The Second Decade of the 21st Century

a survey of the driving factors that will shape the future

As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, we find ourselves part of a global human civilization undergoing major change at an unprecedented rate, and how we adjust to those changes will determine what quality of life and how much real democracy there is, even who lives and who dies, across the global village.

For decades, postmodern philosophical theory has examined the problem of atomization of the fabric of human society, but new trends suggest there is concurrent with spreading individualism a swell of interdependence among individuals, communities and nation-states. 2010 promises to be a year of historical landmarks, with important breakthroughs in ecological science, collaborative diplomacy and key international negotiations on economics, arms reduction, democratization and security.

Efforts to reform the financial system in the US, Europe and Asia, to prevent the kind of abuses seen during the sub-prime lending bubble, will bring a new focus on corporate ethics and sustainable banking practices. Micro-lending, small-business resilience and consumer protection, may gain unprecedented and concerted momentum around the world, likely in connection with rapid investment in clean energy technologies.

The coming decade will see key improvements to the interactive quality of human relations around the world, and an increased role for populations in shaping the policies of their governments and the major economic forces that determine their access to wellbeing, freedom and security. We examine here, in broad strokes, the following topics: green tech, denuclearization, cooperation and connectivity, gender equality, food security, counter-extremism, particle physics, media freedom and global consumer protection.

Green Tech

The United States is now seeing the beginnings of an historic investment in electric vehicle (EV) transportation infrastructure and cutting-edge high-speed regional rail services. By the end of 2010, the process of forging a stable, long-term EV infrastructure should be in full swing, and recognizable across much of the nation. The coming decade may see a near total shift toward EV, away from internal combustion engines for automotive transport, in new vehicles.

Retrofitting will also become key to the overhaul of the US transportation infrastructure, and such initiatives will be closely linked to economic recovery. Efforts to green the energy economy will mean direct competition against parallel negotiations on binding targets for cuts in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The political and the technological responses will vie for prevalence throughout the decade, with both political and technological advances in GHG reduction helping to steer both investment and economic prosperity to centers of economic activity around the world.

This new flourishing of economic dynamism will be key to how global political trends shape up over the coming decade. By the end of the 2010s, the standard for new energy and transport technologies should be decidedly focused on a new zero-combustion paradigm. A number of already existing technologies will compete for prominence in this new energy economy, but we should also expect to see dramatic innovations as yet never produced, which will help to drive the transition to a zero-combustion energy and transport economy.

Denuclearization

And as the new decade dawns, North Korea has expressed its wish to bring an end to hostile relations with the United States and to comprehensively denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. While it is too soon to celebrate this New Year’s statement as a sign of any lasting peace, it affords serious consideration of the possibility that Pyongyang will now rejoin the six-party negotiations on denuclearizing, and possibly usher in a new era in east Asian security politics and global nuclear diplomacy.

Pres. Barack Obama’s initiative for a nuclear-free world has already made great strides in 2009, with the US and the Russian Federation about to sign a major new strategic arms reduction treaty, to halve the number of their most destructive nuclear warheads. This leadership, by Presidents Obama and Medvedev, is steering the international community toward a new paradigm for international security cooperation.

All five permanent members of the UN Security Council—all nuclear powers—voted this year to move global nuclear policy, through the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), toward Pres. Obama’s stated goal of a “world without nuclear weapons”. The decade of the twenty-tens should, as a result, see the most important progress toward denuclearization since nuclear weapons were first tested and deployed, during World War II.

If significant progress toward sustained diplomatic cooperation is made among the world’s leading nuclear powers, the polarization problem that has plagued global politics since the onset of the Cold War more than six decades ago, could be lessened. Nations seeking to compete for defensive security with the world’s most powerful states could see the promise of nuclear weapons research diminish, as the world unites to treat all nuclear weapons as an unacceptable and immoral threat to human civilization.

Cooperation & Connectivity

But the hallmark of the tens is likely to be enhanced diplomatic cooperation as such. Key developments of the first decade of the 21st century, like the Iraq war, have shown the pitfalls of unilateral action. The trend in climate-policy talks has been mounting global pressure, from the grassroots through the level of government for far-ranging international cooperation and consensus.

The economic crisis of 2008-2009 has led to unprecedented concerted efforts to shore up the banking system and prevent long-term collapse. Connectivity may be the key word to describe the coming decade. As governments lean toward cooperation, economies integrate not through harsh bilateral trade agreements, but framework negotiations aimed at sustainability and quality of life, and security talks privilege political stability and human rights above unilateral security policy, media technologies will provide for the most comprehensive interconnectedness yet seen between populations around the world.

