Preparing to meet an unforeseeable future
The EU attempts a ‘complex but not futile’ study of the trends and challenges facing Europe up to the year 2030.
To prepare prudently for the mid-term future is not to become a futurologist, but to ensure that planning takes into account as many relevant factors as possible, considers the big picture, remembers new generations, and looks beyond day-to-day problems. So argues a paper written by Margaritis Schinas for the EU’s inter-institutional initiative ESPAS (‘European Strategy and Policy Analysis System Conference’). His paper lay behind a two-day conference held in Brussels on February 18th and 19th. The year 2030 is not far away: a child born today will then still be at school.
Mr Schinas’s paper discussed five ‘trends’, all of them global, and five ‘challenges’ posed directly to Europe. The rise of a global middle class; the emergence of a multipolar world with fewer ‘superstates’; the shift from hegemony of nation states to a ‘polycentric web of hubs of influence’ - such as regions, mega-cities and civil society; the paradoxical likelihood that there will be less poverty but more ‘new poor’; and the greater pressure for, but also greater resistance to, global governance.
Of these five, the final two explicitly declare their own counter-trends: in fact the ‘paradox’ of less poverty and more new poor is already evident in the designation by some governments of ‘middle income countries’ from which existing aid programmes may properly be withdrawn, yet where poverty is endemic, such as Brazil or South Africa. (Even in the USA, according to a shocking recent report, 47 million persons are dependent on food banks.)
As became apparent in the conference, every perceived trend actually conceals a counter-trend, since history and society do not develop in linear mode. Economic growth tends inexorably to concentrate wealth and generate deeper inequalities - hence the ‘new poor’.
Or consider the rapid growth of computer and communications technology. For ‘techno-romantics’ this trend will free us by empowering non-state actors. ‘Techno-realists’ reply, on the contrary, that by controlling a few strategic information crossroads, a state such as China could control nearly everything. Worse still, what of the impact of the cyberwars for which states now feel themselves compelled to prepare?
We rely in part for our future well-being on ‘innovation’, what was called in the conference ‘creative disruption’. Yet examples of ‘creative innovation’ in recent history include the methods of mass murder exemplified by ‘9/11’ and, in another field, the invention of credit derivative swaps that fostered a fever of financial speculation, the search for rapid and huge profits unrelated to useful production or beneficial human services.
The challenges to Europe noted by Mr Schinas are weighty: how, in an increasingly competitive world to assure sufficient prosperity to sustain a social model; how to broaden democratic participation; how to cope with an ageing population, for example through a ‘legal and orderly process of migration’; how to promote ‘fairness’ - a term rightly applied here not only to wealth and income, but to the equitable distribution of basic natural resources; and how to provide ‘security’ in the face of both civil violence (such as the nightmare of Mexico’s drug wars) and international terrorism (given that countermeasures can be almost equally terrifying).
Among the trends and challenges identified there were, though, some surprising omissions. Little was mentioned in either forum about environment and climate change, or about the dramatic shift in some governments’ assessment of nuclear power - from saving resource to dramatic threat.
More generally, progress cannot be linear because ‘bubbles’ burst; because persons are dedicated to mutually incompatible goals, some of them destructive; and because notions of generalised ‘moral progress’ are highly dubious anyway. Yet the ESPAS project has not so far considered what morality, what ‘spirituality’, might enrich our shared capacity to meet the immense challenges of peace, justice and human development that confront us, still less addressed the impact on our future of religious thinking - in its best or its worst forms.
This gap is itself a challenge. One speaker quoted Samuel Beckett’s brilliantly concise motto: ‘Try again. Fail again. But fail better.’ Europeans need both persistence and passion, in a peaceful spirit: which is why Hope is, for Christians, a fundamental virtue.
Frank Turner SJ