National Intelligence Council
Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds
Prepared by Michael Marien
February 2013




Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds.  National Intelligence Council.  Washington: NIC, Dec 2012, 137p, $9.99pb; $1.99 Kindle (download free ).

The fifth quadrennial installment of the NIC series “aimed at providing a framework for thinking about the future…by identifying critical trends and potential discontinuities,” described as “megatrends” (factors that will likely occur under any scenario) and “game-changers” (critical variables whose trajectories are far less certain).  As appreciation of diversity and complexity grows, “we have increased attention to scenarios or alternatives worlds we might face.”  Alternatively stated, “We are at a critical juncture in human history, which could lead to widely contrasting futures.”  The world of 2030 “will be radically transformed.”



Individual Empowerment.  This “most important megatrend” (both a cause and effect of most other trends) will “accelerate substantially during the next 15-20 years owing to poverty reduction and a huge growth of the global middle class, greater educational attainment, and better health care.” (p.iii)  For the first time, “a majority of the world’s population will not be impoverished,” due to the expanding global economy, rapid growth of developing countries, and widespread use of new communications and manufacturing technologies.  “The potential for greater individual initiative (is) key to solving the mounting global challenges over the next 15-20 years.  On the other hand, in a tectonic shift, individuals and small groups will have greater access to lethal and disruptive technologies (particularly precision-strike capabilities, cyber instruments, and bioterror weaponry).” (p.iii) [Also see Lone Wolf Terrorism: Understanding the Growing Threat by Jeffrey D. Simon (Prometheus Books, Feb 2013).]

Diffusion of Power.  Asia will surpass North America and Europe combined in terms of global power based on GDP, population size, military spending, and technological investment.  China alone will probably have a larger economy than the US a few years before 2030.  The health of the global economy increasingly will be linked to how well the developing world does: in addition to China, India, and Brazil, regional players such as Colombia, Indonesia, Nigeria, South Africa, and Turkey will become especially important.  [Also see GFB Update newsletter for April 2012 on the emerging multipolar world.]  “The shift in national power may be overshadowed by an even more fundamental shift in the nature of power: enabled by communications technologies, power will shift toward multifaceted and amorphous networks that will form to influence state and global actions.” (p.iv)

Demographic Patterns.  Global population will be close to 8.3 billion people in 2030, up from 7.1 billion in 2012.  Four demographic trends will fundamentally shape economic and political conditions: aging countries (facing an uphill battle to maintain living standards), a shrinking number of youthful societies, migration, and urbanization (urban construction in the developing world “could roughly equal the entire volume of such construction to date in world history”).

Growing Food, Water, and Energy Nexus.  “Demand for food, water, and energy will grow by approximately 35, 40, and 50% respectively owing to an increase in the global population and the consumption patterns of an expanding middle class” (p.iv).  Nearly half of the world’s population will live in areas experiencing severe water stress.  Climate change will worsen the outlook for availability of these critical resources, as wet areas get wetter and dry areas get 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.  Many countries probably won’t have the wherewithal to avoid food and water shortages without massive help from outside.” (p.4) In a likely tectonic shift, the US could become energy-independent.  Hydrofracking technology has expanded the life of natural gas reserves from 30 to 100 years and also enabled additional crude oil production such that crude oil prices could collapse, causing a major negative impact on oil-export economies.  [Also see Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Security by Lester R. Brown (W.W. Norton, Oct 2012), which underscores and amplifies food and water scarcity.  Brown warns that “armed aggression is no longer the principal threat to our future; the overriding threats in this century are climate change, population growth, spreading water shortages, rising food prices, and politically failing states” (p.121).]



The Crisis-Prone Global Economy.  Various regional and national economies will “almost certainly” move at significantly different speeds, reinforced by the 2008 global financial crisis.  China—despite a likely slowing of its growth from 10% to only 5%--will contribute about one-third of global growth by 2025.  The key question is whether the divergences and increased volatility will result in a global breakdown and collapse or whether the development of multiple growth centers will lead to resiliency.  “A return to pre-2008 growth rates and previous patterns of rapid globalization looks increasingly unlikely, at least for the next decade… (and) another major global economic crisis cannot be ruled out.” (  The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that the potential impact of an unruly Greek exit from the euro zone could cause eight times the collateral damage as the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy. 