Both the “digital divide”, the problem of low ease of access for poor populations to the world wide web, and freedom of information—press freedom, net neutrality and communicational freedom—will be constantly at issue in nations both large and small that are emerging into more regular relations with an international community centered on democratic principles and universal rights.

China, India, Pakistan and Indonesia, four of the world’s most populous nations, need to grapple with the problem of balancing severe economic stress with large populations and persistent factionalism. Democratization in this environment will depend less on the will of political leaders than on the actual use by ordinary people of information technology and the degree to which such technologies allow for more open media environments that help to create a sense of sustainable balance between diversity and unity.

The vanguard of open media will gain significant political and economic clout in such nations, helping to shift the paradigm for exercise of power in complex populous nations. Mexico, Nigeria and Bangladesh, also among the world’s most populous nations, will have to grapple with the same problems of socio-economic degradation and factionalism, while facing the problem of imminent mass migration due to climate change.

Each of these nations will face desperate and heated negotiations with neighboring countries over water resources, arable land and food security. One of the most persistent security threats will be the correlation between military exercises along borders and resource scarcity.

Gender Equality

Why gender equality? Women constitute more than half the world’s population, but in nearly every country in the world, including the US and even the Scandinavian countries, they still experience a disadvantage in earning and advancement in the workplace. It is likely today’s generation of university students will see true equity in many advanced industrial countries, where women’s rights have a long history of progress. But across the developing world, discrimination against women has a very direct impact on quality of life, access to food and other basic resources, and on the ability of a political order to maintain peace.

Women have shown themselves to be integral in efforts to provide micro-lending opportunities to the poor. The Nobel Prize-winning Grameen Bank, in Bangladesh, discovered this early on: women are more reliable in repaying micro-loans and more disciplined in running the localized everyday businesses they are able to finance with such schemes. Closer bonds to children and family, as well as less tendency to expensive vices, are thought to explain this tendency. It is now widely known that women’s role in developing families and communities, as well as in raising children and providing food and shelter, is key to creating an atmosphere of political stability and peace.

The US Department of Defense has taken direct interest in the status of women’s rights around the world, especially in conflict zones, and is collaborating with the Obama administration’s initiative to promote the rights of women and girls. Pres. Obama has established a panel on which every Cabinet-level department head must report on the status of women and girls as relating to their purview. And women’s rights in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Burma, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and other key nations, is now a focus of Sec. of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s assertive “3D diplomacy”: diplomacy, development, defense.

Promoting the rights and the needs of women and girls will help to create a more educated, more civil and cooperative population, and should help to speed development to remote areas where improvements to basic infrastructure and economic cohesion cannot take root without active, sustained participation, and even leadership, on the part of women. More secure family environments and more advanced educational resources should also mean a reduced risk of armed conflict, factionalism and the collapse of basic services. The rights of women and girls are linked to all efforts to prevent or to combat the proliferation of failed states.

Food Security

There are growing risks of a partial or total collapse of the human food supply in corners of every continent. Arable land is being eroded, split up, sold off and industrialized. Desertification is taking increasing amounts of land south of the Sahara and across northwestern China. Glacial reserves of fresh water are being lost in the Himalayas and in the heart of Africa.

At least 3 billion people live in regions where access to arable land is under severe threat, given demographic trends. World grain harvests have failed to meet global demand for several consecutive years, meaning world grain stores are being depleted, prices are being pushed up, and the most fundamental element of economic stability—the availability of affordable nutrients—is under threat. With irrigation schemes expanding rapidly across much of the developing world, the Nile River, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, and other major rivers upon whose flow of fresh water billions of people depend for their sustenance, are becoming threatened rivers.

The extinction of fresh water systems is fast becoming the single most urgent international resource crisis. Negotiations related to resource scarcity, fresh water depletion and threats to the food supply, are now central to regional economic and military collaboration around the world. Democratic governments and authoritarian regimes alike face the possibility of rising extremism and instability due to the risk of long-term deprivation facing increasing numbers of people within and along their borders.

The politics and economics of the coming decade will be heavily and persistently affected by a wide array of issues relating to the security and stability of the human food supply. There will be increasing pressure to reach binding agreements related to cutting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, as the effects of climate destabilization more severely impact the global food supply. Neighboring states, like Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and China, or Chad and Sudan, or the US and Mexico, will be faced with opting between mounting hostility or committed collaboration, to secure needed resources.

A paradigm-shift favoring broader international cooperation to help secure and restore resource-generating ecosystems and slow the spread of climate-related environmental degradation should help to move most of these cross-border resource crises in the direction of committed collaboration. Efforts to prevent the collapse of troubled states and impede the spread of armed conflict will be vital to international peace and security and the resilience of increasingly interdependent economic relationships.

