TOP-20 FAQs about The Reality of Our Global Future and The Reality of Global Crises
Q1. After a gap of several years, in 2012 you published your seventh and eighth books. What were they about? And why two books so close together?
They were both published on the same day, and they were both about what’s going to happen over the next 30 years. One book looks at the deep trends that are pushing us toward a Global Renaissance. The other (bigger) book looks at the escalating Global Crises that could stop us ever getting there. In fact, the books are two sides of the same coin: It turns out that the same trends that grant us the opportunity of a Global Renaissance are also causing an escalation of Global Crises.
Q2. What is the analysis on which your books are based?
Over the few years before they were published I re-analyzed my previous 25+ years of confidential research into the hidden inner-workings of organizations and the global economy. I wanted to see how the different components I’d looked at before all linked together below the surface. To my surprise I found that the very same trends in High-Tech that offer such incredible promise are also causing unintended consequences when they interact with other deeply-established trends such as Capitalism or Industrialization or even Religion. We are already experiencing those side-effects of High-Tech in the form of escalating global crises. As things stand, the crises will accelerate – ballooning at pretty much the same exponential pace as we’ve come to expect from things like computing.
Q3. Why is the ‘exponential growth’ of High-Tech so significant?
Exponential growth just means that the larger something grows, the faster it grows even larger. But none of us has an intuitive feel for what that really means. Imagine I am touching the tip of my nose and, the further I move my hand away, the greater the complexity of the best computer chip available in a given year. For 1960, my hand is one finger-width away from my nose. For 1961 it is two fingers away. If progress had continued at this rate, then even by 2040, I would just be holding my hand at arm’s length. Yet in reality, to represent the complexity that the electronics industry expects computer-chips to have in 25 years’ time, my hand would need to be further away than the orbit of Saturn. The difference between an arm’s length and the orbit of Saturn is the difference between ‘linear’ and ‘exponential’ growth. Most progress is linear. The trends that are stirring up Global Crises are all exponential.
Q4. What sorts of crises are you talking about?
Consider the last few years: The global financial system was brought to its knees; the creditworthiness of the world’s remaining superpower was downgraded; crises within the Eurozone escalated to threaten the entire world economy; many Arab countries became increasingly unstable, and for a few days arsonists and looters took control of British city streets; concealed abuses by Roman Catholic priests shook faith in some parts of the Establishment; concealed abuses by tabloid journalists, politicians and the police shook faith in much of the rest; meanwhile, governments around the globe appeared powerless to prevent collapsing fish-stocks, depleting water reserves, uncontrolled species-extinctions, escalating oil prices, growing threats of climate change. In reality, all of these proliferating crises are side-effects of the increasingly complex and interconnected world being made possible by High-Tech. And governments are simply not set up to deal with these sorts of Global Crises.
Q5. What are specific examples of how such side-effects from High-Tech come about?
The current slew of financial crises is a good instance. Some of my early research took place during the financial Big Bang in the City of London in 1986. It was much more than just ‘deregulation’ as it is often portrayed today. I watched the transition from people shouting and waving at each other on the trading floors to punching buttons on their electronic trading platforms. Ever since, High-Tech has been at the center of financial markets and automated trading, which leaves economies on a hair-trigger. Governments within the Eurozone now live in fear not so much of other governments (which tend to be as slow at reacting as they are) but of The Market, which can now respond vastly faster than low-tech political bodies ever can.
A quite different example is the way High-Tech makes possible factory-ships with GPS and sonar to locate shoals of fish that can in their entirety be engulfed within a single net. High-Tech makes possible the transformation of natural gas and oil into the fertilizers and insecticides needed for unprecedented agriculture that also needs unprecedented amounts of water for irrigation. These are good things – provided they’re sustainable. At the moment they’re not. And they’ll be even less sustainable within a few years.
In a completely different dimension, High-Tech is also exacerbating Religious conflicts. Dogmatic sects can’t escape exposure to social changes that they abhor, inexorable scientific progress now encroaches on every province of religion (even morals), there’s inescapable critiquing of the behavior of religious leaders, and unprecedented access to confusing analyses of religious texts. These sorts of destabilizing factors encourage extremists to become even more polarized, which destabilizes their religion even further.
Q6. So, High-Tech is a bad thing?
