NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. A new report for the National Intelligence Council describes the world of today as a transition point in world history, like 1815, 1919, 1945 and 1989, when the path forward was not clear-cut, the report says, and the world faced the possibility of different global futures.
Every four years, as each presidential term begins, the NIC looks ahead 15 or 20 years to try to identify likely threats, challenges and opportunities. In every scenario, Global Trends 2030 projects diminished American power, the unipolar moment, it concludes, is over, increased competition for food, water and energy and considerable risk of conflict, including nuclear war, but also a world where the middle class triples and health care improves.
We'd like to hear about a global trend you're following. What questions do you have about where it's likely to be in 2030? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, a look at Northeast Asia as a new generation of leaders takes power there. But first, Global Trends 2030. NPR correspondent Tom Gjelten joins us here in Studio 3A. He covers intelligence and global security. Tom, always good to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Nice to see you, Neal.
CONAN: Also with us is Mathew Burrows, counselor and director of analysis and production staff at the National Intelligence Council. He led the research on the Global Trends report. And good of you to join us today.
MATHEW BURROWS: Well, nice to be here.
CONAN: Tom, as you looked at it, what surprised you in Global Trends 2030?
GJELTEN: Well, I think it'll be interesting to have Dr. Burrows respond to this, but what surprised me was how much good news there was in this report, you know, perhaps because we in the news business, Neal, are so focused on conflict and disease and wars and so forth, it's easy to get sort of pessimistic or gloomy about the world.
And yet, you know, there are some projections in this report that actually are really good news, that the world is increasingly becoming a middle-class society, that poverty is declining, that democracy, democratization is on the increase, that individuals are becoming more empowered. Those are some, you know, really positive trends.
CONAN: And so let me turn to Mathew Burrows. Buried in even some of those positive trends - I've been in the news business a long time - we can find some gloom. That development of tripling the size of the middle class from one to three billion, as some of the scenarios project, well, that includes people who are going to want to buy cars and eat meat. That's going to drive up demand for water, for fuel and for energy.
BURROWS: Yeah, you put your finger on the real problem. One of the scenarios that we have in there, which is the most optimistic, and it's really where you get these huge strains on the resources. Now, there is somebody who can come to the rescue, and that is technology. But as the scenario points out, you need, actually, a lot of cooperation, a much higher-level of cooperation between countries, actually, to achieve, I think, those breakthroughs, and also, more importantly, the implementation of those new technologies to deal with those strains.
CONAN: And if the unipolar moment is over - the period of time in which the United States was predominate - that suggests, as you note in the report, we're going to have to reinvent the international system.
BURROWS: Yes. I think this is - the big message for the U.S. is not that you're going to be replaced by another power. You know, I don't think that was the case, and certainly when we were in China, we got lots of pushback saying, you know, we are not your peer competitor. Don't look to us, either, for shouldering a lot of these responsibilities.
So it's really going to be up to the U.S. to put together, as we talk about, these coalitions of state and non-state actors, really to pull together and deal with these global challenges. And that's extremely difficult in this world where, actually, power is being diffused.
CONAN: And Tom, there's obviously a lot - as we look ahead to the future - that's utterly unpredictable. We're not going to know. Technology, for example, as Mathew Burrows just pointed out, could change in unpredictable ways. Yet some of the trends seem inevitable: the graying of populations in places like Europe, for example, the explosion - what's going to happen to that big bulge of youth that's currently in parts of Asia and in Africa.
GJELTEN: Right. Those are basically immutable trends, but the title of the report is alternative worlds. And I think that this is one of the things that struck me is that depending on - there are a number of events that Dr. Burrows and his staff call game-changers that will dictate whether the trends move in a positive direction or in a negative direction, because these are such momentous and decisive developments, and we don't know yet which way they're going to go.
CONAN: Give us, like, an example.
GJELTEN: Well, you know, there are - the - what happens with the global economy, for example. This is number one in the game-change. You know, the global economy is more vulnerable now because of all the interconnections. The global economy is more vulnerable to globally wide crises. And another global economic crisis could change the game in a pretty dramatic way.
There is the impact of new technologies. I mean, one of the things that really struck me about this is that individuals - while individuals will be empowered, and that is part of the democratization movement, the impact of new technology is also negative in the sense that there is technology that is lethal, that has potentially lethal effects.
