It’s Not That Bad: Why Our Global Future is Better Than it Appears
In the late 18th century, a series of stunning events – including the American and French Revolutions and the onset of the Industrial Age – cracked the existing world order wide open. One consequence was an onrush of panic, epitomized by the work of the Reverend Thomas Malthus. To say that these cataclysmic events made Malthus pessimistic is probably a bit of an understatement. The vision of the future he expressed was one of increasing famine, disease and death. And he found a receptive audience in an equally fearful population. This is because great change engenders great fear. Many people felt then -- as many do now -- that the end of an era meant the end of the world, and it frightened them profoundly.
Disruptive change has always had this effect. In Europe’s late medieval period, events such as the introduction of gunpowder and the Black Death helped usher in the Renaissance. Gunpowder was an equalizing technology; it meant the beginning of the decline of the then warrior class and its romanticized culture of chivalry. The Black Death wiped out anywhere from 30 to 60 percent of the population and shattered the ossified social structure that had existed for hundreds of years. Although the Middle Ages were a time when, for most people, life was generally "nasty, brutish and short," even changing that dismal time frightened people. The manifestation of that fright could be seen in art and literature that turned dark and apocalyptic -- e.g., "La Morte d’Arthur," "The Song of Roland," and the grisly art of Hieronymous Bosch.
In our own time, similar responses have come from era-altering events and the introduction of disruptive technologies. Following World War II and the start of the Atomic Era, we got such dystopian works as George Orwell’s "1984" and the Malthusian gloom of the Club of Rome’s "Limits to Growth."
Enter the Doomsters
What this shows is how change creates a receptive audience for those I call "doomsters" – people who can formulate and articulate the inchoate fears which change arouses in much of humanity. Because our time may well be the most rapidly changing time in all of human history, the doomsters are now legion, and their mournful cries fill the air like a flock of hungry crows descending on a cornfield.
Change is indeed frightening. Anything that upsets the established order, what we’re used to and comfortable with, makes us feel unmoored and therefore afraid. We then seek to reassure ourselves on the one hand, and on the other to magnify the threat so as to justify our concern. In my 45 plus years as a professional futurist, I have encountered this over and over again. It’s what keeps people from objectively seeing what is really happening. It reinforces their instinct to defend the status quo – and this applies both to individuals and to organizations. It turns every wave into a tsunami and every raindrop into a falling sky. It enlarges, and therefore distorts, every real crisis, thus making it that much harder to deal with or resolve.
Doomsters, like magnifying glasses, make our fears loom larger. But they can also be useful. They force us, whether we want to or not, to face up to matters of concern, some of which, at least, we would prefer to ignore. The works of Rachel Carson and George Orwell, among others, made it difficult for us to ignore the dangers they alerted us to. Too many of us would rather bury our heads in the sand, as ostriches supposedly do, rather than face an uncomfortable or unpleasant reality The problem with doomsters, ultimately, is their limited vision. When they stand in the sunlight, all they can see are the shadows.
Are there reasons to be concerned about the future? Of course there are. We have so many seemingly intractable issues:
- Violence, militancy and extremism
- Greed and corruption
- Climate concerns, including pollution and global warming
- A greatly troubled global economy
- Jobs and the impacts of technology on employment
- Food and food distribution
- Water and its control
- Species extinction and invasion by alien species
- Aging populations
- The spread of nuclear weapons
- Crime, including growing cybercrime
- Infringements on individual rights and privacy
- Unsustainable national and local economies
- Costs of healthcare
The list can go on and on. These and all the others that can be added are real problems. (Actually, they’re not problems. People don’t have problems; math has problems. A problem is something there is a solution to. E.g., how much is one and one? Two. What we have are dilemmas. There are no simple, straightforward answers. Indeed, each supposed answer is more likely than not to create at least one other dilemma.)
The Bad and the Good
Futurists who do their jobs properly show that trends, like coins, have two sides – hazards and opportunities. The doomsters seem to see only the hazard side. An objective examination of the record of the last several decades also includes remarkable progress in dealing with some of the many ills that have long plagued humanity.
