Book review: Two Cheers for the Millennium Project

2. Bouquets and Brickbats for the Big 15

The above overview of the 15 Global Challenges is necessarily very condensed, with a focus on what this reviewer judges to be some important highlights of each. There is much to commend this ambitious overview, but also much to question.

On the positive side, a huge amount of information is assembled in these 15 categories, much of it from respected international organizations such as various UN agencies, OECD, IEA, World Bank, Transparency International, and Freedom House. An effort is made to show both positive and negative trends, to discuss new technologies [which are too often absent from many global overviews], and to look at regional developments [albeit superficially]. The Challenge of Transnational Organized Crime is distinctive, important, and too often ignored by others.

On the negative side, the presentation leaves much to be desired. Some statements are referenced, but many are not, and the lack of full reference leaves the reader in the dark as to when cited data were published [presumably they are up-to-date, but this should be explicit]. Overall, there is a relative lack of attention to environmental issues [e.g., ignoring or only casually mentioning ocean pollution and acidification, air and freshwater pollution, soil loss and degradation, pressures on key ecosystems, and pollution from toxic chemicals]. The concept of “planetary boundaries” is ignored, as well as associated risks of surprises, tipping points, and threshold effects that many climate scientists worry about (See Anders Wijkman and Johan Rockström, Bankrupting Nature: Denying Our Planetary Boundaries: Report to the Club of Rome; Routledge, 2012). Another major area that is ignored is the need for a new 21st century economics that pays attention to human, social, and natural capital and goes beyond 20th century fixation on growth of GNP.

In contrast to under-attention to the environment, there is over-attention to new technology, which in most instances is treated uncritically. A good example is the Energy Challenge, where there are many interesting new technologies to promote energy efficiency or supply cheap, safe, and abundant energy. But simply to say that all of these “innovations are accelerating” is an overgeneralization. Rather, a full list of possibilities should be presented, along with some sense of their current and probable development, time to commercial application, and possible side effects. Other examples of unrestrained techno-exuberance are the Infotech Challenge [the downside of infoglut is mentioned only in connection with the Global Foresight Challenge] and the Education Challenge, where increasing intelligence is cited as a national goal, even as millions of college graduates remain unemployed or underemployed. In turn, this raises the question as to why Decent Employment for All is not one of the Global Challenges—a growing concern, as robots replace human workers (which is acknowledged).

An index is badly needed, at least to major topics, as well as critical editing to avoid naïve and insensitive comments such as “Because youth unemployment is growing, more people have more time to do something about this abuse.” (p.2) Better presentation is also needed to avoid long paragraphs with multiple unrelated topics, e.g. in describing sustainable development for North America, a single paragraph covers California’s cap-and-trade program, temperature increases in northern Alaska, falling honeybee populations, air pollution costs for children’s health, planned investment to clean up the Florida Everglades, Bank of America’s $50 billion green investment program, continuation of Canada’s ugly tar sands exploitation, and a new Sustainability Merit Badge announced by the Boy Scouts. (p.28). These tidbits would be better presented with bullets, and some sort of categorization and synthesis if possible.

Finally, the pervading sense of certitude should be modified by a list of improbable wild cards (so-called “black swans”), regular wild cards (roughly 2% probability) and not-so-wild cards (10-30% probability). The sudden eruption of the Ebola crisis, the emergence of the Islamic State (a.k.a. ISIS), and serious tensions in Ukraine after Russia’s takeover of Crimea illustrate the need to be aware of a broad range of possibilities, many of them unpleasant, and to be humbly alert to new developments not anticipated by MP or anyone else (e.g. fracking).

The GFIS update, however, does mention these developments.

3. Progress or Regress: A “Happy Thumb” on the Scale?

The bottom line of this ambitious exercise is to ask whether, all things considered, human­ity is really making progress or moving backward, and to speculate on the outlook for the future. As SOF describes it, “The world is in a race between implementing ever-increasing ways to improve the human condition and the seemingly ever-increasing complexity and scale of global problems. So, how is the world doing in this race?” (p.4). It all depends on what indicators are assembled.

