Forget Nostradamus: here’s what’s really coming next
It’s easy to proclaim that civilization is coming to an end. Those who can see further than the latest media sensation or Netflix series are aware that for the first time in human history the world is so inter-connected that civilizational collapse is no longer a local problem.
But: how will it actually happen? Is it really possible to predict the large-scale events that will culminate in the end of global civilization? Surely there are too many variables and events are too stochastic for any meaningful predictions to be made?
Certainly the history of predicting the future doesn’t fill us with confidence. Even supposedly clever people uniformly always get it totally wrong. Anyone reading Bill Gates’ prognostications in The Road Ahead from twenty years ago will laugh out loud at how wildly incorrect he was. Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock was wrong about precisely everything. Think tanks regularly churn out material that history quickly renders nonsense. Does anyone even remember that embarrassing book The End of History? What happened to Fukayama anyway (snigger…)?
All of these portentous attempts at forecasting failed for precisely the same reason: they ignored what we know about human nature.
We humans have always had a completely distorted view of ourselves and our capabilities. We imagine ourselves to be reasoning animals, capable of drawing conclusions from evident facts and behaving if not rationally then at least in reliably self-serving ways. Worse still, when people predict the future they simply extrapolate current trends. They never pause to consider hardwired human behaviors.
For example, as a group species we’re automatically suspicious of other groups because throughout our evolutionary history we were always in contention with other groups for scarce resources. We lived in a world of zero-sum, where my loss was your gain. We simply can’t comprehend that trade and cooperation are always win-win, enlarging the total size of the pie we can all share. Our brains aren’t hardwired for this so we can’t believe it. Instead we see other groups as threats, coming to take away what we have. That’s why populism/nationalism has always been and always will be the preferred vehicle for tyrants everywhere.
It is these hardwired behaviors manifest in our many cognitive limitations that account for all of human history. We’re a primate group species and our behaviors are just as adapted to our environment as our bodies. Far from our limited consciousness being “in control” we actually follow our hardwired patterns and then use our very restricted reasoning to “explain” to ourselves why we’ve just done something.
We reliably reject real-world information that contradicts our beliefs. We’re absurdly easily gulled by even the most infantile charlatans. Simple-minded ideas win out over complex reality every time.
This means that while it’s tricky to predict precisely what any one person will do in the next year, we are in fact extremely predictable at the group level. By way of analogy, we can’t really predict with much accuracy what will happen to a single ant over the course of the following month but we can predict with very great accuracy indeed what will happen to the entire colony.
The more we understand about evolutionary psychology and the more empirical data we gather about how we humans really behave in the world (as opposed to our fantastical beliefs about how we behave) we see that we’re about as predictable en mass as an ant colony.
Therefore we can use this knowledge as the basis for looking forward. When we add dynamic modeling to our knowledge of how people respond en mass to given situations, we can come up with some pretty reasonable forecasts.
I personally used these techniques to predict the following: (i) the dot-com crash and the resulting social move towards more conservative modes of thinking; (ii) the post-2008 move towards more right-wing populism, (iii) the triumph of Brexit in 2016; and (iv) Trump’s election to the White House in the same year.
It should be noted that all the “clever informed” opinion was absolutely certain none of these outcomes would occur. My favorite English-language news magazine The Economist got every single one wrong, for example, and in so doing was merely reflecting common sentiment among the chattering classes. My highly educated and worldly-wise friends likewise scoffed at my predictions. Until afterward. So at least I can claim reasonably to have some “form” in these matters, albeit no one is ever infallible. The key thing isn’t my belief about any particular outcome but rather the mechanisms by means of which I come to such conclusions. As the conclusions have been born out by actual events, it seems reasonable to assume that the mechanisms have some modest potential merit.
Before we move forward to look at the next 30 years, it’s worth taking a moment to understand dynamic modeling, because it’s not a widely appreciated concept. I can illustrate it best by using an argument proffered by another Medium writer in an article a few days ago.
The writer opined that developed countries need very robust ways to control illegal immigration because otherwise our wealthy stable countries will be inundated by billions of people fleeing less wealthy and less stable countries. In the writer’s opinion there is essentially an unlimited number of potential refugees so we need very tall walls and very well-armed solders to keep the hordes from overwhelming us.
Sure, if we simply extrapolate the last ten years into the future we can ultimately arrive at a scenario where 100% of the world’s population tries to resettle in Silicon Valley. But how credible is such an extrapolation? Why has such a migratory pattern never occurred at any previous time in all of human history?
Let’s start with a few fundamental assumptions for our dynamic model. Let’s assume (i) most people are very stupid, and (ii) most people have essentially zero foresight. These two assumptions are well supported by all of written history. But now let’s add a third assumption: that people also, eventually, react to situations so as to attempt to limit harm to themselves.
