Sombre perspectives for an uncertain future. DCDC Global Strategic Trends 2007-2036

by Reda Benkirane



Aljazeera Centre for Studies, 11 April 2007


Sombre perspectives for an uncertain future.
Review of a prospective report from the British Ministry of Defence

The UK's Ministry of Defence (Mod) has released in January 2007 an interdisciplinary study on the evolution of the world during the next 30 years.  The Strategic Trends Programme 2007-2036 has been prepared by a team of researchers from the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC), a Directorate within the UK's Ministry of Defence (MoD) that seeks to provide intellectual resources to inform strategic decisions for the future. The research study focuses not only on the military and security issues but also on environmental, societal, cultural and economic implications of the human activities during the first third of the 21st century. The 100-page report is available online and is constantly updated on DCDC web site with converging insights, facts and data; it is therefore presented as a long term research project.

Strategic Trends 2007-2036  seeks to assess the series of risks, ambiguities and mutations that are at the 2036 horizon while it presents an understanding of changes that will take place or are likely to occur in five main areas: Resources, Social, Political, Sciences & Technologies, and Military. These main areas of changes will all be related to three major processes: climate change, globalization and global inequality.  The methodology used is based on a historical and theme-based analysis and on the extrapolation of existing patterns, as well as, on the identification of key risks and shocks, and on the estimation of their probability, frequency and magnitude. Future events and patterns are classified and filtered through an assessment of probability that ranges from outcomes that will happen (with a confidence level  exceeding  95%) to some that will likely/probably occur (confidence level > 60%) from patterns that may/possibly emerge (> 10%) to those that are unlikely/improbable (< 10%). The methodology pursued aims to sharpen and narrow the probability of events and patterns rather than to predict precisely their outcomes.

Strategic Trends 2007-2036 has the advantage of not being only a military viewpoint on the state of the world since it presents threats and risks that are other than military or strictly geopolitical. And as such, the indication is capital. The shift here is clearly indicated: societal issues are at the heart of multiform conflicts and multidimensional challenges. By documenting for example the future access to resources, the evolving international system and social developments, it is the identification of tomorrow's societal main characteristics that is sought in this prospective study that evokes European aging, Chindia growth, Middle Eastern instability, African anomie, Marxist revolutionary classes, 'flashmobs' movements (sudden aggregation of crowds), declining news quality, brain computer chips, electromagnetic pulse weapons, etc.


Unregulated urbanization

Strategic Trends 2007-2036 begins its first panoramic evaluation of the problems by evoking the context of future human activity and evolution: urbanization is indeed the landscape where most conflicts, tensions and risks will take place. It is estimated that by 2035, 60% of the world's population will live in cities and urban areas. In this context, the urban poor will probably represent no less than a quarter of the global urban population.

The fact that urban sites and megacities will have inherent unregulated hinterlands will contribute to propagate endemic urban-based guerrillas and other forms of erratic conflict. Slums and other underdeveloped urban areas will be the central field of armed conflicts. Urban sites in the Southern hemisphere, especially where the lack of infrastructure and the failure of central administration will be the most severe, will shelter informal territories, new urban terrae incognitae that will function as havens for dissidents and rebels of all kinds that will use them to launch military and possibly terrorist operations.

Conflicts of the future, in a certain manner, will mirror the volatility of social and economic globalized activities that make the middle classes eminently fragile. These classes will be caught between a minuscule group of 'super-rich' and the growing urban 'under-classes'; they have the potential to become revolutionary classes in the most Marxist sense of the expression.  Accompanying the vulnerability of these classes, the decline of civic values will be visible in a looser relationship between individuals and the state. In Northern countries, a consumerist attitude will tend to replace the civic relationship to the state while in Southern countries it will become difficult for governments and municipal administrations to assure control of their territories. Individualization will be pursued and will alter the social contract in the sense of more autonomy and self-reliance for individuals and less obligation, in particular fiscally, towards central administrations. 


Islamist terrorism, Marxist resistance and political extremism

In 2036, armed conflicts will be increasingly complex, unpredictable in their manifestation and in their multidimensional consequences. Interstate wars are the lower risk envisaged by the MoD's prospective study since the economic interdependency of states will strongly dissuade states to act individually without assessing the intrinsic transnational dimension of military and political problems. Consequently,  states will tend do reduce direct interstate military confrontation while maintaining serious tension and rivalry but using proxy wars with interests and goals partly overlapping with those of the belligerent groups fighting on the field. Conflicts will be essentially of a societal nature, with civilians and urban groups taking part in fights, guerrillas, multiform violence, chaotic uprisings, criminal activities, dissidence of all kinds. These conflicts will be pursued as well in the communicational space-time of the cyberspace.

