Posts from — March 2012

At the Eye of the Storm: Advice From the Future

        The “Crisis of Capitalism” has entered a more quiescent phase, leaving massive threats looming overhead like swords of Damocles. After being rocked by financial crises, climate change, political gridlock, and the Middle East in flames, the world seems to have entered an eerie calm reminiscent of the eye of a hurricane. This is a calmness we know cannot last  — the eye of a storm always gives way to renewed terror. The only question is, how bad will it get and what happens next? Here are the trends:

FINANCIAL CRISIS   The imminent implosion of the EU is being held at bay – but an eventual collapse is considered quite likely. Astute observers claim the default of Greece is almost certain and would have the same effect that the fall of Lehman Brothers had on the 2008 financial crisis in the US. George Soros thinks riots are “inevitable” in the streets of America.

ENVIRONMENT    The threat of climate change mounts along with the growing ranks of deniers – even as seasons are changing, the weather becomes weird, and animals are migrating north. For those who continue to trust science, 98% of climatologists expect a rise of 4o-10o F in global temperature and 3-6 ft in sea levels.

POLITICS   The US seems stuck in gridlock mode, with no hope of resolution until the elections in late 2012 – if then.  Polarization is so intense that Fidel Castro got off his deathbed to call the Republican presidential debates “the greatest stupidity ever.”   

STOCKS  Reflecting all this uncertainty, stock market averages have recovered to their former highs – but the trading volume is extraordinarily feeble because most investors are baffled. Some breakthrough could send stocks soaring or a new calamity could plunge us back into depression.            

TECHNOLOGY     The pace quickens as the Information Technology (IT) Revolution unites the world into a great web of shared knowledge exploding before us. The Collapse of Communism, the Arab Spring, Russia’s challenge to Putin, the Tea Party, and Occupy Wall Street showcased how IT is relentlessly challenging power. People around the globe are now connected by almost 6 billion cellphones (80% of world pop’n.) – all becoming smart little computers using the web for almost anything.

           These growing tensions are like howling winds in the eye of a storm that must somehow be released, and one wonders what will trigger the next set of shocking events in this saga of evolutionary transition? Is the world approaching an inevitable turning point? Will the 2012 elections allow Americans to reconcile left and right in a 21st Century vision? Can the EU survive and resume sustainable economic growth? Is China likely to steer the globe into an era of state capitalism?  Or will events drive the world into spiraling disaster? 

          Without being overly dramatic, this seems to be a moment of truth. Warnings about market failures and limits to growth have been batted away for decades, and now the problem can no longer be ignored. Mike Marien and I have been studying the “Global MegaCrisis” formed by this constellation of threats (The Futurist May/June 2011). We find that people think there is a 60 percent probability of severe disasters, or even a catastrophic loss of civilization in major parts of the globe.

          Futurists like myself have long tried to understand today’s state of affairs by comparing social evolution to human maturity.  John Renesch recently shared survey results showing that most people consider society’s present state of maturity roughly akin to the adolescence of the typical teenager – bursting with physical power but hopelessly limited by a lack of awareness and a sense of responsibility. George Soros thinks we have moved into an “Age of Fallibility.”

          Whether a teen or an entire globe, the message in these crises remains much the same – grow up or die.  As any adult who has raised a child through the crisis of maturity understands, help is badly needed. People today generally do not see a way out of this MegaCrisis. They may know what’s wrong and what should be done in an intuitive sense, but they lack the vision and will for change.

          I suggest that we futurists pool our best insights to advise the world on how to surmount this mess. To get started, here’s my 5-point summary of strong advice that good foresight can offer. No mincing words because the situation is critical. Just tough love from futurists.

STOP FIGHTING AND START COOPERATING   Cooperation is crucial in today’s knowledge economy because knowledge increases when shared. That’s why business managers have longed practiced “coopetition” – cooperating even with competitors to produce better results for all. Today’s battles in the US Congress, between labor vs management, the US and Iran, Israel and Arabs, etc. are outmoded relics of a brutal past. Conflict is unfit for a complex world facing enormous challenges. Yes, there may times calling for real-politics, but drop the macho attitude.  Articles in the Harvard Business Review claim a shift is underway from competition to cooperation, and IBM is defining the global corporation in collaborative terms.

REFORM INSTITUTIONS   Big Business and Big Government badly need to be transformed for a new world. Because collaboration is now seen as productive, the rise of corporate ethics, social responsibility, the triple bottom line, strategic alliances, women entering management, Internet transparency, and other trends are coalescing into a broader model of business – “Democratic  Enterprise.” At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Henry Blodget of Business Insider proposed a “’shift to a more balanced focus on profit, employees, and customers.” Among the Millennial youth, 92% think business should help serve social needs as well as profit.   Ironically, the solution to government bloat is to instill a healthy dose of free enterprise into the public sector, as many have argued.

GREEN EVERYTHING  Please stop delaying the inevitable and embrace the “Greening of America” as the great opportunity it really is. Blocking carbon taxes, pushing oil exploration, fighting the EPA, and denying the science behind climate change are doomed. The world is in a historic shift away from carbon fuels, and an industrializing world is drowning in pollutants. China, Germany, and much of Europe illustrate how renewable energy, conservation, green taxes, ecological design, better cars and buildings, and smart grids offer huge opportunities for sustainable growth.

PLAN AHEAD   The belief that an invisible hand will magically find market solutions to complex problems is dying (thankfully) with the continuing crisis of capitalism. In contrast, China is thriving precisely because the state insists on planning for a difficult future. Americans should yield their fear of government control to invite federal and state agencies to engage business, labor, academia, and other stakeholders in constructive planning to reach their collective goals. “Bottom-up strategy” could realize the promise of democracy by bringing it into everyday life.   

CELEBRATE LIFE  That sense of solidarity one feels during the Olympic Games is essential for a functioning society, and it would help enormously if the world could unite occasionally in celebrating the gifts we all share.  If nothing else, the Search for Extraterrestrial Life has shown how alone the Earth is in the great scheme of things, so we bear responsibility to make the most of our special place in the universe.

          These are just my rough ideas, and I know they may seem optimistic. Advice is always treated with suspicion – even though it may be exactly what’s needed – yet sound advice is often heard at a deeper level. I invite you to add your thoughts in comments below or at Halal@GWU.edu. I’ll do my best to integrate into an improved statement. To have an impact, I think our ideas have to be condensed into a few highly salient and incisive points – the TEN Commandments, Covey’s SEVEN Principles, or possibly our “FIVE Bits of Advice From the Future,” or “Five Strategies for the Future,” etc.

          Futurists can claim a special authority to speak for the future because we represent a unique intellectual resource on how to avoid disaster and invite success. We are the reporters, scholars, consultants, advocates, and general constituents of the world ahead, so we have an especially valuable perspective. Let’s offer our best advice at this crucial moment in the eye of the storm.

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March 11, 2012   1 Comment