Posts filed under ‘Future predictions’

The character of conflict

I found this very interesting report from the UK Ministry of Defence (Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre). It’s called the Future Character of Conflict and examines global trends out to 2029. I’m afraid it’s not very cheery reading and to save you wading through 40 or so pages, here’s the gist of it:

  • future conflict will be increasingly hybrid in character.
  • state failure will be one of the dominant, defining features of future conflict.
  • the access to resources (energy, food or water) will drive states’ security interests; control over these resources and their methods of distribution through the global commons will be a critical feature of conflict in the international system.  It may dictate why we fight, where we fight and thus how we fight (how many times on this blog have I raised the issue of skirmishes over food and water in the future?).
  • al-Qaeda and other extremists are likely to hang around and pose a threat.
  • climate change may create instability, especially in those states that are already vulnerable to other pressures.
  • the world’s population is rising and this will lead to increased demands for resources.
  • smarter adversaries have adapted to counteract the Western preferred way of warfare.
  • the risk of Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) use will endure; indeed increase, over the long term.
  • if the character of the last military era was defined by the West’s ability to conduct precision strikes on enemy platforms and command nodes, the conflicts of the future are likely to be defined more by the centrality of influence eg influencing public perceptions. So the future will be a battle of narratives within a decentralised, networked and free-market of ideas.
  • in future conflict, smart adversaries will present us with hybrid threats (combining conventional, irregular and high-end asymmetric threats) in the same time and space.
  • in some conflicts, we are likely to see concurrent inter-communal violence, terrorism, insurgency, pervasive criminality and widespread disorder.

And here’s a really frightening quote from the report (p19):

The merging of state proxies, extremist ideologies and criminal interests into a toxic cocktail, along with the effects of globalisation, such as more porous borders, will make some non-state actors harder to counteract. They could employ a wide spectrum of military capabilities, albeit some at a limited scale, but they will nevertheless be capable of innovative tactics that exploit inherent UK vulnerabilities“.

Obviously, this report will lead to a huge debate over Britain’s defence forces and it was interesting to read in the report how social networking sites will become an important feature of future conflict (p.18). You can download the report here.

February 23, 2010 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

2020: not looking so good

Do you ever wonder what the world will be like in 2050? Frankly, I think we’ll all be stuffed and the planet frizzled up. But if the climate change scientists are wrong, then what do we have to look forward to?

I had a hissy fit over full-body scanners being installed in airports as a knee-jerk reaction to the underwear bomber – so that led me to thinking – why bother with the tardis-like machines that x-ray the heck out of you? Why not have machines that quickly read a passenger’s mind? Shove us in booths with flashing lights and zapping sounds (for special effects) and read our minds to see if we have evil intentions to blow up planes.

Mmmm…..seems there are some great minds out there thinking the same thing. Whilst the technology isn’t quite there yet to read what’s on my mind, an Israeli-based company called WeCU are developing “brain-fingerprinting“. It involves a combination of infra-red technology, remote sensors, and flashing subliminal images (such as symbols associated with a certain terrorist group), which will detect someone’s stress reactions. I don’t think you would get shoved into a tardis-like booth as it seems the sensors would be hidden and assess passengers as they mill around an airport. Perhaps, sensors will be hidden in walls and seats. And then there’s a suggestion that airport walls might be alive with the sound of….not music…but sophisticated sensors that will literally sniff out would-be terrorists.

Crikey, as we say in Australia! But what will the world of work be like? And what medical advances will there be? The Independent rounded up some futurist dudes and asked them to imagine the world in 2020 (mainly the UK). I think they should have imagined 2050 but they stuck to 2020. And here’s what futurists think our world might be like:

  • the 2010s will be called DOA – the Decade of Austerity. Frankly, this is in line with my thinking: we’ll still be feeling the effects of the GFC and there’ll be a crisis in public finance. Carbon taxes will make people think twice about purchasing new appliances or doing home improvements (gee: maybe we’ll return to a time when we mended things and kept items for years rather than tossing them out). Fair trade goods will be more popular.
  • there’s an increase in neighbourliness. Property prices never returned to the dizzy heights of the start of the millennium, so people stay in their homes longer and shun the excesses of pre-GFC times.
  • SADS or Shared Adult Dwellings are multi-occupancy homes that are popular with single people under 35 or over 65 who realise they can live more cheaply sharing costs whilst still maintaining independence.
  • at airports “naked x-ray machines” will be the norm and passengers will be required to use see-through suitcases or purses. One futurist is suggesting that every passenger will have to undergo an interview just to get on a plane (I don’t think he’s wrong about this actually). There’s even a suggestion that a budget airline has introduced a “standing room only” service on its planes (mmm….if this comes to fruition, I’d bet it’s Ryanair that first introduces this service).
  • because of rising fuel costs (oil will be over US$300 a barrel) people abandon cars and cities have car graveyards. Fast electric cars that you unlock via fingerprint scanners are the norm.
  • organs and tissues will be grown from stem cells making it possible to grow a replacement heart for example.
  • blogs, Facebook, Twitter, text messages and email are seen as middle-aged obsessions because people under 25 actually like to talk to people face-to-face.
  • there is a swing towards wanting leaders and politicians who are older and more experienced, rather than young, untested Presidents or Prime Ministers.
  • a decade of economic woes finally leads to the collapse of free admission to national museums and galleries.
  • by 2020, citizens have grown accustomed to the Nanny State. The State has made smoking and alcohol unacceptable social habits. Employees are forced to submit to mandatory urine testing to flush out anyone who has defied the smoking or alcohol bans.
  • work-life balance and flexible working hours has died out, replaced with more presenteeism and clock-watching. Because of the after-effects of the 2008/2009 recession and the need for Governments to pay off humongous public debt, a new generation of employees work harder.
  • CCTV cameras are everywhere, scanning faces in shopping centres and eavesdropping on conversations (heck, I think this is wrong: this won’t happen in 2020, it will be 2015 or sooner if you ask me. “Listening” CCTV cams are already being trialled in Scotland and artificial intelligence software is being used to “teach” CCTV cams to recognise aggressive sounds such as breaking glass). Personally, I think that biometrics will mean all CCTV cams will be loaded up with a scan of our faces and they’ll use this to monitor us in shopping centres and public spaces.
  • but most theft is now committed on the Internet, so the CCTV and biometrics paranoia is largely ineffective. Tasers, stun grenades, tranquillizer darts and hand-held computers are used by police to combat crime.
  • DNA of citizens will be stored in a central database and because of severe public spending cuts, there’s a large army of civilian investigators involved in police work.
  • climate change has been slower than predicted by scientists back in 2009 but marine life has migrated northwards, sea levels have risen, the UK is warmer and sharks are sighted off the UK coast. One futurist is even hedging his bets that the UK might experience 40℃/104℉ temperatures. Wild weather patterns will also be experienced.

