“So what lies in store for the second half of the 21st Century? In such uncertain times, I’ll not be making any predictions…”
It is 2050 and the world is on the cusp again. It seems like we have been here before: the tense moments in the Cold War; the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 and US Middle East incursions that followed. Now the issues are fears over scarce resources eclipsing climate change as an environmental challenge; security, debt and shifting balance of power, especially as China replaces the USA as the world’s dominant military power. The world staggers from crisis to crisis, with an unexpectedly positive development emerging from time to time.
In economics, successive waves of cheap money unleashed by central banks of major economies in the 2010s and 2020s were only partially effective: encouraging investment in some sectors where rapid development was helpful – such as renewable energy – but also creating further speculative asset bubbles in property, shares and government bonds.
The great dollar crash of 2026 had a particularly profound effect on the USA and the world. It was left to a Democrat President to cut welfare, and then the Republican successor to cut defence as successive administrations sought a soft default through higher inflation. Slashing the US Navy altered the global balance of power.
The split of the European Union into essentially three zones was a protracted, painfully drawn-out affair. The northern continental bloc of Benelux, Denmark, Finland, Austria and Germany became a unified and high-achieving economy, with a shared currency, the Northern Guilder, and in 2028 became the first large, advanced economy to reach 100% level of renewable energy.
Meanwhile Norway, Sweden, Ireland, the semi-independent Scotland and the rest of the UK formed the Atlantic European Trade Pact. Less cohesive and technologically advanced than the Nordic Union, it has nonetheless held together so far. The Southern European Union was led by France, Spain and Italy. Freed of the dysfunctional euro, many Spanish cities, the Ile de France and northern Italy in particular were able to develop rapidly.
The economic outcome for the continent of Europe was relatively benign for some years, but the Old Continent faced perennial threats from Islamist incursions and a latent threat from the east, especially after Russia completed its control over Ukraine in the mid-2020s, and formed treaties with ex-European Union states Greece, Romania and Bulgaria.
In Europe, nations prioritized welfare and health spending over defence, tacitly assuming the USA would provide protection – which it did until its own crisis hit in the late 2020s. With some eastern European states opting for the Russian umbrella, there was talk of a ‘new Cold War’ but an uneasy peace became established, Russia maintaining dialogue with a weakened but intact NATO alliance, and on occasion the two blocs cooperated to thwart Islamist threats.
In the early 2020s the most unlikely alliance ever established combined finally to thwart the semi-formalized Islamic State of the Levant, when Israel, Iran, Russia and NATO launched an ultimately effective land campaign.
Unexpectedly benign developments in western Africa and southern South America have been the most positive developments in recent years. In the Cono Sur region, the turning point was a major clampdown on corruption in the 2020s to bring Argentina and Brazil in line with Uruguay and Chile. Fate also intervened: the unevenness of climate change left the Mediterranean-style climate of the central zone of the Cono Sur largely unscathed, while repeated droughts in California, combined with fiscal crises at state and federal level and high taxes, encouraging a brain drain south to the Sao Paolo-Montevideo coastal corridor which became the most fashionable hi-tech region, with signs that Ghana and neighbouring African countries are following behind.
China, increasingly the world’s dominant military and colonial power, was welcomed as an investor in much of south America and western Africa, but on occasion faced a nationalist-populist backlash when it overplayed its hand. Tension over the Nicaragua Canal in Central America, built as a rival to the Panama Canal with Chinese investment, almost spilled over into all-out war between the USA and China in 2021, but calmer heads prevailed.
Climate change has turned out to be more uneven and unpredictable than expected. The huge shift away from fossil fuels in the mid-2010s, led by China, stalled the rise in carbon emissions. Meanwhile re-afforestation programmes acted to soak up excess CO2, and 3D printing slashed the energy consumption of manufacturers. This did not prevent creeping desert in some vulnerable regions, and excessive rainfall in some tropical zones. The coffee price-hike in 2022 led to business insolvency in farming, production and coffee shops, and the appearance of cappuccinos and ‘flat whites’ that were more expensive than champagne.
In science and technology, progress was hampered by the human factor. Impressive rises in longevity in developed countries came to a halt in the 2010s and 2020s. The prime culprits were obesity, diabetes and other lifestyle-related ailments. While at the turn of the century it had been assumed that genetics would be key, more progress came from a fuller understanding of the microbiome – the complex systemic nature of a human’s microbial life. However, the revelation that many illnesses were caused by processed foods, misuse of antibiotics or environmental toxins was not welcome news to vested interests in the food, chemicals and pharmaceutical industries. A wave of scandals in the USA changed perspectives, and weakened the moral authority of the West, which had sought to clamp down on corruption after the 2015 FIFA scandal broke on how bribes apparently helped fix allocation of World Cup final tournaments.
Artificial intelligence and Big Data had a delayed impact. For years, tech firms made the same mistake as town planners in Europe in the 1950s and 1960s who destroyed communities with urban motorways and high-rise flats: expecting people to work around the technology. In a similar way, excessive automation and infringements of privacy led to a backlash against Big Data. Retro was ‘in’ for much of the 2020s: slow travel, personal service, old-style hotels. Many upper income people opted out of social media. Finally, the smartest firms realized their error and began to build systems that respected customer privacy, hiring the best people managers to create teams and make better judgements on use of technology. By 2030, the best people managers were earning more than the best tech geeks.
So what lies in store for the second half of the 21st Century? More progress towards valuing the people asset and renewable energy? Or further slides into tribal schisms and global wars over scarce resources? In such uncertain times, I’ll not be making any predictions ….
By Philip Whiteley