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?
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.
Throw in climate change -- and the "success" of fracking in keeping us on a fossil fuels diet for decades to come -- and tell me you can't imagine the odd apocalyptic scenario or two, and a few shocking surprises as well.
A Wishing Well on the Global Mall
Think of Global Trends 2030 as a portrait of an aging, overweight Intelligence Community (and the academic hangers-on who work with them) incapable of seeing the world as it is, let alone as it might be. The National Intelligence Council evidently never met an apocalypt or a dreamer it didn't want to avoid. Its movers and shakers seemingly never considered putting together a panel of sci-fi writers, and in all their travels they evidently never stopped in Uruguay and paid a visit to the radical writer Eduardo Galeano, or even consulted his 1998 book Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World.
At one point, discussing global consumerism -- and remember this was the year after the first Global Trends report came out -- he wrote:
"Consumer society is a booby trap. Those at the controls feign ignorance, but anybody with eyes in his head can see that the great majority of people necessarily must consume not much, very little, or nothing at all in order to save the bit of nature we have left. Social injustice is not an error to be corrected, nor is it a defect to be overcome; it is an essential requirement of the system. No natural world is capable of supporting a mall the size of the planet... [If] we all consumed like those who are squeezing the earth dry, we'd have no world left."
With the rising powers of "the South" and "the East," we'll now have a chance to see for ourselves, perhaps by 2030, just how accurate Galeano might have been about the fate of this ever more crowded, ever more resource-pressed, ever hotter and more tumultuous planet of ours. We might learn up close and personal just what it means to add a billion or two extra "middle class" consumers at such a moment. By then, perhaps we'll be able to take our pick from extremities of all sorts, ranging from old standbys like revolution or fascism to new ones that we can't even imagine today.
But don't read Global Trends 2030 to find out about that. After all, the nightmare of every bureaucracy is surprise. We're not spending $75 billion on "intelligence" and giving up what were once classic American rights and liberties to encounter a bunch of unsettling surprises. No wonder the NIC folks can't bear to imagine a fuller range of what might be coming. The Washington bubble is too comfortable, the rest too frightening. They may be living off our fear, but don't kid yourself for a second, they're afraid too, or they could never produce a document like Global Trends 2030.
As a portrait of American power gone remarkably blind, deaf, and dumb in a world roaring toward 2030, it provides the rest of us with the functional definition of the group of people least likely to offer long-term security to Americans.
Boil it all down, in fact, and you have a single, all-too-clear New Year's wish from the U.S. Intelligence Community: please, please, please make 2013, 2014, 2015... and 2030 not so different from 2012!