Since 2000, the Millennium Project has produced a global “State of the Future Index” (SOFI) based on 30 variables for which there are “at least 20 years of reliable historical data.” These are categorized into three groups: 1) Where We Are Winning: greater life expectancy, slower rate of world population growth, less undernourishment, lower infant mortality rate, improved water sources, more secondary school enrollment, higher adult literacy rate, more electricity from renewables, higher energy efficiency, more Internet users, more physicians per 1000 people, more health spending per capita, declining number of wars, more foreign direct investment, less poverty below $1.25 per day, more gross national income per capita, and more seats held by women in national parliaments. 2) Where We Are Losing:growing ecological footprint/biocapacity ratio, greater income inequality, more terrorism incidents, more corruption, more CO2 emissions from fossil fuels and cement production, less forested area, and less renewable freshwater per capita. 3) Where Things Are Unclear or Little Changed: unemployment, voter turnout, freedom rights, R&D spending, prevalence of HIV, and number of countries that have nuclear weapons or intend to build them. The overall assessment offered is: “slower progress since 2007, although the overall outlook is promising” (p.6; italics added).

However, the overall outlook would not be nearly as promising if certain indicators are adjusted and others (with less than 20 years of reliable data) are added. First, insofar as the higher adult literacy rate, this refers only to very basic skills. A more relevant measure would be “functional literacy” to get around in today’s world (roughly equivalent to a high school degree), and by this measure we are falling behind. The “declining number of wars” should be amended with a qualitative assessment, e.g. Syria’s vicious civil war has displaced nearly half of its 22 million population. And if underemployment is added to “unemployment,” this indicator would very likely deserve to be listed in the “losing” group. “Freedom Rights” also seems quite problematic, and a fairly good candidate for the “losing” group in recent years. The MP insists that “the long-range trend toward democracy is strong” (p.9) despite Freedom House reports of declining political and civil liberties in the past eight years — which could be a downward turning point. “Increasing numbers of educated and mobile phone Internet-savvy people are no longer tolerating the abuse of power,” (p.9) but discontent and protests have not resulted in much positive change so far (and note that terrorists are quite skilled at using the Internet and social media to pursue their ends). Finally, we are losing even more if we consider growing methane emissions from the Arctic, which could displace CO2 as the leading greenhouse gas.

The outlook looks even less promising if indicators are added on the declining state of the oceans, biogeochemical loading (interrupting the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles), pollution from toxic chemicals, atmospheric aerosol loading (soot particles, nitrates, sulphates), more frequent and extensive wildfires, more frequent and dangerous storms, rapidly melting glaciers, more droughts and desertification, biodiversity loss, degradation of land and wildlife habitats, rapidly growing cyber-attacks (see SOF, p.80), transnational organized crime (SOF, pp140-149), unhealthy food and drink (see below), vulnerable coastal areas (see below), more lone-wolf terrorism (see below), growing fundamentalism in religion and politics, fragile economies, increasing legal and illegal drug use and misuse, rapid growth of information overload (see Mark Andrejevic, Infoglut: How Too Much Information Is Changing the Way We Think and Know; Routledge, 2013), and disintegrating and/or inadequate infrastructure (water systems, railways, highways, and especially bridges) . All of these are “unhappy” indicators, and all seem quite likely to worsen, at least in the short term.

It is time for a serious re-think of the SOFI that removes the “happy thumb” bias on the progress/regress scale, and includes all important indicators, many of which have less than “20 years of reliable historical data.” If futures research is ever to be taken seriously, it should pursue an ethic to “tell it like it is,” not pull punches, and restrain idealized speculation about possible tech fixes.

