A mainstream view of the future

The respected US magazine Foreign Policy has commissioned nine experts to make forecasts about the world in 2025. (H/T to The Simple Pastor blog for the link.) It’s interesting to compare their views with what is being talked about in the environmental and sustainability movement. Any of the nine deserves full analysis, but a look at the broad trends is equally instructive.

A large focus, as you might expect, is on economics. Implicitly or explicitly, the nine authors assume continued growth, although certainly not uniformly. Western economies are likely to continue to struggle due to continuing indebtedness. Mohammad El-Arian goes so far to subtitle his piece “It’s not a crash, it’s the new normal”, a sentiment more likely to come from one of our more radical economists. The developing world though has the potential to flourish as demand increases and they transition to a more consuming economy.

Technology too will continue to progress and gain in influence over our lives, and Ayesha and Parag Khanna forecast a new “Hybrid Age”, described as follows:

Five characteristics differentiate this Hybrid Age from those that came before it: the ubiquitous presence of technology, its growing intelligence, its increasingly social dimensions, its ability to integrate and combine in new forms, and its growing power to disrupt, faster and on a larger scale than ever before in human history.

This last point, that with interconnectedness comes potential instability, is one that runs through many of the pieces. One, “Everything Will Be Too Big To Fail”, forecasts even greater density of human living and economic activity, with the consequent risk if those areas suffer from natural or human disaster – combined with the ability of small groups to use technology to disrupt. The world being forecast seems richer overall, but much more at risk of short-term malfunction, whether economic, military or technological.

A question not asked is whether this world is desirable. The authors appear to think it largely inevitable, arguing for at least some sort of regulation to smooth out the worst edges, but not considering any particularly radical alternatives.

Environmental issues are notable by their absence, and Peak Oil is discounted, at least for the USA, with shale oil and the rest predicted to fulfil forseeable energy needs. But sustainability does get a decent look-in. The final piece, “Problems Will be Global–And Solutions Will Be, Too” includes the following hopeful paragraph:

As for individual countries, the states that will be the strongest in 2025 will be those that have figured out how to do more with less. They will be those governments that have successfully embraced radical sustainability — maintaining vibrant economies through largely renewable energy and creative reuse of just about everything. The leader will be Japan, a great civilization that has for centuries pioneered spectacularly beautiful ways of appreciating and coexisting with nature. As China’s youth seek more of everything, Japan’s are prepared to embrace a far more sustainable path. Scandinavia, Germany, New Zealand, and possibly South Korea will also be strong; many emerging or even less developed economies have real potential, if they can tap into their indigenous habits of conservation. Embracing sustainable growth will challenge the United States; its national renewal will depend on connecting its traditions of innovation, decentralization, and liberty with a narrative of protecting America’s natural bounty. Think America the Beautiful more than the Star-Spangled Banner.

… though it would have been helpful to have been told why: a more explicit warning about resource and energy shortages would have gone a long way to balancing some of the other views.

At least these set of articles try to be honest about the risks of continuing down our current trend paths, and recognise the difficulty of making changes. For that they deserve credit.

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