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The Future According to the US Intelligence Community

Megatrends, game-changers, black swans, tectonic shifts, and a world not that different from 2012.

| Thu Jan. 3, 2013 7:30 PM EST

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Think of it as a simple formula: if you've been hired (and paid handsomely) to protect what is, you're going to be congenitally ill-equipped to imagine what might be. And yet the urge not just to know the contours of the future, but to plant the Stars and Stripes in that future has had the US Intelligence Community (IC) in its grip since the mid-1990s. That was the moment when it first occurred to some in Washington that US power might be capable of controlling just about everything worth the bother globally for, if not an eternity, then long enough to make the future American property.

Ever since, every few years the National Intelligence Council (NIC), the IC's "center for long-term strategic analysis," has been intent on producing a document it calls serially Global Trends [fill in the future year]. The latest edition, out just in time for Barack Obama's second term, is Global Trends 2030. Here's one utterly predictable thing about it: it's bigger and more elaborate than Global Trends 2025. And here's a prediction that, hard as it is to get anything right about the future, has a 99.9% chance of being accurate: when Global Trends 2035 comes out, it'll be bigger and more elaborate yet. It'll cost more and still, like its predecessor, offer a hem for every haw, a hedge for every faintly bold possibility, a trap-door escape from any prediction that might not stick.

None of this should be surprising. In recent years, with a $75 billion collective budget, the IC, that historically unprecedented labyrinth of 17 intelligence agencies and outfits, has been one of Washington's major growth industries. In return for almost unfettered funding and a &rsquo-than-decade-long expansion of its powers, it's promised one thing to the American people: safety, especially from "terrorism." As part of a national security complex that has benefitted enormously from a post-9/11 lockdown of the country and the creation of a permanent war state, it also suffers from the classic bureaucratic disease of bloat.

So no one should be shocked to discover that its forays into an anxiety-producing future, which started relatively modestly in 1997, have turned into ever more massive operations. In this fifth iteration of the series, the authors have given birth to a book-length paean to the future and its dangers.

For this, they convened groups of "experts" in too many American universities to count, consulted too many individual academics to name despite pages of acknowledgements, and held "meetings on the initial draft in close to 20 countries." In other words, a monumental effort was made to mount the future and reassure Washington that, while a "relative economic decline vis-à-vis the rising states is inevitable," the coming decades might still prove an American plaything (even if shared, to some extent, with China and those rising powers).

Frack Is the New Crack

Having grown to immodest size, the "trends" in the project's title were no longer faintly enough. Instead, the language of Global Trends 2030 has bloated to match its mammoth pretensions. These days to nail down the future for American policymakers, you need Megatrends ("Individual Empowerment," "Diffusion of Power"), Game-Changers ("Crisis-Prone Global Economy," "Governance Gap," "Potential for Increased Violence"), Black Swans ("Severe Pandemic," "Much More Rapid Climate Change," "A Reformed Iran"), and Tectonic Shifts ("Growth of the Global Middle Class," "Unprecedented and Widespread Aging"), not to speak of Potential Worlds or fictional futuristic scenarios in which those Megatrends, Game-Changers, Black Swans, and Tectonic Shifts mix and match into possible futures.

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Out of this, what exactly have the mavens of American intelligence, the representatives of the last remaining global superpower, concluded? Here would be my partial summary: that we should expect the rise of nothing much we don't already know about; that various versions of the knowable present can be accurately projected into the future; that much depends on what happens to the Earth's greatest state (with China nipping at its heels)—whether, that is, with its "preponderance across the board in most dimensions of power, both ‘hard' and ‘soft,'" the US will remain a benevolent "global security provider" or "global policeman" of planetary stability or—disaster of disasters—pull in on itself, creating a declinist fortress America; that the true American crisis might be a decrease in military spending; that odds are the global economy, with more than a billion new "middle class" consumers, could do marginally better or worse; that Iran might (or might not) build nuclear weapons; that global conflict could increase somewhat (with an emphasis on resource wars)—or decline; that the national state could hang in there with something like its present power or lose some of it to nongovernmental bodies and "smart cities," and so on.

There are, however, a few topics that seem to have gone MIA in the National Intelligence Council's version of our future world. You won't, for instance, find these words emphasized in Global Trends 2030: corporations—they seem to have no role worth mentioning in the world of the future; depression—yes, "recession," or even in extremis "collapse," but not "global depression," not even when the US is compared to the planet's previous great imperial power, nineteenth century Britain, and so to an era when depressions were rife (a possible "great depression" gets a single "low probability" mention); imperial—since we're the only... ahem... great you-know-what left, that's not an appropriate word for the world of 2030; revolution—oh, there was one of those in 1848 and it can be mentioned, but despite the fact that the globe has been convulsed by unexpected uprisings and unforeseen movements in recent years, in 2030, revolution is unimaginable; capitalism—no need even to say it in a world in which nothing else exists, and to use it might imply that by 2030 another system of any sort could arise to challenge it, which is, of course, inconceivable; Israeli nuclear weapons—why bring up the Israeli nuclear arsenal, which actually exists and will assumedly be there in 2030, when you can focus on that fabulous black swan Iran and its (as yet) nonexistent nuclear arsenal.

Finally, military base — undoubtedly a perfectly acceptable term for the NIC in Global Trends 2040, once the Chinese establish a few of them abroad. In the meantime, in a world in which the US still has about ensuring instability, chaos in distant lands.

You'll find a section on drones, but not on our drone wars and how they might play out in 2030. (Another verboten set of words now associated with those wars are kill list. You'll find the Arab Spring discussed in passing, but not the Indian Spring. (You know, the one that occurred in 2023 in that youth-bulge of a nation when rising expectations met economic frustration.) You'll read much about resource problems and potential resource wars, but not about the 800-pound gorilla in the global room. The single looming crisis threatening the well-being of the planet, climate change, while certainly discussed in passing, is essentially ducked on the grounds, it seems, that by 2030 it won't really have hit yet. (Assumedly, none of the group meetings the NIC called were held in the parched US southwest, the fracking , to which they return again and again. I kid you not. For them, frack is the new crack and if this document (god save us) were ever made into a movie, it might be called Frack to the Future. Yes, in most of their future scenarios, fracking, releasing all that extreme energy, makes the US energy independent, a natural gas exporter, and practically ensures that 2030 will once again be an American year! Yippee!

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