The article is in two-parts but I’ve summarised the main stuff for you. I would add to these predictions by suggesting that the 5-bedroom McMansion homes everyone seems to be so keen on will be albatrosses around homeowner’s necks by 2020 if not before. You won’t be able to sell them because of rising electricity costs and a return (I believe) to a simpler life.

What do you think the world will be like in 2020 or beyond?

January 17, 2010 at 2:00 am 4 comments

2010: gazing into the tea leaves

So from my last post, you know that I’m giving myself ticks for my 2009 predictions. I have now gazed into the crystal ball and here’s what I think could happen in 2010.

Global Financial Crisis: I’ve said I’m no economist, so am happy to be corrected but I don’t think the GFC has finished with us yet. Let’s take the US as an example. With US $787 billion in Government stimulus packages and $700 billion in bank bail outs, I think the financial crisis will be of a different form in 2010. It will be a crisis in public finance. The US Government deficit seems to be spinning out of control. Total US debt is bulging and is now $12.1 trillion (and growing by an average of $3.81 billion per day).  In 2010, Congress will seek to rein it in or at least stabilize it.

Government debt is also known as public debt, national debt or sovereign debt and refers to the money or credit owed by any level of government eg Federal, state, local. It includes any money owed to foreign countries (referred to as individual investors). Public debt soared from $5.8 trillion to $7.6 trillion in 2009 and and is more than half the size of the US economy for the first time since 1956. And annual interest on the public debt will be around $800 billion by 2019.

What does this all mean? Apart from the US needing to go on a serious budget diet, it means that there has been a massive expansion in the scale of public finance in areas such as bank bailouts, mandatory expenditure on unemployment and related social needs, housing, funding the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, infrastructure spending and so on. But some states have literally run out of money – California is a good example. And the money being spent is borrowed money. There’s a huge risk here and one that’s not talked about much – Governments are gambling on the stimulus spending creating economic growth and jobs, which then allows Governments to make debt payments and continue spending (hopefully without raising taxes).

The risk I think is that in 2010 a crisis in public finance will start to weigh heavily on all public expenditure and that will affect you and me. Let’s take Japan (the world’s second largest economy) as our example. Big business has been asking Japan’s new Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama, to slash social spending and rein in public debt, which is expected to soar above 200% of gross domestic product in 2010. In 2009, Japan scrapped controversial plans to reduce social security spending by 220 billion yen a year – basically, it would have meant putting a cap on social security spending which is higher when there is more unemployment and a large aging population, as in Japan’s case. Malaysia is also cutting its spending in 2010 by 4.4% to rein in its ballooning deficit. So I think we’re going to start to see a public finance crisis. Governments will say they will cut costs not services but cuts or reductions in growth of spending on education, health care and other programs will happen. Or we’ll see tax hikes. Take your pick.

So Federal governments will cut back and then State governments will cut back, leaving local governments screwed. This could mean that local councils will increase property taxes for example. Or you might find garbage/trash services cut back.  Or local area health services are given a haircut. Or it could mean laying off government or local council workers. You get the idea.

Globally, the public debt dilemma is very worrying. Just look at what’s been happening to Dubai – no longer the rich oasis it used to be and needing Abu Dhabi to help bail it out of $59 billion worth of debt and asking for a 6 months’ moratorium. The total global debt in 2010 is predicted to reach at least $49.5 trillion. Even Moody‘s is warning that 2010 will see sovereign debt spiralling and warns of social unrest. And you also get financial markets losing confidence in the ability of countries to cough up what they owe after borrowing vast amounts. From this scenario, it’s not a big leap to imagine financial markets steering clear of official debt instruments—such as treasury bonds—and this would deprive countries of fresh cash.

So my prediction is: 2010 is the year for a crisis of public finance and the year we see government spending pruned. The European Union will lead the way. Look at what’s happening with Greece with its crisis budget.

UPDATE: 16/1/10 I could be tracking well with this prediction already. Marc Faber (Swiss investment analyst) is saying the next crisis will be sovereign debt and he thinks it will particularly affect the “PIIGS”: Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain. Watch this video of him talking about sovereign debt.

UPDATE: 8/1/10 seems the State is already screwing school districts – the state misses grant payments to all 871 Illinois school districts and leaves a $4.5 billion IOU for services from schools to homeless shelters.

UPDATE: 4/3/10 Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben Bernanke, warns that the United States could soon face a debt crisis like the one in Greece.

UPDATE: 10/3/2010 Financial Times opinion piece on how to handle the sovereign debt explosion.

