There are known knowns – these are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns – that is to say, things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – things we don’t know we don’t know. – Donald Rumsfeld, US Defence Secretary, 2003.
Flags at the UN, Geneva
This is a concise survey of the possibilities for the world around the year 2050, mid-century. It is kept reasonably simple to help you gain an overview of the plethora of issues before us, without going into too many details, complexities and technicalities.
It examines the potential situation in the mid-21st Century from a variety of angles. It highlights a range of questions, some of them awkward, that need attention if humanity is to survive and thrive in future.
This is a personal take on the matter, following much rumination. We all have our specialities, and getting our heads around issues outside our sphere can be difficult. So this is written to help you formulate an all-round picture of the future and what to do about it in the context of your own life.
The only thing we can safely say about the future is that it cannot reliably be predicted. There are too many variables, unknowns, unknowables and complexities to make dependable forecasts. All the same, likelihoods can be identified. The best approach is to look at overall trends and potentials that are visible today or that lurk under the surface – megatrends – and at mechanisms shaping the future. What’s most important is that we prepare our thoughts for a spectrum of possibilities.
Much can happen between now and mid-century, given the intensifying conjuncture of global dynamics at play today. A multiplicity of issues are approaching a critical point in coming decades, from ecological degradation to remarkable technological breakthroughs.
Things won’t return to normal or go back to the good old days. Conditions could be harder than we want, yet there will be redeeming factors. Even miracles can happen – after all, sensible, considered, morally consistent, cooperative human behaviour would constitute a miracle.
It is not in our gift as humans to control all of the issues mentioned here: big and multiplex factors are at work, some of them natural, some unexpected and many of them the outcome of multiple layers of human action, reaction and error, and the incidents, decisions and omissions of former times. What will actually happen over coming decades remains to be seen, and much will depend on how we respond to events and developments as they arise.
Many forecasts see 2050 as a likely crux point in world history where a number of trends together come to a climax – population, climate, resources and other factors. It could even be argued that we are living through a crux century, stretching perhaps from around 1965 to around 2070. A century seems like a long time, but the European Renaissance, modernity's dawn, had a similar duration.
The world has tended to prioritise national, sectoral, narrower and shorter-term interests over longer term, wider, global issues. This is problematic. Longterm, wider considerations are now pulling harder on our attention. “Progress on an incremental, piecemeal, business-as-usual basis in the coming decades will not be enough”, says the OECD (a club of richer nations), in its 2012 forecast for the world in 2050. That’s a staidly respectable organisation saying that. Truth is, instability and even a state of global emergency are possible.
One theme of the 21st Century is the unfolding of consequences – consequences of issues and megatrends already at play today. Two examples are population growth and the risk of nuclear war. Population growth underlies every single subject covered in this report, from climate and biodiversity to health, society and economics – it is perhaps the biggest single driver of change today. Meanwhile, one relatively localised nuclear conflict could wreak destruction on large numbers of people, ruining and irradiating whole landscapes, and it could also change the global climate in just one week, bringing a nuclear autumn or winter. Just these two of many other issues need taking in hand if the future is to be promising for our descendants.