The future: 10 questions
Today's emergencies are crowding the thinking about the long-term. The anxiety over Europe's economic crisis, the political infighting in the United States, social unrest in many other countries, and a possible slowdown of growth in China, are just some of the concerns about the immediate future that are preventing us from thinking beyond the coming weeks or months. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the think tank where I work, has just celebrated its 100th anniversary. Spurred on by the centenary, we are considering the dilemmas that will define the world in the coming century. Many will quickly dismiss such an exercise. Why bother? It is not very likely that the answers will turn out to be true and, in any case, we will not be around to see if we got it wrong - or to deal with the consequences. Yet, these are questions that stimulate interesting ideas and synthesize our options in a number of critical areas. Just thinking about alternative futures and the factors that will shape them helps us better understand where we are, where we might be heading, and which efforts are needed to take us closer to the more desirable scenarios.
These are, then, 10 questions about the future, which I present in no particular order of importance, and, in several cases, are clearly linked.
1. Will we be able to limit the increase in global temperature to 3ºC, or will it rise a further 8ºC or more? If the increase reaches or passes 8ºC, the planet and its inhabitants will be facing unprecedented challenges.
2. Will there be 16 billion inhabitants or will there be just six billion of us living on planet Earth? This is the range of possibilities that the United Nations estimates with respect to the size of the global population in 2100, depending on fertility indices and other factors.
3. How many countries will have nuclear weapons by 2100? None? Twenty-five? This is the number of countries that experts reckon could have atomic bombs in the coming decades if they continue to develop their nuclear programs in this direction and if the rest of the world lets them. Today there are nine "nuclear weapons" countries.
4. What will be the model of government in the future: democracies as in Europe, the United States, India and Brazil, or authoritarian regimes such as those in China and Russia?
5. Will the rapid expansion of the middle class that we have seen over the last decade in the poorest and most-populated countries continue? Or will deep inequality be the norm?
6. Will Islam become the source of tension and conflict, or will it renovate, transforming itself into a force for peace and development?
7. Will the internet and cyberspace evolve as benign forces or will they be a source of new threats?
8. One of the characteristics of the 20th century was the creation of many new nations. Will state-failure be the defining characteristic of the 21st century?
9. Will globalization continue, driven by technologies that shorten distances and communication costs, and by public policies that encourage international integration? Or on the contrary, will social unrest produced by globalization feed nationalism and protectionism, blocking the movement of people, products, money, and ideas?
10. Will economic, political, military and social power be more or less concentrated?
It is obvious that this list of factors that will define the future is incomplete. Many are missing, and we can all think of other challenges we will face. But these 10 should probably be included on any list. At the very least they should serve to begin an indispensible conversation; one that is more urgent than we might like to think.
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