Strategic Trends 2007-2036 predicts that terrorism, of Islamist origin in particular, will remain more or less active both at local and global levels. It will seek legitimization through the denunciation of unjust political regimes and will reach the most economically fragile segment of the middle classes. Its impact will remain essentially symbolic, far more impressive than effective in terms of damage and casualties. Terrorism will pursue its main goal which is to render visible the theatricality of violence within an information-based global society where symbols, images and iconic figures are so dominant. Terrorist actions conducted by radical Islamist militants will remain the main international threat 'until at least 2020', concludes the report.

In the insecure future described by Strategic Trends 2007-2036, the middle classes are vulnerable because of their exposition to global inequalities. They will engage in political activism and will be tempted by radical ideologies and the MoD's report does not exclude the revival of Marxism fighting side by side with community-based and/or religion-based movements against globalization and its socioeconomic policies and side effects. 


Climate change, globalization and fractal inequality

To evaluate the climatic perturbations and their retroactive effects on human societies, the MoD’s report relies on the latest scientific findings that conclude on the warming at an unprecedented rate of the planet pollution, warming generated by human activities and due to the concentration of CO2 and greenhouse gases. From these conclusions evidenced now by the overwhelming majority of the scientific community, the study forecasts some alarming situations that will be more accentuated in the developing world. At the horizon of 2030, two-thirds of the world population will be living in areas where water will be cruelly missing. Water as rarer natural resource will be at the origin of many geopolitical conflicts. The population of Sub-Saharan Africa, which will probably grow by 81% and reach 1.3 billion by 2035, will suffer the most of the climatic change and the water stress. Some 15% of this poor population is likely to suffer from malnutrition and Sub-Saharan emigration to northern latitudes and to the Middle-East will be a direct consequence of climate change.

The growth of the world economy will be sustained at about 2-3% until 2020, and nations like China, India, Russia, Brazil and even Iran are likely to know regularly the highest peaks.  For Iran, the report does not exclude that the country will experiment a 'vibrant democracy' sustained by a certain prosperity and a young and dynamic population that would have achieved its demographic transition.

Strategic Trends 2007-2036 is also forecasting a European stagnation with a decline of population of 40 millions in 30 years that will be the consequence of a persistent decrease of the fertility rate. During the same period, US will decouple from Europe when the American strategic orientations will be gravitating around Asia and to a lesser extent around Latin America with the emergence of a significant continental power like Brazil. By 2015, China which is already the 'workshop of the world' will replace Japan as the world’s second economic power. The Russian economic power will progress, relying on an affirmative nationalism that will have to struggle with the resistance of an Islamic-based politico-social movement very active in the lost economic territories of the Caucasus and Central Asia. The report also predicts a UN decline because of its incapacity to engage reform and to impose its leadership and therefore its authority.


Cultural complexity and ubiquitous communication

Within a world population growing by 20% (with 8.5 billions in 2035), most of the inhabitants of the planet will have permanent access to the cyberspace and already in 2010 20% of the African population will use internet-enabled mobile phones. The development of infotechnology will continue with even some new possibilities in quantum computing that could improve computing capacity by a factor of 100 billion times. In 30 years, information chips will be made available for implantation in human brain making information and communication available through cognition with some forms of mind-to-mind telepathy and other mental communications that will have immediate military applications.

The growing importance of citizen-journalism and the multiplicity of news channels will challenge the global media industry. Competition and concurrency for the transmission of news to individuals through a variety of information sources, screens and supports will not necessarily improve the quality of information: Strategic Trends 2007-2036 forecasts the opposite with a 'declining news quality' and the tendency to give preference to information packaging, stories and opinions over facts. The subjectivity of information will be made more visible and might be even assumed by the mainstream actors of the media environment. New forms of journalism will be favoured, they will promote 'infotainment', the 'industrialization of gossip' and other forms of cheap and populist news programmes articulated around fashionable ideas and merchandising concepts. The decline of quality will contribute to reinforce what is believed in news rather than what is strictly observed and analysed. Populist and demagogic figures will emerge within this global media environment challenging governments, political parties and administrative institutions. While libertarian and individualistic values will be increasingly affirmed, informal groupings and communitarian solutions will be favoured to solve local problems. 

There still will be, both within the North and the South, a divide between the info-rich and the info-poor and, even worst, a divergence of preoccupations and interests regarding the news coverage of the least developed societies. Consequently, it is probable that socio-political events that will happen in the least connected regions will not catch the attention of the local and global elites. Indifference and desensitization will affect those who rely heavily on information coverage in order to take decisions and measures related to conflicts, famines and natural catastrophes.