Let’s look at poverty, for example. The Bible says the poor will always be with us, as they always have. The United Nations set a goal of cutting extreme poverty – people having less than $1.25 a day – in half by 2015. That goal has already been met, well ahead of schedule. The progress has occurred in every developing region, including Africa. In sub-Sahara Africa, the proportion of people living in extreme poverty fell below 50 percent in 2008 for the first time in history, according to a World Bank report. China alone moved some 700 million people out of poverty since 1980. The percentage of the Chinese population living in extreme poverty fell during that period from 84 percent to an astonishing 13 percent. Extreme poverty in North Africa and the Middle East was reduced by almost 50 percent in the six years from 2002 to 2008.
As a corollary to that, there is the remarkable growth of a global middle class, now conservatively estimated at over two billion people! This is one of the great achievements of our time. Countries classified as low income (per capita income of less than $1,000 per year) declined from 63 in 2000 to 35 in 2010 -- after the global recession, no less. In 1961, 28 percent of the world’s population lived in countries richer than Portugal, then the poorest of the developed countries. By 2008, over 60 percent of the world’s population was in countries richer than Portugal was in 1961.
When discussing the middle class, it’s important to keep in mind that middle class is not just about income. It is also about a set of values and aspirations that contribute substantially to economic growth, stability and democracy. The vast new middle class is moving the world steadily ahead on these paths.
Mortality and morbidity statistics also show extraordinary progress. Globally, life expectancy rose from 51 years to 69 years in the last half of the 20th century. More than three-quarters of African countries have had significant declines in child mortality rates since 2005. Three countries – Kenya, Rwanda and Senegal – have averaged declines of over eight percent a year, double the rate needed to meet the UN’s millennium development goal of cutting children’s deaths by two-thirds by 2015. Similar reductions are happening everywhere around the world. What could be more promising for the future than reducing the death rate for kids?
And how about this positive trend? The number of women dying as a result of pregnancy or child birth has dropped by 47 percent in the last 20 years, according to the UN.
Achievements in health have been equally remarkable. The scourge of smallpox is gone. Cardiovascular deaths have been cut drastically. Increasingly around the world, improved healthcare is being made more available to more people. Indeed, some of our major health concerns today are what have been called "diseases of affluence" – obesity, for example, and diabetes, which currently afflicts almost half a billion people.
As for education, its development has been phenomenal. For the first time in its history, the U.S. can boast that more than 30 percent of its adults have at least a bachelor’s degree, and more than 10 percent have advanced degrees. By the end of 2015, according to a report from the government of Brazil, more than 100,000 of that country’s young people will spent at least one year at top universities abroad. China now has upwards of six million college graduates a year – plus the many who study abroad. The illiteracy rate in China has dropped precipitously, as it has in India and other developing countries. The Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 were led and strengthened by multitudes of educated and technologically literate young people.
Particularly promising have been the educational opportunities for women, especially in those parts of the world where formerly they were denied such opportunities.
The recent rapid development of online education is enabling the spread of high level teaching to even the most remote parts of the globe. Stanford University professor Sebastian Thrun’s six online science and technology courses enrolled more than 200,000 people in 2011. Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, two of the top universities in the world, announced in 2012 that they would offer a full range of online courses – free!
There have been immense advances over the last half century in gender equality. Women are now in the majority in institutions of higher learning throughout much of the world. Female entrepreneurship, funded to a considerable degree by microfinancing, is a major contributor to growing prosperity in many developing countries. Sixteen percent of board members in publicly held businesses in the U.S. are women. The comparable number in Europe is almost 14 percent. To accelerate this, a number of countries are requiring higher numbers of participation. France, for example, has decreed that boards must have 20 percent female directors by 2014 – and 40 percent by 2017. Similar requirements are being mandated in Italy, Germany and Belgium. Young women adept in the use of social media were important contributors to the Arab Spring – in an area of the world formerly not noted for an acceptance of female assertiveness.
Technology and its Impacts
Technology, as always, is a two-edged sword. Many people, including doomsters, are fearful of its potentials for harm, ranging from the destructiveness of nuclear weapons to the intrusiveness of surveillance technology. But there is also an up-side to technology. In their article, "The Abundance Builders" in the July-August 2012 issue of The Futurist, Peter H., Diamandis and Steven Hotler focused on several technological breakthroughs that can help create a better life for humanity. These include:
- Advances in biotech, such as artificial life.
