Our Future is Most Definitely “Malleable”

Jan 9th, 2013 | By | Category: Other Resources

By Suzanne York, www.howmany.org.

Forget 2013. Let’s jump ahead to the year 2030. As last year was coming to a close, and just as the global climate talks were winding down in a less-than-stellar performance by most countries, the U.S. National Intelligence Council released a report on how the intelligence community sees the next 17 years playing out. Here’s a summary, in case you missed it amongst all the holiday goings-on.

Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds noted four “megatrends” that will potentially transform the world: the end of U.S. global dominance and shift to a multi-polar world; an increase in individual empowerment; a rising middle class; and increased demand for water, food, and energy, due to population growth.

Women in Tamil Nadu, India, carrying water to their homes.

The study’s lead author, Mathew Burrows, stated that “We are at a critical juncture in human history.” If you barely pay attention to world news, you’ll know that this isn’t exactly a newsflash. Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post said that “We’re always at a critical juncture in human history.”

He’s right, of course. But each year things do become more and more critical, especially as nothing much is done. There is something about the human species that compels many to postpone dealing with problems into the future, to 2030 and beyond. The global climate talks just wrapped up in Qatar with a whimper, and delegates chose not to confront the difficult decisions that need to be made to effectively reduce global climate emissions.

The issue of population growth, basically left off the climate agenda, was included in Global Trends 2030. It noted that world population is projected to rise to 8.3 billion by 2030 and will add to the strain. Considering the two megatrends of the rise of the middle class and resource usage, the authors forecast that “Demand for food, water, and energy will grow by approximately 35, 40, and 50 percent respectively owing to an increase in the global population and the consumption patterns of an expanding middle class.” That middle class is expected to rise to 2 billion people by 2030.

As the middle class surges and uses more resources, and the rest of the developed world continues with business as usual, the stress on available resources will increase – especially water and arable land.

Resource shortages can lead to conflicts, an enormous concern for national security and intelligence agencies. A key component of this is rapid population growth. This study noted that resource conflicts will occur in many countries with “disproportionate levels of young men” (mostly unemployed youth) increasing the risk of conflict. Some of these countries include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Somalia, places with poor governance institutions which “may not be able to cope with increasing environmental challenges and population pressures.”

Women get rather short shrift in this report, which is unfortunate, as they are crucial for stabilizing population growth. There’s a bit here and there about a rise in women’s education, and greater political participation, but not enough about the role women play.

Women’s empowerment is the “megatrend” that the authors’ should have included. Empowering women – especially in terms of their reproductive rights – is key to improving not only individual lives, but that of communities and the environment. By meeting women’s unmet need for voluntary family planning services, population growth can stabilize. In turn, a sustainable population can ease pressure on scarce resources.

Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund, recently wrote about the importance of family planning. According to Osotimehin, “…there is indisputable evidence that when family planning is integrated into broader economic and social development initiatives, it can have a positive multiplier effect on human development and the well-being of entire nations.”

The trends and forecasts are not all negative. Technological innovations and growth in information technologies will have a big impact. There will also be a shift toward greater country-to-country collaboration and public-private sector cooperation.

The purpose of Global Trends is to prepare for a better future. The report engaged experts from numerous disciplines to help policymakers plan for the long term regarding key global issues. Sadly though, the reality is that many decisionmakers seem to think only short term.

The authors claim that the future is malleable and not set in stone. The challenge for the world is initiating action today in the face of increasing social, environmental, economic, and geopolitical changes. Perhaps a few people will listen.


Suzanne York is a senior writer with the Institute for Population Studies


(photo credit: waterdotorg. http://www.flickr.com/photos/waterdotorg/3696799330/in/photostream/)

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