Now let’s look at a real-world example of dynamic modeling before we apply it to migration. Let’s look at Pakistan, that classic example of a persistently failed State. Pakistan emerged from the Partition of India in 1947 as the British scrambled to abandon their colonies after looting them for centuries. Partition was a bloody process leaving much resentment, hostility, and deep suspicion on both sides. With a population a fraction of that of neighboring India, Pakistan has always had the small-man complex: forever envious of the taller and stronger guy next door. As such it has always looked for ways to harm India without risking another full-on conflict which Pakistan would inevitably lose, as it has always lost in the past.
One “stable genius” idea was to sponsor Islamic fundamentalist terror groups. Pakistan’s all-powerful military intelligence community the ISI poured huge sums of money (much of it supplied by the US government via the CIA) into supporting the Taliban and various al Qaeda offshoots. For a while this seemed like a very successful strategy as it kept Afghanistan murderously unstable and from time to time caused atrocities in India such as the Mumbai Hotel attack in 2008 that left 166 civilians dead. For the ISI this was a spectacular triumph.
But then the inevitable happened (which I predicted as early as 1996 when I first learned of and began to study the ISI’s sponsorship of Islamic extremist groups): Pakistan’s civil society was insufficiently Islamic for the extremists the ISI had been bankrolling so generously for so long. So Islamic extremists began to attack Pakistani targets.
At first, predictably, ISI and the Pakistani government went into denial. Then they imagined they could “control” the monster they’d created by trying to buy them off. Only after a series of outrages perpetrated by ISI-funded extremists including the Taliban attack on a Peshawar school that left 141 people (mostly children) dead, did the Pakistani military begin to realize they would need to take substantive action to attempt to reduce the threat they themselves had so eagerly created.
Today the Pakistani state is locked into conflict with the Islamic extremist groups they created and nurtured for so long. Because even very stupid and short-sighted people do eventually react to existential threats. We can model this as a series of highly predictable behavioral steps and thus create a dynamic model.
So now let’s take a look at unbounded immigration.
Regardless of who’s in power, all countries ultimately rely on having a sufficient population to provide the basics of life. A nation that’s lost all its farmers rapidly becomes bankrupt and hungry (yes, we’re talking about you, Zimbabwe). A nation that kills all its educated people remains backwards for decades (hello, Mao’s China). A nation that kills its engineers and managers suffers eventual economic collapse (take a bow, Soviet Union). So you don’t even need to lose a substantial proportion of the population in order to experience very real and very urgent consequences.
Now let’s imagine a corrupt and badly-run nation (no, not the USA; it’s easier for now to look at any one of two dozen African nations). Our discretely unnamed nation has impoverished its people while its rulers have embezzled billions of dollars of foreign aid that they’ve stashed away in offshore bank accounts. Any attempt at civil reform is met by brutal military repression. So naturally people want to leave. They undertake dangerous and arduous journeys in the hope of ending up somewhere they can have a half-decent life. And equally naturally, the lazy pampered spoiled self-indulgent entitled Westerners already living in developed countries panic because they don’t want eager energetic self-motivated people pushing them off their over-stuffed sofas onto their over-stuffed backsides.
But let’s run the scenario forward and imagine that instead of electing drooling morons like Trump and Johnson, Western nations said, “OK, you’re welcome to come here. You have to find work, because we don’t have the funds to house you and feed you indefinitely. But provided you don’t break our laws and provided you integrate into our societies and find productive work, you’re welcome to come here and live here.”
The immediate reaction would be a lot of migrants turning up and, like 98% of today’s migrants, they’d do everything possible to fit in and become tax-paying members of society. And the countries from which they fled would suffer significant population decline.
This population decline would eventually result in the corrupt and inept leaders beginning to understand that they need to change the way they look at power. Instead of power merely being a way to loot as much as possible as rapidly as possible, they’d understand the necessity of making (at first very modest and reluctant) reforms aimed at encouraging people to stay rather than leave. Over time these nations would become more adequately governed, quality of life would improve for ordinary people, migration would decline, and eventually exiles would return.
Guess what? That’s precisely what happened with Poland in the years after it became a full member of the European Union. Hundreds of thousands of Poles left in search of a better life and slowly successive governments understood they had to improve conditions in Poland. Over the last decade Poland has seen a net return of exiles as a result. Sadly all this progress is now being undermined by the theo-fascist PiS. Mostly however stupidity eventually yields and self-preservation wins out. At least for a while.
So after perhaps thirty years of immigration the Western countries with wide-open borders would (i) experience huge economic growth thanks to all the new arrivals, creating lots more jobs for the people who were born in those countries as well as for the immigrants; and (ii) would eventually see immigration diminish and then go into reverse as immigrants flood back to their countries of origin once those countries became better governed.
That’s a dynamic model. And that’s how history works.
With all this tucked safely into our minds, let’s now proceed to see how dynamic modeling forecasts the next thirty years or so.
