What will we smuggle in the future? Drones, coal, and honeybees.

December 26, 2012

Everybody's making predictions for 2013 right now, but why not aim farther? Recently, the consultancy group Wikistrat ran a large crowd-sourced simulation to try to figure out what sorts of items would be smuggled in 2050.


Psst, got any HCFC-22?

That's right, smuggled. The idea is that you can tell a lot about a society by what's available on its black markets. And over the next four decades the combination of new technologies, environmental pressures and shifting consumer preferences is likely to lead to a whole slew of products and behaviors being banned or restricted.

So here's what Wikistrat expects will thrive on the black market by 2050. Note that the group mainly focused on identifying new types of contraband — no doubt old crowd favorites like drugs and guns will still be trafficked for decades to come:

-- Products that are bad for the environment, like coal. If the world ever does start seriously tackling climate change, then energy sources such as coal (or possibly even corn ethanol) could become contraband. That's not so far-fetched. Wikistrat's simulation was inspired by a recent New York Times piece on the heavy trafficking of HCFC-22, an air-conditioning coolant that's been banned in the United States because it chews up the ozone layer.

-- Unhealthy foods and products like cigarettes. With bans on smoking and trans fats popping up everywhere, it's not much of a stretch to think that one day we'll see thriving black markets in Fritos, cigarettes and even tanning booths.

-- Experimental health enhancers. The future could bring a whole host of new technologies, from "software to create pleasurable sensory overloads" to "biotechnology allowing the creation of (truly) perfect babies," says Wikistrat. Many of those technologies may end up restricted. For instance, schools and communities may decide to bar cognition-enhancing drugs because they give certain students unfair advantages. In that case, they may thrive on the black market, much as steroids do.

-- Rare species. Scientists are already warning that millions of species could become extinct by 2050 because of human activity and climate change. Some useful species that are already dying out — those mysteriously vanishing honeybees, perhaps? — could be a hot black market commodity by mid-century. 

-- Vanishing natural resources. Think about the strains on fresh water we're already seeing. Cities are growing fast. Many countries are depleting their groundwater aquifers. And climate change is melting crucial snowcaps. By 2050, many cities could be trying to poach all the fresh water they can — much as Los Angeles had to swipe water from its desert neighbors in the early 20th century.

I'd also add arable land to this list, something Wikistrat omitted. India and China are getting richer, and demand for meat is soaring among their populations. Yet crop yields in both countries are starting to stagnate. So the two nations are already starting to grab farmland abroad, in places such as  Ethiopia, sometimes through dubious means. This isn't smuggling in the conventional sense, but it's already taking place.

-- Ways to go off-grid. The Wikistrat simulation seems to envision a future in which governments and businesses can track our every step. (This will be especially true if physical currency ever disappears.) If that happens, then there will be a vibrant black market in ways to "mask individuals' movement through public spaces," to travel without being tracked and to log on to the Internet unseen.

-- Future weapons. Drones could be a much-desired black market item in the future. Also, if 3-D printing ever takes off and allows anyone to create just about anything at home, then presumably certain designs and high-grade materials will be heavily restricted. 

-- Counterfeited cyber-currency. North Korea already (allegedly) makes plenty of money from counterfeit $50 and $100 bills. But what happens if cyber-currencies such as Bitcoin start rivaling the real thing? Could a shadowy market ever emerge for counterfeit digital currencies?

-- Passage to offshore "sin cities." Some architects have long dreamed about creating floating cities in the ocean, outside national boundaries, where people can experiment with new types of societies. Offshore libertarian havens, essentially. So far, "seasteading" is mostly a sci-fi fantasy. But if it ever takes off, the business of smuggling people into such cities could become commonplace.

Here's the executive summary (pdf) to Wikistrat's report, written by Thomas P.M. Barnett. (Here's more about Wikistrat, which takes a Wikipedia-style approach to geostrategic analysis.) I wouldn't lay too much money down on any one specific prediction, but it's a fascinating way of looking at some of the trends that are already molding the world.

Any other contenders for future black-market items? Add them in comments!

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Suzy Khimm · December 26, 2012