By the year 2030, for the first time in history, a majority of the world's population will be out of poverty. Middle classes will be the most important social and economic sector. Asia will enjoy the global power status it last had in the Middle Ages, while the 350-year rise of the West will be largely reversed. Global leadership may be shared, and the world is likely to be democratizing.
But the planet may also be racked by wars over food and water, with the environment threatened by climate change. Individuals, equipped with new lethal and disruptive technologies, will be capable of causing widespread harm. Global economic crises could well be recurring.
It all depends on how events develop over the next decade, according to a new report, Global Trends 2030 [PDF], prepared by the National Intelligence Council, comprising the 17 U.S. government intelligence agencies.
"We are at a critical juncture in human history, which could lead to widely contrasting futures," writes Christopher Kojm, the NIC chairman, in his introduction to the report.
The intelligence agencies update their Global Trends reporting every four years, in part to guide incoming presidential administrations. The new report identifies some new "mega-trends," including individual empowerment and the diffusion of global power, as well as highlighting issues that were covered in previous reports, such as growing conflict over access to food, water and energy sources.
A 'Radically Transformed' World
Among the demographic trends described in the report are the aging of the world population, more migration and increased urbanization.
"The world of 2030 will be radically transformed from our world today," Kojm said, introducing the report.
The report's authors note that the breadth of global change is comparable to the French Revolution and the dawning of the Industrial Age in the late 18th century, but unfolding at a far more dramatic pace. Whereas it took Britain more than 150 years to double per capita income, India and China are set to undergo the same transformation in a tenth of the time, with 100 times more people.
"By 2030," the report says, "Asia will be well on its way to returning to being the world's powerhouse, just as it was before 1500."
The report notes that Asian countries by that date will surpass the United States and Europe combined in overall power indices, including the size of their economies, populations and militaries, as well as in the extent of their technological investment.
A Multipolar World
Global political leadership, however, is likely to be diffused, with no single country or alliance playing a dominant role.
"A growing number of diverse state and nonstate actors, as well as subnational actors, such as cities, will play important governance roles," the report says. "The increasing number of players needed to solve major transnational challenges — and their discordant values — will complicate decisionmaking."
Much of the 2030 report highlights potentially positive developments, anticipating a healthier, more educated and more prosperous global population and a trend toward greater democracy. The report also warns about resource conflicts, the danger of nuclear war and global political gridlock. But its writers have nevertheless faced some criticism for an overly "optimistic" perspective, says Matthew Burrows, director of the NIC Long Range Analysis Unit and the principal author of the report.
"I got some comments from government officials who think we should have put more accent on even more negative scenarios and a lot more on a World War III scenario," Burrows says.
Diminished Threat From Terrorism
The report does identify some "Black Swan" possibilities that could cause large-scale disruption, such as a severe pandemic or the collapse of the European Union, but Burrows says his team of analysts figured a World War III scenario was not plausible.
Terrorism is likely to persist, according to the NIC analysts, but it will probably be less lethal, producing fewer civilian casualties and more economic disruption. Speaking at a news conference where he released the report, NIC Chairman Kojm said his analysts believe that radical Islam will have largely "exhausted" itself as a driver of terrorism by 2030.
The introduction of new media and technologies, however, may mean that individuals will be more capable of doing harm on their own or on behalf of others.
"With more access to lethal and disruptive technologies," Kojm said, "individuals who are experts in such areas as cybersystems might sell their services to the highest bidder."
The emphasis on individual empowerment was not highlighted in earlier NIC reports. The geopolitical shift from West to East did get attention previously, but Burrows said in hindsight it could have been given greater emphasis.
"We knew China was rising," Burrows says. "We underestimated the speed with which it was happening."
A Less Organized World
The NIC analysts may also have been caught a bit off guard by the Arab Spring, with the collapse of authoritarian governments from Egypt to Tunisia and the uprising in Syria. As with China's ascendancy, the democratization of Middle Eastern and North African countries was anticipated in the previous Global Trends report, but over a longer period of time.
"We were thinking about over 15 years," Burrows says. "We wrote that [last report] in 2008, so [we expected democratization] between 2008 and 2025. I think the lesson in a lot of these areas is that the developments come a lot faster."
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of this new global era will be that it's likely to be less organized. Global leadership will flow not to the strongest but to those who are most skilled at diplomacy and best able to mobilize international support. Under the "megatrends" category, the Global Trend authors predict that "power will shift to networks and coalitions in a multipolar world."
Should no group of countries prove capable of that cooperative leadership, the world could suffer, according to Burrows.
"You probably don't want to live in [that world]," Burrows says, "simply because of the challenges. Everything from proliferation to the global economy to the environment and resource issues, the responsibility to protect. All of those issues are not likely to fare very well in that world.You need some sort of management to keep a lot of these issues going in the right direction."