Climate Change Fatigue: because some scientists behaved badly and emails suggesting that climate change data had been manipulated leaked on the Internet, 2010 will be a battleground for climate change. Public concern and belief in anthropogenic global warming is on the decline already.

A recent Pew Research Center poll (conducted in late 2009) showed that only 57% of Americans think there is solid scientific evidence to support the global warming thesis, compared with 71% in April, 2008. I know in my own area of Australia, a recent radio poll showed that two-thirds of people doubt climate change is caused by human activities.  This green fatigue will lead to confusion over what to believe and cynicism. There are mixed messages: we’re told that the planet is heating up yet we continue to see airplanes flying around, runways being built, coal being mined and so on. I think there will be mounting resistance to any form of “green taxes”.

But if the climate experts are right, in 2010 we’ll really start to see the planet heating up and wild weather patterns will increase.

China crashes or doesn’t. I’m hedging my bets on this as I’m not sure. I think China will continue to flex its muscles (as it did at Copenhagen) and might stop buying up American debt, which of course would plunge the US into crisis. Newsweek is predicting that the China stock and real-estate bubble will collapse, leading to a destabilizing bout of global deflation. I’m inclined to lean in this direction. Certainly, China seemed to navigate through the GFC storm easily, but there are a number of factors at play: property prices are forming a bubble; exports are weak (because the West, which is China’s major market, is curbing spending); the Chinese are dangerously overheating their economy by erecting cities (70 at last count) at a rapid rate; and they boast luxury stores and malls for which there is hardly any demand. So is there an illusion of progress? Is China more a paper tiger than a roaring dragon?

Jim Chanos (the short-seller who was the first to see that the accounting of Enron was dodgy) is saying that China will be “Dubai times 1000, or worse”. I think China is starting to look a lot like Japan in the late 1980s  – and we know how that turned out. So prediction is that China teeters.

Major food shortages. I’ve blogged many times about how I think the future will be one of water and food scarcity. I think we’ll really start to see things happening in 2010. A perfect storm is coming: there are continuing droughts; the world population is growing rapidly; there is a wheat fungus causing problems and there are crippling crop failures – when you put this all together, you get the frightening possibility that global food supplies will be in trouble. Let’s look at some examples, starting with Ug99. This is a wheat fungus (known as stem rust) that I’d never heard of until recently. But crop scientists fear this fungus could wipe out more than 80% of worldwide wheat crops. If the fungus spreads to the US (which is considered inevitable), US $10 billion worth of wheat would be wiped out. And the result would be a ” significant humanitarian crisis” according to Rick Ward, the coordinator of the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat project at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY.

I think the lack of monsoons in India is also something to be concerned about. In 2009, India’s monsoon season was 29% below average from 1 June –11 August and caused drought in 278 of the country’s 626 districts, damaging crops of sugar cane, wheat, rice and oilseeds. India is an important producer of wheat (number 2 in the world) and it dominates the world’s rice harvest. What happens when there is no bumper wheat harvest in India? There is significant loss in yield, wheat quality is affected, prices go up and civil unrest occurs.

There are many more examples of global food supply concerns I could give you. Just read here and here to start. And make sure you read 2010 Food Crisis for Dummies and all the links in the article. It’s a comprehensive run-down of the crisis we’ll be facing and you will end up being as concerned as I am about global food supplies.

Obama.  IMHO 2009 was an unpromising year for Obama. And I think in 2010, his ratings will take a dive. Mind you, it’s already pretty low with an average 48-50% in the lead up to Christmas 2009 and it’s down 15 points since the start of 2009 (I think this is the worst third quarter decline in public approval ratings for any elected president since World War II). Heck, even Oprah’s ratings have taken a plunge since she openly supported Obama (known as the O2 effect).

Americans will start to blame Obama for worsening conditions in 2010 and Obama will no longer be able to blame Dubya. His approval ratings could sink to 40% or lower in 2010 as Americans (and the world) wonder what Obama actually stands for. His campaign and the massive movement that swept him into office was largely personality, not issues, based.  The Obama campaign raised such enormous hopes and in his first year of governing, the Prez has disappointed many. The bank and auto bailouts have been broadly unpopular during a time of significant unemployment. I don’t see him as decisive – look at how long his deliberations over Afghanistan have taken (a speech in March 2009 announced a new strategy but it was almost eight months later that he announced additional troops would be needed).

Americans have most likely felt betrayed by a Prez who has bailed out banks (close to $1 trillion and used to pay bonuses for senior executives) without demanding significant reforms; failed to close Guantanamo Bay; failed to withdraw US military forces from Iraq; failed to end the conflict in Afghanistan; stuffed up health care reform; and seems to have the same stance on Gaza as Dubya.

I think Americans will fret over the escalating national debt, continuing unemployment problems, Obama’s health-care reform and the decline of the US as the world’s only superpower (watch out for Brazil in 2010 – an economic powerhouse on the rise). And many will question the wisdom of expensive reform during a time of unprecedented economic distress. So prediction is – brand Obama takes a nose dive in 2010 as people realise he’s the consummate campaigner and a masterful orator but an inexperienced politician with an administration that is floundering. The actions sadly don’t match the rhetoric.

Really, I’m hoping I’m wrong and 2010 will be a rosy year but from all I’ve been reading, it’s a Nyet on that.

January 4, 2010 at 2:43 am Leave a comment

Did I stuff it up?

Just over a year ago, I walked the plank. Well, not quite. I offered up my predictions for 2009. The first time I’ve done that – so time to look back and see how many predictions I stuffed up. If I managed to get them all right, then I am going to embark on a new career as a psychic. Dress up with wild red hair in ribbons and gaze dreamily into a crystal ball. That should do it.

