Karl Wagner (Austrian, born 1952), biologist by education and environmental campaigner by training, has spent thirty years running environmental campaigns, nationally and globally, mostly for the World Wildlife Fund. He currently works for the Club of Rome.
The next forty years will rank as one of the most crucial periods in the development of human civilization. The massive changes taking place will influence all people and countries, but there will be regional variations.
The Western world will see the most fundamental changes, and there will be one particular decade—the 2020s—that will carry the same monumental importance as the year 1848 did for the citizens of many European countries. That was the year that several centuries of struggle between the people and the ruling feudal class culminated in revolution. Suddenly Europeans had entered a new era.
Over the next forty years we will see the crumbling, first, of the old paradigm and, second, of the structures that build on this thinking— namely, the system that helps maintain the current wasteful, exploitative, and spiritually and emotionally underdeveloped civilization.
The transition will be neither smooth nor peaceful.
The current, outdated paradigm will disappear faster than many think. Realities will change because of sheer necessity; there won’t be room on the planet for enough business as usual. A new belief system will replace the old one:
• The culture of consumerism will be replaced by cultural elements that provide longer-term substantial satisfaction, increasing wellbeing, and fundamental happiness.
• The dominant interpretation of Darwin’s theory, that life evolved through competition and survival of the fittest, will be replaced by an understanding that advanced life evolved through cooperation and not through domination.
• Cultures will come closer to each other, and the current clash of civilizations will not be the end point, but will turn out to be a chapter in the development of a higher level of global society.
• A new understanding of community will emerge, in the form of a modern blend of traditional community life and values and a more benign form of individualism, which grasps the value of collective solutions.
There will be many drivers behind this development. The main force for change will be disenfranchised young people. They are already now beginning to wake up to the fact that their parents and grandparents are in the process of leaving them an exploited planet with degraded life-support systems, indebted economies, few jobs, and no affordable housing. In developed countries they also inherit the responsibility of caring for an increasing number of retired people who plan to receive pensions and health care for the next thirty to forty years.
These youths rightfully want the opportunity to live a decent life and have a family. They do not want to spend their life paying off debt accumulated by previous generations. The analogy to the European revolutions of 1848 is unpleasantly close. As then, inequity will turn out to be a time bomb—but this time not only in Europe, but around the globe. During the next ten to fifteen years we will see emerging limits to popular patience. We will see young people lead in the fight for a universal right to a decent life and a decent job.
Other crucial drivers will be urbanization, climate change, peak oil, and declining population size. Together they will entirely alter land use, land distribution, and political decision making. People will live more densely. Transportation will become more expensive, and commuting by private car will become a luxury. The countryside will lose population. Cities will increasingly determine national politics and be the engine of societal evolution.
The biggest change, though, will be the increasing prevalence of electronic communications, the most powerful driver of globalisation. The next decades will see a global consciousness emerging, an additional mind sphere, whose nature and true dimension is still unclear but will become evident within the next five to fifteen years.
The world will move from cloud computing to cloud thinking and possibly even cloud feeling. Not only will something else—“the net”—derive logical conclusions for us, it will also set the agenda by constantly feeding back what everyone else thinks. And it certainly will influence the mood of the population. This explosion of continuous web access will not be without downsides. We already know that electronic communications is an ideal tool to gather and control personal information. We also know that it can be used to gather and inspire people, as in the Middle East uprisings in 2011. But the web can also be used to suppress and manipulate individuals and masses.
The resistance to change from those who are the beneficiaries of the current system will turn out to be more durable than many expect. Outdated governance systems that do not add to public wellbeing will be upheld by the sheer power and the will of a minority that wants to maintain the status quo that is serving them well in the short term. The result will be friction and conflict, which will play out in Western countries first and then, after a time delay, spread to other regions of the world. But before tensions are released, conditions for the majority in the industrialized world will deteriorate for years. The break will not occur until a critical mass of people have been pushed beyond their limit of patience.
Industry and business will play a major role on both sides. Smaller enterprise on a human scale will drive the community approach, while big multinationals will find it difficult, if not impossible, to abandon their quarterly-profit, shareholder-return, money-only thinking.
The transition will have many faces. There need not be massive and violent riots in cities by unemployed youth, but there will be.
There need not be class warfare or terrorist units who bomb banks, nor cyber activists who publish hacked account details from tax havens, but there will be. Some people will lead the way by opting out from the old system and voluntarily joining a new one. I believe the intensity of opposition will increase from now until a peak in Europe and the United States in the 2020s, then move inexorably toward some kind of revolution. This is inevitable, because the old system will not go away by itself. It will have to be forced out—by whatever action people take, and aided by factors such as new web technologies. This shift could happen through peaceful conversation in parliaments, but it won’t.
The revolution will be global, but it will come first in Europe, the United States, and the other OECD countries, where tensions are already high and the older generations’ high hopes for their future lie in starkest contrast with the low hopes of the current unemployed or overeducated youth. It will follow in Latin America somewhat later, and then after another twenty years in the then-dominant economies of China and the like. Africa might find itself facing a completely different set of challenges for many years to come and so is unlikely to be actively swept up in these global generational conflicts.
By the second half of the twenty-first century, the intergenerational war will be over. Humanity will find itself in a more equitable and sustainable world. The young will be better off, at the cost of the elderly.