Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Future, In Brief
The human race, to which so many of my readers bleong, has been playing at children's games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up. And one of the games to which it is most attached is called, 'Keep to-morrow dark,' and which is also named (by the rustics in Shropshire, I have no doubt) 'Cheat the Prophet.' The players listen very carefully and respectfully to all that the clever men have to say about what is to happen in the next generation. The players then wait until all the clever men are dead, and bury them nicely. They then go and do something else. That is all. For a race of simple tastes, however, it is great fun.
-G.K. Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill.
Allow me for once (and I promise, just this once) to be heedless of Chesterton's warnings, and speculate about what the world will bring in my lifetime. I'll try to look briefly at demographic, technological, and social change.

Firstly, demographics. The world is on the verge of a massive demographic shift. Virtually all industrialized countries, and many developing countries will become much older in the next generation. Much of the West will start shrinking. Russia and Japan have already begun. America will not shrink, but faces potentially a more devastating problem. Much of America's spending consists of entitlements for retirees; as society ages the burden increases while the working population declines as a proportion of the population. Lawrence Kotlikoff has shown that America will go into a major economic crisis in 10 to 15 years a thesis explicated in his book, The Coming Generational Storm. This will inevitably result in a decline in America's ability to project power internationally, as described in an article Kotlikoff wrote with Niall Ferguson in The National Interest, intitled Going Critical (pdf link). The foremost difficulty entitlement spending poses is that as it becomes more of a problem, the political ability to mend the problem declines: more and more voters are beneficiaries. The current value of US unfunded liabilities is on the order of 70 trillion dollars. The world can look forward to a major recession when this is realized by the markets.

At the same time, other major international players will be facing increasing demographic pressure: China will experience massive aging as a result of their one child policy, significantly easing the risk of a pan-asian Chinese imperium. Russia, like the rest of Europe faces a massive population decline- unlike the rest of Europe, however, Russia also has a relatively low age expectancy which may ironically result in a more vigourous society. Nowhere, however will the demographic decline of the West be more thoroughly evident than in Europe, which Mark Steyn consigns to either insignificance or Islamic conversion. The lack of civilizational confidence of Europe, explored by George Weigel in great detail in The Cube and the Cathedral is also true of Canada, New Zealand and probably Australia.

Despite the American decline, she will still be the most powerful nation for as long as can be seen. Europe will disappear into further insignificance. India, which has a comparably reasonable demographic situation, is sure to increase in influence. China, will likely arrive at a plateau of power, where its increasing economic might will be balanced by its increasing demographic deficit. Africa, continuing to suffer (and possibly recover from) AIDS, will remain without significance internationally. It is similarly hard to see how South America, geographically isolated and bereft of adjacent rivals will develop greater international importance. Islamic nations will gain demographically, we can be sure. We can thus expect an increasingly multi-polar world, with the Islamic world, China, India, the United States and Russia being the key players.

Why Russia? Russia, though it will go through the greatest numerical decline of any nation, has a number of interesting things going for it. Firstly, she controls a significant portion of the world's oil reserves. Secondly, while she will go through numerical decline, because of a low life expectancy and limited exposure to entitlement spending, the effect on national strength will be limited. Thirdly, Russia is not as greatly exposed to radical Islamic populations within its borders. Most importantly, however, Russia has never lacked for national confidence- and in a century where much of the West will sink still deeper into its self-absorbed stupor, Russia may very well continue to be willing to assert herself on the world stage.

Within America, the demographic effect will continue to favour conservative and religious America, as explicated by Stanley Kurtz. This might very well not translate into an economic renewal of American society, however. The Republicans in America have been singularly unable to translate political gains into smaller government, and there is little to suggest that this will prove different in the future. As Christopher DeMuth observes, America may fall into the exact same civilizational weakness as the rest of western society. However, America will likely prove the model for the rest of the world, particularly the Western world as it demonstrates an increasing social polarization. In America, this will likely be primarily expressed within the religious dimension. In Europe, the polarization will likely be between those willing to take dramatic steps to counteract Islamic influence and those who will attempt to seek accomodation and a multicultural arrangement. Christianity will be a greater part of world politics particularly on account of Sub-Saharan Africa and an increasingly religious United States.