To refresh our collective memories, here were my predictions for 2009 with a look at how I tracked against them:

  • Reinvent yourself as a Chief Financial Officer (or CFO) – due to the global financial crisis, I said that organisations would need a financial wizard to navigate them through the mess.  I may have this one right – the Best of 2009: Careers in (possibly a biased publication!) declared 2009 as the Year of the CFO, with the role of strategic CFO being prominent. A quick look at and I found 95 jobs for CFOs or senior corporate accountants. So I’m giving myself a tick for this prediction.
  • Formal recognition of global recession: I predicted that the IMF would formally admit the global economy was in recession. Well, that happened in April 2009 with the IMF’s April World Economic Outlook. I thought that despite a new Prez in the White House, Obama’s economic stimulus programme would not put a halt to rising unemployment during 2009 in the US or a deepening recession.  Although hiring is starting to pick up now and jobless figures are dropping, a record 20 million-plus people collected unemployment benefits in 2009 in the US and the unemployment rate hit 10%. In March 2009, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, told the grim tale of a deepening US recession and indeed world recession. Falling US auto sales and increasing home foreclosures signalled a recession that wasn’t going to disappear quickly. Further, I muttered that I wouldn’t be surprised if some US states declared bankruptcy. Well, that happened in California. Arnie ran out of money and basically had a US $12bn deficit on his hands. He ended up giving IOUs to creditors and civil servants. Illinois is in the midst of a financial struggle that could mean tax increases for its citizens. And Business Week laid it all out, highlighting the US states in bad financial shape. Thankfully, hyperinflation didn’t happen. So…basically a tick for these predictions.
  • Banks will screw us. What better example can I give than the Westpac (Australia) outrage and its “mortgages are banana smoothies” ill-judged metaphor. And Australian banks certainly tightened credit in 2009. Tick.
  • I said that Governments would take increasing control of banks. Well, the Austrian Government had to take control of Bank Medici; Ireland became the first European Union country to take de facto control of all of its most important banks; Obama took over control of the bonus pool by capping executive pay at banks that were bailed out; and the Spanish Government took over the troubled savings bank, Caja de Ahorros de Castilla-La Mancha. Tick.
  • Employers could get nasty. I predicted that wages could be cut and more demands made on staff to “do more with less”. This certainly happened – Hewlett-Packard imposed wide-ranging pay cuts including Executive council members who took a 15% haircut on their base pay; Japan slashed wages across the board in an effort to stem job losses; and the recession was putting pressure on some workers to do unpaid overtime so they could keep their jobs. And the global recession witnessed worsening employee morale. Tick.
  • Trend towards a simpler life. Really, I think this is an ongoing trend and will continue into 2010. But with many people in the US, for example, out of work – people are learning to be thrifty (and enjoying it). Here’s the story of 37-year old woman leading a simpler life after being laid off; USA Today reported that Americans were paring back their lavish lifestyles because of the financial crisis; the DIY industry exploded in 2009 with people doing their own home improvements, learning how to cook at home or making crafts to sell. The global recession even renewed interest in home vegetable gardening.  Tick.
  • Increase in civil unrest and rekindling of socialist ideals. I’m sure you all remember the angry protests against financial institutions in the UK; Greek farmers blocked roads and protested over falling agricultural prices; a million workers in France joined demonstrations to demand greater protection for jobs and wages; Icelandic demonstrators clashed with police in Reykjavik. There was unrest all over Europe; a wave of protests swept across Russia; folks in Connecticut weren’t going to take it anymore and descended on the luxurious homes of bank CEOs and US students at the University of California clashed with police whilst protesting against a hike in tuition fees the university says is needed to raise US$505 million. A Rasmussen poll during April 2009 pointed to a possible shift towards socialism in the US – 53% of American adults believe capitalism is better than socialism and 20% say they prefer socialism (I’m going to bet on the high probability that many young people, who don’t know what socialism is, were in that 20% and the 27% who weren’t sure which is better). So…tick.
  • I thought that the cosmetics and entertainment industries would thrive in 2009 – because women won’t give up lipstick (lipstick sales during the Great Depression of the 1930s rose by 25%) and people will want to forget economic doom and gloom for a few hours whilst watching a film. Both are mood enhancers. 2009 saw an increase in Avon representatives (probably as people laid off thought of new career opportunities) and I think there was a trading down to cheaper brands. The so-called “lipstick index” (created by Leonard Lauder, chairman of Estee Lauder) says that when there’s a recession, women buy more lipstick and Forbes reported what women were still buying in 2009, with lipstick high on the list. What I didn’t predict but should have is the rise of natural and organic cosmetics, which increased by 13% to €1.7 billion in Europe in 2009. Although cosmetic companies have taken a bit of a battering, make-up and lipstick is still selling well. Similarly, moviegoers defied the global recession with attendance at US cinemas up 5% during 2009 and box-office revenue up 8.6% in the U.S. and Canada and certain to top $10 billion, an all-time record. Tick.
  • Better leadership from our politicians and more cooperation between political parties. The US and China pledged to work more closely together on political, economic and environmental issues; representatives of political parties from Latin America and Asia-Pacific met to strengthen cooperation amid the global financial crisis; and UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, urged global cooperation at the World Economic Forum in Davos. So I guess a tick.
  • Politically, Afghanistan will start to haunt Obama.  You just have to read the newspapers to know that Obama’s troubles are pretty desperate in Afghanistan and that quite possibly the country will be Obama’s Vietnam. And he’s going to have to spend 2010 explaining to Congress why he needs roughly $100 billion a year and at least 40,000 more troops (surge anyone?) in fighting a war that is increasingly unpopular. Tick.
  • Rise in trade protectionism. Tick, this has happened despite the need for a coordinated economic approach to the financial crisis. Global use of trade remedies rose by 18.8% in the first quarter of 2009 – download a report here.
  • Wild weather due to climate change and skirmishes over water and food. This is not science to say this but when I was a kid, I don’t remember so many days of 35 or 40 degrees.  We seem to be getting warmer weather during winter (eg in August) and very very hot days in summer followed by a day that is 15 degrees cooler. Read about Australia’s weird weather here. We’ve had severe storms and floods, Perth and Adelaide are on fire, and of course Sydney was hit with a red dust storm during September. Wild weather has wreaked havoc in Indonesia and climate scientists are predicting that the year ahead will see El Niño exacerbating the effects of climate change, bringing with it floods, droughts and the hottest years on record. We’ve also seen snowstorms and sub-zero temperatures in the UK, Europe and the US – which the skeptics use as evidence against global warming – but climate scientists are putting this down to La Niña (cooler than normal water temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific Ocean) and does not detract from the fact that we are seeing thinning ice and retreating glaciers. Climate experts are predicting that the real heat will set in after 2009 with a surge in temperatures. So I’ll give this a tick.  Crop failures saw 1500 farmers commit suicide in the Indian state of Chattisgarh; there were some reports of a catastrophic fall during 2009 in global food production; and I’ve already told you about skirmishes over water. Tick.

