Issues Magazine

Five Major Trends

By Mark R. Anderson

A surprisingly small number of major trends are serving as primary drivers of the world today. Two of these are new, and two more have not yet been properly defined, but all are remarkable in their impact.

Privacy vs Lunacy: More Destruction, Lower Cost

One of the great, and perhaps most tragic, trends driving world events today is the increasing ability of the small and misguided to create ever larger amounts of destruction and death. While many people focus on the appropriately frightening spread of nuclear weapons, this is only the tip of the techno-terror iceberg, as many recent events have proven.

Never before have so few been able to kill so many. We have now also crossed a line beyond which we will never, as a species, return.

Along this train of thought, it would be easy to suggest that the greatest criminal of all time is Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan, who appears to have made it his life mission to evangelise nuclear bomb technology to as many nations as possible. Not only did he bring this horror to his own country – perhaps the most unstable in the modern world – but he also, through his vision of an Islamist Bomb, appears to be personally responsible for the nuclear bomb programs in Iran, North Korea and – well, who knows?

Add in suitcase bombs and missing Russian nuclear materials, and we have all the important ingredients for full-on nuclear paranoia. Estimates today put Pakistan’s and India’s bomb list at over 100 each, with Russia still leading in the thousands and the US close behind. Israel has been mum about its hundreds of nukes, China likely has thousands, Japan is talking about getting them (and, I think, probably has them) and South Africa has had them for years (thanks, likely, to Israel).

One has to ask the most obvious question: which nation that wants nuclear weapons does not already have them?

Not only are nations of any size and idiocy (yes, North Korea, this means you) “nuking up,” but even individuals are now empowered by technology to create massive destruction. Aside from clever manipulations like driving planes into buildings, we also have things like shoulder-fired missiles and rocket-propelled grenades. A single social outcast can now bring down a 747 without too much trouble.

Even worse, we see the world increasingly populated by believers in a religion that in its radical form encourages the murder of any and all non-believers. Adding this cultural gasoline to technological prowess creates a lethal combination that promises to create death and disaster around the world for as far forward as one can see.

In combating this trend, governments have willingly arrogated to themselves virtually all power to inspect individuals at home and abroad. It is true, as far as I am able to see, that there is no alternative if citizens demand safety and protection from the lunacy described above.

The price they will pay is obvious: the US has no Bill of Rights today; there is no such thing as privacy for any individual, anywhere; and even such treasured legal protections as habeas corpus (which requires a person under arrest to be brought before a judge or into court) are, apparently, made obsolete by the need of governments to act quickly and without restraint in the name of counter-terror.

It is easy to blame governments or intelligence agencies, as happened in the wake of the disclosure of PRISM and other spying programs and tools, but this is more likely just a case of focusing on the symptom and not the disease.

The same may be said of corporations, as their databases turn into treasure troves for all interested parties, from advertisers to intelligence agencies to cyberthieves. Should we blame Verizon or Google or Microsoft for cooperating with government demands for terror-related data? Protesting this is the job of the citizens, not the corporations – but the citizens seem asleep, by and large, lulled by the fear of terror attack.

And they are probably right.

For all these reasons, this is a trend that merits a position at the top of our list.

Global Warming vs Low-Cost Energy: Fracking and Lower-Cost Petrofuels

We have spent a decade watching the owners of oil, gas and coal use the same public-relations tricks, in the same order, that the cigarette companies used for so long: deny, dither and delay. At 10 years each, the cancer-stick folks bought 30 years of profits – no question, a great financial investment for them, even as they killed millions.

Now it is petrofuels’ turn, with ExxonMobil first in line, and gas and coal right behind.

But let’s start with the bright side of this trend. Contrary to the Peak Oil scare tactics of a few years ago, the planet now has more fuel reserves and fuel flowing than it has ever dreamed might be available. The US is suggested to be not only moving from massive import dependence to being self-sustaining, but it may also be the world’s largest fuel producer by 2025. Wow!

Add in Russia, with the world’s largest reserves as of today. Or consider that most nations in the world (including Japan) are suddenly discovering petrofuel deposits that were either unknown a few years ago or uneconomical to access.

This amazing reversal of fortune is likely the single most important gross change in economics today (and yes, it, too, is fuelled by technology and IP). There is no particular reason (with a single exception) why this trend will not create extremely cheap energy for generations to come, lowering the cost of all manufacturing and transport, and creating a boom in national economies and individual incomes.

And then there are the downsides.

First, and most important: unless we come up with a dramatic technological solution (such as the SNS Twinning Global Initiative; www.futureinreview.com), burning this fuel will likely turn the planet into a very different place – one which will certainly contain fewer people, and greater conflict, and which may even threaten the human species.

After watching ExxonMobil spend tens of millions of dollars convincing the public that there is no such thing as global warming, we are now entering the second decade of its (and others’) PR program: dither. The new mantra will be: OK, there is global warming (which nearly all “Grand Old Party” leaders, many beholden to oil and coal, now accept), but it is not human-caused.

Of course, this is not true. The Guardian newspaper put out an interesting issue underlining the most recent wave of scientific studies on this question, but these are really unnecessary. Humans have been the direct cause of CO2 levels and of planetary warming for decades. End of debate. Those who argue against this will only be doing so out of greed; please ignore them.

But there is more.

At a time when water is the new oil, and when the reserves of fresh water are rapidly dwindling even as Earth’s population increases, it turns out that the fracking process has the capability of poisoning that water. Are we, as a species, committing another form of suicide in return for fuel expansion, poisoning our water even as we destroy the atmosphere?

