The Long Boom: A History of the Future, 1980 – 2020
We're facing 25 years of prosperity, freedom, and a better environment for the whole world. You got a problem with that?
A bad meme – a contagious idea – began spreading through the United States in the 1980s: America is in decline, the world is going to hell, and our children's lives will be worse than our own. The particulars are now familiar: Good jobs are disappearing, working people are falling into poverty, the underclass is swelling, crime is out of control. The post-Cold War world is fragmenting, and conflicts are erupting all over the planet. The environment is imploding – with global warming and ozone depletion, we'll all either die of cancer or live in Waterworld. As for our kids, the collapsing educational system is producing either gun-toting gangsters or burger-flipping dopes who can't read.
By the late 1990s, another meme began to gain ground. Borne of the surging stock market and an economy that won't die down, this one is more positive: America is finally getting its economic act together, the world is not such a dangerous place after all, and our kids just might lead tolerable lives. Yet the good times will come only to a privileged few, no more than a fortunate fifth of our society. The vast majority in the United States and the world face a dire future of increasingly desperate poverty. And the environment? It's a lost cause.
But there's a new, very different meme, a radically optimistic meme: We are watching the beginnings of a global economic boom on a scale never experienced before. We have entered a period of sustained growth that could eventually double the world's economy every dozen years and bring increasing prosperity for – quite literally – billions of people on the planet. We are riding the early waves of a 25-year run of a greatly expanding economy that will do much to solve seemingly intractable problems like poverty and to ease tensions throughout the world. And we'll do it without blowing the lid off the environment.
If this holds true, historians will look back on our era as an extraordinary moment. They will chronicle the 40-year period from 1980 to 2020 as the key years of a remarkable transformation. In the developed countries of the West, new technology will lead to big productivity increases that will cause high economic growth – actually, waves of technology will continue to roll out through the early part of the 21st century. And then the relentless process of globalization, the opening up of national economies and the integration of markets, will drive the growth through much of the rest of the world. An unprecedented alignment of an ascendent Asia, a revitalized America, and a reintegrated greater Europe – including a recovered Russia – together will create an economic juggernaut that pulls along most other regions of the planet. These two metatrends – fundamental technological change and a new ethos of openness – will transform our world into the beginnings of a global civilization, a new civilization of civilizations, that will blossom through the coming century.
Think back to the era following World War II, the 40-year span from 1940 to 1980 that immediately precedes our own. First, the US economy was flooded with an array of new technologies that had been stopped up by the war effort: mainframe computers, atomic energy, rockets, commercial aircraft, automobiles, and television. Second, a new integrated market was devised for half the world – the so-called free world – in part through the creation of institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. With the technology and the enhanced system of international trade in place by the end of the 1940s, the US economy roared through the 1950s, and the world economy joined in through the 1960s, only to flame out in the 1970s with high inflation – partly a sign of growth that came too fast. From 1950 to 1973, the world economy grew at an average 4.9 percent – a rate not matched since, well, right about now. On the backs of that roaring economy and increasing prosperity came social, cultural, and political repercussions. It's no coincidence that the 1960s were called revolutionary. With spreading affluence came great pressure from disenfranchised races and other interest groups for social reform, even overt political revolution.
Strikingly similar – if not still more powerful – forces are in motion today. The end of the military state of readiness in the 1980s, as in the 1940s, unleashed an array of new technologies, not the least of which is the Internet. The end of the Cold War also saw the triumph of a set of ideas long championed by the United States: those of the free-market economy and, to some extent, liberal democracy. This cleared the way for the creation of a truly global economy, one integrated market. Not half the world, the free world. Not one large colonial empire. Everybody on the planet in the same economy. This is historically unprecedented, with unprecedented consequences to follow. In the 1990s, the United States is experiencing a booming economy much like it did in the 1950s. But look ahead to the next decade, our parallel to the 1960s. We may be entering a relentless economic expansion, a truly global economic boom, the long boom.
Sitting here in the late 1990s, it's possible to see how all the pieces could fall into place. It's possible to construct a scenario that could bring us to a truly better world by 2020. It's not a prediction, but a scenario, one that's both positive and plausible. Why plausible? The basic science is now in place for five great waves of technology – personal computers, telecommunications, biotechnology, nanotechnology, and alternative energy – that could rapidly grow the economy without destroying the environment. This scenario doesn't rely on a scientific breakthrough, such as cold fusion, to feed our energy needs. Also, enough unassailable trends – call them predetermined factors – are in motion to plausibly predict their outcome. The rise of Asia, for example, simply can't be stopped. This is not to say that there aren't some huge unknowns, the critical uncertainties, such as how the United States handles its key role as world leader.
Why a positive scenario? During the global standoff of the Cold War, people clung to the original ideological visions of a pure form of communism or capitalism. A positive scenario too often amounted to little more than surviving nuclear war. Today, without the old visions, it's easy enough to see how the world might unravel into chaos. It's much more difficult to see how it could all weave together into something better. But without an expansive vision of the future, people tend to get short-sighted and mean-spirited, looking out only for themselves. A positive scenario can inspire us through what will inevitably be traumatic times ahead.
So suspend your disbelief. Open up to the possibilities. Try to think like one of those future historians, marveling at the changes that took place in the 40-year period that straddled the new millennium. Sit back and read through the future history of the world.
That's only a tenth of the full article, by the way.
Anywho, I'd say we're definitely going with the middling scenario. The environment's not a lost cause, but we definitely delayed action for far too long to avoid catastrophe.
What even this article gets wrong is just how totally technology will change our lives. I hafta admit, that was pretty surprising to see how much more often people underballed the future rather than overballing it. I thought for sure I'd see a lot more "flying cars, cities on Mars, and super-AI" than I did.
I think that if Bush lost in 2000 and we never got involved in Iraq, more of this would've come true.