On the contrary, High-Tech is one of the most wonderful trends that human civilization has ever produced, and it offers extraordinary promise for the future. That’s part of what I’ve analyzed. It turns out that nearly all trends into the future grow relatively steadily, but five largely-hidden trends – all in some way connected to High-Tech – are set to explode. They’re already pretty well unstoppable and they’ll dominate and change everything. Just to give a single example: Within decades everything will potentially be on-the-record because using the equivalent of your mobile phone you’ll be able to record and access a video-diary of every second of your whole life. As will everyone you meet. Those devices will all be linked via the internet. But the power of a network increases by far more than just the sophistication of the computers attached to it. By 2040, the ‘supernet’ will be about a billion times more powerful than the internet we use today. So, thanks to High-Tech, we should certainly be optimistic about the potential of our future; by 2040 we could be entering an extraordinary form of Global Renaissance. But the exploding technological trends are also stirring up some nasty surprises in the form of potentially very-damaging unintended consequences – Global Crises that we are currently incapable of preventing.
Q7. What is your overall conclusion about the next 30 years – will we make it through to a Global Renaissance?
An unchecked onslaught of Global Crises would easily lead to global chaos. Despite a lot of looking, I cannot find convincing evidence of why such a deterioration is not a very-real possibility. It may even be as likely to happen as not. We appear to be extraordinarily-badly prepared. I’m an optimist, but the data on its own suggests that our future may be in the balance. Don’t get me wrong: Nobody appreciates how extreme that sounds more than I do. It is not the conclusion I expected to come from my research. And, unfortunately, because I’ve often had unique confidential access to certain parts of the international community, I risk being something of a lone voice. All I can do is lay out my analysis and hope that someone can prove me totally wrong. If they can’t, then the only conclusion that fits the data is that – alarmist as it seems – global crises will escalate, and governments will be increasingly powerless to protect us.
Q8. Others have warned of many of the same Global Crises as you, what’s new about your analysis?
There would be something very worrying about the validity of my analyses if the main trends were not already highly visible. However, details of some of the hidden drivers of those trends and the hidden consequences when the trends interact, those are new (because, frankly, very few other people had the chance to analyze them in the ways that I was lucky enough to). Those sorts of insights are crucial because they provide an understanding of the hidden links between global crises and other factors in the global economy – some of which are really-positive things like High-Tech. And that understanding is vital because it’s only once politicians and others begin to understand the true inner workings of the global system that they can hope to propose solutions that have any chance of implementation; otherwise things remain misaligned. Just look at the Eurozone. Or fishing quotas. Or responses to global warming. Or aging populations. Or obesity. Or depleting water reserves. Or widespread abuses within: world religions, or media multinationals, or global banks. They’re all symptoms of systems out of alignment – systems that those in charge do not sufficiently understand.
Q9. Why do you state that governments increasingly can’t cope with the worst of today’s crises?
Look at their powerlessness to address fundamentals of the Eurozone, the weakened commitments from the Rio+20 talks, the impasse over Syria. When you analyze the hidden logic behind each of these apparently-very-different forms of political impotence, they’re all the same: There currently exists no form of global governance that, even theoretically, could allow the crises to be solved. Each government is responsible for its own country, and (to stay in power) must put its citizens above everyone else even if – as with overfishing or overspending or overpopulation or overproduction of CO2 – in the long run that pulls down everyone. Think about it: Every official Ambassador on the planet has to push for his or her country; in practice, not a single one is ever allowed to act for the global community as a whole.
Q10. In which case, are you advocating a World Government?
No, I think a World Government would in practice be an awful idea. Almost no one would want to give up sovereign power to something as remote and monolithic as a World Government – and they’d be absolutely right to feel that way. Just think how upset people across the European Union already get about ‘dictates from Brussels’; a World Government would be vastly worse. But if a centralized system is unacceptable, we nevertheless need something new that we can add to the existing system of global governance to start making it effective at dealing with genuinely-global crises like overfishing or global warming or financial collapse. We need a practical form of global governance.
Q11. What would a practical form of global governance look like?
What it ought to look like – but this won’t happen – is that politicians themselves set up a fully-independent ‘World Embassy’ (for want of a better name) that acts as an overall global watchdog that’s looking out for the whole of humanity, rather than just a particular country or region, and that’s monitoring the whole world system, rather than just a particular issue such as global warming. At a bare minimum that would provide a crystal-clear global mirror that reflected in sharp contrast what was actually happening and why, often behind the scenes, it was happening that way – all undistorted by national and political and commercial vested interest. But far more proactively than that, a World Embassy would watch for the signs of threatening scenarios starting to develop, and it would then lobby for what was best globally and in the long-term, rather than territorially in the medium-to-short-term as currently tends to happen. Also, a bit like Wikipedia, a World Embassy would stimulate widely-dispersed and locally-relevant ways of reducing global threats, and then share what worked best under which circumstances. And to give itself some clout, a World Embassy would intentionally tap into the Boundaryless People-Power that we’ve already seen flex its muscles (for good and for bad) in the Arab Spring and in the backlash against Banking; a coordinated form of that sort of cross-border activism really could realign things.
