Sharp changes are afoot throughout the globe. Demographics are shifting, technology is advancing at unprecedented rates, and these changes are being felt everywhere. How should we develop strategies to deal with this emerging new world? We can begin by understanding it. First, there is the changing composition of the world population, which will have a profound impact on societies. Developed countries are experiencing falling fertility rates and increasing life expectancy. As working-age populations shrink and pensions and care costs for the elderly rise, it becomes harder for governments to afford other productive investments.
The world’s population is being reordered. From 2020 to 2060, the working-age populations (15-64) of Europe, South Korea, and Japan are projected to shrink by over 140 million people, and, come 2060, Germany and Japan will have more people over the age of 70 than under the age of 20. The U.S. working-age population will also likely grow in that period, but as the U.S. Census Bureau has observed, the growth will be driven primarily by immigration. At the same time, sub-Saharan Africa’s working-age population will increase by nearly one billion. That region plus nine countries—India, Pakistan, Egypt, Iraq, the Philippines, Afghanistan, Guatemala, and Honduras—will account for the vast majority of the world’s new working-age men and women, over 1.4 billion in total.
In 2007–2009 a major drought—the worst in forty years—struck northern Syria, the country’s agricultural breadbasket and a region that had already been suffering from loss of irrigation subsidies and water shortages. Syria’s young and fast-growing population meant that over a million people in the region were directly affected by the drought. In “the 2007/2008 agriculture season, nearly 75 percent of these households suffered total crop failure.” Hundreds of thousands left their lands and moved to the cities of Aleppo, Hama, and Damascus. Because Syria already was suffering from widespread popular discontent over political exclusion and corruption, these refugees added to the existing weight of urban misery and anger with the regime. Two years later, when a rebellion broke out in southern Syria, revolt quickly spread to these northern cities and precipitated civil war. The war in turn created millions more refugees, who spread to Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, and then to Europe, where a sudden surge of over one million war refugees sought asylum in 2015.
The Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii sits two miles above sea level and over 2,200 miles from the nearest continent. For decades, scientists in this government laboratory have collected data on the atmosphere. In recent years, the world’s eyes have been fixed on a particular set of numbers coming out of Mauna Loa—readings of atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2), a key heat-trapping gas associated with climate change. Since the late 19th century, CO2 emissions have grown to unprecedented levels. In 2013, the daily average concentration of CO2 surpassed 400 parts per million for the first time in modern history. Emissions of CO2 continue to rise, reaching the largest amount ever recorded in 2018, according to the International Energy Agency. Greenhouse gas emissions have resulted in an increase of average global surface temperatures of approximately 1°C since the 1880s.
I have been tasked to write on governance in the contemporary era, a time when many knowledgeable commentators believe that democracies across the western world are performing poorly in the face of new challenges arising from demographic and technological change. Commentary on the state of contemporary liberal democracy clearly tends toward the pessimistic: The vague and persistent feeling that democracies have become ungovernable has been growing steadily in western Europe. The case of Britain has become the most dramatic example of this malaise…
The tension between the concepts of “civilization” and “the forces of history” can be tracked around the world from deep antiquity until at least the early 20th century. Since then, for many political reasons, neither the idea of civilization or historically transformative forces has been considered worthy of attention or even to possess intellectual legitimacy for serious world leaders. This may now however be changing as, for example, the European Union’s disregard for the continent’s civilization (as in the determination not to refer to Christianity in its draft constitutions) has troubled many.