Welcome to 2040

Issue 52 - 20 April 2021 (8-min read)

Imagine living in a world much like ours, just more fragmented, more contested and struggling even more to stay afloat in the middle of worsening global warming. If we are to trust the US Intelligence Global Trends Report 2040, this kind of a world is not far from us.

Join us this week as The Global Tiller and our French newsletter, Te Hoe, travel to the year forecasted by this report. We examine closely the different scenarios it presents for our future and what we can do to guide our path towards the least destructive option.

The US National Intelligence Council publishes this report every five years to assess key global trends that may shape our world in the coming 20 years. While this is not a prediction of what’s going to happen, these experts pick on global trends to show what kind of a world we could have. In fact, the 2008 edition of this report warned of a potential pandemic in the 2020s and how easily it could spread around the world. 

It goes without saying that, despite its critical insights, not many countries took heed. It could be because we dismiss warnings about the future, especially when they’re grave. Or it could be due to the fact that, since the report is prepared by American intelligence agencies, other countries take it with a pinch of salt. Futurist and publisher of FuturHebdo, Olivier Parent, who is this week’s guest on our French podcast, Pacific Hoe, gave us some sound advice: "In order to have an objective view of the future, we should not only read this report but also one that may be prepared by China, the EU, India, etc."

Unfortunately, no such report has emerged from those regions yet so we probe this one, which paints a grim future for 2040, as you can read from this The New York Times excerpt:

The world envisioned in the 144-page report, ominously subtitled “A More Contested World,” is rent by a changing climate, aging populations, disease, financial crises and technologies that divide more than they unite, all straining societies and generating “shocks that could be catastrophic.” The gap between the challenges and the institutions meant to deal with them continues to grow, so that “politics within states are likely to grow more volatile and contentious, and no region, ideology, or governance system seems immune or to have the answers.” At the international level, it will be a world increasingly “shaped by China’s challenge to the United States and Western-led international system,” with a greater risk of conflict.

The report comes to this conclusion by studying four main trends: shifting demographics, economics, environment and technological innovation. Not all of these are impacting us negatively but the intersection of these trends will create new challenges for our governments, which are going to be further constrained when they are unable to deliver what their people want.

As a result of these structural forces, there could be five scenarios of what 2040 would look like.

  1. Renaissance of Democracies - the US and its allies lead the world into a resurgence of democracies where economic growth and technological advancement helps us deal with global challenges and resolves societal divisions. Also, leading scientists and entrepreneurs from China and Russia seek asylum in the US because their home countries have too many societal controls.

  2. A World Adrift - the international system is directionless, chaotic, and volatile as international rules and institutions are largely ignored by major powers. OECD countries suffer slow economic growth while China expands its international influence while failing to address global challenges, such as climate change.

  3. Competitive Coexistence - the US and China prioritise economic growth and restore a robust trading relationship, while continuing to compete for political influence, governance models, technological dominance, and strategic advantage. There is low risk of a major war and cooperations makes global problems manageable for advanced economies but longer term climate challenges remain.

  4. Separate Silos - the world is fragmented into several economic and security blocs of varying size and strength, centred on the US, China, the EU, Russia, and other regional powers. These blocs focus on self-sufficiency, resiliency, and defense with information flowing within separate cyber-sovereign enclaves, supply chains are reoriented, and international trade is disrupted. Vulnerable developing countries are caught in the middle and global problems, notably climate change, are spottily addressed, if at all.

  5. Tragedy and Mobilization - the EU and China lead a global coalition, working with NGOs and revitalised multilateral institutions, to address climate change, resource depletion, and poverty following a global food catastrophe caused by climate events and environmental degradation. Richer countries shift to help poorer ones manage the crisis and then transition to low carbon economies.

Despite its gloomy name, the last scenario offers a glimmer of hope. When faced with an existential threat, it shows that people come together to overhaul the system. It’s too early to say whether or not the long-term impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic will lead to such a catastrophe but it could just as easily be. 

The bigger question for us will be if we will wait for a catastrophic event to push us into a global coalition, or if we would be prudent enough to do something about it now. If the only solution to managing climate change is acting globally, why haven’t we started doing so already? Why aren’t we doing more to counter divisive forces within our societies that keep us into our silos? Why aren’t we focusing on the bigger picture? Who’s stopping us from creating a global community?

Perhaps, one step in the right direction would be to start a global conversation. So, let us know, which scenario are you rooting for and how do you want to get there.

Until next week, take care!

Hira - Editor - The Global Tiller

Ia Ora Na, Welcome to the latest episode of Pacific Toks, where I engage in active conversations with my guests to talk about the challenges our world is facing and seeing them through a Pacific lens. In this episode, I’m very pleased to speak with Joyana Finch. Joyana has graduated from the University of Auckland as the first Pacific woman in history with a degree in mechatronic engineering. She’s also a writer and a speaker, encouraging the younger generation towards a career in STEM.


…and now what?

Through my work, I do a lot of thinking and scenario-building of the future. The point of this work, besides my long passion for science fiction, is to help people get ready. Not for a specific future, but for any scenario, any opportunity, any risk.

As Olivier Parent, our guest this week in Pacific Hoe, told us: “Working on the future is actually all about the present. Same as working on history”. Our present will define the future. So, the more we can think about the consequences, and even more so, the unintended consequences of our decisions, the better and the wiser we can be about what we do now.

The value of these scenarios is not in their accuracy. As Neils Bohr says: “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it's about the future!” Their value is in their ability to help us be more intentional about what we do now. 

The report touches upon this issue: 

We must be ever vigilant, asking better questions, frequently challenging our assumptions, checking our biases, and looking for weak signals of change. We need to expect the unexpected and apply the lessons of this pandemic to our craft in the future. 

Being vigilant, asking better questions, changing perspectives to not fall into your biases, observing what’s happening around. These are key skills that are relevant for the future but not only. They are relevant for life, in general. Our brain is wired for it. And it seems that, for now, we are the only species with these natural abilities. So if nature has given them to us, it’s probably for a reason.

Yet, way too often, it seems that most of us are walking through life as 'sleepwalkers'. Accepting what we’ve been told, not challenging the status quo, and - even more so, for those of us who have the privilege of not struggling to survive - asking questions. 

A few days ago, in a meeting with local innovators, I told the team that we don’t ask ourselves enough questions in our country. One person replied: “If we question ourselves too much, we won’t do anything, we’ll keep doubting ourselves.” I was surprised by this reaction. As if questioning yourself or the world was bad, as if being doubtful was dangerous. Maybe asking too many questions can make us less self-confident but it shows our general tendency to place too much value in rigidity, to look too hard for certainty, stability and simplicity. 

December 2020 marked not just the end of a year but that of an impactful decade. As we move forward, we will have to ask ourselves questions because others are already doing so and we don’t want to live with the (unintended) consequences of their answers.

Speaking of questions, here’s a good one: what kind of questions should we ask? This report has some suggestions: 

  • How severe are the looming global challenges? 

  • How do states and non-state actors engage in the world, including focus and type of engagement? 

  • Finally, what do states prioritise for the future?

For our purposes, let’s reframe them a little bit:

  • How severe will the looming global challenges be for you in the short and long term? And why?

  • How do you engage in the world, where do you put your focus (and your energy) and how do you engage yourself for what you believe in?

  • Finally, what do you prioritise for the future?

Ask yourself these questions, ask them around you. And feel free to share with us your answers. As Hira suggests, let’s all start a global conversation without limiting ourselves to our borders. Because this is our future: "we must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools."

Philippe - Founder - Pacific Ventury

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