Q12. If the ideal is a government-sponsored ‘World Embassy’, why do you say that it won’t happen?
Unfortunately, governments seem set to fail dismally on this: Politicians with the time and insight don’t have the power to change the world, while key politicians with the power usually don’t have the headspace to try. By my analysis, we cannot rely on politicians to get us out of this growing mess. We might possibly be saved by one or more superrich philanthropists funding a truly-independent World Embassy – but there aren’t many who could or would. So we can’t rely on that route either, however attractive it is. Instead, ironically given its reputation, our greatest chance is going to come from Big Business setting up its own equivalent to a World Embassy. And the reason that’s not as dangerous as it sounds is that key industries are likely to choose to tackle global crises, because if they don’t then they’ll suffer even more directly than the rest of us.
Q13. Are you saying that the most successful industries will be the ones that tackle Global Crises head-on?
If they don’t act, who will act for them? Look at what’s happened to Banking: When a crisis hurts too many people then the public and its governments turn on those most closely involved and they retaliate on the associated industry by forcing potentially-draconian changes upon it. A far better approach for all concerned is that, rather than expect short-term and nationally-focused politicians to solve what is beyond their control, globally-powerful industry leaders themselves take the strategic initiative to minimize the risks of a crisis (and resultant backlash) long before it becomes inevitable. When tackling systemic risks that ultimately are a threat to worldwide economic and social stability – whether in Banking or in Energy or in Fishing or in anything else – the current leadership vacuum benefits no one. In the absence of any effective elected alternative, it is much preferable that, at least until politicians are able credibly to take over, global governance is, in effect, unilaterally privatized. After all, there’s immense talent and capability in business that can be brought to bear. And the incentive for those putting in the effort is that the first leaders successfully to fill the existing vacuum will exert disproportionate impact. But that incentive is also neatly aligned with global stability: Finding ways to minimize global crises is not only in most industries’ enlightened self-interest but it also directly benefits the interconnected world economy. That’s all of us.
Q14. Wouldn’t they first have to push state governments and the United Nations out of the way?
The disconcerting truth is that there isn’t anyone to push out of the way. When it comes to addressing the crises that increasingly threaten almost every component of the world economy, there truly is a leadership vacuum. Individual governments are already largely powerless to counter globally-defined threats to the security of their national economies (such as escalating energy costs, collapsing fish-stocks, antibiotic-resistant bacteria and climate change). Meanwhile the UN Charter in practice prevents the UN making the very changes that would encourage member-states to act for anything other than national self-interest. State governments are unlikely to be able to act fast enough to fill the leadership gap in time; the UN will almost certainly find it impossible. The responsibility is largely going to fall on business, as well as on business advisors – especially certain key management consultancies. But those organizations that rise to the challenge will wield more power than ever before.
Q15. Are these what you refer to as ‘Global Guilds’?
I’ve tried to zero-in on those points of the world system that are most susceptible to being changed – where the escalating crises are at their most vulnerable, if you like. Part of that process involves highlighting the most powerful organizations that are at risk, and that therefore have both the clout and the vested interest to try to do something. I think there are a handful of industry-clusters that would directly benefit from working far closer together in what conceptually I think of as informal Global Guilds. There’s a cluster all relating to High-Tech, another around Banking, then there’s Media and there’s Energy. I’d also add some form of Marine Guild and a corresponding Land Guild (which, for example, would include many parts of the Food and Drink industries). And, in an ideal world, there would also be the equivalent of a Politics Guild and a Faith Guild added to the mix, though they could tie in through other means as well. That just about does it. Of course, there are vital industries such as Education that don’t have a separate Guild, but they’d tie into a related but already-powerful group such as the Media Guild. Similarly, a huge industry such as Automotive might belong to more than one Guild – maybe High-Tech, Energy, and even Land. But there’s something very important here: The point is that only a handful of powerful, overlapping and truly-global ‘Guilds’ can effectively influence the whole of the world system. So, rather than wait forever for around 200 governments to try to align the world system, interested parties can instead begin operating as if they were Global Guilds and that will immediately improve the odds for those that participate. And, far more importantly for the rest of us, operating all in parallel the Global Guilds would bring the unprecedented benefits of a fully-functioning World Embassy.
Q16. How would Global Guilds – operating as a World Embassy – approach Global Crises?