- The connectivity of things (what we call in our shop the "connectome")
- 3-D manufacturing
Let’s take an in-depth look at just one of these – 3-D manufacturing. 3-D has been called the Third Industrial Revolution (or Industrial Revolution 3.0 for the purists). Increasingly less expensive, 3-D printing will enable individualized production in ways and on a scale previously unimagined – everything from airplanes and houses to pain pills and bedroom slippers. People could use the equipment to make their own medications from a doctor’s prescription. They will be able to make their own clothing from designs they purchase or lease from fashion houses. They will be able to personalize just about everything. Businesses will be able to build and test various versions of products cheaply before rolling them out for the market. The combination of sophisticated software, low-cost computers and printers, and innovative materials that is making 3-D printing increasingly affordable holds out extraordinary promise for a better life for billions of people.
Some other beneficial technological developments include:
- Driverless cars that will significantly reduce traffic deaths and accidents.
- Growing human organs in laboratories, making replacement parts plentiful and inexpensive
- Finding and utilizing natural resources on near-Earth asteroids
- In 2012, Toyota’s Prius hybrid became the third best- selling car in the world!
The Road to Democracy
Perhaps the major trend offering hope for the future is democratization. Since the end of World War II, some 100 countries have moved from colonial or authoritarian rule to some form of democratic structure, advancing the cause of human rights and freedom. Hundreds of elections have taken place in Africa, Asia, South America and elsewhere as the strong tide of democratization has swept across the world. While some of these new efforts at democracy may be feeble, and often subject to modification or reversal, the overall trend is getting ever stronger and becoming, ultimately, irreversible.
Democratization is not just a political phenomenon. It is increasingly a force in all aspects of human life and society. For the last 500 years, since Gutenberg, concentration of power in the hands of the few has been gradually and steadily eroding. That power was to a large extent based on the ability to control information and its distribution. We have now reached the point where information has been thoroughly democratized. So power has devolved outward and downward, shifting away from central nodes and thus weakening – even undermining – all forms of centralized control.
In the marketplace, for example, power has shifted from producers to consumers. The old retail model – this is our location, these are the hours we’re open, these are the goods we sell, these are the prices we set – has increasingly given way to a new model in which the consumer, who now sets the transaction terms, says: "This is what I want, this is what I’m willing to pay, this is when I want it, and this is where I want it. If you won’t meet my terms, I’ll find someone else who will." The days when a Henry Ford could say that customers could have any color car they wanted as long as it was black are long and forever gone.
This trend is not particularly comforting to people who now have or want power, but for the rest of us it is a very, very positive development.
I have seen hundreds, maybe thousands of forecasts. Almost without exception they all omit what I believe is the single most powerful shaper of the future – the indomitable, unquenchable, almost infinitely ingenious and adaptable human spirit. Throw any number of lemons at us, and we’ll figure out how to make lemonade with them. We constantly invent, create and re-create. We are phoenixes, rising from the ashes and rubble of our destroyed pasts. Challenge is our lifeblood, and all the Everests of the world cannot keep us from the top.
The doomsters seem only to see whatever dire circumstances dominate the surface at any given time. If they looked beneath that dark surface, they might see the bright blaze of glory of the ebullient human spirit.About the author
Arnold Brown is chairman of the firm of Weiner, Edrich, Brown, Inc., consultants in strategic planning and the management of change. Mr. Brown is acclaimed as the foremost pioneer in the introduction of strategic scanning as an important management practice.
Brown is co-author, with his partner, Edie Weiner, of four books, Supermanaging (McGraw-Hill, 1984) which was a bestseller in the U.S. and abroad, Office Biology (MasterMedia, 1993), Insider’s Guide to the Future (Bottom Line, 1997) and FutureThink (Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006). He serves on the Global Advisory Council of the World Future Society.
Essays and comments posted in World Future Society and THE FUTURIST magazine blog portion of this site are the intellectual property of the authors, who retain full responsibility for and rights to their content. For permission to publish, distribute copies, use excerpts, etc., please contact the author. The opinions expressed are those of the author. The World Future Society takes no stand on what the future will or should be like.
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