Matthias Horx  Futurist

The Next Globalization – The World in 2050

How the next phase of globalization will reframe politics, economy and culture

This one hour speech answers the following questions:

  • Will – and can – the world of 2050 be a better place?
  • Can the planet feed 10 billion people?
  • Will China go to war?
  • Will globalization stop?

The True Status of Globalization

Globalization is a long-term gradual process, which started 100.000 years ago, when hunter and gatherer tribes from East Africa migrated north. For thousands of years, humans spread over the globe, settled in every landscape and climate, and adapted to the new conditions.

In the second phase, which started with the neolithic revolution, human cultures started shifting and mixing, trade lines were established over continents already thousands of years ago.

Civilization proceeded where it formed new mixed pockets; cultures which could exploit diversity in terms of complexity. Open trade societies were always the most advanced, wealthy cultures in history. China 1500 years ago, the Roman empire, the bloom of Byzantine and the Arabic World, the rise of Venice and the renaissance of the Italian city states – all this was product of early hot spots of globalization.

How far are we in this ever lasting process of connectivity and interdependence today? Is it true that “The world is flat”, as the bestseller by Michael Freeman announced? Pankaj Ghemawat, an Indian economist, proved that only 2 percent of all phone calls in the world are made to people beyond country borders. Only 3 percent of all migrants migrate cross-nation. Global investments are only 9 percent of all investments, and exports from country to country only 20 percent of all trade. And only 15 percent of all friends on Facebook are foreigners! We are either at the beginning of an end, or at the beginning of a new phase of globalization.

The New World Order: Differentiated Conversion

Crises and turbulences in our times are results of shifting global power structures. But the rise of Asia, the success of emergent economies, will NOT mean that one dominance – the dominance of the West – will be replaced by another. “Power” in the 21st century will not resemble pure force measurable with tanks, planes or soldiers. The outstanding success of city states and wealth clusters show, that nation borders are not the most important boundaries any more. Global history is not a win-lose-game, where one wins only if the other loses. It is just more complex: While many more win, old winners lose their privileges of ONLY winning.

To understand the new world order, we have to understand a seemingly apparent paradox: While the world becomes more equal, societies become more unequal in themselves! This means, that differences within countries will grow, and at the same time the GLOBAL differences will fade. The result of the coming economic shift will be not “Power Shift”, but Differentiated Conversion.

In the year 2050:

  • There will be many more countries in the world, because separatism will be virulent.
  • Every country will struggle with the differences between poor and rich – nearly on the same level.
  • The most successful countries will be “High Trust” societies with a functioning social system and high coherence.

The China Question

How will China develop in the coming decades?

China is, much more than Europe and America ever were, ONE Culture, even if there remain aspects of an empire with suppressed ethnicities. Chinese culture developed over 5.000 years in the economy of the rice fields, which was much more self-sustainable then all other agricultural schemes. The Chinese feudal system did not so much depend on exploitation and suppression. Only European colonialism brought the frictions, which led to the disastrous civil wars in the last century.

China is living until today under these feelings of being betrayed of its own culture and harmony. And this will lead sooner or later to a Chinese renaissance, with a comeback of Confucianism and Chinese values, very likely with more isolationist politics. The result could be a kind of a social democratic system, with gradual democratic reforms and a strong nationalism, but also high social coherence and collaboration. China will in this time also find its way from a copy-paste-industrial economy to an inventive and knowledge-based one. We will be surprised, but China in the year 2050 will be the biggest green economy of the planet.

The Change of War

Will a new world war be inevitable with the uprise of China and India? If we want to answer this question, we have to look at the phenomenon of “shrinking wars”. Stephen Pinker shows in his book “The Better Angels of our Nature” that both kinds of war, inter-state and civil, decreased massively. Our planet is more peaceful than it ever was – even if that seems to contradict the news.

State wars are today highly ineffective, because occupation and exploitation via war is much more expensive than trading goods in peaceful ways. You can’t conquer ideas and innovations. Raw materials might be scarce, but they are also good business.

A theory from German sociologist Gunnar Heinsson takes the falling birthrates into account. If you look at the countries with violent conflicts, you mostly find high birthrates and a lot of unemployed ANGRY YOUNG MEN. In situations of desperation, these young men tend to violence; hopelessness creates aggression and military organizations easily find new recruits. The so called “youth bulge thesis” tells us that in the most countries the time of abundant angry young men is over. This, for example, stopped the civil war in Sri Lanka – the birth rate there fell to nearly two children per woman in the last ten years. If you have only two children, often one boy, one girl, you send them to school and look after them with more hope for other perspectives than a militia army.

In Heinsson’s scheme, you can measure the probability of war and highly violent outbreaks with a civil war index. This index shows (2011) 3,0 points for Libya, 4,0 points for Syria, 3,4 points for Germany IN THE YEAR 1933 – and only 0,8 for China. Even if we can’t exclude completely that China will, alongside internal repression, one day start an interstate war, this is much less likely then a widespread war in Europe in 1930. As Mark Twain once said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes”.

The Population Peak

For the first time in history we have all the data, and a reliable system model for the development of birth rates and population of the world. Now we can predict human population growth. The peak will come sometime between the years 2050 to 2070 with NOT MORE then 9,3 billion. Never will there be more then 9.3 billion people on this planet. From then on, the population of the earth will shrink, and reach the current level (7 billion) by 2150 at the latest.

Can the planet feed 9 billion people?

9 billion people is not beyond the carrying capacity of this planet. Human footprints are often the core of apocalyptic, eco-alarmist discourses. But the average person-square-kilometer-relation will not increase very much. On all habitable land there were 5 people per square kilometer in the year 1950. There are 15 people now. And at the peak of the human population, there will be 20 people per square kilometer – most of them living in much more dense cities and agglomerates, which will leave enough space for nature and wilderness for the environment to survive.

