Update: This article has been modified since its initial publication. Please note that the report mentioned in this article is not a United Nations publication. More information about the authors and the report can be found here.
A major report issued by the United Nations Millennium Project has just been released. It finds that half the world appears vulnerable to social instability and violence due to increasing and potentially prolonged unemployment from the recession as well as several longer-term issues: decreasing water, food, and energy supplies per person; the cumulative effects of climate change; and increasing migrations due to political, environmental, and economic conditions. It also finds some good in the global financial crisis, which may be helping humanity to move from its often selfish, self-centered adolescence to a more globally responsible adulthood.
After 13 years of the Millennium Project’s global futures research, it is increasingly clear that the world has the resources to address its challenges. Coherence and direction has been lacking. But recent meetings of the U.S. and China, as well as of NATO and Russia, and the birth of the G-20 plus the continued work of the G-8 promise to improve global strategic collaboration. It remains to be seen if this spirit of cooperation can continue and if decisions will be made on the scale necessary to really address the global challenges discussed in this report.
Major Findings include:
- The vast majority of the world is living in peace, conflicts actually decreased over the past decade, cross-cultural dialogues are flourishing, and intra-state conflicts are increasingly being settled by international interventions.
- The world is beginning to wake up to the enormity of the threat of transnational organized crime.
- Freedom House’s 2009 survey found that democracy and freedom have declined for the third year in a row, and press freedoms declined for the seventh year in a row. It estimates that only 17% of the world’s population lives in 70 countries with a free press, while 42% lives in 64 countries that have no free press.
- Although government and business leaders are beginning to respond more seriously to the global environmental situation, it continues to get worse. Each day, the oceans absorb 30 million tons of CO2, increasing their acidity. The number of dead zones—areas with too little oxygen to support life—has doubled every decade since the 1960s. The oceans are warming about 50% faster than the IPCC reported in 2007. The amount of ice flowing out of Greenland during the summer of 2008 was nearly three times more than that lost during the previous year. Arctic summer ice could be gone by 2030, as could many of the major Himalayan, European, and Andean glaciers. Over 36 million hectares of primary forest are lost every year. Human consumption is 30% larger than nature’s capacity to regenerate, and demand on the planet has more than doubled over the past 45 years. This growth continues as, for example, more cars are expected to be produced in China in 2009 than in the U.S. or Japan.
- World energy demand could nearly double by 2030, with China and India accounting for over half of the increase. China uses more coal than the U.S., EU, and Japan combined, but it now has a policy to close an old coal plant for each new cleaner burning plant that turns coal into a gas before burning it. Without major policy and technological changes, fossil fuels will meet 80% of primary energy demand by 2030. If so, then large-scale carbon capture, storage, and/or reuse should become a top priority to reduce global climate change.
- In March 2009 an asteroid missed Earth by 77,000 kilometers, 80% closer to the planet than our moon is. If it had hit Earth, it would have wiped out all life on 800 square kilometers. No one knew it was coming. The time between its discovery and close approach was very short.
- Nearly 25% of humanity is connected to the Internet. There are more people using the Internet in China than the total population of the U.S. Mobile phones are becoming handheld computers. Humanity, the built environment, and ubiquitous computing seem destined to become so interconnected that collective intelligences with “just-in-time knowledge” will emerge for improving civilization. With an increasingly educated world and the majority of humanity connected to the Internet over the next 20 years, new forms of political power may emerge, growing beyond the control of traditional hierarchical structures.
- The world’s population is 6.8 billion. It is expected to grow to 9.2 billion by 2050, but it could shrink by 2100, creating a world with many elderly people. Nearly all the population increases will be in developing countries; hence, today’s first world will be tomorrow’s elderly world.
- Infectious diseases are the second leading cause of death worldwide. About half the people in the world are at risk of several endemic diseases. More than 42 million people are living with HIV/AIDS, and 74% of these infected people live in sub-Saharan Africa. For the first time in 40 years, WHO declared a pandemic: the H1N1 influenza (swine flu) rapidly infected 60,000 people in nearly half the countries of the world, resulting in 263 deaths between April and June 2009.
The Millennium Project also explored future possible outcomes using its Real-Time Delphi online software. The RTD is a relatively new and efficient method for collecting and synthesizing expert opinions. According to the report, the value of futures research is less in forecasting accuracy than in focusing attention, planning, and opening minds to consider new possibilities and in changing the policy agenda. The goal is not to know the future precisely (how could that be possible?) but to understand a range of possibilities that lead to better decisions.
This article originally appeared on ENN.