Monday, May 07, 2007

Virginia At 500--What Will The 2107 Jamestown Quincentennial Look Like?

As we celebrate Jamestown’s 400th birthday, it’s worth considering what Virginia’s Quincentennial—it’s 500th birthday—will be like.

History is a helpful guide. When the first English settlers arrived at the mouth of the James River in three small, rickety wooden sailing ships in 1607, there were approximately 13 million people living on the North American continent, mostly in tribal units, some of which had formed impressive federations covering thousands of square miles of territory. Those North American natives had been here for the better part of 12,000 years, gradually spreading across the continent in self-sustaining enclaves that sometimes prospered and traded with each other, and other times fought and clung to survival.

Who would’ve thought that a couple hundred pallid, ill-clothed English people who could barely feed themselves—three quarters died of illness and starvation—would displace those native masses in a matter of only a few decades.

A hundred years can make a big difference.

At Jamestown’s tricentennial, in 1907, most Virginians had never seen an airplane or automobile. Electronic communication was virtually unheard of, apart from the occasional telegram. Approximately 1.9 million citizens lived in the state, and they were lucky to reach a 50th birthday, the average life expectancy at birth being about 48 years.

In 1907, Virginia’s economy, centered in the state capital at Richmond, was still reeling from the effects of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Jim Crow laws assured that Negroes, as former slaves and their descendants were called in polite company, could not vote and had little role in the economy and commerce of the state. The races were strictly segregated in all aspects of life.

A lot can change in a century.

By 2007, the biggest political issue in the state had become what to do with all those automobiles clogging the state’s roads. The electronic revolution and the massive growth of the federal government had turned Northern Virginia into the state’s economic engine. And the Civil Rights revolution had freed African-Americans to become full participants in the state’s political, economic and commercial life.

So what will Virginia look like in 2107? No one can say for sure—could anyone in 1907 have predicted where we’d be today? Still, making a guess is fun, if for no other reason than to see (when our great-grandchildren read this—if people still read then, rather than simply absorb information) how far off we are.

Today’s population of 7.5 million will have grown to 20 million, of which 5 million—25 percent—will be of Latino heritage (most, however, will be of mixed race and ethnicity, reflecting the continued melding of American ethnic identity). The oldest citizen is 141 years old, and 15 percent of the state’s population is more than 90 years old. Many of those older citizens still remember the intensely unpopular President of the United States from 100 years ago, still regarded as the worst in history.

The original Jamestown settlement—and the visitor center, and Yorktown, and Williamsburg—have long been underwater, victims of the global warming crisis that peaked in about 2060 before the nations of the world finally stabilized the environment.

The Hampton Roads region, vibrant in the early part of the century, has never fully recovered from the effects of the four mega-hurricanes that struck between 2020 and 2045, which, combined with rising sea levels, left the region devastated. With the new floodgates and the offshore wind and wave energy facilities, the region is starting what is likely to be a long road to a comeback.

Northern Virginia, with 9 million residents, is also struggling. Life is not safe outside the Washington Security Zone, which encompasses what used to be known as Arlington and the remnants of Alexandria (after the Great Chesapeake Floods). Residents are generally constricted to the 80-140 story high-rise enclaves that dot the region, it being too dangerous and time-consuming to travel much beyond those crowded self-contained cities.

Western Virginia is booming, although it is fighting sprawl. The million residents of Roanoke are proud of their model city, where one and two person robotic electric vehicles zoom quietly along carefully engineered thoroughfares. The cities of Charlottesville, Blacksburg, Lexington and Harrisonburg—with a combined 2 million residents—are hubs of modern commerce in the new industry that uses molecular building to create customized items of every shape, size and description.

In Richmond, state political leaders are preparing to welcome the Premier of China, leader of the world’s largest and most powerful nation, to the Quincentennial celebration. Recent archaeological evidence that an ancient Chinese treasure fleet visited the Virginia coast and explored the Chesapeake Bay in 1421, possibly interbreeding with some of the natives, has fueled speculation that Virginia shares a special bond with China.

As the Governor prepares his speech, to be beamed directly into the chip implants in most Virginians’ brains, he thinks about his great-grandfather, a “blogger” who, it was reported, had to use his fingers to input letters into one of those ancient devices known as a “computer.” Thank goodness, the Governor thinks, we are not so backward in this modern day and age of May 2107.

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