Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds

National Intelligence Council Washington: NIC, Dec 2012, 137p, $9.99pb; $1.99

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The fifth quadrennial installment of the NIC series “aimed at providing a framework for thinking about the future…by identifying critical trends and potential discontinuities,” described as “megatrends” (factors that will likely occur under any scenario) and “game-changers” (critical variables whose trajectories are far less certain). As appreciation of diversity and complexity grows, “we have increased attention to scenarios or alternative worlds we might face.” Alternatively stated, “We are at a critical juncture in human history, which could lead to widely contrasting futures.”The world of 2030 “will be radically transformed.”


  1. Individual Empowerment. This “most important megatrend” (both a cause and effect of most other trends) will “accelerate substantially during the next 15-20 years owing to poverty reduction and a huge growth of the global middle class, greater educational attainment, and better health care.” (p. iii) For the first time, “a majority of the world’s population will not be impoverished,” due to the expanding global economy, rapid growth of developing countries, and widespread use of new communications and manufacturing technologies. “The potential for greater individual initiative (is) key to solving the mounting global challenges over the next 15-20 years. On the other hand, in a tectonic shift, individuals and small groups will have greater access to lethal and disruptive technologies (particularly precision-strike capabilities, cyber instruments, and bioterror weaponry).” (p. iii) [Also see Lone Wolf Terrorism: Understanding the Growing Threat by Jeffrey D. Simon (Prometheus Books, Feb 2013).]
  2. Diffusion of Power.  Asia will surpass North America and Europe combined in terms of global power based on GDP, population size, military spending, and technological investment. China alone will probably have a larger economy than the US a few years before 2030. The health of the global economy increasingly will be linked to how well the developing world does: in addition to China, India, and Brazil, regional players such as Colombia, Indonesia, Nigeria, South Africa, and Turkey will become especially important. [Also see GFB Update newsletter for April 2012 on the emerging multipolar world.] “The shift in national power may be overshadowed by an even more fundamental shift in the nature of power: enabled by communications technologies, power will shift toward multifaceted and amorphous networks that will form to influence state and global actions.” (p.iv)
  3. Demographic Patterns. Global population will be close to 8.3 billion people in 2030, up from 7.1 billion in 2012. Four demographic trends will fundamentally shape economic and political conditions: aging countries (facing an uphill battle to maintain living standards), a shrinking number of youthful societies, migration, and urbanization (urban construction in the developing world “could roughly equal the entire volume of such construction to date in world history”).
  4. Growing Food, Water, and Energy Nexus. “Demand for food, water, and energy will grow by approximately 35, 40, and 50% respectively owing to an increase in the global population and the consumption patterns of an expanding middle class” (p.iv). Nearly half of the world’s population will live in areas experiencing severe water stress. Climate change will worsen the outlook for availability of these critical resources, as wet areas get wetter and dry areas get more so. “We are not necessarily headed into a world of scarcities, but policymakers and their private sector partners will need to be proactive to avoid such a future. Many countries probably won’t have the wherewithal to avoid food and water shortages without massive help from outside.” (p.4) In a likely tectonic shift, the US could become energy-independent. Hydrofracking technology has expanded the life of natural gas reserves from 30 to 100 years and also enabled additional crude oil production such that crude oil prices could collapse, causing a major negative impact on oil-export economies. [Also see Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Security by Lester R. Brown (W.W. Norton, Oct 2012), which underscores and amplifies food and water scarcity. Brown warns that “armed aggression is no longer the principal threat to our future; the overriding threats in this century are climate change, population growth, spreading water shortages, rising food prices, and politically failing states” (p.121).]