Counter-extremism

The 2000s has been a troubled decade, marked by rising economic inequality, expanding scarcity and an explosion of armed conflict around the world. Hate-speech has infiltrated the relationships between nations, with the presidents of Iran and Venezuela referring to the American president as “Satan” or “the Devil” and factionalism and racist violence spreading in tribal regions of many countries, including Sudan, Chad, Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Militant Islamist factions, more closely linked to political violence than to any of the fundamental teachings of Islam, have sought to exploit widespread suffering and deprivation in many countries, in hopes of driving desperate young people to devote their lives to armed struggle. The killing of innocent people has proliferated across the world, and has been justified by one after another political movement or government, even as the international community seeks to prevent such killing of innocents.

In the United States, the political discourse is increasingly poisoned by radical hate-speech, either thinly veiled or overt, with radical ultra-conservatives calling for armed rebellion, bringing loaded weapons to political rallies and threatening the life of the president. Such extremism is a threat to the civic order and to the peaceful practice of democratic process and enlightened public policy.

The security of political systems and of populations around the world depends on efforts to counter and to eradicate violent extremism. Counter-terrorism is a key tactical tool in armed struggle against militants. But counter-extremism, the sincere effort to heal deep political wounds, eliminate hate and secure educated and open populations against the rise of radical militia, requires an intensely complex process of education, development, and collaborative diplomacy.

The deployment of advanced diplomatic resources, including highly trained cultural liaisons and media technologies designed to open traditionally closed societies, will be integrated into standard global diplomatic efforts. The UN system, including a vast reservoir of talent and informational resources linked to non-governmental organizations (NGO), will likely gain influence, as increasing democratization and the specific goal of countering hate-speech and violent extremism demand both the commitment of sustained human effort and highly informed charitable outreach infrastructure.

Counter-extremism will be both a political ethic and a strategic necessity in both the wealthiest and the poorest of the world’s nations.

Particle Physics

The Large Hadron Collider at CERN—Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire—, outside of Geneva near the French-Swiss border, is the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, the most complex machine ever created, and designed to smash subatomic particles together at rates of speed high enough to mimic the kind of physics that existed nanoseconds after the Big Bang, from which our universe is believed to have emerged.

The big game is the Higgs boson, a particle that is theorized to lend mass to all other particles, and which possibly exists only briefly for this purpose. The Higgs boson, also popularly known as the “God particle”, for its capacity to generate mass for other particles, has never been observed. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is believed to be powerful enough to actually generate, and record, information about the behavior of the elusive Higgs boson. This breakthrough would confirm vital aspects of the cosmological model of supersymmetry and bring together, for the first time in the history of human science, a comprehensive model of the known universe.

Another elusive gap in the standard model—which integrates Einstein’s theory of relativity with the advanced discoveries of quantum physics—that could be tested and demonstrated by the LHC, is quantum gravity. In December, the LHC achieved a world record for high-energy particle acceleration, reaching 2.36 trillion electron volts (TeV). That threshold moves the LHC closer than any other experiment in human history to being able to reproduce and observe conditions similar to those that would have existed nanoseconds after the Big Bang, when key elements of the physical dynamics of our universe were brought into being and set in motion.

It is also believed the Higgs boson gives rise to dark matter, the theoretical substance which contains the majority of the mass in the universe and which is clustered around galaxies. Discovering the physics of that process and possibly observing the early physics of the birth of star systems, galaxies and star-forming regions, could help to reorganize our understanding of matter, energy and the universe itself, in ways as yet unprecedented in the history of science.

Media Freedom & Decentralization

The coming decade is already poised to see major breakthroughs in low-energy, high-capacity integrated communications technologies. The complex computational technology that goes into encrypting, sending, decrypting and storing, digitized messages, including text, voice, imagery and video, is increasingly light-weight, efficient and inexpensive. Handheld phones are increasingly powerful and integrated into the world wide web. Some now use remote IP connections to provide voice services.

Social networking is the new standard for high-intensity information exchange online, with global conversations building up around issues of major controversy. The post-election demonstrations in Iran this past summer were one example, where information was shared and testimony published and proliferated around the world, despite extreme measures used to curtail open communications within the nation itself.

The Copenhagen Conference on climate policy gave rise to the most extensive global policy debate ever seen, from the government level through the grassroots. Even as economic policy and environmental science drive a more global view of human activity, the rapid expansion of dispersed information-sharing technologies and the world wide web are helping to create a climate in which a decentralized grassroots conversation emerges around any issue of major import, stripping political leaders of centralized power and requiring them to respond to more diverse views from a more informed public.