Well, that's a very sketchy vision of the future, and perhaps I'll revise it later. But for now, let me know what you think.


Blogger DilexitPrior said...

How about South and Central America, as well as Mexico? Where do they fit in to the whole equation? One would think that Demographically Mexico and Brazil would be fairly significant.

January 18, 2006 6:24 AM  
Blogger gabriel said...

Demographically, none are in as dramatic decline as the developed world (US excepted), though Brazil and a few others are a little below replacement.

However, they've never been a significant force internationally, and I don't see that changing- there simply don't exist the stresses which makes Europe and Asia so interesting.

One of the interesting questions about South America will be what it will look like religiously in a generation or two: protestant and particularly pentecostal groups already command the allegiance of something like 15% of Latin America. How large will the protestant presence get? Will there be a Catholic resurgence? Some sort of ecumenical rapproachement?

January 18, 2006 2:29 PM  
Blogger The Pleasant Peasant said...

hey, are you a saint herman-ite? if so, forgive me, i don't remember if i've met you at church before. i have an exceptionally hard time remembering names - the only gabriel i can think of is about 7 years old.

January 18, 2006 3:06 PM  
Blogger Bernard Brandt said...

I think it is a good first approximation. My suggestions would be two-fold at this point:

1) Read Spengler at the Asia Times, if you have not already done so. In addition to a mastery of the epigram, and a splenetic sense of humor, he appears to have a fair handle on the near future, which in many regards matches yours. You can find a collection of his columns at the web address following: http://www.atimes.com/atimes/others/spengler.html

2) Spend a bit of time looking at the present state of oil reserves, and the predicted exhaustion of those reserves by 2030. I leave the consequences of the growing industrial nations (Russia, China, India, etc.), and their competition for the remaining slices of an ever diminishing pie; the disjunction of industrial society when we have to make the transition to another, dirtier, form of energy (say, coal or nuclear fission);, and the simple facts that those with the stockpiles of coal and uranium ore are North America, Russia, and China; as an exercise for the student. (Hint: the remainder of our lifetimes does not appear to be likely to be pretty).

That said, I think that your essay is spot on, and the writing in your weblog is superior. May I link to your weblog?

And finally, thank you for linking to my poem.

January 18, 2006 3:31 PM  
Blogger The Pleasant Peasant said...

if you brought the PREP (parish religious education program?) keeners to vespers it could be justified as a "comparitive religion field trip" ...some of our orthodorks can be somewhat intimitating, but you could reciprocate and teach us some more of those BCAs.

January 18, 2006 7:15 PM  
Blogger gabriel said...

j- I might reciprocate, but I'm afraid we'll have to get beyond blank stares on what "Ascension" means before embarking on explanations of the differences between Eastern Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and we of the Western Rite.

January 18, 2006 10:46 PM  
Blogger gabriel said...

bernard- thanks for the kind offer to link- I'd be honoured. I've read an essay or two of Spengler's before, but I'll take a longer look.

As to the question of energy; I suspect that while it will be of increasing importance, I am skeptical that there will be as great a disjunction as suspected by some. I did start reading The Long Emergency, but found it profoundly unconvincing. Canada will probably continue to increase in importance to the United States, as we control a large portion of the America's energy needs. Ditto Russia for Europe.

We might speculate that a major oil shock (if, for example, as many suspect, Saudi Arabia is revealed to be on the brink of a major reduction in production) will bring about a world recession. But, longer term, I think the impact of rising energy prices is exaggerated.

January 18, 2006 11:14 PM  
Blogger DilexitPrior said...

Fellowthekoala, I've been to vespers at St. Herman's if it's the St. Herman's I'm thinking of. Ok, that's really vague but you know what I know I'm thinking. Never mind. It's been a long week.

January 19, 2006 8:34 PM  

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