And individuals are now going to be more capable of carrying out destructive acts. And we saw - I mean, we saw what one deranged individual in Connecticut did last week. We saw what one radical anti-Muslim figure in California was able to do by posting a video online.
I mean, these are impacts that would not have been possible before we entered into this new era of technology.
CONAN: And there's another list - you mentioned game-changers - it's called black swans. These are individual things that could change dramatically: there's a severe pandemic, for example, the collapse of the eurozone as Greece exits messily and things get worse from there. There's, we should say, Mathew, a couple of good ones: reformed Iran and that China becomes much more democratic.
BURROWS: Yes. I mean, I think on that list, the predominates are more on the negative side. And, obviously, I mean, this is one of the big trends is what Tom has been talking about, is the empowerment of individuals, but also the empowerment of bad guys who, through terrorism, through criminal activity and the fact that these disruptive technologies - like cyber, and then the very destructive, potentially, like bio - are much more accessible to the individual. And...
CONAN: Delivery systems like drones, which could become accessible to individuals.
BURROWS: Yeah. And that is the - really, the nightmare for the intelligence community, because you're having to follow, increasingly, numbers of really small groups of individuals.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. What global trend are you following, and what questions do you have about how it might play out come 2030? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. And let's start with Philip(ph), Philip on the line with us from Tucson.
PHILIP: Hello. Thanks for taking my call. I'm a longtime listener. I wanted to just, I guess, get the guests' comments on the availability of free Internet in much of the world, and I guess how that effect has already had on the Arab spring, and what effect do you think that's going to, I guess, play out over the next 18 years.
CONAN: Increased access to communications and the Internet. Mathew Burrows?
BURROWS: Well, you know, this is back on the positive side of the ledger. I mean, this is incredibly beneficial, and certainly, we take this draft, before we publish it, on the road. We went to Africa. Here you find a continent, five years ago, we would never have thought that you'd have the proportions. And now you're up to 50 or 60 percent who have smartphones and then have access through smartphones to the Internet.
And there, they're doing a lot more innovative things than we do, a lot of banking. A lot of NGOs use it to monitor health conditions, very remote areas. I mean, this is a spectacular change. Now, you know, you can get gloomy on this, and when I also presented the report in various places, there was a lot of pushback, saying OK, this is, you know, this connective-ness through the Internet, it's going to reinforce people's ethnic, religious identity. You're going to get a lot more conflict and tensions in countries.
And that is true. I mean, that's probably the other side of the coin. But on balance, I think this is, you know, really positive and also something that five, 10 years ago, we really didn't understand just how quickly this was going to spread.
GJELTEN: You know, one thing, Mathew, when I talked to you when your report came out, one of the things you acknowledged was that having foreseen the democratic uprisings, in a sense, of the democratization move in the Middle East, you underestimated how rapidly it would develop. And you also, I think, underestimated - even though you saw the vectors of change, the direction of change in a number of places - you underestimated how fast these changes would take place.
And I'm curious, you know, whether, in fact, technology like access to the Internet has accelerated. Is - how far does that go in explaining the fact that change is happening even more rapidly than you foresaw three, four years ago?
BURROWS: It does. It is a big factor in why, previously, we've underestimated the rate and speed of change. I think, you know, particularly in the - when you're looking at development, I mean, this is a way for education to be really disseminated across, you know, well, whole continents now, I mean, where people can connect through the Internet and really find out what's going elsewhere.
This is actually something I think that's putting enormous amount of strain on authoritarian states, and you see their efforts to try to control the Internet, and, you know, that in itself shows just how powerful an instrument it is.
CONAN: Philip, thanks very much for the call.
PHILIP: Absolutely. Thank you very much.
CONAN: And we're talking with Tom Gjelten and Mathew Burrows. We want to hear from you about a global trend you're following, what questions you have, what it might look like in 2030. Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. The latest National Intelligence Council report, Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds, takes a look at globalization, population, demographics and the environment to predict where we might be 20 years down the road. It's a forecast of sorts, meant to guide a president's decision-making.
Like all predictions, though, it can only be so precise. Critics point to inaccuracies and missteps in previous reports: failure to predict the attacks of September the 11th, the 2008 financial crisis, the Arab Spring, and wonder about the value of such reports.