If you are wondering why you have not heard more about this water issue, there is a very disturbing reason: in virtually all of the hundreds (or perhaps now thousands) of lawsuits brought by individuals and communities against gas and oil companies using fracking, the plaintiffs have settled out of court, been bought off, and been forced to sign non-disclosure agreements as part of the deal. No evidence, no talk on TV, no nothing. While this makes lawsuit settlements just a part of the cost of doing business for gas and oil firms, it also prevents the world from properly assessing the risk of fracking to water supplies.

And there’s more. Because energy will be so cheap around the world, there is a rapid collapse in the incentive for companies and governments to pursue alternative energy sources. While this makes sense when not considering the “externalities” such as planetary damage, it certainly doesn’t pencil out when they are thrown in.

But that’s not how we roll, as the saying goes. So there is every likelihood that this huge new trend in low-cost energy will lead to the end of the planet as we know it. In fact, in many ways, it already has: we seem to have reached a certain point of no return in terms of future global warming, although there may be more of these in our future.

There are a number of other reasons to be concerned about this set of issues:

If the global conveyor current (the Gulf Current), driven by salt and temperature differentials, stops (caused by the melting of Greenland ice), many bad things happen at once: the UK acquires an Arctic climate; the world’s ocean currents change their energy distribution scheme, and then...

If most of the world’s most expensive real estate is on the coasts (it is), then when sea level rises not only do we lose small island nations and create millions of refugees in places like Bangladesh – but we also destroy many trillions of dollars in asset values.

Has anyone factored this into their “ignore global warming” strategy? It could be as exciting as the derivatives and real estate collapse of 2007–08, but much more permanent.

IP Drives the Global Economy: Inventing Nations vs Thieves

This is the economic story of the post-information age. Unfortunately, no one has had the vision to create the academic underpinnings yet (although we are looking for a school to embark on just this Nobel-likely path).

Today, there is essentially only one driver of wealth: technological progress.

Today, there are two major types of national economic business model: inventing, or stealing and copying those inventions.

What a simple world!

It turns out that in order to continue our global economic growth for the long term, the world’s leaders will need to find the appropriate tools to reduce or altogether prevent national governments from stealing commercial secrets as part of their economic models. (Today, the lead nations pursuing this path of intellectual property theft are China, Russia and France, followed by South Korea and Japan. It is the general position of these countries that what they are doing is not wrong, although it does violate World Trade Organization and inventing nation government laws and regulations.)

Since I have written about this extensively over the last few years, I won’t spend additional space here reiterating issue points.

Corporations Trump Inventing Nations: The Erosion of Citizen Rights Paired with the Absence of Shareholder Rights

One of the great changes afoot in the world is the shift in power of all kinds – financial, political, even military – from nations to corporations. This shift is happening in free-market economies, although the corporations that benefit and drive these changes straddle the planet and have no particular economic or political home.

Gone are the days when “what is good for GM is good for America”. Whether we are looking at Apple hiding taxable income in Ireland or Microsoft handing over the source code for Windows to China, we clearly see that corporations answer only to their shareholders and have no other ties to their countries of origin.

More important, these companies pay huge sums to purchase influence in governments wherever they do business, co-opting the normal checks-and-balances and citizen input in favour of their own profit. The result is tax codes that look like Swiss cheese – so filled with holes that no one can understand them – and whole governments unable to debate subjects such as their annual budget.

On the judicial side, in the United States we see perversions such as that paid for by the Koch Brothers and others in the Citizens United ruling, allowing corporations to give unlimited amounts of money to elected representatives. This is a democracy of dollars, and not of citizens or votes. No one, except some of those with the dollars, wants this.

Worse yet, this political power is not transferred to the new owners: the shareholders. Indeed, shareholder power has never been more elusive, even to the point where majority votes on issues go ignored and board members thrown out by popular vote are just reappointed. What is there to counter this trend?

Mercantilist Nations Trump Corporations: State-Controlled Companies Demolish Free Enterprise Companies and Sectors

Although American companies are almost universally prevented from purchasing majority control of, say, Chinese (or Japanese, or South Korean) companies, Chinese companies – 90% of them state-owned enterprises – are busy buying companies in inventing nations around the world.

How can that be? Isn’t it unfair? Isn’t it illegal, by WTO rules? Isn’t it somewhat suicidal for the non-state players?

Three years ago, three Chinese engineers decided to make a copy of Apple Computer. So, they copied the iPhone. Today the firm – no doubt thanks to government preference purchase programs– is worth $4 billion. Really? How could that be?

Welcome to Xiaomi, the self-anointed “Apple of the East.”

In fact, where would the money come from to start this company? Qiming Ventures, funneling US money into China. To copy a US company. Ow.

For those countries following the Mercantilist II business model, this huge trend is reversed: nations trump corporations. Captive corporations become the tools that nations use to dominate free-market corporations, almost always with a winning result. “Normal” companies cannot hope to compete with those backed by the state.

And so here we have a doubled-down trend: combining the role of nations in commerce with the role of nations in IP creation and theft. This is the high-stakes competition for global economic growth that defines the 21st century, much more clearly than any other.

These aren’t the trends you will find on gadget websites, or even listed as important by the world’s consulting leaders.

But as far as I can tell, they are the most important, and deserve your thought and attention. They will determine winners and losers, success and failure, and perhaps even the question of personal or species survival.

First published in Global Report on Technology and the Economy, 16(20), Strategic News Service, www.stratnews.com. © 2013, Strategic News Service LLC.