, and is incredibly water efficient.
Worldwide, some 700 million people don’t have access to enough clean water. In 10 years the number is going to explode to 1.8 billion. In many places, extracting fresh water from the ocean might be the only viable way to increase the supply.
Thanks to a series of engineering and materials advances, conventional desalination technology called reverse osmosis (RO) is now able to produce clean water from the sea cheaply and at a scale never before achieved, all while consuming very little energy.
Lab grown what?? Yikes. But a large portion of global trade is centered on meat products, ranging from Brazilian beef imported to the U.S., to U.S. pigs being exported to China. While factory farming is incredibly efficient economically, it is also wasteful environmentally and disease prone.
Still in its infancy, lab-grown meat is available today but quite expensive. When cooked and seasoned correctly, most manufactured meat is indistinguishable from real meat. I’ve heard it tastes like chicken.
AI-Driven Robotics & Automation
A fundamental tenet for outsourcing manufacturing is that decreased labor costs outweigh the shipping cost. But thanks to more automated assembly lines, we are very close to the tipping point in employee productivity where the shipping cost will outweigh the labor savings of offshore manufacturing.
It’s not a coincidence that multinational companies are suddenly pulling manufacturing back into the U.S. Rather it’s the culmination of years of acceleration in manufacturing automation, ranging from textiles to factory lines. Tesla found out the hard way that fully automated manufacturing is not quite ready – but the rate of automation is accelerating.
Shipping just-in-time parts as needed is a core component of the global supply chain, using airplanes instead of warehouses. This approach will be abandoned if it’s cheaper and easier to manufacture parts locally.
3D printing is emerging from a hobby to an industrial-scale technology that can now print metal and is increasingly capable of producing parts, including Chevy car parts and Airbus plane parts. Today, 3D printing can print entire products such as Adidas sneakers or backpacks, and are being mass printed with equipment from companies like Carbon. Even complicated products like rocket engines are being 3D-printed.
Hydraulic fracturing is an environmental nightmare, however it’s propelling the U.S. towards energy independence. There are over 250 million passenger cars and trucks in the U.S. which are not going to be replaced by electric vehicles overnight, and in the meantime will need gas. The plastics industry relies on petrochemicals that now no longer need to be imported. Natural gas is a very clean byproduct of fracking.
While fracking isn’t a long-term technology, it is a short- and mid-term technology that is sharply reducing oil imports for countries that are willing to sacrifice a localized section of their environment.
Internet Firewalls and Filter Bubbles
The internet is increasingly fragmented across countries, moving further away from its original purpose as a great unifier. It is no longer certain that users can access anything from anywhere or that internet companies can have global reach.
China has the world’s most sophisticated internet filtering system that blocks out large swaths of content and services, Russia blocked Telegram and threw out LinkedIn, and Egypt is blocking YouTube for a month. The European Union‘s GDPR rules have gone into effect and some U.S. websites have gone dark in the EU. The EU may soon add a link tax that will darken even more sites. People in developing countries can get free, but super limited internet courtesy of Facebook.
In the U.S., net neutrality rules have been weakened, potentially allowing transmission providers to block or slow access to certain content, and users are increasingly isolated into “filter bubbles” where they only choose to see and believe news that already reinforces their beliefs. New blockchain-based companies like Orchid and Newbound Network are trying to solve this problem but it will be difficult to overcome.
Conclusion: The Technological Tipping Point
These technologies provide a powerful means for all sovereign nations – even states, towns, and communities – to achieve absolute independence, which will not only help countries aid their growing populations, but will also perhaps remove any dependence on foreign entities that don’t align with democratic ideals or basic human rights. For example, the U.S. has been captive to oil producing nations for the last 100 years, and we’ve been a part of the greatest wealth transfer in history where we’ve sent more than $700 billion a year to those countries that provide us with oil to fund their bad behavior. And more recently, China has attacked the technology supply chain by inserting tiny microchips onto the motherboards of servers that were sold to U.S. corporations in order to steal intellectual property (IP) as well as state secrets.
These are the catalysts that will drive us – and other nations – to the technological tipping point. Soon we will no longer need to manufacture a product in China, ship it around the world to the U.S., and then truck it hundreds of miles to it’s destination city to be placed onto a store shelf. The technological tipping point will occur at some point over the next 50 years as countries obtain and master these technologies, where it will rapidly increase their independence while killing globalization.