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Through the Glass Darkly: What U.S. Intelligence Predicts for 2030

December 25th 2012

Population Boom

Mathew Burrows, counselor to the National Intelligence Council, may have the most fascinating job in Washington. Every four to five years he coordinates the U.S. intelligence community’s crystal-ball gazing exercise, which imagines what the future will bring fifteen to twenty years hence. The sixth and most recent installment, Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds, offers an eye-opening glimpse into the turbulent world we will inherit as middle classes grow, power shifts to developing countries, demographics change, and humanity confronts daunting ecological constraints.

The NIC report identifies four “megatrends”—or drivers—shaping the world of 2030. The first is a dramatic expansion of the global middle class. From antiquity poverty has been humanity’s dominant condition. That is poised to change. Not only will extreme poverty (defined as earning less than $1.25 per day) drop by up to fifty percent, but the proportion of individuals moving into the middle class will explode in the developing world, and particularly in Asia.

Individual empowerment—driven by advances in education, health, and communications technology,including social media—will have dramatic social, economic, ecological and political impacts. Consumers will demand new lifestyles, generating economic growth but placing strains on the global environment. Wealthier, more educated citizens will demand open, accountable and democratic governments. Closed regimes will attempt to fight back, but the future of authoritarianism looks dim.

The second major trend is a dramatic diffusion of state power from the West to the “Rest.” While some commentators have questioned this reality,Global Trends illustrates just how profoundly—and abruptly—it is occurring. By 2030 China will pass the United States as the world’s largest economy while other economies continue to grow. Goldman Sachs predicts that the so-called “Next Eleven”—Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, South Korea, Turkey and Vietnam— will overtake the collective global power of twenty-seven members of the European Union by 2030.

The world has experienced earlier power transitions, of course. But historically “only one or two countries have been rising at the same time, shaking the international system rather than reordering it wholesale in a compressed time frame.” Now, the world faces the unprecedented emergence of multiple power centers at once. This shift, at a time of relative U.S. decline and European and Japanese stagnation, will place intense stress on regional orders, particularly in Asia, and embolden rising power demands that multilateral institutions—from the UN Security Council to the IMF—be transformed to reflect their preferences and weight.  The United States, accustomed to global leadership, will need to adjust to its new status as primus inter pares. This crowded geopolitical landscape will complicate multilateral cooperation, given the proliferation of actors able to block progress. It may also encourage more informal forms of collective action through ad hoc coalitions and public-private networks.

The third driver is demographic change. The world is aging—not only in advanced industrial democracies, but also in China and much of the developing world. With its working age population set to peak in 2015, China faces the challenge of getting rich before it gets old. In wealthy countries, meanwhile, a growing “pensioner bulge” will strain creaky welfare states, particulary in Europe and Japan. (The U.S. dilemma is less acute, given continued high immigration and a near-replacement birthrate). Strikingly, declining fertility will allow most developing countries, provided they are decently governed, to reap a demographic dividend: As youth bulges recede and working age populations rise, including in the Arab world, growth prospects will increase and political instability will decline. India is especially well positioned for sustained growth in this scenario. By contrast, Russia’s population will contract sharply from 143 to 130 million, accelerating its geopolitical decline.

To be sure, the world’s population will continue to grow—reaching 8.3 billion in 2030. But it will be increasingly urbanized with more than sixty percent of people (up from fifty percent today and thirty percent in 1950) living in cities. Thanks largely to migration from rural areas, the global urban population will swell by a 1.4 billion by 2030. A third of this increase will occur in China and India, but another quarter will occur in just nine countries: Bangladesh, Brazil, DRC, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, and the United States itself. Worryingly, these surging urban populations are likely to create huge demands on fragile infrastructure, stressed ecosystems, and often corrupt municipal governments. At the same time, urban centers will become the motor of economic growth, and, in some cases, powerful international actors in their own right.

The final megatrend—exacerbated by the other three—is growing competition for food, water, and energy, particularly in the context of global climate change.  Global Trends predicts that demand for food will rise by more than thirty-five percent by 2030, thanks to population growth and changing dietary preferences, but productivity gains will continue to lag. The result could be disastrous shortages and persistent price volatility. Already, the report notes, “the world has consumed more food than it has produced in seven of the last eight years.” Likewise, the world’s annual water requirements are predicted to climb forty percent by 2030, when the OECD predicts that “nearly half of the world’s population will live in areas with severe water stress”—thanks in part to accelerating global warming. The dual challenge before humanity, as I have written, is to feed the world without killing the planet  and to fashion sustainable strategies for using—and sharing—increasingly scarce fresh water resources.

If there is a bright spot in this resource picture, particularly for the United States, it is in the energy field. Although global demand for energy may rise fifty percent by 2030, technological breakthroughs in unconventional oil and gas extraction offer extraordinary opportunities, particularly for the United States. (The downside of this revolution, of course, is in reducing market incentives for investment in clean, alternative energy sources like hydropower, wind, and solar).

How these four powerful megatrends will interact in practice depends, the NIC argues, on six “game-changers”—or uncertainties. These include

  • whether the global economy remains crisis-prone or stabilizes;
  • whether domestic and global governance arrangements wither or adapt;
  • whether number of interstate conflicts rise or decline;
  • whether the world’s regions become more stable or unstable;
  • whether new information, manufacturing, resource and health technologies advance peace and prosperity or prove disruptive;
  • and whether  the United States retreats from the world or remains committed to global engagement.

One frustration of the NIC report is that rather than offering probabilities on each of its “game-changers,” it outlines several plausible scenarios, or “alternative worlds.”

But we shouldn’t be too judgmental. As astute observers from Niels Bohr to Yogi Berra have noted, “predictions are difficult, particularly about the future.” The NIC’s own history bears this out. In a commendable gesture, the Global Trends 2030 actually begins with a candid assessment of biases and blind spots that marrred previous editions. These shortcomings include focusing on gradual change rather than abrupt discontinuities, ignoring ideology, failing to analyze the shifting influence of state versus non-state actors, focusing too little on the U.S. global role and its impact on others’ behavior, and, finally, neglecting to discuss second- and third-order consequences of major trends.

For all its uncertainties, Global Trends 2030 confirms another of Yogi Berra’s pearls of wisdom: “The future ain’t what it used to be.”

This article was initially published in the Internationalist

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