Apr 10, 2021 - Politics & Policy

The global future is looking dark and stormy

Illustration of stormy raindrops falling onto an umbrella with the world map on it

Illustration: Rae Cook/Axios

A new 20-year-forecast for the world: increasingly fragmented and turbulent.

The big picture: A major report put out this week by the National Intelligence Council reflects a present rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic. How the next two decades will unfold depends largely on whether new technologies will ultimately unite us — or continue to divide us.

Driving the news: Many, if not most, of those trends identified in the new report from the U.S. government are trending negative.

  • "Shared global challenges — including climate change, disease, financial crises, and technology disruptions — are likely to manifest more frequently and intensely in almost every region and country," the report's authors write.
  • They predict that those intensifying challenges will collide with a geopolitical structure that will become increasingly fragmented and fragile, as the U.S. competes with China for global leadership while citizens of both democracies and autocracies grow more dissatisfied with their leaders.

How it works: The Global Trends Report, which is compiled every four years, is an example of strategic foresight, the science — and art — of using past and present trends to produce different scenarios about the medium- and longer-term future.

  • Rather than attempting to outright predict where we'll be in 20 years — which is all but impossible without an extremely accurate crystal ball — such efforts are meant to present policymakers with possibilities about where the world might be headed and information about the major trends that will shape the future.

Details: The clearest trend lines are in demographics: Over the next 20 years, richer countries will grow older and in some cases even begin to shrink, while whatever slowing population growth exists will be concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

  • That will produce "extensive strains on infrastructure, education, and healthcare" in megacities that aren't prepared for it, the report's authors write.
  • Another fairly certain trend line is intensifying climate change, which my Axios colleague Andrew Freedman reports "will lead to a less secure, more crisis-prone world that will strain global institutions."

The social responses to these trends are less certain, but they'll play an even more important role in what the world will look like in 2040.

  • The scarcest resource in the decades ahead won't be oil or rare earth metals, but social trust.
  • According to the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer, the majority of respondents in more than half of the countries polled are pessimistic that they and their families will be better off in five years — an increase of 5% from the previous year.
  • Even more worrying are the growing social divisions within trust, which has been exacerbated by the deeply unequal experience of the pandemic.
  • While trust in institutions has risen over the past 20 years among the more educated and wealthy portions of the population, more than half of the rest of the public during the past decade has said the "system" is failing them.

By the numbers: There is real fear that decades of global progress against extreme poverty and disease may be petering out and even reversing. About 150 million people fell out of the global middle class last year, the first time that demographic shrank since the 1990s.

  • Raised expectations suddenly dashed by the reversal of growth is a recipe for pessimism, anger and social fragmentation — all of which could be further stoked by the spread of the internet.

What's next: The report lays out five scenarios for the future, ranging from a democratic renaissance led by a stronger and more united America to a chaotic world where no country is powerful enough to counter the challenges we face.

  • Which future we get will depend in large part on technology — AI and automation, clean energy, gene editing and more.
  • If technological progress can jump-start economic growth for all while forestalling the worst effects of climate change, the world in 2040 will be a much easier place to navigate.
  • If it can't, we may look back on 2020 as the good old days.

What to watch: Unexpected X-factors.

  • Should we experience something truly world-changing — a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, a pandemic much more severe than COVID-19, a leap forward to true artificial general intelligence — all bets for the future are off.
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