The future is a beautiful place -- and you can help keep it that way, while picking up a paycheck at the same time. Here are 20 jobs that will help the human race avoid dystopia... and perhaps even take a step or two closer to a Shareble future! So next time you're between jobs and reskilling or retraining, you might look into these possibilities, which we've divided into a few basic categories:
Beekeeper: Even the Doctor is concerned about Colony Collapse Disorder. Bees are essential to the world's food supply, but they're disappearing at an alarming rate. The Telegraph recently took up the call, urging Britons to begin keeping bees again.
Water purification expert: One of the worst dystopian scenarios for the 21st century is "water wars," in which the supply of potable water shrinks just as the population grows. Greedy corporations and governments stand to make the situation worse by trying to restrict the water supply to just the chosen few. Even in America, the growing water shortage is obvious — the Rio Grande isn't so grande any more, and is only nominally a river. And that's just traditionally arid areas. And as climate change starts to take hold, previously green areas are going to face problems. So we'll need people who know how to reclaim water that's poisoned or desalinate sea water.
Seed-bank staffer (or organic farmer): As biodiversity narrows and big agriculture encourages farmers to use fewer types of seeds, the world's crops are more vulnerable to some sort of shock. Everyone grows similar types of wheat or grain — and then a particular blight hits, and we get major food shortages. People in places like Svalbard Global Seed Vault, in the Arctic, are collecting the world's seeds for preservation. And anyone who grows a wider variety of plants is helping stave off a future where Monsanto completely controls and homogenizes crop production.
Environmental lawyers and non-profit workers: Yeah, we know. Lawyers. But seriously, the best way to make a company stop polluting or otherwise turning the world into a polluted, dystopian pit is to hit them where it hurts: their bottom line. With environmental regulation being somewhat uneven at best, we need people who will step in and represent the public interest. Attorneys help to do this, and so do the tireless workers at environmental organizations.
Environmental cleanup technician: Long before the BP oil spill, this was already a fast-growing field, requiring a huge amount of nerdy expertise. When awful spills and contaminations happen, these guys swoop in and actually clean it up. According to this site, this line of work requires expertise in physics, chemistry, fluid dynamics and other sciences. And as the BP spill proved, we're still learning how to clean up these types of messes, so this is an area where you can be an innovator.
Car sharing service engineer: Green cars are good...but sharing cars is better. GPS and mobile technology made ridesharing services like Zipcar, RelayRides, Avego, Carticipate, and Weeels possible, and all these rapidly growing companies are hiring software and transportation engineers help make car sharing easy and convenient--which has the added bonus of taking cars off the road and hopefully helping mitigate the nasty effects of climate change. Another growth industry you might look into: bikesharing!
Biologists: If you're concerned about the future biodiversity of our planet, then this is a great field to go in. Biologists are often focused on a particular segment of the ecosystem or a specific animal, but biologists, with all their knowledge, work very hard to prevent some sort of terrible post-environmental-collapse future. For example, biologist Dee Boersma studies penguins, but her work is relevant for anyone interested in biodiversity:
As director of the the Wildlife Conservation Society's Penguin Project, she has dedicated almost three decades to tracking them in the South Atlantic. Using "nametags" — numbered metal bands — Boersma and her team follow hundreds of individual penguins to learn where they go, what they eat and how they survive to the next breeding season.
There are plenty of dystopias in which everybody suffers from horrible diseases, from apocalyptic plagues to intractable illnesses to incurable sterility. And in the real world, we've got a few doozies on the horizon, from a new wave of drug-resistant viruses to rising rates of Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. But there are a few careers in which you can contribute to helping save humanity.
Stem cell researcher: Early indications are that stem cells could have a huge impact in treating conditions as diverse as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. Just today, researchers found that 82 out of 107 patients who'd been blinded by chemical burns recovered their full sight after stem-cell treatment. We may just be scratching the surface of what stem-cell treatments can do to prevent future pandemics.
Epidemiologist: These guys are the resident experts on any given disease, and so they're often called in the first stages of an outbreak to figure out how to contain it. They're the people who understand disease vectors and the ways in which an outbreak can spread. You don't need an M.D. to become an epidemiologist, and a growing number of universities offer degree programs. Here's a list of places you can obtain a degree in epidemiology.
