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Tom Engelhardt: Apocalypse When?

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After all, I've done you an enormous favor.  I've actually read Global Trends 2030 from its two-page "dear reader" letter from the chairman of the NIC and the report's "executive summary" though its 136 two-columned pages, and even its interminable acknowledgements.  And let me assure you, it's put together by perfectly intelligent people and has some interesting nuggets in it.  The assembled crew has even tried its hand at writing bits of futuristic fiction and at least one of them, a "Marxist" analysis "updated" for the twenty-first century, has some passing entertainment value.

In the end, though, the document, like the IC itself, is an overblown artifact of Washington's own limitations and fears.  It's also mind-numbingly, bone-blisteringly dull and repetitive, featuring elaborate charts laying out what you've just read as if you were simply too thick to take it in paragraph by paragraph.  It's exactly the sort of thing that no bureaucratic collective should be allowed to inflict on the great unknown, and that no one raised on H.G. Wells, Arthur Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Philip Dick, Ursula Le Guin, George Orwell, William Gibson, or for that matter, Suzanne Collins should ever have to endure.

And yet, the strangeness of this project, historically speaking, should get your attention.  Stop for a moment and think about time and the state.  States have traditionally had an urge to control the past (sometimes working hard to gain a monopoly on the writing of history).  And -- no surprise here -- most states have the urge to control the present.  But the future?  The future is time's democracy.  No government can secure it.  No military can invade it.  No intelligence agency can embed its operatives in it.

This is why the Global Trends series that originally emerged from the increasingly self-confident world of the "sole superpower" holds a certain fascination.  It represents a unique state foray into the future, a singular attempt to corral and possess it.  Once upon a time, the distant future was the province of utopian or dystopian thinkers, pulp fiction writers, oddballs, visionaries, even cranks, but not government intelligence services. Peering into it was, at its best, a movingly strange individual adventure of the imagination, whether you were reading Edward Bellamy or Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Yevgeny Zamyatin or H.G. Wells, George Orwell or Aldous Huxley.

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That was, of course, before the Pentagon began planning for the weaponry of 2020, 2035, and 2050; before war turned nuclear and so, with the exception of two cities in 1945, could only be "fought" in think tanks via futuristic scenario writing.  It was before the leaders of the sole superpower were so overcome by hubris that they began to suspect the future, like the present, might indeed be theirs.

And yet the future is, and remains, everyone's, always.  Until it actually comes to pass, your guess is as good as the CIA's or the NIC's.  Probably better.  They may, in fact, be the worst possible candidates to write about the future.  Even when they know the rap against them -- as laid out in Global Trends 2030, their inability to let go of "continuities" for "discontinuities and crises" -- it doesn't matter.

They simply can't bring themselves to think outside the box.  They don't dare surprise themselves, no less give the future its surprising due, even though -- my own guess -- ours is likely to be a world increasingly filled with those discontinuities.  The rise of China, the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the Arab Spring, the eruption of both the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement, even the tiniest of unexpected trapdoors in history -- like Paula Broadwell taking down America's "greatest" general -- are conceptually beyond them.  Surprise is their poison.  They would prefer to palm a few cards and play from the bottom of the deck rather than acknowledge that the future just isn't theirs.

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Apocalypse When?

The early years of the George W. Bush era proved a visionary, if quite mad, moment.  That was when Washington blew a hole in the oil heartlands of the planet and may have launched the Arab Spring.  More recently, policymaking has been firmly restored to an administration of managers and the American imperial imagination, such as it was, began to atrophy.  Global Trends 2030 reflects that all-American reality, which is why it's less like entering the future than getting a guided tour of the airless corridors of Washington's collective mind as 2013 begins.

Of course, the future is an impossibly tricky thing to guide anyone through.  Take China, for example.  No one would claim its rise isn't a fact of world historical importance.  Still, I think it would be fair to say that, from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the end of the twentieth, an individual who accurately predicted the next bizarre and spectacular twist in China's path to the future would have been laughed out of any roomful of experts: the collapse of imperial China, the improbable rise of Mao Zedong's communist movement out of the chaos of invasion and civil war, or -- most improbable of all -- the creation by China's Communist Party, after a decade of startling radicalism and extremism, of an unprecedented capitalist powerhouse (slated, as Global Trends 2030 points out, to pass the U.S. as the globe's leading economy by 2030, if not earlier).

So why should anyone imagine that, when it comes to China, present trends can simply be extrapolated into the future?  And yet so it goes for the folks of Global Trends 2030, who project a more daring than usual series of scenarios for that country, ranging from cooperation with the U.S. in hegemonic regional harmony to growing nationalism and "adventurism" abroad to (an extreme improbability, as they see it) an economic "collapse" scenario that shocks the global economy.

Still, let's take one prominent fact of Chinese history, which the analysts of the National Intelligence Council ignore (although China's leaders are deeply aware of it or they wouldn't have moved to suppress the Falun Gong sect or, more recently, a Christian cult of the Mayan apocalypse).  Under stress, China has a unique revolutionary tradition.  For at least a couple of thousand years, in bad times huge peasant rebellions, often fed by syncretic religious cults, have swept out of the Chinese interior to threaten the country: the Yellow Turbans, the White Lotus, the Taipings of the mid-nineteenth century, and most recently Mao's own movement, among others.

Already today, in economically upbeat times, China has tens of thousands of "mass incidents" a year in which citizens protest polluting factories, peasants take over local villages, and so on.  If the Chinese economy takes a major hit between now and 2030, amid growing economic corruption and increasing inequality, who knows what might actually happen?

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With the rarest of exceptions, however, the authors of Global Trends 2030 relegate the shock of the future to outlier "black swans" like a pandemic that could kill millions or solar geomagnetic storms that knock out satellite systems and the global electric grid (a scenario the writers of NBC's hit show Revolution got to well ahead of the NIC's experts).  Otherwise, when it comes to a truly disjunctive world, for better or worse, forget it in Global Trends 2030.

I don't think I'm atypical and yet I can imagine worse than they seem capable of describing without even blinking, starting with a full-scale, gob-smack global depression.  In fact, if you have an apocalyptic turn of mind, all you need to do is look at the information they supply -- some of which their analysts consider good news -- and it's easy enough to grasp what a truly extreme world we may be entering.

They tell us, for instance, that "the world has consumed more food than it has produced in seven of the last eight years" (a trend they hope will be reversed by the genetic modification of food crops); that water is running short ("by 2030 nearly half the world's population will live in areas with severe water stress"); that demand for energy will rise by about 50% in the coming 15 to 20 years; and that greenhouse gases, entering the atmosphere as if there were no tomorrow, are expected to double by mid-century.  By their estimate, in 2030 there will be 8.3 billion high-end omnivores rattling around this planet and more than a billion of them, possibly two billion, will have entered some abysmally degraded version of "the middle class."  That is, there will be more car drivers, more meat-eaters, more product buyers.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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