Later this week, on April 14, 2011, I will be doing presentations to the World Foresight Forum event in The Hague, Netherlands. On that day I will be part of a panel entitled Future Global Challenges. Along with panel members Sang-Hyun, Chairman of the International Criminal Court, and Edward de Bono, creator of “lateral thinking,” to discuss what we each see as the “major challenge facing the world in the next 20 years.” There are so many global challenges that it is difficult to choose one. Here is a preview of what I plan to say.
The Major Challenges Facing the World in the Next 20 Years
The future creates the present. Our images of the future exert a powerful influence on the choices we make today. If we want to change our present choices, we must change the future. Therefore it is important to ask what futures we should try to avoid, what futures we need to get ready for, and what futures we want to create.
Since the question of major challenges implies futures to avoid or get ready for, we will concentrate there. I divide challenges into four categories: Nuisance, Existential, Primary, and Causal. Before I name what I have selected as the major challenge facing the world, let me review the candidates, in these categories.
Nuisance: Global terrorism fits here. So long as there are relatively small groups of people with grievances and access to weapons, global travel, and instant communication, the threat of terrorism will persist. It is a matter for global intelligence, police, and occasionally military response, but it is not the major challenge.
Existential: There is one threat that could, in fact, wipe out civilization, which we know about but pay scant attention to. Scientific evidence suggests that on average about every 1200 to 4800 years the earth receives an asteroid strike sufficient to do major damage, up to and including wiping out most life on the planet.
Primary: This list would seem to provide the best candidates for the major challenge. The list includes:
• Climate change & global warming.
• Global water shortages.
• Threat of a global pandemic.
• Food security.
• National and international debt and economic crisis.
• Tendency toward increasing rich-poor gap in advanced and advancing economies.
• Rebuilding or building national, regional and local capacity in food production, manufacturing, and services.
• Stop moving mass.
• Global population and workforce imbalances and a lack of jobs worldwide.
• Wide acceptance of sustainable lifestyle.
If one were forced to choose just from this list, I would choose climate change and global warming as the primary challenge facing us in the next 20 years, because with each passing year and decade the ability to mitigate this threat becomes more remote. One can even produce scenarios in which climate change runs out of control and becomes a near existential threat.
Causal: Beneath the primary challenges lie deeper causes that, if not addressed, make it essentially impossible to confront the primary issues in ways that solve them rather than merely decrease their impact. Some causal challenges are practical, some deal with the deeper values and even with the nature of humanity. The causal challenges of major importance are:
• Energy – unless we reinvent the energy business, we cannot deal with climate change.
• Me vs. We, Greed and Habit, the Ethos of More – so long as the purpose of economic activity remains the accumulation of ever more wealth for the few and ever more consumption by everyone, for reasons of conscious and unconscious greed and sheer historical habit we will create the challenge of wealth divergence, and debt and economic instability, not to mention unsustainable resource depletion. With a billion people this was acceptable. With 9 billion people this will not work.
• Rejection of science in favor of popular opinion, and political and religious views, for example with regard to climate change.
• The purpose and nature of work – in a world where sufficient goods and services can be produced with less than the available workforce, and where the number of jobs is already insufficient, we must address work and what it is that humans are meant to do in the future.
• Inability to see, to think, and to act with a view of the long term and in a systemic way. The big challenges extend across borders, philosophies, approaches to governance, and biological and ecological systems. We know this, but barely understand how to deal with the reality of interconnectedness.
Conclusion: The major practical yet causal challenge facing the world in the next 20 years is the reinvention of energy. The major values-based causal challenge facing the world in the next 20 years is shifting from Me to We, to a less greed-based ethos that no longer accepts over-consumption as the natural order and the inevitable result of development.
Glen Hiemstra is a futurist speaker, author, consultant, blogger, internet video producer and Founder of Futurist.com. To arrange for a speech contact Futurist.com.