Book review: Two Cheers for the Millennium Project

Two Cheers for the Millennium Project
2013-14 State of the Future (17th Edition)

Jerome C. Glenn* (Director, Millennium Project), Theodore J. Gordon (Senior Fellow, Millennium Project), and Elizabeth Florescu (Director of Research, Millennium Project).

Washington: The Millennium Project, April 2014, 247p (6×9”), $39.95pb. PDF in English or Spanish, $29.95. [Note: Various comments by the reviewer are set off within brackets.]

For better and for worse, there is nothing quite like The Millennium Project (MP), an awesome but unwieldy distillation, of trends, forecasts, and proposals largely concerning 15 Global Challenges. This is backed up with a distinctive organization of 50 “Nodes” (up from 18 Nodes in 2003 and 35 Nodes in 2010), including groups in Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, the Caribbean, China, Egypt, the Persian Gulf Region, Israel, Japan, Kenya, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Romania, Russia, Silicon Valley (US), Turkey, UAE, etc. The Nodes participate in creating the State of the Future (SOF) report, and in turn are its ready-made audience.

The purposes of the MP are 1) to assist in organizing futures research; 2) to improve think­ing about the future; and 3) to “make that thinking available through a variety of media for consideration in policymaking, advanced training, public education, and feedback, ideally in order to accumulate wisdom about potential futures.”

What is new from the last time I reviewed a State of the Future report,in 2010,is a changed format (247 pages in 6×9” size vs. 88 pages in 8×11” size with attached CD) and biannual publication of the hardcopy in contrast to annual publication for the first 16 editions. This is enabled by continuous online updating of MP’s Global Futures Intelligence System (GFIS). On the GFIS website, each of the 15 Global Challenges is given a more detailed treatment in a 12-point menu: Situation Chart (current situation, desired situation, and policies to close the gap), Overview (summary and 100-300 pages of details), Digest of latest information, Updates (scanning important information that impacts the Challenge), News relevant to the Challenge, Real-Time Delphi Questionnaire, Discussion by subscribers, Comments from users, Interactive Computer Models, Questions for experts, and Resources (relevant websites, books, videos, and articles). Subscription to GFIS is $100/year for individuals, $400/year for universities, $800/year for the UN and other international organizations, $850/year for governments, and $2100/year for corporations. The four classes of organization subscriptions allow 10 free users, and charge $25 for each additional user. It’s complicated, but so are the SOF and the GFIS.

1. The 15 Global Challenges

Since 1996, the bulk of each MP report has always been the 15 Global Challenges, which are “transnational in nature and transinstitutional in solution.” This time each Challenge is introduced by a rather confused two-page graphic highlighting key data and trends (a new feature), a 4-5 page global overview (concluding with potential actions), and 3-4 pages of “Regional Considerations” in Africa, Asia and Oceania, Europe, Latin America, and North America. The problem-riddled Middle East, which deserves a separate category, is sometimes included in Africa, and sometimes in Asia. The Arctic region, due to low population, is not mentioned at all, but is increasingly important for resources made available by melting sea ice and for the methane released by melting tundra and sea ice which could overtake CO2 as the major greenhouse gas. Methane is mentioned (pp.23-24) but “warming ocean water releas­ing methane hydrates from the seabed” has yet to happen [if it ever does to any sub­stantial degree, humanity is finished].

The 15 Challenges, presented here in a more logical order than in the Report, are as follows:

Sustainable Development and Climate Change. The world continues to warm, and global ecosystem services are being depleted faster than nature can resupply them. “A major study reports that climate change costs $1.2 trillion per year and causes 400,000 deaths annually.” (p.24). [No source is mentioned, although sources are mentioned for some of the data cited.] Suggested remedies [with no distinction in any Challenge as to cost, feasibility, acceptability, or imminence] are a US-China Apollo-like 10-year crash program to address climate change, suing for damages caused by GHGs, and new technologies like saltwater agriculture, maglev trains, sunshades in space, and growing pure meat without growing animals.