Clearly, I should reconsider my career path and become a psychic. I’ll dust off my crystal ball. But frankly, if you follow world events keenly and note the patterns, you don’t need to be Einstein to figure out what will happen. Next post – my predictions for 2010. Given my track record, I know you’ll be excited but try to get some sleep 🙂

January 3, 2010 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

Water barons

I’ve blogged many times about a future world facing water and food scarcity, along with skirmishes over access to water and food. Go here and here for a refresher.

I recently said that water will be the oil of the 21st Century and that private companies are increasingly buying rights to water. I even suggested you search the names of two French companies – Suez Lyonnaise des eaux and Vivendi Environnement – did you do that? No? Search now. I’ll wait.

You might have found that these two companies alone supply water to 230 million people around the world (and this includes the US). They have quietly assumed control over the water supplied to millions of people. Scary. Think about a future when every time you flush the toilet or turn on the tap/faucet, you are pouring profit into private water companies.

American readers: you may have heard of T.Boone Pickens – corporate raider and oilman – he owns more water than any other individual in the U.S. and is aiming to control more. And he is planning on selling 65 billion gallons a year to thirsty Americans. Have you heard of Dr William Turner and the WaterBank?  Turner is from New Mexico and is a new breed of professional – an Internet water-rights broker – who lists water rights for sale or lease and trades in the water marketplace.

In most countries, the State owns the water resources. But the infrastructure to run the water supply (eg dams, filtration and supply systems, the charging process) is one more Government activity that is being increasingly run by private water utility companies who argue that they are cheaper and more efficient than public works.

Because I think this is such a serious issue, I am going to provide you with some stuff to read and follow up, so you can educate yourself. And think about how to secure your access to a basic human right – water.

  • CBC News Canada report on water privatisation in South Africa
  • in fact check out the whole series by CBC Canada on water privatisation
  • US companies raid Aussie water
  • The Center for Public Integrity’s in-depth investigation into the water barons
  • The Jakarta Post – taking on the water barons
  • World Economic Forum report that warns we will face water bankruptcy in less than 20 years
  • World Vision report (audio) Water Wars
  • World Water Wars– website for exchange of ideas and information about water privatisation and exploitation
  • series of videos featuring Datta Desai and the protest over water privatisation in Maharashtra, India.

There are two interweaving factors at play here: the world is running out of fresh water, FAST and multinational companies and private individuals are spotting the opportunities to make a profit. You and I will not reap the benefits of these profits. No. We will be slugged with substantially increased water rates; contaminated water supplies; poor service delivery. Don’t believe me? Then read this and this.  If you ask me, very soon “www” will not stand for World Wide Web. It will signify World Water Wars.

December 8, 2009 at 2:00 am 2 comments

Water and food security

StoppingI attended a talk the other day by Tim Costello, CEO of World Vision Australia. He talked about his recent experiences in Ethiopia and climate change in general. He talked about how the future, unless we act fast, will be one of skirmishes over food and water.

And a report is now suggesting that the global cost of adapting to climate change could be at least 2–3 times more than the previous estimate from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) (which was between US$49 billion and $171 billion from 2030).

I’ve blogged about this many times before. We all need to be turning our minds to coping in a world with scarce water and diminishing food supplies. South Africa is expected to run out of available water reserves by 2025; one quarter of the planet’s population could be affected by flooding due to warming in the Arctic outstripping predictions; and Australia will literally be toast. Climate change scientists are predicting that Australia’s temperature will increase more than the average global temperature rise with more days over 35 degrees C. This will be accompanied by water shortages, due to evaporation, and loss of biodiversity.  August has seen very warm weather in NSW and Queensland for example. The Bureau of Meteorology has confirmed that this is almost certainly going to be the hottest August on record.

Climate change will alter where people can find water, grow food and live. And the result of this will be “forced” migration as people search for water and food and communities (and possibly nations) will be in conflict over dwindling natural resources.

Pause: if you don’t belive in global warming, this is the time to buzz off to another blog.

Climate change has contributed to social insecurity before. Temperature shifts of even a few degrees can lead to conflict gradually over the long term. Modern humans, for example, moved into Europe, pushing Neanderthals into the northern part of the continent where colder temperatures (and clashes with humans) led to Neanderthals being kaput. Theories suggest that climate change, leading to warmer weather in Europe, triggered the interaction of human societies with Neanderthals.

