In his epic book The Lucifer Principle Howard Bloom (not to be confused with Harold Bloom) explores, among other things, the history of great empires from ancient China to modern day America. The thing that causes a country to rise in the pecking order among nations is its dedication to innovation and its investment in new technologies. What causes great nations to begin declining on the world stage is that oftentimes those on the top don't seem to understand how they got there. They become complacent and let new technologies and innovations slip through their fingers. When Napoleon was taking over Europe militarily, England spent its time investing in steam and cotton processing technology. Guess who wound up on top? But the country that dominated the world by selling cotton clothes and steam engines let new technologies, that their scientists had developed, go to other countries. Germany learned how to make chemical fertilizers and out-harvested the rest of the world. Germany and America invested in developing ways to harness electricity and made a bundle doing it. America has been on top for a while, but America, too, has let new technologies that its scientists have first developed go to other countries, like Japan. The rich executives on the top figure, “Hey, we're on the top. Why mess with what works? Why spend money investing in new technologies that might not work when we could make more immediate money for ourselves just doing what we're doing?” The result of this mentality, of course, is that those who were once on top end up being surpassed by those willing to look to the future.
In a stirring speech last night, President Obama argued for the importance of investing in new technologies and better infrastructure, especially in the fields of green energy, education, and health care. And he is absolutely right. This economic crisis may be just the kick in the pants that we need to make us do something bold—invest in new technologies. Because that is the only thing that is going to save us in the long run. While each of the fields he mentioned are important for immediate reasons, green technology is probably the most important thing for us to be investing in. Because it undoubtedly is a technology that the future will need, and if we are on the cutting edge of its development we can ride that wave into a new era of prosperity.
All this being said, here are specific technologies in each of the fields mentioned that I'm keeping an eye on:
The solar cells we have today suck, but new discoveries may allow us to produce cells that absorb the full spectrum of visible light and cost less to make than traffic lights. This alone could revolutionize the way we do everything.
Advances in wind technology may make it much more practical than it has ever been before.
No matter what we do to power our cities, we still need clean ways to dispose of our garbage. Plasma Arcs might let us do both simultaneously.