Fear of a Red Planet: The World in 2050 Today!
The Scotsman, January 8th 2011
The future is going to work out fine. Beyond the crash, uncertainties and ‘unknown unknowns’.
We have it from no less an authority than HSBC and their ‘The World in 2050’. It is going to be alright for the world, for the West and Britain, which is despite all the problems and competition still going to be a Top Nation in 2050!
Forty years on world economic output will have tripled, food and water scarcity will be avoided and Malthusian predictions proved wrong again. China will be number one in economic power worth $24.6 trillion followed by the US in second place with $22.3 trillion and India a distant third with $8.2 trillion. Next come Japan and Germany and following in sixth position the United Kingdom down a mere one place compared to 2010.
Britain will be aided by its relatively high birth rate (1.9 children per woman) compared to Germany (1.3) and Italy (1.4). Japan whose population has been falling since 2005 is predicted to see its inhabitants fall by 37%.
The Anglo-Saxon model in this seems remarkably resilient. HSBC concede that the future they paint is a ‘rather rosy scenario’, and it is one not that different from a host of other surveys from the likes of Standard Chartered and PwC. That tells us something about the widespread buy-in to the assumptions at play.
We should note some of the concerns flagged up in HSBC’s bright future. They acknowledge the pressures on food production, the rise from one-third to two-thirds of people living in areas experiencing severe water stress by 2025, and the energy crunch and ‘eco-deficit’, meaning the world’s depletion of non-renewable assets.
Then there is the limits of such global rankings and league tables measuring across nations, systems and cultures. Some data is less reliable than other data. Equatorial Guinea went from being judged the second best performing African economy over the last 25 years to the second worst overnight because of the unreliability of its data.
And there is the problem that tiny changes in data can alter a nation’s ranking. The issue of phoney precision sees such reports over-sold by their authors, over-interpretated by readers and used by companies and institutions to make huge investment and strategy decisions, all based on ratings.
The problem though with ‘The World in 2050’ isn’t anything as obvious as the above. It is something much more integral to the whole exercise, namely the underlying philosophy behind the whole exercise. This can be seen as a progressive panglossian view of the world, of enlightenment globalisation, whereby the world becomes freer, wealthier and healthier. The world’s many poor, in China, India and the Far East, and eventually Africa, are slowly pulled out of hardship. Globalisation poses itself as a liberation movement spreading freedom, hope and opportunity.
This version of the future is of course a story of today and our recent backstory, of the last few decades since the end of the Cold War, of the end of the managed capitalism of Bretton Woods, of free trade and economic liberation, and the power of business and capital innovation. It is a story that our future can only be another version of the present.
This is the world of linear optimism, that human history and development has evolved to a future based on more jobs, growth and the stuff which fills our lives now; a future which is nothing more edifying than a bigger, better version of today. It argues that the future is now closed, decided and not open for discussion, having been determined by the powers that be.
Elites of course have always had a big say shaping and controlling the future. It wasn’t an accident that the concept of futurology came from the US military industrial complex at the start of the Cold War, from people like Herman Kahn, the RAND Corporation and Hudson Institute. This coalescing of power and knowledge gave us much of how we think of the world from the idea of ‘the think tank’ to ‘the war room’.
One of the fascinating things about ‘The World in 2050’ is that all of our UK mainstream political parties, along with the SNP, subscribe to this vision of the world: which can be summarised as progressive globalisation. The differences between the Cameroon Conservatives and the New Labour of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, or currently of Ed Miliband, is a miniscule one.
This is a treadmill world of conspicuous consumption, of trumpeting the myth of the power of the individual and choice while power and authority increasingly concentrates and creates new citadels of privilege whether state or private, and in the UK’s case, shopping and banking until we drop for the cause of UK plc.
What is the difference between the main political parties? That Labour want to emphasise social justice and the power of the state for good, while the Conservatives stress individual choice and enterprise. And the SNP wants a Scottish version of this which combines the best of all worlds and avoids making difficult choices.
There is a sheer lack of imagination and boldness in all of this, but at its heart ‘The World in 2050’ is a false prospectus, the global story told by the powerful ignoring a host of factors. The inequality, anger and instability across large parts of the world; the risks inherent in much of modern life; the increasing shallowness of democracies in the West and elsewhere; and the rise of radical and fundamentalist groups from far right xenophobes fearful of immigration to the threat of terrorism.
Then there is the economic model. The disorganised capitalism of the last few decades is seen as marching on, oblivious to the imbalances and tensions it creates in the world, not just immediately in Portugal and Spain, the latter with huge consequences for the UK and Eurozone, but what happens if the Chinese growth bubble bursts.
A world ago a previous group of experts produced ‘The World 2000’ in 1967, and while the American based boffins got lots right, including the rise of China and India, they missed the poison of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the continued influence of faith, the changing status of women, or the rise of the environment. And thus it will always be.
‘The World in 2050’ will not be a simple projection of today. Even the Chinese and Indian stories will turn out to be very different from how we currently imagine them. And new factors will emerge, from nanotechnology to the role of artificial intelligence to environmental pressures.
Maybe Britain could even venture into a future which isn’t just about consumption, shopping and banking, but that is probably hoping for too much if our political elites have anything to do with it!