The Governance Gap.  As power becomes more diffuse, “a growing number of diverse state and nonstate actors, as well as subnational actors, such as cities, will play important governance roles.  The increasing number of players needed to solve major transnational challenges—and their discordant values—will complicate decision-making.  Lack of consensus between and among established and emerging powers suggests that multilateral governance to 2030 will be limited at best.  The chronic deficit probably will reinforce the trend toward fragmentation” (p.vii).  Prospects for achieving progress on global issues will vary across issues.  Some 50 countries are in the awkward stage between autocracy and democracy, and “many countries will still be zig-zagging their way through the complicated democratization process.”  Other countries such as China and the Gulf countries will continue to suffer from a democratic deficit.  Widespread use of IT will be a double-edge sword: social networking will enable citizens to coalesce and challenge governments, but IT will provide governments with unprecedented ability to monitor their citizens. The largely Western dominance of global structures such as the UN Security Council, World Bank, and IMF will probably be transformed by 2030 to be more in line with the new economic players. 

Potential for Increased Conflict.  The past two decades show fewer major armed conflicts and fewer civilian and military casualties.  Disincentives will remain strong against great power conflict: too much is at stake.  Intrastate conflicts have gradually increased and will likely do so in countries with a youthful ethnic minority and insufficient water and arable land.  “Though by no means inevitable, the risks of interstate conflict are increasing owing to changes in the international system.  US unwillingness and/or slipping capacity to serve as a global security provider could contribute to instability.  Three “baskets of risks” could increase chances of interstate conflict: changing calculations of key players (notably China, India, and Russia), increasing contention over resources, and a wider spectrum of more accessible instruments of war. 

Wider Scope of Regional Instability.  “The Middle East and South Asia are the two regions most likely to trigger broader instability” (p.viii).  If the Islamic Republic maintains power in Iran and is able to develop nuclear weapons, the Middle East will face a highly unstable future.  “South Asia faces a series of internal and external shocks during the next 15-20 years” (youth bulges, rising food prices, energy shortages, inequality).  An increasingly multipolar Asia is one of the largest global threats.  Countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, Central America, and the Caribbean will remain vulnerable to state failure through 2030, providing safe havens for global criminal and terrorist networks and local insurgents. 

Impact of New Technologies.  Four “technology arenas” will shape economic, social, and military developments:  Information Technology entering the big data era (providing global access and pervasive services, but also threats of an Orwellian surveillance state); New Manufacturing and Automation Technologies  such as 3-D printing and robotics with the potential to change work patterns (they will improve productivity and diminish the need for outsourcing, but make more low-skill workers redundant and exacerbate inequality); Security of Vital Resources (key resource technologies include GM crops, precision agriculture, better irrigation, solar energy, advanced biofuels, and enhanced oil and gas extraction via fracturing); New Health Technologies  (they will continue to extend the average age of populations around the world by ameliorating debilitating physical and mental conditions and improving overall well-being; the greatest gains are likely to be in countries with developing economies and an expanding middle class). 

The Role of the United States.   The relative decline of the US and the West vis-à-vis the rising states “is inevitable,” but the degree to which the US continues to dominate the international system could vary widely.  “The US most likely will remain first among equals among the other great powers in 2030,” but the unipolar moment is over and Pax Americana is “fast winding down.”  Western partners have also suffered relative economic declines.  Replacement of the US by another global power seems the least likely outcome to 2030.  The emerging powers are not a bloc, and do not have any unitary alternative vision.  “A collapse or sudden retreat of US power would most likely result in an extended period of global anarchy.” 



In the midst of the summary of “Game-Changers” (, a single page chart (p.xi) with no explanation and no listing in the table of contents briefly describes eight such developments: 1) a severe pandemic that “could result in millions of people suffering and dying” in less than six months; 2) much more rapid climate change (“most scientists are not confident of being able to predict such events”); 3) Euro/EU collapse caused by an unruly Greek exit from the Euro zone; 4) a democratic China could dramatically boost Chinese “soft” power worldwide; an economic collapse could trigger political unrest and shock the global economy; 5) a reformed Iran (a more liberal regime that dropped nuclear weapons aspirations and focused on economic modernization would bolster chances for a more stable Middle East); 6) nuclear war or WMD cyber attack (“the chance of nonstate actors conducting a cyber attack—or using WMD—is increasing”); 7) solar geomagnetic storms that could knock our satellites or the electric grid; 8) a collapse or sudden retreat of US power.



“We have more than enough information to suggest that however rapid change has been over the past couple decades, the rate of change will accelerate in the future.” (p.xii; emphasis added).  To “encourage all of us to think more creatively about the future,” four scenarios are provided with “built-in discontinuities” that represent distinct pathways for the world out to 2030.

Stalled Engines.  This “most plausible worst case” is a “bleak future” where the US and Europe turn inward, the euro zone unravels quickly causing Europe to be mired in recession, the US energy revolution fails to materialize, global economic growth falters, Sunni-Shite violence erupts in the Gulf, a deadly virus erupts in Southeast Asia, and “all boats sink.” 

