Sorry, everyone, but flying cars don't appear in the "Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds" report that the US director of national intelligence's office made public on Monday.
Instead, the National Intelligence Council paints the picture of a world in which the U.S. is no longer the unquestionably dominant global player; individuals and small groups may carry out devastating cyber or bioterror attacks; oh, and food and water may be running short in some places.
The 160-page report is a great read for anyone in the business of crafting the script for the next James Bond movie, a treasure trove of potential scenarios for international intrigue, not to mention super-villainy. But the council took pains to say that what it foresees is not set in stone. The goal is to provide policymakers with some idea of what the future holds in order to help them steer the right economic and military courses.
"We do not seek to predict the future—which would be an impossible feat—but instead provide a framework for thinking about possible futures and their implications," the report cautioned.
Other ideas the futurists reported: Global population will reach "somewhere close to 8.3 billion people," and food and water may be running scarce in some areas, especially regions like Africa and the Middle East.
"Climate change will worsen the outlook for the availability of these critical resources," the report said. "Climate change analysis suggests that the severity of existing weather patterns will intensify, with wet areas getting wetter, and dry and arid areas becoming more so."We are not necessarily headed into a world of scarcities, but policymakers and their private sector partners will need to be proactive to avoid such a future."
What about America in 2030? The report predicts that the U.S. "most likely will remain 'first among equals' among the other great powers." But "with the rapid rise of other countries, the 'unipolar moment' is over and Pax Americana—the era of American ascendancy in international politics that began in 1945—is fast winding down."
Also, "Asia will have surpassed North America and Europe combined in terms of global power, based upon GDP [Gross Domestic Product], population size, military spending and technological investment," the report said.
It also suggests that Islamist extremism may be a thing of the past in 2030. But that doesn't mean small groups won't try to wreak havoc.
"With more widespread access to lethal and disruptive technologies, individuals who are experts in such niche areas as cyber systems might sell their services to the highest bidder, including terrorists who would focus less on causing mass casualties and more on creating widespread economic and financial disruptions," said the report.
Four "megatrends" shaping the world were cited: growing individual empowerment; diffusion of power; major shifts in demographics; and rising demand for food, water and energy.
The report also sees the potential for "black swan" shocks to the system. These include: a severe pandemic; faster-than-forecast climate change; the collapse of the European Union; the collapse of China (or its embrace of democracy); and a reformed Iran that abandons its suspected nuclear weapons program. They also include a conflict using nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons, or a large-scale cyber-attack; solar geomagnetic storms that may knock out satellites and the electric grid; or a sudden retreat of the U.S. from global affairs.
So what about the flying cars, a staple of science fiction? The report is mum on that front, but it does raise the intriguing possibility that "self-driving cars could begin to address the worsening congestion in urban areas, reduce roadway accidents, and improve individuals' productivity (by allowing drivers the freedom to work through their commutes)."
And the cool cats over at Wired magazine's "Danger Room" national security blog have underlined how the report sees the growth of other technologies, including "superhumans" potentially roaming the landscape.
Will the world end this year?
Of course, that assumes the world doesn't end this year as predicted by the Mayans, which it probably won't according to a new book.
The Mayan 'prophecy' does not stem from the Mayans at all - or date from thousands of years ago, the book claims.
Instead, the beliefs come from two New Age books in the Seventies and Eighties.
The two books predict outcomes as surreal as a 'upgrade' to human consciousness predicted by a spirit from the seventh century. The date itself comes from a prophecy based on a magic mushroom trip.
“December 21st will be just another Friday morning,” said Andrew Wilson, Assistant Head of Social Studies at the University of Derby. “A hippy guru called Jose Arguelles associated the date with the Mayan calendar in a book called The Mayan Factor in 1987. But it's an obsolete form of the calendar, which had not been used since the year 1100AD.”
“He claimed to be channelling various spirits, including the spirit of a Mayan king from the seventh century. He predicted a ‘shift in human consciousness’ - mass enlightenment.”
The actual date of December 21 first appeared in an earlier work - a 1975 book by Terence McKenna, a writer known for his descriptions of “machine elves” seen while under the influence of drugs.
The date appeared in McKenna's ‘Timeline Zero’ prophecy, and was based on McKenna’s own mathematics, the Chinese I Ching and a magic mushroom trip.
McKenna later met Arguelles and the two became, Wilson says, part of a circle of New Age authors who cited each other’s work, lending the ‘prophecy’ an air of believability.
“The significance of December 21 2012 in ‘New Age’ circles emerged from the work of ‘ethnobotanist’ Terence McKenna as he travelled deep into the Amazon in the 1970s,” says Wilson. His calculations of a ‘zero time wave’ suggested the world would go through a large change on December 21.”
“Arguelles, who had a long-held interest in Native American spiritualties, was inspired by McKenna’s work. He popularised the date in connection with the ‘long count calendar’ of the Mayan people in his new-age circles.”
As the belief has evolved, it has become associated with other, wilder predictions - such as the idea that Earth will be hit by a ‘rogue planet’, Nibiru, or swallowed by a black hole.
“There is no central belief,” says Wilson, “It varies from the ideas that Earth’s magnetic poles might shift, to the idea of a ‘galactic council’ visiting Earth. There’s no one, definite idea - it mirrors the New Age beliefs from which it comes.”
“It’s become part of a lot of religious movements. For instance, ‘The Galactic Federation of Light’ believes that ‘Planet X’ will make a close pass by the earth in 2012 – causing a deep transformation of human life on Earth.
“What this and other apocalyptic dates have in common across new religious movements is that they are often predicted to occur within a believer’s lifetime - making their beliefs urgent and important,” said Wilson.
“However, most people who believe in the significance of December 21 2012 have tempered their predictions of an apocalypse to, instead, signifying some significant change in humanity. Whether that is a change in culture or a world-wide event - most believers in an apocalypse won't be preparing for an earthly end but looking forward to an imminent transformation."
“A lot of people look to this story for reassurance - about the financial climate, or even about fears of, for instance, the Large Hadron Collider.”
“What’s been popularised is the dramatic stuff - but I am definitely still doing my Christmas shopping as normal this year.”
Wilson’s paper, ‘From Mushrooms to the Stars’, will be published by Ashgate in 2013.