Change is the only constant

That’s what they say in the tech industry.  That’s what Buddha said 2600 years ago.  And that’s what the National Intelligence Council says in a 140 page report, “Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds.”

Click for the text of the whole report

Since 1997, the NIC, formed of all 16 US intelligence agencies, has issued five Global Trends reports, one after each presidential election.  For this one they engaged think tanks, government, and business leaders in 14 nations and concluded that the world will be radically different in 18 years.  The pace of change will be faster than at any period in modern history.

NIC Chairman, Christopher Kojm, says:
“We are at a critical juncture in human history, which could lead to widely contrasting futures. It is our contention that the future is not set in stone, but is malleable, the result of an interplay among megatrends, game-changers and, above all, human agency. Our effort is to encourage decision makers—whether in government or outside—to think and plan for the long term so that negative futures do not occur and positive ones have a better chance of unfolding.”

Here is a link to a summary of the report.

The NIC defines “megatrends” as scenarios likely to happen under all circumstances.  “Game-changers” are “critical variables whose trajectories are far less certain.”  Additional possibilities are listed as “black swans,” discrete events that would cause large scale changes, either for good (a democratized China or a reformed Iran) or ill (global pandemic, WMD attack).

The report identifies four megatrends, changes regarded as inevitable over the next two decades:

  • Diffusion of power:  The US will lose it’s international dominance, but no other nation will take its place.  “Power will shift to networks and coalitions in a multi-polar world.”  Though the report didn’t say it, as a student of World War I history, I have to observe that the last time the world was structured this way, things did not turn out very well.  The report identifies one best case scenario as a new era of US/Chinese cooperation.
  • Individual Empowerment: A rising middle class in emerging nations, increased access to education, widespread use of technology, and health care advances can improve the lot of large numbers of people. The report notes that technology is two edged sword: it can benefit and disrupt.  Advances sometimes create and at other times eliminate jobs.  Technology fosters communication but also  leaves infrastructure vulnerable to cyber-attack.
  • Demographic Change: World population will grow from 7.1 to 8.3 billion, and 60% world will live in cities (it’s 50% now).  This will strain resources and increase pollution. Aging populations may slow economic growth in developed nations. Immigration will increase.
  • Food, Water, and Energy Shortages: In 18 years, the world will need 35% more food and 40% more water.  Our intelligence agencies don’t waste time pretending climate change isn’t real.  They note that conditions like widespread drought have grown more severe in just the 18 months they’ve been working on the report.

National Geographic issue on extreme weather, published one month before Superstorm Sandy

Rather than summarize more of the report, I invite readers to check it out for themselves.  Let’s step back and reflect on what this means.

My dogs do not like change.  They find comfort in their routines, and if I am honest, so do I.  This month a 72 year old hardware store, where you could find anything, closed it’s doors.  So did a 76 year old nursery, where master gardeners could always diagnose the ugly brown spots on your roses.  That’s enough to put me in a funk, imagining our big box future, and yet this is nothing compared to what Global Trends 2030 suggests is coming – change at a faster rate than anyone living has seen.

Change that rapid generates fear.  Looking at the last decade, we see resistance to change spawning violence.  Religious fundamentalists are more vocal in nearly all denominations.  Reactionary politicians grasps at some idealized past that is gone if it ever existed.  The urge to get what is mine at all costs further disrupt economic life and generates even more fear.  People bemoan the loss of civility.

Do we have any guides for living through times like these?

As I asked myself the question, I remembered Joseph Campbell’s assertion that world mythology holds wisdom for all the turns that life can take.  And Marie Louise Von Franz, Jung’s closest colleague, said that fairy tales offer the “purest and simplest” expression of “the basic patterns of the human psyche.”  Do stories created by people who traveled by foot and ox cart really have something to teach us in the 21st century?

I believe they do.  Next time we will consider what the old stories may say about living through difficult times.

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