  1. The Crisis-Prone Global Economy. Various regional and national economies will “almost certainly” move at significantly different speeds, reinforced by the 2008 global financial crisis. China—despite a likely slowing of its growth from 10% to only 5%-will contribute about one-third of global growth by 2025. The key question is whether the divergences and increased volatility will result in a global breakdown and collapse or whether the development of multiple growth centers will lead to resiliency. “A return to pre-2008 growth rates and previous patterns of rapid globalization looks increasingly unlikely, at least for the next decade… (and) another major global economic crisis cannot be ruled out.” ( The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that the potential impact of an unruly Greek exit from the euro zone could cause eight times the collateral damage as the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy.
  2. The Governance Gap. As power becomes more diffuse, “a growing number of diverse state and non-state actors, as well as subnational actors, such as cities, will play important governance roles. The increasing number of players needed to solve major transnational challenges—and their discordant values—will complicate decision-making. Lack of consensus between and among established and emerging powers suggests that multilateral governance to 2030 will be limited at best. The chronic deficit probably will reinforce the trend toward fragmentation” (p.vii). Prospects for achieving progress on global issues will vary across issues. Some 50 countries are in the awkward stage between autocracy and democracy, and “many countries will still be zigzagging their way through the complicated democratization process.” Other countries such as China and the Gulf countries will continue to suffer from a democratic deficit. Widespread use of IT will be a double-edged sword: social networking will enable citizens to coalesce and challenge governments, but IT will provide governments with unprecedented ability to monitor their citizens. The largely Western dominance of global structures such as the UN Security Council, World Bank, and IMF will probably be transformed by 2030 to be more in line with the new economic players.
  3. Potential for Increased Conflict. The past two decades show fewer major armed conflicts and fewer civilian and military casualties. Disincentives will remain strong against great power conflict: too much is at stake. Intrastate conflicts have gradually increased and will likely do so in countries with a youthful ethnic minority and insufficient water and arable land. “Though by no means inevitable, the risks of interstate conflict are increasing owing to changes in the international system. US unwillingness and/or slipping capacity to serve as a global security provider could contribute to instability. Three “baskets of risks” could increase chances of interstate conflict: changing calculations of key players (notably China, India, and Russia), increasing contention over resources, and a wider spectrum of more accessible instruments of war.”
  4. Wider Scope of Regional Instability. “The Middle East and South Asia are the two regions most likely to trigger broader instability” (p.viii). If the Islamic Republic maintains power in Iran and is able to develop nuclear weapons, the Middle East will face a highly unstable future. “South Asia faces a series of internal and external shocks during the next 15-20 years” (youth bulges, rising food prices, energy shortages, inequality). An increasingly multipolar Asia is one of the largest global threats. Countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, Central America, and the Caribbean will remain vulnerable to state failure through 2030, providing safe havens for global criminal and terrorist networks and local insurgents.
  5. Impact of New Technologies. Four “technology arenas” will shape economic, social, and military developments: Information Technology entering the big data era (providing global access and pervasive services, but also threats of an Orwellian surveillance state); New Manufacturing and Automation Technologies such as 3-D printing and robotics with the potential to change work patterns (they will improve productivity and diminish the need for outsourcing, but make more low-skilled workers redundant and exacerbate inequality); Security of Vital Resources (key resource technologies include GM crops, precision agriculture, better irrigation, solar energy, advanced biofuels, and enhanced oil and gas extraction via fracturing); New Health Technologies (they will continue to extend the average age of populations around the world by ameliorating debilitating physical and mental conditions and improving overall well-being; the greatest gains are likely to be in countries with developing economies and an expanding middle class).
  6. The Role of the United States. The relative decline of the US and the West vis-à-vis the rising states “is inevitable,” but the degree to which the US continues to dominate the international system could vary widely. “The US most likely will remain first among equals among the other great powers in 2030,” but the unipolar moment is over and Pax Americana is “fast winding down.” Western partners have also suffered relative economic declines. Replacement of the US by another global power seems the least likely outcome to 2030. The emerging powers are not a bloc, and do not have any unitary alternative vision. “A collapse or sudden retreat of US power would most likely result in an extended period of global anarchy.”


In the midst of the summary of “Game-Changers” (, a single page chart (p.xi) with no explanation and no listing in the table of contents briefly describes eight such developments: 1) a severe pandemic that “could result in millions of people suffering and dying” in less than six months; 2) much more rapid climate change (“most scientists are not confident of being able to predict such events”); 3) Euro/EU collapse caused by an unruly Greek exit from the euro zone; 4) a democratic China could dramatically boost Chinese “soft” power worldwide; an economic collapse could trigger political unrest and shock the global economy; 5) a reformed Iran (a more liberal regime that dropped nuclear weapons aspirations and focused on economic modernization would bolster chances for a more stable Middle East); 6) nuclear war or WMD cyber-attack (“the chance of non-state actors conducting a cyber-attack—or using WMD—is increasing”); 7) solar geomagnetic storms that could knock our satellites or the electric grid; 8) a collapse or sudden retreat of US power.


“We have more than enough information to suggest that however rapid change has been over the past couple decades, the rate of change will accelerate in the future.”(p.xii; emphasis added). To “encourage all of us to think more creatively about the future,” four scenarios are provided with “built-in discontinuities” that represent distinct pathways for the world out to 2030.

  1. Stalled Engines. This “most plausible worst case” is a “bleak future” where the US and Europe turn inward, the euro zone unravels quickly causing Europe to be mired in recession, the US energy revolution fails to materialize, global economic growth falters, Sunni-Shiite violence erupts in the Gulf, a deadly virus erupts in Southeast Asia, and “all boats sink.”
  2. Fusion. The “most plausible best case” in which the US, China, and Europe dampen the specter of a spreading conflict in South Asia leading to a major change in bilateral relations and worldwide cooperation to deal with global challenges; China begins a process of political reform, bolstered by its increasing role in the international system; global unilateral institutions are reformed and made more inclusive; the global economy nearly doubles in real terms to $132 trillion, and “all boats rise substantially.” Technological innovation “is critical to the world staying ahead of the rising financial and resource constraints,” and this scenario is only possible with strong political leadership.
  3. Gini Out-of-the-Bottle. A world of extremes and greater inequality (as measured by the Gini Coefficient widely used by economists), where countries in the euro zone core are globally competitive, while others on the periphery are forced to leave the EU; cities in China’s coastal zone continue to thrive but inequalities increase and social discontent spikes; major powers are at odds and more countries fail; the world is reasonably wealthy but less secure as “the dark side of globalization” poses an increasing challenge. “Differences between haves and have-nots become starker and increasingly immutable.” Parts of Africa suffer the most, and a growing number of states fail. Marxist and Maoist-insurgencies increasingly spread in rural areas worldwide, as globalization spawns more class struggle.
  4. Non-state World. NGOs, multinational businesses, academic institutions, wealthy individuals, and megacities flourish and take the lead in confronting global challenges. A growing global public opinion consensus among elites and many of the growing middle classes forms the base of their support. Authoritarian regimes find it hardest to operate in this increasingly democratized world. Smaller and more agile countries in which elites are more integrated are apt to do better than larger countries. “Networks thrive in this hyper-globalized world where expertise, influence, and agility count for more than weight or position.” This is nevertheless a patchwork and very uneven world, where some global problems get solved, but security threats pose an increasing challenge.

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