Peasant revolts occured in China, between 700 and 900 AD, due to weak summer monsoons that failed to develop over the Pacific Ocean. Crops failed to grow and intrastate conflict weakened, and eventually led to the complete collapse of, the Tang Dynasty.

Diminished long-term rainfall patterns around 860 AD led to crop failures for the Mayans and warming temperatures (along with Spanish conquistadors and other factors) led to skirmishes within the Mayan empire and its eventual demise.

So wars and conflicts have historic links to climate change. By 2050, I can imagine a world nothing like we have now. Perhaps only a quarter of the estimated 9.2 billion people in 2050 will have clean water, regular food and a secure pension (Government pensions will surely be kaput as nations struggle to finance the affects of climate change and the long-term fallout from the GFC stimulus packages).

I’ve been reading various reports on what our future world will be like – it’s not pretty, especially when it comes to community and national security. I thought I’d share these resources with you and encourage you to read them so that you can start to think (if you’re not already) about how to protect yourself and your family.

The International Institute for Sustainable Development’s report on rising temperatures and rising tensions is a must read. Also their report on climate change and security in Africa (Africa surely must be the canary in the coal mine).

The International Food Policy Research Institute has a number of useful resources on climate change. You can download discussion papers, powerpoint presentations and watch webcasts. Two focus briefs I found of particular interest – Adaptation to Climate Change and Climate Change in Africa: Key Facts & Findings.

The International Food Policy Research Institute will be launching a new study in Bangkok in late September entitled “Addressing Climate Change in the Asia and Pacific Region: Building Climate Resilience in the Agriculture Sector”.  The study warns that by 2050, if we keep going with our stupid ways, the yields of irrigated crops in South Asia will decrease significantly – maize (-17%), wheat (-12%) and rice (-10%) – because of climate change-induced heat and water stress. The result? Food scarcity will lead to higher prices and reduced caloric intake across the region.

The question will be how do we adapt and cope in this rather frightening future? Will genetically-modified crops be bred, which can withstand hotter temperatures and how safe will these GM crops be? Will the planet groan under the sheer weight of 9+ billion people by 2050 (I’ve also predictions of 11 billion)?  Will we be forced to secure our land and homes from waves of forced migrants seeking out water and food?

September 13, 2009 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

2050 and beyond

The astronomer royal, Martin Rees, has been looking into the future.  He is offering up predictions for 2050. You know I love a good prediction or two, so really interesting to read about what he thinks might be in store for us. Much of what he says, we already know – by 2050, the planet will be staggering under the weight of a global population of 9 billion and the world will be warmer.  Beyond this, Rees suggests:

  • CO2 concentration levels will reach twice the pre-industrial level by around 2050 if we keep with business as usual
  • the entire solar system might have been explored and mapped by tiny robotic craft
  • long range space flights to Mars and beyond
  • altered human beings – through mind-enhancing drugs (didn’t that happen already in the 1960s?!!); genetics; or cyborg techniques
  • the human lifespan could be greatly extended
  • widening gulf between what science enables us to do and what applications it’s prudent or ethical to pursue.

I think that last point is spot on. I’m not sure that ethical issues surrounding genetics or gene therapy are keeping pace with science. The modification of an individual’s genotype has great future prospects. Tinkering around with human genes could mean that a person will not have to suffer cystic fibrosis or Huntington’s disease for example. A fetus with a genetic defect could be treated and cured before it is born. Hereditary disease might become a thing of the past and lifespans extended. All good.

But then there’s the darker side of genetic engineering. We’ve all read about designer babies, genetically engineered so they are aesthetically pleasing to society as a whole, or we can imagine some psycho cloning a whole lot of athletic, blonde men for a private army. I’m no geneticist, but seems to me that the human body is a complex maze of biological pathways and interconnections. So if you tinker with a gene, what are the side effects or long term ramifications elsewhere within the body?

What makes humanity so splendid is diversity, uniqueness, individuality. Every human is different. There’s a wonderful variety of hair and eye colours, statures, physical appearances. Isn’t it this diversity that makes humanity strong and able to evolve and cope with diseases or other onslaughts? If we are all genetically engineered, then I wonder what vulnerability factor is introduced. If an unknown disease came along, would a genetically engineered population be able to withstand it, since it seems to me that biological diversity provides humanity with the means to battle a variety of diseases.

And then there’s transgenics – where scientists tinker around and develop organisms that have a novel trait not normally found within a species. Golden rice is but one example of a transgenic organism. There are three categories of transgenics: animal-human combination; animal-animal combination; plant-animal-human combination. We’ve all read about pig organs, for example, being explored as an alternative for human organ transplants (known as xenotransplantation). But consider the ethical issues – and these are just some that come immediately to mind:

  • what might be the health risks? Take golden rice – it is engineered to overproduce beta carotene and retinoids derived from beta carotene may be toxic and cause birth defects.
  • would human-animal organisms be viewed as a lower order of being that would not be worthy of full respect or dignified treatment? I can imagine a whole class of “slave chimeras” being created for the purposes of doing low-grade or demeaning work.
  • at what point would organisms, which possess a particularly human phenotype or exhibit certain human behaviours, be considered “human”? Indeed, if we start tinkering around, would the whole notion of what it means “to be human” change or will it need to expanded?
  • if animal genes are inserted into a human embryo, what possible effects might there be on the individual identity of the future person? At the early stage of life, cells are growing and changing – how might the introduction of animal genes significantly alter a human’s make-up and identity? Genetic instructions are contained within an embryo, so if you introduce foreign material from an animal, are you potentially affecting the development of the human?
  • would the animal-human combination need to be given rights and special protections?
  • could new diseases emerge due to the close proximity of animal and human tissue?
  • might unexpected new deformities and disorders be created in animal-human entities?