There are different counter-measures needed for different types of Global Crises. The systemic threats that are most closely associated with, for example, oil and energy suppliers respond best to actions that are very different to those needed for banking or media, which in turn are different to those needed by major developing economies in Asia; various world religions need something else, while solutions for IT, telecoms and pharmaceuticals need to come from yet another direction. Banking and to an extent News-Media are suffering from backlashes already – oil companies and food companies are at high risk – but they can’t each avoid further backlashes by adopting the same approach. In the past people have acted as if the root causes of something like depleting oil are similar to those of depleting fish stocks. But other than at a superficial level they’re not – so the best ways of avoiding global crises (and the industry backlashes that follow) are importantly different. In each of these cases one size does not, and can never, fit all. That’s why, rather than just lump crises together that look similar on the surface, I’ve identified six main types of Global Crises that, below the surface, are caused in six importantly distinct ways.
Q.17 What are the six main types of Global Crises you’ve identified?
Let me start by pointing out that it is, of course, artificial to cut up a complex interconnected system like the global economy because the reality is a bit like a bowl of messy spaghetti: all interwoven. But my analysis did find that some strands of global cause-and-effect are more tightly interlinked than others. Near the center, Capitalism Crises have common roots in competitiveness and short-termism and reveal themselves not just as the Credit Crunch and Eurozone Crisis but also in things like media abuses; wrapped around this cluster are systems involving what I call ‘Competitive Overuse’ that result in Industrialization Crises such as pollution, global warming, and increasingly-expensive oil. Wrapped around those are Population Crises that lead to overexploitation of things like fish, fresh-water and land as well as unaffordable retirement benefits. There’s a fourth, largely separate cluster around Religion Crises that are being exacerbated by the impacts of High-Tech. And then there are a set of global crises ranging from increasingly-antibiotic-resistant bacteria to cyberattack vulnerability – all of which are tightly linked to the exponential growth of High-Tech itself, which is right at the center of things. Finally, wrapped around all the other crises, are the interlinkages of globalization that spread previously-localized crises into forms of Globalization Crises that even bodies such as the UN are incapable of addressing.
Q18. If you had to choose just one, which type of Global Crisis is the most critical to address?
It’s unknowable which type, if any, will be the one to trigger an extreme threat of global chaos. Each one of them could. However, pulling back a bit you find that there’s a whole set of very destructive crises that are all strongly reinforced by Competitive Overuse – that is, different companies and countries unsustainably competing to overexploit resources (such as oil or water or land or fish or important minerals) in ways they never would allow if they were in overall charge. Everyone involved knows they’re setting up massive problems for a few decades’ time. But no one is able to stop. Addressing that sort of overarching dynamic is a necessary, though insufficient, priority.
Q19. What are the different ways to counter each of the six main types of Global Crises?
My earlier comment that ‘one size can never fit all’ applies even to addressing a single cluster of Global Crises, and so tactics necessarily need to be localized and detailed for each instance. However, there are guiding Principles specific to each cluster: Capitalism Crises need Unelected Responsibility – corporations fulfilling a duty of care over communities they impact; Industrialization Crises need True Costing – reflecting all the hidden costs and savings that different options ever bring; Population Crises need Collective Sustainability – countering the risk that Competitive Overuse leads to system-collapses; Religion Crises need Mirrored Tolerance – members of a community can only expect as much tolerance as they grant others; High-Tech Crises need Pre-emptive Recovery – devising responses to risks as part of the overall development-process; and finally, Globalization Crises need a Holistic Perspective – seeing issues in the context of both the global arena and a 30-year time-horizon. Taken together, and refined as we learn more, these Principles appear to be sufficient to tip the global odds in our favor.
Q20. Putting looming threats aside, what are the greatest opportunities over the next thirty years?
I come at that question from exactly the opposite point of view. If you disregard the looming threats then you miss by far the greatest opportunities. Most organizations will go after the obvious prospects for growth, which will make those segments hugely-competitive to be in. The greatest prizes will go to those groups that instead change the rules of the game. Obvious examples are Banking becoming seen again as a catalyst rather than a parasite, the Oil Industry addressing both global-warming and soaring fuel costs head-on, Food and Drink corporations taking the lead in tackling the potentially-unaffordable healthcare costs of obesity. That sort of game-changing leadership is going to require industries to get directly involved in realigning the world economy and in damping down the riskiest crises that otherwise ultimately will hit them with a double-whammy: the crisis itself followed by the aftermath of an industry backlash. In parallel, it’s more vital than ever that politicians need to be doing whatever they can. And philanthropic organizations. And bloggers. And tweeters. And all of us. But one thing is clear: Those who first address the root causes of Global Crises – whether those individuals are in Supranational Bodies, National Governments, Multinational Industries or are in highly-influential Global Management Consultancies – those pioneers will usher in a new world order. And the most effective among them will, perhaps largely hidden from view, be our new world-leaders. None of them may be career politicians.