This is a town full of reports, some of them auguring deep into a single topic and some of them broader and more comprehensive. Yesterday we saw the publication of an unusually sweeping document called Global Trends 2030, produced by the National Intelligence Council, which answers to the Director of National Intelligence. Poke around the document a bit and you’ll see that it was written primarily by a certain Mathew Burrows. It’s about 160 pages. It says that in the coming years the global economic and political landscape will be dramatically changed by the rise of China and other Asian powers, and by the emergence of non-state actors. The United States will cease to be the lone superpower, but the U.S. will still be “first among equals.” Europe, Japan and Russia will continue to decline relatively to other established and emerging countries. There will be 3 billion middle-class people, up from 1 billion today. Energy, food, water form a nexus of needs amid new challenges from climate change. Here’s my colleague Peter Finn’s report.

I haven’t yet read the full report or gone over all the footnotes and verified the information through secondary interviews and reviewing of source documents. I’ve actually read only the introduction and then skipped ahead looking for the, you know, “good parts.” It’s interesting and kind of up my alley, since, when not thinking about RGIII’s knee, I think about declinism, the future of America, the pros and cons of human ingenuity and the fate of human civilization.

[Update: Also black swans. And megaquakes hitting megacities.] [And chewed on Progress vs. Regress in the first Why Things Are book.]

 If I had been the editor I might have tweaked some of the language up high, mainly to ease some buzzword logjams and to say more directly and succinctly that the future is going to be different from whatever we declare it will be. For example, here is paragraph 2 of the report:

“We are at a critical juncture in human history, which could lead to widely contrasting futures. It is our contention that the future is not set in stone, but is malleable, the result of an interplay among megatrends, game-changers and, above all, human agency. Our effort is to encourage decisionmakers—whether in government or outside— to think and plan for the long term so that negative futures do not occur and positive ones have a better chance of unfolding.”

We’re always at a critical juncture in human history. There are always widely contrasting scenarios for the coming years. Of course the future isn’t set in stone. Of course events unfold through an interplay of policies, demographic trends, technological innovations, natural and unnatural disasters, wars, etc. In general I’m skeptical that we can anticipate what we’ll be talking about in 5 years, much less in 2030.

I want to call this “futurism,” but it’s really not. The year “2030” sounds further away than it is. It’s just 17 years and a few weeks away.

I may still be driving the same ancient, weathered, artery-clogged Honda Accord. And I will definitely still be saying to people, “I’m going to fix up this garage.”


Joel Achenbach covers science and politics for the National Desk. Achenbach also helms the "Achenblog."