The key paradigm-shift involved in the decentralized information-freedom revolution is the decentralized and decentralizing aspect of it. Individuals can join a wide array of networks, for varying purposes, in order to build up and maintain significant relationships in their personal and professional lives. Deprivation of resources within borders can be alleviated through those relationships, and vital information about political leadership, public controversies or events, can be delivered from sources outside the country who also have sources within the country.

Global Consumer Protection

The financial crisis of 2008 occurred at a uniquely pivotal moment in economic history. As the failings of the “globalization” process reached critical mass—a severe widening of the gap between rich and poor, the undermining of labor rights across the world, and perilous lack of transparency and provenance for tracking money flows—, massive systemic manipulations in the financial world were revealed, as trillions of dollars in reported “wealth” evaporated almost overnight.

An integrated global fabric of economic activity and banking relations meant the freeze in lending in the US and other wealthy nations would serve as a contagion of economic stagnation in poorer nations. A global response was needed, and in April, Pres. Obama succeeded in persuading the G20 nations to agree to a global financial rescue process. The IMF would create a $500 billion fund, with $100 billion put up by the United States, over several years, to ensure malfeasance or a risky economic climate would not lead to a contagion of banking collapses around the world. That agreement was one of the most important economic achievements of 2009, because it allowed two important things to happen:

  1. There would be a means of rescuing banking systems on the verge of collapse, around the world, to prevent a deepening of the global financial crisis;
  2. nations that have never had solid records of financial transparency would be incentivized to sign up to a new regime of banking transparency and financial ethics, further shoring up the global financial system against potential abuses.

Issues related to the security of fresh water resources, the human food supply and climate stability, have led to a significant increase in overall international economic negotiation. The virtues of pragmatic shared-interest negotiations have become apparent, and economic incentivization is now part of many crisis-level negotiations.

The crisis regarding Iran’s nuclear program, for instance, involves a triangular proposal that would allow Iran’s enrichment process to involve both Russia and France, providing economic benefits to all three nations, but denying Tehran the capacity to develop nuclear weapons. Job creation is increasingly dependent on global flows of financial and natural resources.

China’s enormous consumption of mineral resources has built up its economic clout, and lowered the cost of its massive nationwide industrialization and construction process, but it has also deprived other nations, as well as multinational conglomerate corporations, of the ability to do business in a dependable way trading certain mineral resources, like copper and iron ore. China is consuming cropland in Africa, in an effort to provide for the basic sustenance of its people, and world grain reserves are being depleted in line with the depletion of fossil aquifers around the planet.

These patterns of global economic impact are more than just wave trends; they are part of a new way of negotiating for the sustained prosperity of local populations. The state of California, for instance, the world’s 5th largest economy, negotiates parallel agreements, not waiting for the US to make trade deals to help shore up the California economy. But consumer protection is the missing component whose underdevelopment in global policy has made globalization a less flexible process, too heavily oriented toward guaranteed windfalls for big investors.

The 2008 global financial crisis, rooted in financial abuses, a property-price inflation bubble and the credit markets, made clear this shortcoming of global economic policy. Transparency is one of the responses, but global consumer protection must be another. It is now likely that over the next decade, negotiations to provide for consumer protection across borders, and to ensure consumers have the ability to distinguish between businesses that negotiate fairly with workers and those that use sweatshops and abusive labor conditions to pad their profits, will provide real opportunities to integrate into the fabric of global commerce a more responsible human-centered model of trade, if the details of this crisis are not discounted. Improvements to global economic ethics will come from enhanced consumer protection guarantees and a more global awareness of economic activity.

Conclusion

These are just nine fronts on which major paradigm-shifts are either already underway or are likely to occur in the coming decade. The details of each of these nine areas of focus provide extensive room for overlap, and touch on literally thousands of other details of personal quality of life, political and economic stability and human potential.

One of the most critical, and perhaps underreported, aspects of the social networking revolution, is the technological capability of spontaneous alliances of thoughtful individuals to locate information, fashion reports and instigate a culture of vigilance, on virtually any issue, at any time. There are major political and economic implications tied to this trend, and local and international institutions and governments of nation states, will have to think ahead about how to integrate genuine ethical protections into the fast-changing environment of global policy. New media connectivity and decentralized civic infrastructure have allowed for a kind of de-formalization of policy-shaping events and communications between local communities and world leaders.

There is a “bubbling-up” effect that takes place, where large numbers of people can quickly band together to act as conscience to the broader world and exert pressure on leaders; international development and crisis negotiations will take this into account, as part of a new ‘transactional’ cosmology, in which leadership is always under scrutiny and the facts of human life do actually matter.

– – – 

Originally published in three parts, from January 1 through January 3, 2010, at CafeSentido.com

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