Starting with the USA it’s clear that the overall trend is towards right-wing authoritarianism supported by religious bigotry. US visa restrictions have already choked off the supply of talent required by large technology companies, which is why they all have huge offshore operations. But here’s the problem: when Google employs 10,000 software engineers in India, they pay Indian income tax on their salaries. That’s 10,000 people not paying US federal and state taxes, even though they’re being paid by a US corporation. Given that IBM and Facebook and Google and Apple and Amazon and Yahoo! and Oracle and Microsoft and many, many other companies employ well over 1,000,000 people outside of the USA thanks to US visa restrictions, that’s a huge amount of tax revenue the USA is missing out on. All thanks to sheer populist stupidity.
Now let’s compound that mindless policy-making with Trump’s tariffs. Trump supporters are too ignorant and stupid to understand that it’s US corporations that pay the tariffs, not Chinese companies. But despite the fact Republican voters are clueless, those tariffs will nevertheless cost US companies around $400 billion over the next few years. Guess what? That’s $400 billion that won’t go on wages, on R&D to develop new products, or on creating new jobs.
It’s not difficult to see that the result of these (and many similar) self-inflicted wounds will result in a US economy that is far weaker than it should have been, creating far fewer jobs than it should have done, and resulting in social tensions that are far greater than anything anyone would want. I’d not be surprised if we see the rise of “people’s militias” to provide muscle for populist politicians. And just as with Mussolini's blackshirts and Hitler’s SS, such militias can ultimately take over the formal military establishment once the Great Leader comes to power.
Now let’s consider military matters. China’s economy can’t continue to grow fast in catch-up mode, but it will still be a major economy simply because of the size of its population. And unlike India, China isn’t self-crippling with endless pointless red tape and a near-total inability to trade within its own borders. So its economy will always be much larger than that of India and this means it will be able to continue to modernize its military capacity. China will never be able to match the extravagance of the US, which today out-spends the next six top-spending nations rolled together. But so what? Hypersonic cruise missiles with a 1,500 kilometer range are under development and won’t be particularly expensive. Now consider that the US next-generation aircraft carrier costs around $13 billion plus another $5 billion for aircraft and another $4 billion per year operating costs. And needs to be surrounded by a battle group to protect it, at the cost of another $15 billion per year. One little $500,000 Chinese cruise missile renders $37 billion of US spending obsolete.
The net result will be the USA withdrawing from Asia with its tail between its legs. Coupled to rising unemployment and an ever-increasing protectionism which further accelerates economic decline, the USA will be an even angrier and more mindless nation than it is today. When you get sand kicked in your face by Joe, but you’re afraid to stand up to Joe, you look for someone smaller to punish. The USA is excellent at demonizing “those Mexican countries” and so it won’t take much for a fake provocation to result in some witless US President deciding to take “decisive defensive action” against Mexico, promising a quick in-and-out campaign (and perhaps burger sponsorship too?) to appease the mob howling for “justice.”
So a protectionist nativist resentful USA will end up in a protracted colonial war against its southern neighbors, further accelerating its internal social and economic collapse.
Meanwhile Europe will fragment, partly under the malign influence of Kremlin-sponsored right-wing populist parties and partly just because so many people are so foolish and ignorant they can’t help but vote for the least credible and least adequate candidates available as long as they are screaming simplistic populist slogans. After all, membership of the group and following the powerful leader are deep hardwired reflexes in our species. It takes a huge amount of intelligence and moral strength not to run with the herd.
While the fragmentation of Europe might seem a good thing for Russia it will actually accelerate Russia’s decline because without European markets for its gas and without European imports for its upper class, Russia’s internal inadequacies will become ever starker. This will require more and more brutal repression to counteract, which in turn will further accelerate Russia’s collapse into the world’s largest cabbage republic. Flailing wildly as it goes down, Russia will take Ukraine and potentially several other countries with it.
Africa will continue to be a continent-sized basket case. South America will likewise slip back into the familiar pattern of ultra-right-wing dictatorships and ultra-left-wing dictatorships, both of which will be basically identical aside from colors and slogans.
India, following the Trump playbook, is already sliding into Hindu nationalism. Its economy is in serious trouble and civil strife will amplify its already critical structural defects. Pakistan and India will periodically fight localized wars, but these wars will inevitably grow in amplitude and may result in the first nation-to-nation thermonuclear exchange. Meanwhile Indonesia and Malaysia will reap the rewards of embracing theocratic-nationalistic policies and become eerily reminiscent of Pakistan.
This is what the world will look like 30 years from now. It’s not difficult to see how many opportunities such a world provides for miscalculation and sheer blind stupidity. It is, conversely, extremely difficult to see how we’d exit from such a world before tearing our global civilization apart and devolving into countless wars that cumulatively will trash everything we thought we held dear.
We almost certainly can’t fight against this future because it’s the inevitable outcome of our hardwired natures.
But we can prepare for it and try to leave our descendants something of value by means of which they can rebuild and hopefully avoid our worst mistakes.
For more on this idea of trying to preserve the records and accumulated knowledge of our civilization, please read: https://medium.com/@allanmlees59/preserving-knowledge-481ee2f42c89