4. Other Chapters in the Report

The State of the Future Index and the Global Challenges are the mainstay of the SOF report. But there are other chapters in each report. This current edition includes four, each deserving consideration:

  • Hidden Hunger: Unhealthy Food Markets in the Developing World discusses growing concerns that 2 billion people are getting sufficient calories but lack proper vitamins and minerals, due to industrial agriculture and expanding monoculture, low income to food price ratio, water scarcity, food waste, dietary culture, nutritional ignorance, expanding fast food chains, and more processed foods. This MP Real-Time Delphi conducted for the Rockefeller Foundation concludes with some 80 policy proposals such as taxing unhealthy foods, regulating soft drinks and low-quality food, incentives to market healthy foods, and global organic food quality standards. [Note: Unlike the discussion of the 15 Global Challenges, this chapter does include proper footnoting. It can be done by MP! But the proposals are not prioritized.]
  • Vulnerable Natural Infrastructure in Urban Coastal Zones, another Real-Time Delphi for the Rockefeller Foundation, explores degrading of natural infrastructure due to coastal urbanization, pollution, and lack of urban planning. Also includes a long list of policy proposals such as land zoning, better public information, ISO standards for coastal environmental management, and increased taxes and fines for polluting practices.
  • SIMAD and Lone Wolf Terrorism Prospects and Potential Strategies to Address the Threat, a Real-Time Delphi study conducted by the MP Israeli Node, considers the increase of Single Individual Massively Destructive (SIMAD) actions using a variety of weapons, and prevention strategies such as monitoring social media and purchases of critical materials. Minimizing such threats is “a long-time continuous effort.”
  • Global Futures Intelligence System and Some Conclusions asserts that “collective intelligence is becoming the next big thing in information technology.” It is defined as improving information and synergies among groups of experts and the public, hardware/software, and data/information/knowledge. But there are thousands of experts on the various Global Challenges, and many thousands of relevant books, reports, and articles. Which experts and ideas are to be included in “collective intelligence,” and which will be ignored? Despite the impressive 50 Nodes of the MP, there are many more experts that could and should be included in a GFIS, despite clashing worldviews and data. The extent of the growing universe of expertise and how to assess and select is not considered. GFIS is still a work in progress. We do not yet know if it is even a minimally adequate “global information utility” that fairly represents all responsible thinking.

5. Some Final Comments

In reviewing the 2010 SOF report, I concluded that it was “the best introduction—by far—to a broad range of major global issues and long-term remedies.” SOF remains the best introduction because there is nothing like it. But, on deeper reflection, introduction must be stressed. The report gives a unique taste of many trends, forecasts, and policies, but it deserves only “two cheers” at best. It could do a much better job of conceptualizing the Global Challenges and the SOFI, and presenting these in a more user-friendly format.

The 15 Global Challenges should be expanded to include Decent Livelihoods for All (encompassing jobs, entrepreneurship, and various forms of self-sufficiency), Higher and Continuing Education for All, Food and Agriculture, Sustainable Cities, and Humane Criminal Justice. If this adds too many challenges, IT and Sci/Tech could be combined.

The 30 indicators of the State of the Future Index, currently constrained by overly rigid criteria, should be expanded by a dozen or so more, as explained above. SOFI is clearly not a reliable summation of where we are and where we are headed. Expansion adds complexity and involves painful changes, but it is necessary for a more balanced and honest perspective. Collaboration with the Worldwatch Institute’s annual “Vital Signs” effort might be fruitful.

Presentation of this cornucopia of information would be greatly aided by shorter paragraphs, bulleted points, boxes, tighter editing, footnotes to important data and forecasts, better graphics, identification of each Challenge at the top of the page, and—above all—by adding indexes for handy access. It may be impossible to capture every idea, organization, and nation mentioned, but some index of selected ideas would be far better than none at all.

This review was concluded on Election Day 2014 in the United States, which produced an outcome quite different from the globalist-progressive views expressed in this MP report. Despite the many wonders of the Internet, I know of no evidence to suggest that the voting public is better informed now about current affairs and global challenges. Arguably, with the marked decline in newspaper circulation and foreign affairs coverage, and abundant infoglut, the public is less well-informed. And there is virtually no futures education in schools and colleges. Far better education about Global Challenges is greatly needed. Our world is evolv­ing at an ever-faster pace, and the Millennium Project must keep improving and evolving to keep pace, and rise to a higher level.

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