As 2016 approaches, it is time to re-focus our attention towards some of the most pressing global challenges with renewed vigour and fortitude.
In the business of everyday life, it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. Long-term thinking – at home, in the workplace or within government – is often sacrificed in the face of short-term obstacles or challenges.
The start of any New Year is habitually followed by the declaration of well-intended resolutions, promises of personal renewal or noble self-improvement projects. Cynics frequently bemoan such endeavours as trivial. This year, we should scrap them all together; for there are more pressing issues that we must commit ourselves anew to.
The end of 2015 marks the end of the first 15 years of the 21st century. We are closer to 2030 than we are to 2000. Yet, in spite of enormous progress across many spheres of life, many of the global challenges that confronted us at the start of this century, are all the more prevalent and pressing now – some of them new.
The impending urgency at which ordinary people – as much as world leaders – must act to understand and confront the great challenges of our age, has never been greater. Before looking forward to these challenges, it is worth briefly looking back at the story of the first 15 years of the 21st century – for clues to the future can often be found from the events of the past.
Confidence and optimism
The new millennium was embraced by all with confidence and optimism. Much of the world had come accustomed to a ‘new normal’ of relative peace, economic stability, prosperity and looked forward in great expectation towards continued leaps in scientific and technological innovation. And the world certainly wasn’t disappointed. The years that followed led to path-breaking advances in living standards and the communications revolution. The future seemed abundant with potential.
On reflection, two defining events in particular dominate the story of the last 15 years: the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the global financial crisis.
September 2001 was, in many ways, an early symptom of an underlying problem: increased global interconnectivity – a by-product of humanities very successes. The global financial crisis was the tragic outcome of this. In retrospect, these events have been two of the greatest tests of our generation. And unlike in 1914 or 1939, war – on the same scale – has largely been avoided and, thanks to international cooperation, the world didn’t slip into another Great Depression. So far, we seem to have passed these two momentous tests.
The next 15 years will bring many more tests, as we move ever-closer towards the middle of the century. Inevitably the future will be defined by our response to these challenges.
As Shakespeare said in The Tempest: “How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, that has such people in it!” The responsibility to build a brave new world now rests with us. To do so, we need to regain the confidence and optimism of the millennium, to confront the challenges of today.
Confronting global challenges: the tests yet to come
- Global interconnectivity
Start with global interconnectivity. One only needs to look at the growing linkage of the global economy – the pattern of integration – to see the opportunities and challenges that this presents. World trade continues to grow exponentially and despite the crisis, financial integration across boarders continue to increase sharply. We’re living through a hyper-connected digital age, marked by the communication revolution.
Today, three billion people are connected to each other on the internet. Three million emails are sent every second. Over one billion people are connected on Facebook. There are more mobile phones than people. The tangible benefits are clear: increased trade and financial flows boost growth and lead to a greater global convergence of living standards. The world is more united, more together. It is a true global village.
Yet the risks of global interconnectivity are less clear. Economic, financial and technological integration has resulted in increased fragmentation of power (as it moves from west to east), influence and decision-making. It can, and has, caused indecision, impasse and insecurity. Temptations of extremism and intolerance have increased.
As connections within this labyrinth become deeper, they also become harder to disentangle. As a result, tensions or extremism are all too easily amplified, factionalism becomes instilled and harmony can give way to hatred. Global convergence also leads to global contagion. The world is simultaneously coming together and drifting apart. It is a paradox, but one that must be better understood and managed.
- Demographic pressures
Over the next fifteen years, the world’s population will become larger and older. By 2030, there will be around one billion more people on the planet. By 2020, there will be more people alive over the age of 65 than children under 5 for the first time. Developed countries are ageing at the same time that economic growth within these economies are slowing – and when it is needed most.
At the same time, young populations in developing countries are increasing, providing latitude for more innovation, dynamism and creativity. Demographic pressures can, in part, be mitigated through increasing the flow of youth migration from developing to developed countries. Needless to say that this must be well managed as to not cause undesirable tensions, but real dangers lie within nationalistic and populist tendencies. The world needs to be more open, and tolerant, to deal with this great challenge.
Income inequality continues to rise in most countries. According to a recent report by Oxfam, next year the richest 1% will own more than the other 99% of people in the world. In the USA, for example, income inequality is back to the same levels as it was prior to the Great Depression.
In the past, economists tended to disproportionately focus on economic growth – the size of the pie – rather than its distribution. Today, it is widely accepted that excessive disparities of income and wealth can threaten the very fabric that holds society together. And moreover, excessive inequality compromises the long-term sustainability of growth.
The case is clear – reduce inequality – the means by which to solve it is not. The world certainly needs economic growth to be more inclusive. The attainment of inclusive growth isn’t altruism; it leads to greater equality of opportunity, higher and more sustainable growth. More progressive taxation (on wealth in particular), the continued removal of impediments to increased standards of health and education and smart reforms to social security, are but some of the ways to tackle this challenge.
However, such measures inevitably create winners and losers and are likely to be met by initial resistance – this requires courage and international co-ordination on the part of policy-makers, and understanding on the part of ordinary people.
- Environmental challenges
Issues surrounding the environment have rightly returned to the forefront of global debate. As the recent UN Climate Change Summit in Paris has demonstrated, the need for international cooperation to tackle climate change is essential. The stakes are high and the need for swift action is vital. But, the merciless march of climate change is but one environmental pressure point; water, food and energy scarcity are others.
By 2030, for example, almost half of the world’s population will live in regions of high water shortage. The tragedy is, that it is the most vulnerable people in the world that suffer most from sudden shifts in the climate. The good news is that it is not too late to take action.
Facing up to the wide ranging environmental challenges is no easy undertaking. But it would not be an over overstatement to claim that the fate of humanity rests upon how we face up to this challenge today.
Facing the future
The challenges of the next 15 years are extensive and complex. If the history of the past 15 years has taught us anything, it is that despite the rapid – and often perplexing – pace of change, it has been in our determination to confront the challenges, and opportunities, of this dynamic age that has brought us to where we are today.
As we approach the beginning of 2016, we should face the future with the same confidence and optimism of the millennium; for it is our responsibility to pave the way for the next generation.