Fusion.  The “most plausible best case” in which the US, China, and Europe dampen the specter of a spreading conflict in South Asia leading to a major change in bilateral relations and worldwide cooperation to deal with global challenges; China begins a process of political reform, bolstered by its increasing role in the international system; global unilateral institutions are reformed and made more inclusive; the global economy nearly doubles in real terms to $132 trillion, and “all boats rise substantially.” Technological innovation “is critical to the world staying ahead of the rising financial and resource constraints,” and this scenario is only possible with strong political leadership. 

Gini Out-of-the-Bottle.  A world of extremes and greater inequality (as measured by the Gini Coefficient widely used by economists), where countries in the euro zone core are globally competitive, while others on the periphery are forced to leave the EU; cities in China’s coastal zone continue to thrive but inequalities increase and social discontent spikes; major powers are at odds and more countries fail; the world is reasonably wealthy but less secure as “the dark side of globalization” poses an increasing challenge.  “Differences between haves and have-nots become starker and increasingly immutable.”  Parts of Africa suffer the most, and a growing number of states fail.  Marxist and Maoist-insurgencies increasingly spread in rural areas worldwide, as globalization spawns more class struggle. 

Nonstate World.  NGOs, multinational businesses, academic institutions, wealthy individuals, and megacities flourish and take the lead in confronting global challenges.  A growing global public opinion consensus among elites and many of the growing middle classes forms the base of their support.  Authoritarian regimes find it hardest to operate in this increasingly democratized world.  Smaller and more agile countries in which elites are more integrated are apt to do better than larger countries.  “Networks thrive in this hyper-globalized world where expertise, influence, and agility count for more than weight or position.”  This is nevertheless a patchwork and very uneven world, where some global problems get solved, but security threats pose an increasing challenge. 



This global synthesis of megatrends and game-changers offers many important ideas, and is well-worth considering, especially for the emphasis that the world of 2030 will be radically transformed, and the highlighting of power diffusion, various game-changers, and four scenarios of worst case growth (all ships sinking), best case growth (all ships rising), far greater inequality, and a world of powerful non-state actors.

The GT2030 report seems to be thorough and comprehensive, with three pages of acknowledgements (pp.138-140) citing various workshops, institutions, and individuals consulted in 20 countries.  This includes the International Futures model of the U of Denver Pardee Center, the Global Growth Model of McKinsey & Company, the Atlantic Council of the US, Gregory Treverton of RAND, the LBJ School of Public Affairs, the Santa Fe Institute, the Naval Postgraduate School, the China Center for Contemporary World Studies, Russia’s Institute of World Economy and International Relations, and much more.  However, it appears that few if any climate scientists and environmental scientists are on this list, and UN and OECD reports are ignored.  “Sustainability” and anything related to threatened planetary boundaries are nowhere to be found in the report, and there is no mention of “Green Growth” advocated by OECD and the World Bank; rather, the industrial era notion of “growth” as measured by GDP is used throughout, with no qualifications as to its many problems.

The Global Trends report does mention more extreme weather due to climate change, but the likelihood of worsening climate—viewed by many as the overriding issue of the 21st century—is relegated to a box on p.31 (which does acknowledge that sea level could rise by a meter or more by 2100) and to far-out “black swan” status.  The Megatrend on growing demand for food, water, and energy does mention climate change exacerbating availability of these critical resources, but downplays the problem with the upbeat note that “we are not necessarily headed into a world of scarcities.”  This is certainly possible, but how likely?

The curious box on p.xi, not listed in the table of contents, describes eight “potential black swans.”  No definition of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s trendy term is provided by NIC, but Taleb defines it as “highly improbable,” a rara avis that implies far less than classic wild card probability of 2% (a joker in a deck of cards), especially over the next 15-20 years.  The question of rough-gauge probability is very important, because most climate scientists would very likely assign a far greater probability of “much more rapid climate change,” placing it the 10-40% “not-so-wild card” range, if not a probable or near-certain development.  Similarly, public health experts would likely view a “severe pandemic” as more probable than a mere black swan.  From a scholarly viewpoint, this is a sloppy treatment of a critical concern.

Climate change is already a serious problem in many major countries, as described in Climate Change and National Security, a NIC-sponsored study not acknowledged by GT2030 (see following GFB review).  One of the four Megatrends in the 2012 report, “Diffusion of Power,” cites eight nations as emerging global and regional economic powers, of which six of them are assessed as having serious climate-related problems as of 2008 (China, India, Colombia, Nigeria, South Africa, and Turkey), very likely to worsen in the years ahead.