African Hopes

According to Hans Rosling, the main expert for human development, “Africa is not a continent”. Indeed, life expectancy in African countries varies up to 22 years. Some countries like Botswana or Mauritius have high incomes, while other parts of the continent remain in civil wars and harsh dictatorships.

In the coming 20 years, there will be a visible acceleration of African progress. The heritage of colonial wars is over, a new elite is coming to power, and development programs are much more intelligent than the old deliver food schemes. New experiments like “barter cities” and infrastructural upgrading deliver hope and perspective.

An Urban World

Civilisation shifted from villages to towns to the modern megalopolis. Towns brought complexity to the world, and also human rights and citizenship. They were shelters for art, trade, architecture, breeding grounds for a new social architecture in which people learned to work and live with foreigners and integrate ideas from other cultures. The “Citizen”, the inhabitant of a city, was the holder of certain rights and freedoms, creating a framework in which social complexity could arise. This concept is now extended to more and more people in the world. We are all becoming citizens of an urban planet.

Well-operated cities can do a lot for their inhabitants AND the environment. They decrease carbon output per person, they create life careers and lift millions of people out of poverty. Even the worst slum is what Fred Pearce terms an “Arrival City”, a platform for upward mobility.

The result of this development will be a world of ECOPOLIS; Cities, which provide their own food-base, and even big parts of their energy consumption, leaving enough space for nature and biodiversity inside and outside its borders.

The Glocalization Principle

Globalization used to be a one-way-street that led to ever increasing spread of value-added chains all over the planet. Modern goods are created from hundreds of different parts and particles, which are transported all over the planet, from China to Germany, and from Honolulu to Hamburg and back. This system needs proper “re-engineering.”. These factors are changing the rules of the game:

  • The rise of transport costs – oil prices increased from 15 $ a barrel to $100 today and will go up to $200 in the coming years.
  • The rise of wages in developing countries. Chinese workers will earn nearly as much as American workers long before 2050. In any case, the business scheme of outsourcing over long distances is no longer profitable.
  • Risks rising: Instability and corruption makes it hard to control foreign investment and manage complexity.
  • Structural imbalances: With global work division, some countries lost their industrial basis, making them vulnerable to economic crises, as the US financial crisis has demonstrated.
  • Following the laws of complexity, an increase of interdependence has to be compensated with the ability of a system to self-regulate on a more local basis. More interdependence calls for more self-reliability. And so the next phase of globalization will lead to a massive comeback of LOCALITY in every sense. From the African village in which women take over the local food distribution and microcredit credit scheme to the urban-gardening phenomena in big western cities, from the co-housing movement to small towns in Germany creating their own energy grid: Local communities all over the world are starting to find new ways of self-organizing their energy, food, mobility, even education needs. These communities don’t have to be rural, they are often found within the boundaries of big cities.

Glocalisation means:

  • Big companies will act and think like networks of locally independent units: “Swarming” instead of hierarchies!
  • Small countries will not be the just the maneuvering mass for big ones. Regions and small states can have a huge political impact. Think of the peace missions which Norway managed in the Middle East. Think of Luxembourg, Singapore and their influence on global financial politics. Small matters!
  • The global banking system will de-centralize and de-globalize itself in after-crisis shock. Local banking will be much more robust and reliable, and will reconnect people to their communities.

Peak Stuff or why is Good News no News?

A 2011 study by environmentalist Chris Goodall showed that a western society like Great Britain began to reduce its consumption of physical resources in the early years of the last decade, well before the economic slowdown that started in 2008. This conclusion applies to a wide variety of different physical goods, for example water, building materials and paper and includes the impact of items imported from overseas. Both the weight of goods entering the economy and the amounts finally ending up as waste probably began to fall from sometime between 2001 and 2003.

The world is not only a beautiful place, but a lot of things can get better, and already BECAME better. We should appreciate these results without denying the obstacles. That might not be easy, because the human brain is an emotionally geared danger-seeking device, and you can make a lot of money with BAD news. Doomsaying is always in fashion. But lets face it: The Club of Rome was not basically about predictions – it made a wide range of mostly negative scenarios. And it was fundamentally wrong in the method and technique of building FUTURE MODELS.

Future modeling needs two main ingredients: data and the model itself. The Club of Rome did not have either. The data base of the world economies in the 70s was thin. And so were the models, which followed linear biased mathematics. They did not take into the account the rising effectivity of energy use, or the variability of raw materials. Like all doomsayers, the Club of Rome did not take into account that humans can be inventive and adaptable to new situations, like our forefathers, which came from Africa and explored the world.

Here are some solid positive trends, which we should know, when we talk about the future of our planet:

  • The number of citizens living in slums went down from more then 45 percent in 1990 to 32 percent.
  • The number of democracies rose from 70 to 125.
  • The access to clean running water, one of the main “Millenium goals”, went up from 75 % to nearly 90 %, this goal was reached 5 years before the deadline.
  • Countries with death penalties came down from 38 in the year 1995 to 21.
  • The Fish Stock Sustainability index went up from 350 in 1990 to 600 today.
  • The big blue whale the biggest animal on the planet was nearly extinct when we all were young. Today it has recovered to at least 3000 individuals, together with most of the other whale populations.

It is not unlikely that these trends are not known to you. Some of them sound like taboos: when you accept them, you scratch on a taboo. Whales are the sacred cows, the holy angels of today, and they HAVE to be endangered, otherwise our negative mindframes would not function...

Roosevelt once said, that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. And that is even more true in an interdependent world, which struggles to find new rules for new circumstances. But we should really know, that these new patterns and rules will also emerge out of chances and possibilities, and they follow the never ending traces of human ingenuity and the will to create a better world.