Perhaps the best advice comes from the editorial board of the Christian Science Monitor, which recommends the president read it in the Oval Office with a pinch of salt handy. On the other hand, on a day when many worry whether we're going to get through another day, we're talking about 2030. So what's the global trend you have on your radar? What questions do you have about where it might be 20 years from now?
Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Joining us now - oh, excuse me, our guests are NPR correspondent Tom Gjelten and Mathew Burrows, the chief author of the 2030 Global Trends Report. Joining us now is Laurence Smith, professor and vice chair of the Department of Geography at UCLA, author of "The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping the Civilization's Northern Future." And he joins us by phone from his office in Los Angeles. Good of you to be with us today.
LAURENCE SMITH: Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: And I expect you've looked at this report. What conforms to your own view of the future, and what departs?
SMITH: Well, I'm struck very much by how similar some of these trajectories are, and I appreciate the adoption of a scenarios(ph) type of view because of course none of us can predict the future, but it's certainly reasonable to project some long-term trends should current activities continue as they are now.
And we've talked a lot about technology, but the report really hits on some very deep, fundamental things like demographic changes, like demand for natural resources that are so critical to shaping our future. And they've always shaped the course of human history in the past, and they will certainly continue to do so in the next 17 years.
CONAN: And I wanted to ask you about one of the black swans the report includes - much more rapid climate change, dramatic and unforeseen changes already occurring faster than expected. Most scientists are not confident of being able to predict such events. Rapid changes in precipitation patterns, such as monsoons in India and the rest of Asia, could sharply disrupt that region's ability to feed its population.
And Mathew Burrows, a lot of people think they're seeing some of these things already.
BURROWS: Yes, I think this is the - in terms of the black swans, this is the scariest because we know in the past that climate change has tended to be very abrupt and fast. And so if that follows that pattern, then it opens the question whether you can adapt very easily and quickly to it. And I think we're already seeing what these current reports said - the amount of climate change is coming much faster than we had really thought about.
CONAN: Laurence Smith, this could be, talking about game-changers, a real game-changer.
SMITH: Yes, absolutely. As a climate scientist myself, this is one of the fears that keeps me awake at night. There are really two types of climate change. There is the steady, predictable sort of overall increases in mien temperature that are brought about from greenhouse gas loading. That's the easier part to model. But there are also these natural switches and thresholds within the climate system that have happened before in the geological past and could well happen again in the future, especially if pressed by anthropogenic greenhouse gas loading in.
And there are any number of these that are worrisome. A destabilization of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet would push up sea level quite rapidly. The release of methane from frozen permafrost soil is one I worry about. And it's certainly true that the climate changes that we have observed are already happening much faster than we thought.
For example, the disappearance of the Arctic sea ice cover has just stunned the scientific community. It has declined more rapidly than even our most aggressive climate models.
CONAN: Let's see if we get another caller in on the conversation. Let's go to Mark, and Mark's on the line from Salt Lake City.
MARK: Yeah, Tom and Matt, I guess my question is related to the - you mentioned health care and rising middle class. You know, I know that as health increases, so does longevity. And with that, you know, we have larger segments of the population who are aged and, you know, need care. They're buying - their involvement in the market changes. I guess I'm wondering what changes you see with the aging of the world's population.
CONAN: Mathew Burrows, most people see better health care as a good thing, pretty much.
BURROWS: Yes, I mean there is the question of, you know, U.S. health care costs are so much higher than elsewhere. So I mean that is one of the issues, and we point it out in the chapter on the U.S., I mean as a structural problem that the U.S. needs to get a handle on.
I think, you know, aging has another, I think, problem associated with it, and that's what we're particularly seeing, in Europe, and probably in Japan as well, is how do you keep up your economic growth rate. And particularly, you know, we're looking there over the next 15, 20 years, when societies are moving into medium age, in the 50s. You know, so it's going to make it very hard to support, really, the - and have the same standard of living without huge increases in productivity.
CONAN: Laurence Smith, the - of course Europe, Japan, we think of those, but the one-child policy in China creates an unusual situation there as well.
SMITH: This is the really fascinating thing about the demographic aging trend around the world. I think many of us assume that this is an American or European problem. But in fact the U.S. and Europe have already completed much of their aging process. And this graying of the planet is now unraveling and unfolding in a very rapid and uneven way around the rest of the world.