The key criticism is that climate change deserves to be listed as one of the NIC Megatrends, if not the most important one.  Doing so, however, questions any plausibility of the all-boats- rising “Fusion” scenario and would likely displace substantial acceleration of individual empowerment as the NIC’s “most important megatrend.”  Not that empowerment isn’t desirable, but it is far more problematic than NIC forecasts (or wishes), especially if seen in the context of mounting problems of climate change and environmental degradation.  This is extensively explained in Global Environment Outlook 5 (UN Environmental Programme, June 2012, 525p) and by OECD Environmental Outlook to 2050: The Consequences of Inaction (March 2012, 350p).   Two recent reports to the Club of Rome continue this theme: Bankrupting Nature: Denying Our Planetary Boundaries by Anders Wijkman and Johan Rockstom (Routledge, 2012; GFB Book of the Month, Jan 2013), which warns that “pressures on key ecosystems have increased exponentially,” and 2052: A Global Forecast by Jorgen Randers (Chelsea Green, 2012; GFB Book of the Month, July 2012), which points to rising climate-related costs reducing global consumption (and thus “individual empowerment”).

Another criticism of the Global Trends report is that game-changing black swans and wild cards are under-reported.  In addition to the eight “potential black swans” on p.xi, several others are scattered throughout the text, e.g. natural disasters that might cause governments to collapse (p.49), spread of wheat rust (p.34; a “nasty wild card”), accelerated melting of the Greenland ice sheet and/or the West Antarctic ice shelf (p.31), a huge volcanic explosion or earthquake (p.49), and methane gas levels rising rapidly due to melting tundra (p.119).  A few other wild cards (or not-so-wild cards) for better and/or worse should also have been added, such as collapse of ecological services such as bee pollination, “a deadly disease killing two billion people” (suggested by Jorgen Randers, and starkly contrasting with the NIC’s “black swan” of a pandemic afflicting and killing merely “millions”),  widely available life extension technologies, many new life forms created by synthetic biology, nanotechnology extensively developed, discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence, and some new source of energy that is cheap, non-polluting, and widely available.

The four concluding scenarios are all illuminating (especially Nonstate World), but none of them consider environmental conditions, other than a brief mention in passing in the Fusion scenario that “Arctic ice melts at a far more rapid rate than anticipated and rampant exploitation of resources in the Arctic has begun” (p.119).  Surely the threats of climate change deserve featuring in at least one scenario, and some mention in all.  See, for example,America’s Climate Choices by the National Research Council (National Academies Press, May 2011, 118p; GFB Book of the Month, Oct 2011), a synthesis of four NRC panel reports totaling 1,444 pages, warning that climate change “poses significant risks for a broad range of human and natural systems.”  In Canada, Paying the Price: The Economic Impacts of Climate Change for Canada (National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, Sept 2011, 168p; www.nrtee/ covers costly impacts on timber supply, coastal areas, health care, and ecosystem stress.  A recent  popularized overview, Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change by Andrew Guzman of the UC-Berkeley Law School (Oxford University Press, Feb 2013, 260p), summarizes sea level rise, food and water challenges, the many negative impacts on human health, and potential climate wars in the Middle East and elsewhere. 

Speaking of the Middle East, no mention is made in GT 2030 of intensified faiths and rising Islam, two closely related “Mega-Trends” identified by former RAND analyst Yehezkel Dror of the Hebrew U of Jerusalem in Israeli Statecraft: National Security Challenges (Routledge, 2011; GFB Book of the Month, Sept 2011). One doesn’t have to be an Israeli to see these trends, but apparently it helps!  Dror also identifies megatrends similar to GT2030 (e.g., more nonstate actors, intensified kill and damage capacity, declining US hegemony) and likely “ruptures” (notably necessity for expensive and difficult global action on climate issues, as well as rising power of civilizations not based on the Bible).

A final complaint about the selective perception and distorted priorities of GT2030 is the report’s focus on the industrial era definition of “growth,” at a time of mounting criticism of mainstream economics for lack of attention to natural resources.  (See GFB Update newsletter for Sept 2012 on new and appropriate economics).  Placing a fair economic value on water and other ecosystem services, as advocated by the UN, World Bank, OECD, and scores of economic critics, would surely be a “game-changer” worth noting and promoting.  Changing the economic focus from “Growth” to “Health,” as advocated in the Re/Source 2050 report from the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at the University of Oxford (Jan 2013, 83p;, addressed to the financial and investor communities and advocating a “circular economy,” would also be a positive “game-changer” worth considering.

In sum, when all the worthy “megatrends” are brought together and given proper priorities, the outlook to 2030 is even more worrisome than portrayed by the NIC.  But if all of the positive “game-changers” were also assembled, as concerns sustainability and Green Growth, low-carbon economies, the benefits of energy conservation (see the IEA’s World Energy Outlook 2012; Nov 2012, 668p; GFB Book of the Month Nov 2012;  stressing the benefits of improved efficiency over new energy sources), and a focus on decent jobs for all and economic reform at national and global levels, the overall outlook would be much improved. Surely we deserve better from the National Intelligence Council.                                                                                                                              

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