I read this article recently and in the paper is an interesting argument:

“The animal and plant kingdoms—the kingdom of genes—contain vast amounts of genetic information of potential value to humanity. Humans have many unique and valuable qualities, like the capacity for high-level moral reasoning. But they also have many limitations, which other animals and plants do not. We age faster than some animals,we do not have sonar, acute sight, hearing, smell, or the capacity to photosynthesize or produce our own essential nutrients. And we are susceptible to diseases other animals are not. These limitations are genetic. By understanding how genes contribute to function we could use these genes, or artificial copies of their sequences, to overcome the limitations of being human.”

I get this. It’s a logical argument. And it comes from a position of acknowledging that the human being does not have moral superiority. But are we opening the proverbial Pandora’s box or will we simply be mining the kingdom of genes to produce a more robust, disease free human?

July 2, 2009 at 2:00 am 4 comments

Some simple questions

The United States has spent US $11.6 trillion (and counting) on bailouts and stimulus packages. Click here to see how the US Government has used taxpayer dollars. The Australian Government has coughed up AU $42 billion so far – to get people spending on retail goods, to fund infrastructure spending and building works at schools. Mind you, it seems that a whole lot of dead people benefited from the $900 handout too (around 16,000 individuals) along with people with an overseas residential address in countries like the UK, US, France, Germany and Brazil. Talk about a waste of taxpayer’s hard-earned dollars.

Meanwhile, GM and Chrysler bite the dust, filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and leading to unemployment for tens of thousands.  In the United States, 14.5 million people are looking for work; in Australia, the jobless rate is around 5.7% and predicted to rise to 8.5% over the next 12 months as Australia starts to feel the ferocious bite of the GFC (although we had a positive growth quarter in March).  State governments are running out of money – just look at California, a US state that is taking a real beating. Tax refunds, welfare cheques and student loans were suspended from February 1, 2009 as the State had no cash. At least 43 US States are struggling with budget shortfalls. And in Australia, we’ve just heard the news that our universal free health care system may no longer be free within five years, leaving sick people to be – well, sick – if they can’t cough up the money to pay for health care.

When you read about the likes of AIG having the hubris to pay senior employees millions of dollars in bonuses after receiving US$165 million in federal aid, you have to start asking some very simple questions. Not pointy-headed economic questions, just simple ones like:

  • how are governments going to provide for the unemployed? help them to survive and not be stripped of dignity? how will the homeless be given shelter and fed?
  • what happens when State governments run out of money, to the extent that the elderly and sick are not cared for?
  • how do we regulate the economy and get governments to step in and address market failure? (basically a return to Keynesian economics)
  • should we be reversing the privatization of infrastructure and banks? The three hallmarks of privatization are divestiture, deregulation and outsourcing and look at where this has got us – concentration of wealth; the stripping of public resources; social objectives subordinate to the profit motive; private companies making a profit and serving the needs of those who can or are willing to pay the most, whilst the needs of the majority are not forefront – this is undemocratic. And the thing I really fear is the privatization of water – there would be no guarantee that water could be delivered safely to the public at an affordable price. And if you can’t pay for water, you will be denied a basic human right.
  • what are governments going to tell the elderly and the sick or youth who will be expecting jobs? – oops, sorry, we spent all your taxpayer dollars and can’t help you.
  • how do we rebuild a sense of community and neighbourliness in our society? if we can’t look to government to support us now in this financial mess or in the future because we’ll be saddled with government debt – how do we help ourselves and others?
  • how are we going to avoid or cope with civil unrest? The GFC is causing hardship; there is anger against Wall Street; millions are losing jobs; more people are homeless; we are wary about being burdened with government obligations that may take generations to repay.

And it’s pretty clear that governments are bracing themselves for civil unrest. Let’s look at some examples:

  • the CIA has added the economy to its daily security briefing for the White House – looking at the GFC and its cascading effects on the stability of countries throughout the world;
  • in the UK, MI5 has plans to cope with civil disorder and the army is on standby. The DCDC (Development, Concepts & Doctrine Centre, UK Ministry of Defense) warned in 2007 in their strategic trends report (p81) that: “the middle classes could become a revolutionary class….The growing gap between themselves and a small number of highly visible super-rich individuals might fuel disillusion with meritocracy, while the growing urban under-classes are likely to pose an increasing threat to social order and stability, as the burden of acquired debt and the failure of pension provision begins to bite”.
  • and I’ve told you before about H.R. 645, which established FEMA camp facilities on military installations in the United States – these centres would be used to provide temporary housing, medical and humanitarian assistance in the event of a national emergency eg civil unrest
  • I’ve also told you before about a US Army think tank report – Known Unknowns: Unconventional “Strategic Shocks” in Defense Strategy Development – and on p32 of this report it says: “Widespread civil violence inside the United States would force the defense establishment to reorient priorities….to defend basic domestic order and human security. Deliberate employment of weapons of mass destruction or other catastrophic capabilities, unforeseen economic collapse, loss of functioning political and legal order, purposeful domestic resistance or insurgency, pervasive public health emergencies and catastrophic natural and human disasters are all paths to disruptive domestic shock”.

So if we put all of this together, what do we have?

  • when we all realise that the bailouts and stimulus packages have failed to correct rampant capitalism and we are all laden with increasing taxes to prop up ailing governments – we will wake up and say we’ve had enough;
  • when people can’t afford to pay for health care; when the elderly do not get pension support; when an urban underclass is saddled with debt – there will be civil unrest;
  • when the future is one of food scarcity and water wars – there will be civil unrest;
  • and when that time comes, the military is ready and able to step in and take control.

June 11, 2009 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

Is our civilisation doomed?