For example, China is definitely aging. It's projected - looking out to 2050, the median age is going to go up by a decade, from 35 to 45. But some other countries that we think of being useful sources of labor for the global labor market, for example, like Mexico and Vietnam, those countries are aging even more quickly, projected to increase 16 and 15 years respectively, out to the middle of this century.
So ironically, the median age in Mexico by mid-century is projected to be older than the United States, as they'll be in their early 40s. So this is a global phenomenon and happening very rapidly in some surprising places around the world.
CONAN: Let's go next to Sonny(ph), Sonny's on the line with us from Savannah.
SONNY: Hello there, guys, really interesting program. I'm probably retrogressing a little bit because I'm catching up with you now. I'm just curious as to, you know, this wonderfulness of Internet throughout the global network. How much of that is dependent on satellites, and what would happen - are we putting all our eggs in one basket? What would happen, God forbid, if several satellites were knocked out of the sky?
Would we be, like, down to ground-level then?
CONAN: Tom, this is something you think about.
GJELTEN: Well, I certainly follow - you know, the Internet, as powerful a force and institution as it is, also fragile in the sense that it does depend on networks that can be disrupted, you know, one of the potential black swans or rare events that could have a really disruptive effect on the world, which really caught my attention, because I - as much as I cover security issues, this is not one that I had thought about.
And that is the prospect of what a solar storm, a really severe solar geomagnetic storm would do to electronics around the world and specifically in the case of Sonny's point, to the Internet. I mean geomagnetic storms, solar storms are something that have happened since the beginning of time, you know, in Earth terms. But they've never had the consequence that they would have now.
And they come, I think, according to the 2030 report, they come roughly once a century. A century ago it had very little impact because we weren't in an electronically linked world. Now we are. The solar - a big solar geomagnetic disturbance now would really knock out a lot of our communication, including the Internet.
CONAN: Thanks very much, Sonny.
SONNY: You're certainly welcome. Being a ham, I realize what he's saying, and I do thank you for this program.
CONAN: OK, the rest of us are hams in a different way.
CONAN: Here's an email question from Jackson in Portland: As much of the developing world strives for a higher quality of life and begins using more electricity and driving more cars, I'm concerned about the geopolitics of oil. It seems that an ever-growing demand for an ever-dwindling and ultimately finite resource is a recipe for global conflict and possibly war. And Mathew Burrows, this is certainly not something you ignore.
BURROWS: No, not at all, but I think we may have some good news there. You know, one of the factors that we examined was actually the development of shale gas and shale oil in the United States, and actually there are also other formations, shale formations. China has quite a large one that could be used, actually, for developing what we call unconventional oil and gas.
BURROWS: So fracking. And there, you know, some of the forecasts there are extremely promising, boosting, actually, world production. And the other big factor looking forward is Iraq, where we've already seen enormous increases in production. I would say, you know, the best thing that could happen, though, even beyond that, is if we're - we become a lot more efficient in the use of fuel in cars, also in appliances. I mean, this is actually - it could be a huge factor in - when you're talking about, you know, putting carbon into the atmosphere, as well preventing any disruption to oil or gas supplies.
CONAN: Laurence Smith, let me ask you, though, about the sort of Malthusian question, and that is food. Yes, we found ways to increase the efficiency of agriculture, but there's come a point. And when we're having all this climate change, that gets pretty dicey.
SMITH: Well, the - it's certainly - I certainly don't want to get into the Malthusian argument, which seems to get delayed time and time again. But there's no question that the rising prosperity of the middle class, as had already been discussed, will significantly increase food demand around the world, out of proportion to the actual number of new heads and mouths to feed on the Earth. Because as people become wealthier, they tend to eat further up the food chain, which - well, it takes about pounds of grain to produce a pound of cow, for example. So we're on track of roughly doubling our food requirements by the middle of this century.
And in many cases, water is the limiting supply. When we tend to discuss water issues, we think about shower heads and low-flush toilets. But, in fact, over 70 percent of human water consumption is for the production of food. And furthermore, water is a critical ingredient in the fracking revolution and the extraction of many of these unconventional energy sources that were just discussed.
So this competition for water between food and also energy production is clearly one of the most pressing environmental challenges of the century.
CONAN: I wonder if you wanted to expand on that, Mathew.