Drug researcher/pharmaceutical pirate: We're going to need more people to discover new drugs to combat these new pandemics — not to mention stopping rejection of our awesome artificial organs and helping to make us smarter. And then we'll need fearless people to help get cheap versions of these drugs to people in the Third World who can't afford the full-price versions. There are a lot of careers in the pharmaceutical industry where you can help develop new medications, including the fast-growing Clinical Research Organization (CRO) sector, which runs human clinical trials.
Bioinformatician: The more we understand about DNA and protein sequences, and the field of molecular biology in general, the more we'll need people who can manage the sheer amount of data we're generating. You could help develop new gene therapies, and possibly help humanity advance to the next stage of evolution. Here's a great FAQ on bioinformatics, including a list of places where you can study it. Here are some online courses you can study.
Let's face it: When people think of dystopias, they think of a repressive regime that stifles dissent and keeps the people brainwashed, like in 1984 or Brave New World. Obviously, your political views may differ from mine as to the direction an overwhelming statist regime might come from, but here are some careers that might be helpful either way.
Hacker/Cyberactivist: Want to avoid an evil cyberpunk dystopia? Or, for that matter, a 1984-style dystopia where all information and exchange of ideas is strictly controlled by the government or an oligarchy? Brushing up your hacker skills, or agitating for cyber-liberties, are two ways to go about that. Keeping the internet free and open, and keeping spaces open for anonymous discussion, have never been more important — there are a lot of people who'd like to put a V-chip on the Internet.
Debt counselor: For people who are mired in tons of credit card debt or abusive mortgages, the world is already a very dystopian place. And it's easy to imagine a future where scores of millions of people are virtual serfs, unable to pay off their debts in their lifetimes. So working to help people claw their way out of debt is a huge, important undertaking.
Teacher: This one's a little touchy-feely, but teaching people to read is still important. (In fact, the text-heavy nature of the Internet probably makes it more important than ever, if we're going to keep the Internet fairly open and democratic.) History teachers are important, math and science teachers are important. They're a guard against two types of dystopia: The Idiocracy scenario, and a stratified class system that funnels the elite into power and keeps everyone else uneducated and in line.
Artists and citizen journalists: As George Orwell demonstrated, artists can speak the truth to power and sound the alarm when a society goes on the road to dystopia. Of course, Orwell would also be the first to argue that artists can just as easily participate in the construction of a dystopia — think Leni Refienstahl. And as old-school print journalism gets more atrophied, we'll need citizen journalists who have nothing to lose and a determination to present the facts that might otherwise get ignored.
Translators: There's one thing that's antithetical to dystopias, and that's understanding of other cultures and viewpoints. In particular, people who translate literature into other languages can do a lot to open us up to other perspectives. But any kind of translation helps to allow knowledge to circulate and spread from one culture to another. Plus, learning a language is fun.
General quality of life
Aerospace engineer: At some point, human quality of life is going to depend on colonizing space. As long as we're confined to one biosphere, we're just asking for some planetary catastrophe to come along and reduce our standards of living, as a species, drastically. As people often say, it just takes one bad day. Also, at some point, the human population on Earth will finally reach saturation levels — Malthus was way too pessimistic, but it's patently true that every closed system has an upper occupancy limit. So you can contribute meaningfully to your descendants' happiness by helping to find ways for people to live on the Moon, on Mars, and beyond.
Everyone on NASA's Near Earth Object Program: These guys are the first line of defense against astroid impacts. Which is more of an apocalyptic scenario than a dystopian one, but the aftermath would be pretty darn dystopian.
Urban planner: There are lots of ways urban planners work to make the word less dystopian. Some work to make cities greener or more sustainable, while others focus on urban renewal. Either approach helps prevent cities from degenerating into some sort of cinderblock nightmare or dilapidated hellscape. Architects: This is who decides what buildings look like and how they can function. If you want to make human habitation more sustainable, this is another great choice.
Archivists/Librarians: Between European monks and Arab scholars, a surprising amount of Greek & Roman knowledge survived the Middle Ages. The Internet is great and all, but in the event of some massive technological failure, it's going to be up to those who keep up with the books to make sure we don't lose the sum total of the world's technical and cultural know-how.
If you go into any one of these careers, we can't guarantee that you'll be bringing about a utopia any time soon. And of course, "dystopia" is ultimately in the eye of the beholder. But the more people go into these careers, the brighter the future is likely to be. Feel free to suggest careers we might have missed in the comments.
This was revised from a piece that originally appeared on the blog iO9, where I serve as managing editor. Additional research and reporting by Kelly Faircloth. (I also got some ideas from this career site.)