Tarahumara Indians in Mexico stand in line to receive a government donation of food in 2011. They have seen a severe shortage of food and water and destroyed crops caused by its worst drought in seven decades. Such trends are part of a new US intelligence report to President Obama.

Shaping the world of 2030

A US intelligence report to the president on global trends to the year 2030 is generally upbeat. But like any futuristic study, its foresight needs hindsight in the reading.

Every American president needs to keep a pinch of salt in the Oval Office. It can come in handy when reading an official report on “global trends” that has been given to every incoming or returning president since 1996.

The forecasts, which are compiled by the National Intelligence Council from “experts” in nearly 20 countries, come with their own pinch of salt. They include a critique of past reports. The current 167-page study, titled “Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds,” admits to “blind spots and biases” in previous forecasts – one lapse was not paying enough heed to new ideologies.

The reports themselves fit into a decades-long trend of trendspotting. Since World War II, rapid changes in society and science have driven a demand for “futurists,” or people who use various methods from historical analysis to polling to supercomputing to offer up probable scenarios. Some, like Alvin Toffler or Herman Kahn, achieve pop-star status. Most, however, work in the trenches of places like the RAND Corporation, academia, and hedge funds. Their work goes by different names, such as strategic planning, technological foresight, or trend extrapolation.

Futurists are prone to an odd mix of audacity and humility, or a willingness to stick their neck out and then have it chopped off if they are wrong. In the case of hedge funds and their complex modeling of high finance, wrong forecasts can sometimes shake entire industries, such as housing.

Futurists are usually quite aware of their own biases in values or the risks of unexamined assumptions. Their jargon includes words like megatrends, paradigms, trajectories, and tipping points. They know that forecasting the future cannot be the same as envisioning it. Their work needs to span almost every discipline, thus not easily allowing their own work to be called a discipline.

In an uncertain age, futurists avoid the word “prediction,” with all its associations with astrology, Mayan calenders, or Nostradamus, or with science-fiction writers like H.G. Wells and Isaac Asimov.

Yet their work is often seen as definitive. And that is the reason for the salt.

The “Global Trends 2030” report is generally upbeat about the future. It foresees more individual empowerment, a growing middle class, better health care, and a world order in which the United States learns to better share power (assuming China plays along). It sees Islamic terrorism fading away.

Like many forecasts of global trends, it focuses strongly on material conditions more than the advance of ideas. It sees worrisome urbanization, with nearly 60 percent of the world’s population living in cities by 2030. Demand for “food, water, and energy will grow by approximately 35, 40, and 50 percent respectively,” the report states with presumed precision. “Many countries probably won’t have the wherewithal to avoid food and water shortages without massive help from outside.” At least 15 countries are “at high risk of state failure” by 2030.

These quadrennial reports are useful, up to a point, if they are constantly revised with new information. Most of all, they rely too heavily on experts without also tapping into the wider wisdom within society.

Studying the future should be everyone’s “second profession,” advised the late futurist Harlan Cleveland. Foresight is indeed essential in everyone’s life, especially if it is informed by facts and deep insights on humanity.

As is often said, the future isn’t what it used to be. And any report of it needs the readers to bring their own powers of perception.

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