Monday, March 31, 2008

The Megatrends

I have been thinking about the major trends over recent decades and how they may work out in the 21st Century.

Mankind's Physical Power

World population has increased rapidly in the 20th century, and appears likely to increase for at least the next four decades. Per capita income and wealth on the average has also increase, implying that the infrastructure and physical plant at the service of man has also increased per capita. Technology has improved, mechanization has continued, and per capita energy consumption has increased, while we can now get more useful work per unit of energy consumed as the economy gets "lighter" and more efficient. The overall effect is that mankind not only has the power to destroy itself with an array of powerful weapons, but is inadvertently destroying the ozone layer of the planet, raising its temperature, and polluting its atmosphere, waters and land at unprecedented rates. The power of the species seems likely to continue to increase during the century.

Mankind's Intellectual Power

Again the population increase will continue for a couple of generations; more people more brainpower. People on the average are now more likely to achieve their genetically-endowed, physical intellectual potential. I suggest that people who are blind, deaf or dumb are handicapped in obtaining and/or communicating information; the rates of such handicaps are decreasing with improved living conditions and medical attention. We know that severe malnutrition and some diseases can diminish intellectual capacity, especially in the developmental stages of the growth of children. Such conditions are becoming less common in most of the world. Education has exploded in the last half century; not only is primary education coming close to being universal, but secondary education and tertiary education enrollments are increasing rapidly. Scientific production has produced more scientific knowledge in the second half of the 20th century than in all of previous history, and the rate of production of such knowledge has increased. These trends should all continue well into the 21st century.

The Information Revolution has taken place largely in the second half of the 20th century. The first modern computers were built during the World War II, and today there are more than a billion personal computers in the world. Each of these is many times the power of the early machines. If one adds to that the servers, routers, mainframes and supercomputers computing power has increased exponentially. Moreover, it is distributed in watches, transistor radios, cell phones, PDAs, automobiles, home thermostatic control devices, and other appliances, not to mention computer controlled machines, satellites, robots, etc. In the 20th century we saw the development of broadcast radio, broadcast television and satellite broadcasting, not to mention CDs and DVDs. The amount of content distributed via such media in terms of hours per person per day, and the intensity of the impact of the content have both increased dramatically (as has the amount of content in print media). The communications infrastructure has become far more nearly global, and communications costs have decreased greatly. Digital information storage is becoming the medium of choice, and the Internet and World Wide Web have made information vastly more available to billions of people. Thus the information and communication technological revolution has vastly contributed to mankind's intellectual capacity over the past half century. That trend too seems likely to continue in the coming decades.

The Agenda of the Community of Nations

At the end of World War II, the "community of nations" that was formed for the creation of the United Nations and its system of organizations and the Bretton Woods organizations focused on the prevention of future World Wars (really European wars involving other regions), the reconstruction to repair the damage done during the World Wars), and the recovery of the national and international economic systems of the victor nations of World War II.

With decolonization, more nation states were added to the community of nations, and the building of the political, social and economic capacities of the newly decolonized nations became a priority. While there continued to be an emphasis on preventing or containing wars and building economies, more emphasis was placed on the reduction of poverty or at least its worst aspects.

In the later part of the century, as the degree to which environmental problems were emerging, concern for the global environment increased. Indeed, so too did concern for the preservation of world heritage. As the rates of social and economic change increased on a global scale, and as Western culture was more and more influential (because of improved transportation and communications and information services), so too did the concern for the ability of cultures to control their own destinies become more prevalent.

I would guess that the agenda of the community of nations will continue to include all of these elements over future decades, although their relative importance may change (e.g. concern for global environmental problems may increase as climate change becomes more notable and water shortages occur), but that new concerns may also arise and be added to the list.

So What?

Unfortunately, I am not sure that mankind as a whole has gained much in wisdom over the past decades, nor that it is likely to do so in the next few decades. To some degree, mankind is more able to utilize its physical and intellectual power to promote the general welfare. Life expectancy is improving and should continue to do so, and health on the average is also improving. Materials needs are being more fully met. But it is not clear that we are much more effective in forecasting upcoming problems and acting in a timely fashion to prevent their turning into catastrophies.

1 comment:

Glenn said...

If nothing else, it will be interesting to see how it all comes out. I just wish I could live a bit longer to see how things turn out. ....A good read along these lines is Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Also, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.