A look ahead
If someone were to compile an aggregate picture of the world we live in or the world we will be living in the future based on the news, you'd quite possibly end up with a fairly grim picture. Particularly at a time like this but also generally, we live in a world where plenty that can go wrong often does go wrong. There is a confluence of age-old problems like inequality with newer problems arising out of our growing integration with the digital realm. Politics have never been so global and yet so divisive and insular. And then there is climate change, a doomsday scenario that was not on our preceding generations top ten ways the world will end but for us is a very real threat we will confront in a matter of decades. In short, there is some kind of personal hell for everyone to contemplate if you thought the end of humanity was close at hand. But maybe this is all just paranoia. Maybe it's just taking bits of bad news and presenting it as a big picture. Maybe it's because we are now always connected to various sources of information.
Or maybe not. It turns out such grim, pessimistic thinking is not just the preserve of internet conspiracy backrooms. Just this week, the US intelligence community released the latest edition of their Global Trends report that is aptly titled ' A More Contested World'. The outlook from this document meant for policymakers and everyday people alike, is dark. First and foremost, the report predicts an international scenario that is volatile, conflict-prone and generally less conducive for meaningful international cooperation. The report also predicts that large scale disruptions like COVID-19, the effects of which will be felt for years, will become more intense and widespread with financial crises, technological disruptions, climate change, etc., becoming major factors. The particularly troubling thing about these disruptions as our experience with COVID-19 has highlighted, is that they slow down or reverse much of the progress our society makes in regards to fighting disease, hunger, income inequality, etc. Indeed, the writers of the report conceded that COVID-19 turned a lot of assumptions about the resilience of nations on its head and considerably worsened the 2040 outlook the report aims to provide. On the level of nations and particularly democracies, the report has plenty to say about the new political trends we have observed in recent years. In particular, it focuses on the mismatch between people's rising expectations of their governments and the limited ability of said governments to reciprocate. This scenario is an already volatile mix in democracies which is leading to the rise of populism and polarisation as a way of addressing these unmet demands. What would ultimately emerge is activism and protests that could in the worst-case scenarios lead to internal conflict and even the collapse of a state. The report also notes that such pressures will likely not be limited to democracies as even authoritarian regimes will face their reckoning. Then there is the international system and the truly grim-dark scenarios running wild in the future of international cooperation. The report imagines that the international system will be increasingly divided and leaderless in the future with a proliferation of new technologies and issues like artificial intelligence, digital currencies and climate change reshaping how nations interact with one another. Digital currencies for instance could add 'complexity' to the conduct of monetary policy by making it more difficult for nations to control exchange rates and money supply. Climate change, on the other hand, is set to not only exacerbate international tensions but also widen social divisions within states as water insecurity and climate change migration become increasingly common. The report also prominently speaks of increased competition between the US-led alliance of states and China (with Russia as a side character). The report concedes that it is unlikely one country will dominate the international stage in the future but did predict that US-China competition would likely only intensify in the future. The new space race and Taiwan have been identified as two areas of particular contention. Interestingly, the report opines that Russia is a fading threat to the US in the future as internal political struggles and a lagging economic growth sideline Russia's possible ascent to the top. This is particularly true in the light of the fact that Putin has no obvious political successor when and if he leaves power in the next two decades. There is much, much more but you can get a general idea from just this much. While you may go engage with the full report as per your convenience, it is clear that the report does not place much stock in optimism. Consider the increasingly dystopian scenarios it imagines in regards to future technologies. AI for instance is imagined as being responsible for both a new wave of hi-tech propaganda and frightening futuristic weapons for the forever wars of the coming decades. But this is to be expected. The intelligence community produces this report as a rundown of growing challenges and likely 'bad' scenarios that the US and its constructed international order will run into in the future. Still, the report does allow for some light at the end of the tunnel. One of the presented future scenarios speaks of a 'renaissance of democracies' where the US and like-minded nations tame frightening futuristic technologies and manage to confront disruptive actors like China and Russia while also strengthening the appeal of democracy worldwide. This is a so-called 'best case scenario'. The worst ones are, well, pretty bad and can be referenced in the full report. For now, it suffices to say that this report is meant to be a strongly worded warning about a future that may be every bit as dystopian as some futuristic sci-fi novels.