We've seen the future ... and we may not be doomed

UN report finds life is getting better for people worldwide – but that governments are failing to grasp the opportunities offered at 'a unique time'. Geoffrey Lean and Jonathan Owen report

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Humanity stands on the threshold of a peaceful and prosperous future, with an unprecedented ability to extend lifespans and increase the power of ordinary people – but is likely to blow it through inequality, violence and environmental degradation. And governments are not equipped to ensure that the opportunities are seized and disasters averted.

So says a massive new international report, due to be published late this month, and obtained by The Independent on Sunday. Backed by organisations ranging from Unesco to the US army, the World Bank to the Rockefeller Foundation, the 2008 State of the Future report runs to 6,300 pages and draws on contributions from 2,500 experts around the globe.

Its warning is all the more stark for eschewing doom and gloom. "The future continues to get better for most of the world," it concludes, "but a series of tipping points could drastically alter global prospects."

It goes on. "This is a unique time in history. Mobile phones, the internet, international trade, language translation and jet planes are giving birth to an interdependent humanity that can create and implement global strategies to improve [its] prospects. It is increasingly clear that the world has the resources to address our common challenges. Ours is the first generation with the means for many to know the world as a whole, identify global improvement systems, and seek to improve [them]."

What is more, say the authors of the report, produced by the Millennium Project of the World Federation of the United Nations Associations, many important things are already getting better. Life expectancy and literacy rates are increasing worldwide, while infant mortality and the number of armed conflicts have been falling fast. Per capita income has been growing strongly enough to cut poverty by more than half by 2015 – except, importantly, in Africa.

Even better, it says, "advances in science, technology, education, economics and management seem capable of making the world work far better than it does today".

Medical breakthroughs, for example, are offering the hope of defeating inherited diseases, tailoring cures to individual patients, and even creating replacement body parts. And computers are spreading even to remote villages in developing countries and dramatically increasing in power to provide "collective intelligence for just-in-time knowledge to inform decisions".

The report reserves its greatest enthusiasm for the internet, which it says is "already the most powerful force for globalisation, democratisation, economic growth and education in history.

"The internet allows self-organisation around common ideals, independent of conventional institutional controls and regardless of nationalities or languages. Injustices in different parts of the world become the concern of thousands or millions of people who then pressure local, regional or international governing systems to find solutions.

"This unparalleled social power is reinventing citizens' roles in the political process and changing institutions, policy-making and governance."

And this is happening in a world that is already becoming freer and more democratic. Over the past 30 years, the number of free countries has more than doubled from 43 to 90, it reports, while those that are partly free increased from 46 to 60. Just over one-third of humanity still lives in the 43 countries with authoritarian regimes, but half of these people are in China.

On the other hand, the report warns "half the world is vulnerable to social instability and violence due to rising food and energy prices, failing states, falling water tables, climate change, decreasing water-food-energy supply per person, desertification and increasing migrations due to political, environmental and economic conditions".

These – and other threats such as increasing terrorism, corruption and organised crime – threaten to undo the improvements of recent years and blight the chance of a better future.

Food prices have more than doubled in a year and have already plunged 37 countries into crisis, greatly increasing hunger and poverty. And price rises seem set to continue because food production needs to increase 50 per cent by 2013 and double in 30 years.

"With nearly three billion people making $2 or less per day, long-term global social conflict seems inevitable without more serious food policies, useful scientific breakthroughs and dietary changes," says the report.

Global warming is occurring faster than expected. This could cause southern Africa to "lose more than 30 per cent of its maize crop by 2030" and help to increase the number of people facing water scarcity fourfold to a massive three billion by 2025.

The rate at which the world's ice is melting, it says, "has doubled over the last two years", and it quotes a US military report which predicts that global warming "can be an incubator of civil strife, genocide and the growth of terrorism".

Yet nuclear power – the solution increasingly favoured by governments, which are planning to add another 350 reactors to the 438 already operating around the world – will not do the job. "For nuclear energy to eliminate the greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels, about 2,000 nuclear power plants would have to be built, at $5-15bn per plant, over 15 years – and possibly an additional 8,000 plants beyond that to 2050."

The report says that there is not enough uranium in the world to fuel all those reactors, that another Chernobyl-type accident could halt the expansion in its tracks, and that the rapid spread of the atom around the world increases the chances of nuclear proliferation and terrorism.

It estimates that there is a 75 per cent chance that terrorists will have acquired nuclear weapons within the next 10 years, adding: "Links between terrorists and organised crime are worrisome, especially considering that, on average, there were 150 reports of unauthorised use of nuclear or radioactive materials to the International Atomic Energy Authority per year between 2004 and 2007."

Organised crime, it adds, "continues to grow in the absence of a comprehensive, integrated global counterstrategy". It reckons that it is now worth some $2 trillion a year.

There are grounds for hope, however. The use of renewable energy is growing, and China's largest car maker plans for half its cars to be hybrids within two years. But the report's authors say that governments are not up to the job: "Many of the world's decision-making processes are inefficient, slow and ill-informed, especially when given the new demands from increasing complexity [and] globalisation." They call on world leaders to do more long-term planning, and to join in global approaches to the interlocking crises. "Climate change cannot be turned around without a global strategy. International organised crime cannot be stopped without a global strategy. Individuals creating designer diseases and causing massive deaths cannot be stopped without a global strategy. It is time for global strategic systems to be upgraded."

Jerome Glenn, the report's main author added: "There seems to be an interest in creating global strategies, but it needs a little push. There's more within us now to collaborate in the face of shared problems."

Computer power

25 years until a computer's capacity equals the power of the human brain. After another 25 years, everyone will be able to access processing power greater than that of all the brains on Earth combined.

The great melt

5 years before the Arctic could be ice-free in summer. Sea-ice last year shrank to 22 per cent below the previous record low, a level that had not been expected to be reached until 2030-50, opening up the Northwest Passage.

Fossil fuel

850 coal-fired power stations are planned to go into operation across the US, China and India over the next four years. Each station would operate for about 20 years, greatly accelerating global warming.

Solar energy

25% of Europe's electricity could come from solar-powered stations in North Africa by 2050. African leaders and aid organisations are to invest $10bn (£5bn) a year in renewable energy over the next five years.

To have your say on this or any other issue visit www.independent.co.uk/IoSblogs

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