Clean Water without Conflict. Over 2 billion people have gained access to safe drinking water since 1990, but global water demand could rise to 40% above the current supply by 2030. Remedies include breakthroughs in desalination, less costly pollution treatment, hydroponics, vertical urban agriculture, more vegetarianism, fixing leaking water pipes, and drip irrigation.

Balancing Population and Resources. World population is expected to grow another 1 billion by 2025, with the UN mid-projection of 9.6 billion by 2050. “If fertility rates continue to fall, world population could actually shrink to 6.2 billion by 2100.” (p.42). [On the other hand, watch upward “projection creep” of official estimates; world population may be well over 10 billion by 2100 or even 2050 if various medical breakthroughs are realized, especially “longevity technologies,” mentioned only in passing by SOF, p.45.] To keep up with population and economic growth, food production should increase 70% by 2050.

Rising Energy Demands. “Innovations are accelerating”: drilled hot rock geothermal, solar farms, concentrator photovoltaics, plastic nanotech photovoltaic devices (PVs) printed on buildings, waste heat from power plants and human bodies, microbial fuel cells, metal-air batteries, using halophytes and algae to produce food and liquid fuels, low-energy nuclear reactors, high altitude wind power, etc. “Yet global energy-related CO2 emissions increased 1.4% in 2012, (and) without major breakthroughs…the majority of the world’s energy in 2050 will still come from fossil fuels.” (p.154). Nearly two-thirds of new gas supply to 2035 could come from shale gas; “however, the process of fracking to get the gas may release methane” (p.156) and “could contaminate groundwater” (p.33). [There is no doubt whatsoever that fracking releases methane and pollutes water; the only question is how much and where.]

Peace and Conflict. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimates global military spending at $1.76 trillion in 2012. Interstate wars may be disappearing, but growing populations and economies drain natural resources and degrade the environment, leading to conflict. “Future effects of climate change could create up to 400 million migrants by 2050, which could further increase conditions for conflict.” (p.120). Remedies include good governance, sound economies, equitable distribution of resources, human rights, low levels of corruption, new technologies enabling better monitoring and cleanup, non-lethal weapons, and destroying stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons. “The probability of a more peaceful world is increasing…” (p.117). [This conclusion is deeply problematic, especially in recent months.]

Ethical Market Economies to Reduce Rich/Poor Gap. 1.2 billion people still live in extreme poverty, half of them in fragile states (World Bank estimate) and 1.7 billion people live in multidimensional poverty (UNDP). The number of working poor is declining globally (ILO), but growing income disparity is seen by the World Economic Forum as the most likely global risk in the next decade. New technologies and innovations are empowering people worldwide, to create new forms of business with potential to reduce these disparities. “By 2030, the global middle class is expected to grow by 66% – about 3 billion more consumers with increased purchasing power and expectations… (but) almost 48% of all employment in 2013 is vulnerable employment.” (pp. 86-87) [Source not indicated]. The remedy is a long-term strategic plan for a global partnership between rich and poor, using “the strength of free markets and rules based on global ethics.” [Conflict between “free markets” and “global ethics” is not considered.]

Democratization. “An educated and truthfully informed public is critical to democracy.” (p.54). But, according to Freedom House, world political and civil liberties deteriorated for the eighth consecutive year in 2013, and press freedoms have also declined over the past several years. “Some argue that democracy is increasingly threatened by monetocracy…although the long-range trend toward democracy is strong.” (p.52). [This, too, is very problematic.] More participatory democracy may grow from e-government and a better-educated world public. But the World Bank estimates that $1-1.6 trillion is paid annually in bribes.

Transnational Organized Crime (TOC). “Total organized crime income could be over $3 trillion — about twice as big as all the military budgets in the world.” (p.142). Estimates of cybercrime alone range from $300 million to $2 trillion per year. The War on Drugs has failed, costing the US $2.5 trillion over the past 40 years, and the popularity of new psychoactive substances is growing rapidly. Money laundering continues unabated, despite the OECD Financial Action Task Force. Remedies include a new financial prosecution system and an international campaign by all sectors of society to develop a global consensus for action.