Have you heard of Lester Brown or read any of his articles? If not, do yourself a favour and go here. Brown is an American environmentalist and prolific author who has been saying for ages that the biggest threat to global stability is the potential for food crises. He’s no crackpot. He has a degree in agricultural science. He’s toughed it out in India where he learnt about food/population issues. He’s worked for the US Government and, in the 1970s, founded the Worldwatch Institute.

Now, one of his articles has been just been published in Scientific American and the title is ominous – “Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization”. (I can give you the short answer: YES).  It’s scary reading but let me give you the key concepts. Then go off and read his article.

  • Food scarcity and the resulting higher food prices are pushing poor countries into chaos
  • Such “failed states” can export disease, terrorism, illicit drugs, weapons and refugees
  • Water shortages, soil losses and rising temperatures from global warming are placing severe limits on food production
  • Without massive and rapid intervention to address these three environmental factors, a series of government collapses could threaten the world order

Brown says: “Our continuing failure to deal with the environmental declines that are undermining the world food economy—most important, falling water tables, eroding soils and rising temperatures—forces me to conclude that such a collapse is possible.” And here are some more sobering stats:

  • In six of the past nine years, world grain production has fallen short of consumption, forcing a steady drawdown in stocks of grain. There are now only 62 days of grain stock in reserve.
  • But world grain prices in the spring and summer of 2008 climbed to the highest level ever.

Hungry people start protesting in the streets when they can’t afford basic food supplies and governments start to teeter. We’ve already seen food riots in Haiti, Indonesia, the Philippines and Cameroon. Troops had to open fire in Somalia when people rioted over high food prices. In Africa, prices of some staple foods have increased more than 50%. I’ve been seeing articles recently predicting food riots in the United States. Heck, even scientists are jumping up and down warning about impending food shortages given predictions that food consumption will jump 50% by 2030 as the world population exceeds 8.3bn. One scientist says: “There is a significant likelihood that, without investing in the science to deliver higher crop yields, we will not have the kinds of food levels we need to ensure food security.”

So when nation states can no longer provide food security, then you have a situation where law and order breaks down and civil unrest takes over. And one of the biggest issues our world faces is rapidly falling water tables. 70% of the world’s freshwater is used for irrigation of crops and rainfall is not refilling irrigation wells fast enough. And so water shortages will result in food shortages. China’s wheat crop, for example, which is the world’s largest, has declined by 8% since it peaked at 123 million tons in 1997. Half of India’s wells have dried up already.

And here’s the bit in the article that really freaked me out: “Topsoil is eroding faster than new soil forms on perhaps a third of the world’s cropland. This thin layer of essential plant nutrients, the very foundation of civilization, took long stretches of geologic time to build up, yet it is typically only about six inches deep. Its loss from wind and water erosion doomed earlier civilizations.

So what’s the answer? Brown says: “Since the current world food shortage is trend-driven, the environmental trends that cause it must be reversed. To do so requires extraordinarily demanding measures, a monumental shift away from business as usual—what we at the Earth Policy Institute call Plan A—to a civilization-saving Plan B.” And what is Plan B?

  • cut carbon emissions by 80% from their 2006 levels by 2020
  • stabilization of the world’s population at 8 billion by 2040
  • the eradication of poverty
  • the restoration of forests, soils and aquifers

Plan B is outlined in Brown’s book.  I just hope that we all start taking this seriously. I’ve said before on this blog that I think the future will be full of wars over water, civil unrest over food scarcity and all sorts of security implications due to the planet heating up. Brown has identified in his article the 20 countries in the world that are closest to collapse (with Somalia being the worst):

Democratic Republic of the Congo
Ivory Coast
Central African Republic
Burma (Myanmar)
North Korea
Sri Lanka

May 24, 2009 at 2:00 am 4 comments

Will you have the right stuff?

I often wonder what sorts of skills will be required of future workers. One can only imagine what whiz bang technology will be available that will require a whole different skillset; what new industries will be created; and what current jobs and industries will bite the dust.

So I found this article on 10 Workplace Skills of the Future very interesting. The Institute for the Future has identified the skills you and I need to develop to face the future. Some of the names of the skills are a tad odd but here they are:

  • Ping Quotient (what the?) – The Institute says this is about responsiveness and reach. Your ability to engage with other people and to work within a network and with others in the network.
  • Longbroading The ability of see the big picture, systems thinking, understanding how a network nests within wider networks.
  • Open Authorship We’re certainly seeing this skill on the increase – creating content for public modification; the ability to work with multiple contributors.
  • Cooperation Radar Seems this skill is almost an intuitive ability to sense who the best workers would be to have on a particular project or task.
  • Multi-Capitalism I couldn’t agree with this one more. Because of the global financial hissy fit, I think we will see different economic models being put forward as complements to capitalism and also different notions of what constitutes “capital” will need to be understood. So this skill will require fluency in working and trading simultaneously with different hybrid capitals eg natural, intellectual, social, financial, virtual.
  • Mobbability Again, I think we have seen this skill on the increase.  It’s your ability work with and simultaneously coordinate large groups.
  • Protovation This skill focuses on rapid innovation in iterative cycles and increasing the speed of failure. And not being afraid of failure. 
  • Influency I think this skill is one knowledge managers are already well-versed in, particularly when it comes to storytelling. Influency will require us to be persuasive and tell compelling stories in multiple social media spaces (with each space requiring a different persuasive strategy and technique).
  • Signal/Noise Management Pattern-recognition, filtering out noise, filtering meaningful information from all the stuff that we get hit with on a daily basis.
  • Emergensight This is not a typo. Emergensight is the ability to prepare for and handle surprising results and complexity that come with coordination, cooperation and collaboration on extreme scales.

What do you think of these skills? Would you add to them?

May 18, 2009 at 2:00 am 1 comment

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