Demographic mobility

The migration of populations will also be a significant aspect of the globalization: already 175 millions people (representing approximately 3% of the world population) live outside their country of origin; they will probably reach 250 millions by 2050. The study points at the 'growing cultural complexity' that is unveiled by more and more people who are at their ease with different cultural contexts and an intrinsic socio-professional mobility. The new citizens of the world will tend to distinguish between their cultures of reference (that change and evolve according to contexts and interests) and their identity (since the latter will less represent an anchor for group or territorial affiliations).  The report estimates that over half of the nearly 16 millions highly skilled workers that migrated to the US, Europe, Canada and Australia came from outside the OECD area. In terms of socio-economic disparities, the gap between rich and poor will probably be more accentuated than it is currently. Inequalities will fuel feelings of injustice and resentment and will be at the origin of diverse political movements and ideologies formulated against the super-rich and ultra-visible elites. Inequalities along with environmental pressures will contribute to trigger international migrations.

In addition to an increasing demand for energy consumption, there will be an increasing pressure on the supply of water. The rarefaction of water is due essentially to climate change and the regions affected by this lack of vital resource will multiply.

Climate Change combined with the multiplication of stress zones will induce large movements of population. Sub-Saharan population will tend to migrate in the Middle-East and around the Mediterranean basin while populations from Bangladesh and the East coast of India will escape coastal inundation, environmental and economic pressures.  When 87% of people under the age of 25 already live in the developing countries, most of the world population growth will occur in these regions. Young populations will tend to aggregate in new urbanized areas, accentuating the movement of migration from less wealthy to richer economic sites.

An unstable Middle East

Because of the combination of political, economic and demographic factors, the current instability will likely prevail in 30 years particularly in Saudi Arabia and more generally in the whole Middle East. The non-resolution of the Palestine-Israeli conflict, the absence of economic perspectives for a mass of unemployed young citizens, the vital importance of gas and oil extracted in the Arab Gulf, will contribute to maintain a high tension in the region.

Between now and 2035, Middle Eastern populations will grow by 132%. Forecasting a population growth of 25% by 2010 and 50% by 2020, the study does not see many opportunities of economic prosperity and employment for a massive youth when the dependency on the unique resources of oil and gas is so predominant. Consequently, the report shows that the region will be subject to many political risks not so much because of geopolitical factors but primarily because of internal tensions and contradictions. The relationship that the states of the region will be able to maintain with their young citizens will be determinant. 

The report determines that the future evolution of Saudi Arabia will be of primary importance for the region and for the world. Possessing 22% of the world’s oil reserves, Saudi Arabia plays an essential moderating role within OPEC and its future stability will determine the stability of the world economic activities. The main risks evoked by the report are the vigour of Salafist and Jihadist movements, the unemployment that could be over 20%, the massive youth population which is maintained out of the economic circuits and the political system and finally the high demographic pressure with a high fertility rate compromising the future socio-political stability of the country. Therefore any perturbation in the socio-political system of Saudi Arabia will propagate waves of turbulence worldwide.

Competition for key natural resources

Oil will probably remain the main source of energy for vehicles. The study shows that the golden age of cheap oil is over and that energy prices will rise, even if it may slow down from 2020 the world economic growth. Alternatives sources of energy such as coal derivatives, hydrogen fuel cells, bio-ethanol will be encouraged. Exploration of new reserves will be conducted in extreme environments such as the Arctic (where it is estimated that it has probably stocked a quarter of the world reserves of oil and gas) and in deep oceans. Space exploration for energy sources is possibly a long term research perspective.

The need for energy will grow by more than 50% by 2035, with an annual growth of 1.5-3.1% and this global demand (that will have to be satisfied for more than 80% by fossil fuels) will follow the growth of  a world population which will be augmented by 2 billions between now and 2035. Producers of key natural resources, like oil, gas and minerals of strategic value will have more possibilities to exert international influence and leverage during the next 30 years . In order to bypass  uncertainties of the global energy market, bilateral arrangements will be sought with producers and suppliers on the model of China's current example of direct agreements with politically unstable countries from Africa and South America.

A depressing vision of the future

The world that emanates from The Global Strategic Trends programme 2007-2036 is perhaps a globalized one but without any collective project for humanity. The vision of a globalization that goes hand with hand with inequality is depressing when it does not lead to the unification of human societies around issues of common concern such as energy and key natural resources, climate change, poverty and pandemics. At the horizon foreseen by the strategists and the futurists of the UK Ministry of Defence, the good news is that there are no major wars in perspective, but there is no opportunity for a collective enterprise that unites people from East and West, North and South towards a common goal. The scenario of the future envisages at best fragile resources, dry seasons, minority prosperity and lost tribes.

Source : The DCDC Global Strategic Trends programme 2007-2036.

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