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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


September-October 2009

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Report on Reports - September/October 2009

Future Vision: What Lies Ahead?
Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World
Reviewed by Mohan Munasinghe

Against the backdrop of a historic shift in the balance of world power, ballooning populations, globalizing economies, dwindling and degraded natural resources, and the weakening of international institutions to deal with conflict, the U.S. National Intelligence Council (NIC) engaged a diverse group of experts in the United States and abroad to produce Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World, which presents a set of likely scenarios decisionmakers will face in the next 10–15 years. The report, fourth in a series of declassified documents on major global trends, is comprehensive, multidisciplinary, and well-written, a valuable contribution to the growing literature on world futures. Meant to be descriptive rather than prescriptive, its authors stop short of providing recommendations for improving future prospects through more sustainable development. Yet the report holds important implications for

  • short-term considerations, especially the economicfinancial crisis and desirable responses;
  • the key role of underlying drivers like globalization and unrestrained markets that affect the surface issues of poverty, energy, water, food, and others; and
  • a long-term vision for the future beyond the medium term, including considerations like climate change.


The report posits that globalization, the unprecedented transfer of wealth and power from West to East and North to South, and the growing influence of businesses, tribes, religious organizations, criminal networks, and other nonstate actors will cause the governing system of the world to change so drastically, it will be practically unrecognizable in 15 years. By 2025, the gaps in national powers between developed and developing countries will continue to narrow, and the international system will become more global and multipolar as emerging powers such as the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) join the presently dominant United States and Europe.

“The transition to a new system over the next 20 years will be fraught with risks,” write the authors. “Strategic rivalries are most likely to revolve around trade, investments, and technological innovation and acquisition,” with arms races, territorial expansion, and military rivalries more remote possibilities.

The economies of the BRIC countries will continue to grow such that by 2040–2050, their share of GPD will collectively match that of the original G-7 (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States). Unfortunately, many other countries will lag economically: “Sub- Saharan Africa,” according to the report, “will remain the region most vulnerable to economic disruption, population stresses, civil conflict, and political instability.”

Almost all population growth in the next 20 years is predicted to occur in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, with less than 3 percent occurring in the West. Although per-capita wealth will still be far greater in the United States, Europe, and Japan than in the emerging countries, working-age populations will decrease in these developed countries, tempering economic growth. Increasingly, migrants will seek to move from disadvantaged to relatively privileged countries.

In the face of unprecedented global economic and population growth, demand for strategic resources, including energy, food, and water, will far surpass available supplies over the next decade or so. Declining oil production is leading to a fundamental energy transition toward natural gas, coal, and other alternatives. In addition, demand for food will rise by 50 percent by 2030, while rapid urbanization will exacerbate lack of access to stable water supplies, particularly for agricultural purposes.

Further aggravating the situation, climate change impacts will vary by region. A number of regions—particularly in developing countries—are already beginning to suffer harmful effects, such as water scarcity and loss of agricultural production. For example, the recent Human Impacts Report: Climate Change—The Anatomy of a Silent Crisis, produced by the Global Humanitarian Forum under former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, estimates the following annual climate change related impacts:

  • more than 300,000 people dead,
  • 325 million people seriously affected,
  • economic losses of US$125 billion,
  • 4 billion vulnerable people, and
  • 500 million people at extreme risk.

New technologies could provide solutions.

The older concerns of terrorism, weapons proliferation, and conflict will remain. Economic growth and declining youth employment rates in the Middle East may make terrorism less appealing to potential new recruits, yet types of conflict that were dormant, such as wars over resources, could reemerge. Both existing and emerging powers share maritime security concerns about the vulnerability of critical sea supply and trading routes. These concerns are leading to “naval buildups and modernization efforts,” which could cause “increased tensions, rivalries, and counterbalancing moves.” On the other hand, naval buildups will also “create opportunities for multinational cooperation in protecting critical sea lanes.”

The rapid transformations the report outlines will possibly lead to a new, more diffused international governance system. The dominating multilateral institutions will have a difficult time adapting, limiting the ability of smaller, more specialized nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to affect change, even though the report predicts they will “increasingly be a part of the landscape.”

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