Global Ethics. “Acceleration of scientific and technological change seems to grow beyond conventional means of ethical evaluation.” (p.172). Corporate social responsibility programs, ethical marketing, and social investing are increasing. Global ethics are also emerging worldwide through evolution of ISO standards and international treaties. Yet “corruption remains prevalent throughout the world” and the abuse of power is spreading seriously. Better incentives are needed for ethics in global decisions, as well as ethical and spiritual education growing in balance.

Empowerment of Women. Changing the status of women is one of the strongest drivers of social evolution, and is essential for addressing all global challenges. Women are increas­ingly engaged in political and economic decision-making, yet the 2012 Gender Equity Index shows that none of the 154 countries assessed has narrowed the gender gap to an acceptable level. Most countries are making only slow progress, discriminatory social structures persist, about 70% of people living in poverty are women, and 35% of women worldwide have experienced physical and/or sexual violence.

Health: New and Reemerging Diseases. The incidence and mortality of infectious diseases are falling, but antibiotic resistance, malnourishment, and obesity are increasing. Poverty, urbanization, travel, and concentrated livestock production move infectious organisms to more people in less time than ever before, and could trigger new pandemics. Current high risks of epidemics include resistant superbugs, MRSA, flu in its many forms, Corona Virus, food-borne epidemics, cholera, drug-resistant TB, a new HIV strain, and dengue. [Note: Ebola not mentioned, underscoring the importance of a long list of game-changing wild cards, but has been acknowledged in the GFIS.] New problems may come from unregulated synthetic biology laboratories of the future.

Science and Technology (S&T) to Improve the Human Condition. “Continued acceleration of S&T is fundamentally changing what is possible, and access to this knowledge is becoming universally available.” (p.162). Discusses synthetic biology enabling lower-cost biofuels and pollution clean-up, “smart dust” wireless sensors to monitor chemicals and biologicals, DNA scans enabling customized medicine, a new anti-virus strategy, nanoscale robots, the falling cost of 3D printers, and the need for a Global Collective Intelligence System to track S&T advances and forecast potential consequences.

Global Convergence of IT. Nearly 40% of humanity uses the Internet, and “it is reasonable to assume that the majority of the world will (soon?) experience ubiquitous computing and eventually spend much of its time in technologically augmented reality…collaborative systems, social networks, and collective intelligences are self-organizing into new forms of transnational democracies…giving birth to unprecedented international conscience and action.” (p.74) The Internet of Things is expected to connect 75-80 billion items to the Internet by 2020 [source not provided]. However, acceleration in automation is a serious threat to future employment, and multitasking with smartphones may cost the world economy billions per year in lost productivity. Universal broadband access should become a priority for all countries.

Education and Learning. How can humanity become more intelligent, knowledgeable and wise to address its global challenges? “Google and Wikipedia have become the foremost source for public education. The Internet is reinforcing curiosity and lifelong learning. The ideal of excellent curricula and excellent teachers available to all is a possibility within sight.” (p.110). [All three of these statements are problematic.] Youth and adult literacy rates are improving, and brain functioning could be improved by better nutrition, drugs, software, etc. “Ministries of Education should declare increasing intelligence as a national goal of education, which could speed up learning.” (p.111) But in North America, university tuition fees are increasing, and many graduates end up with high debts but poor job prospects.

Improved Global Foresight. Decision-making is based on beliefs about the future, but “judging information about the future is increasingly difficult due to the acceleration, complexity, interdependence, and globalization of change.” (p.62) Moreover, the growing number of people and cultures involved in decisions also increases uncertainty and ambiguity. We have far more data, research evidence, and computer models to help make decisions, but also far more information overload and excessive proliferation of choices. “Humanity needs a global, multifaceted, general long-view of the future with long-range goals to help it make better decisions” (p.63), and governments are increasingly creating some form of future strategy units.

The next set of UN Millennium Development Goals and each of the 15 Global Challenges could provide a basis for trans-institutional coalitions that address a specific challenge or goal.

Michael Marien: Fellow, World Academy of Art & Science; Director, Global Foresight Books
* Jerome C. Glenn is a Fellow of World Academy of Art & Science

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