BURROWS: No, I totally agree. I mean, I think the water and the food issue, that is where you approach the closest to a Malthusian world. And unfortunately, it also falls unevenly across the world. I mean, the U.S. is actually - except for some parts - you know, in the Southwest and so on, where there are continual draughts and real scarcity. But for the most part, we're doing pretty well. But half of the world, as we show in the report, is actually going to be living in places where water is absent in large degrees, where you have really severe cases of scarcity.
CONAN: Mathew Burrows is the counselor and director of analysis and production staff at the National Intelligence Center, chief author of the report "Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds." Also with us is Laurence Smith, professor and vice chair of the department of geography at UCLA, author of "The World in 2050." And Tom Gjelten is with us, NPR correspondent who covers a wide range of intelligence and global security issues. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And Ted's on the line with us, calling from Norfolk.
TED: Yes. Good afternoon. I was a member of America's intelligence community for 23 years, and more recently served in the Pentagon on part of the joint staff as a senior information policy and strategy adviser. I'm familiar with these kinds of reports and have some knowledge of the specifics within GT2030. I think it's a very good piece. I think its efficacy could be enhanced, however. And what's absent is the - is a so-what companion piece. I think there's a need without agenda and without trying to fight the scenario, so to speak, of some analysis such as, all right, let's look at what the intelligence community has projected for 2030, the trends. What are the policies, the actions? What should the United States be doing now, looking ahead to 2030, in order to ensure that the impact of those trends in 2030 aren't more adverse than the GT2030 report potentially, you know, reveals?
And if your panelists there believe that such a companion piece is useful, would be useful to decision-makers and policymakers, then who should be responsible for that kind of companion piece? I know it's not the intelligence community - at least I don't think it is in current structure, because they do the analysis. They don't look at policy recommendations, and so on and so forth. So I'd like to hear from your panel members, and I'll take the information offline.
CONAN: All right, Ted. Thanks very much for the phone call. And Mathew Burrows, I assume there's no secret agenda addendum that you sent to the White House.
BURROWS: No. I mean, I think, you know, he's exactly right. That said, you know, after you to get this analysis, you really need to sit back and think, OK. What does it mean? What does it mean for the U.S.? And that is actually the hope. That's one reason why we do it, is that - to help the policymaking community to begin thinking longer term. We don't have that mandate to do policy. So we don't write, you know, a secret, annex to the work and provide any sort of recommendations.
CONAN: Laurence Smith, as an academic, you're not burdened by any such restrictions.
SMITH: No, I'm not, but I would hasten to add that it doesn't mean that reports like these do not have influence. For example, while there may not be a direct mandate in this case, they are widely read by think tanks such as the RAND Corporation, for example, which will use them to guide them in their planning and their pitches, essentially, to government sponsors. And those more internal studies have real influence at a variety of levels.
CONAN: Here's an email question from Michael in Berlin, Germany: I would like you to talk about the philosophical background that might rule in 2030. Will Western individualism survive? Will the Western world turn more to an Eastern viewpoint in which community counts more than the single being? Will our high regard to the single human being give us, perhaps, a key advantage against the super-pragmatic approach of Eastern populations? Is that something you address, Mathew Burrows?
BURROWS: Well, we don't address it directly. But, you know, what I can say is, I think, actually, you know, the individual will be prized. I mean, that's part of this middle-class revolution. But, you know, that's over the longer term. I think one of the things that we're seeing in the short-to-medium term is actually the Internet revolution. The prosperity, the growth of the middle class is actually reinforcing some of the ethnic, religious, nationalistic tendencies more, and getting away a little bit from just highly prizing individuals, and individuals wherever they come from.
CONAN: You can find the link to the report at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Thanks to Mathew Burrows, the counselor and director of analysis and production staff at the National Intelligence Council. He joined us here in Studio 3A. Appreciate your time.
BURROWS: Thank you.
CONAN: To NPR correspondent, Tom Gjelten, nice - always nice to have you with us, Tom.
GJELTEN: Always a pleasure to be here.
CONAN: And Laurence Smith, professor and vice chair of the department of geography at UCLA. Thanks very much.
SMITH: My pleasure. Thank you.
CONAN: After a short break, we'll look at the past year in Northeast Asia, specifically, how a new crop of leaders in North Korea, China, Japan and South Korea may shape the region in 2013 - little shorter terms. Stay with us. TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.