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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Jan/Feb 2000 : Choose Your World

Q + A A Conversation with Allen Hammond

Choose Your World

Allen Hammond is senior scientist and director of strategic analysis at the World Resource Institute (WRI), a nonpartisan policy research center based in Washington, DC. Hammond is not only a scientist, but a science journalist as well, whose experience includes serving as founder and editor of Science 80-Science 86 magazine for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, founding editor of the National Academy of Sciences’ Issues in Science and Technology and research news editor of Science. In addition, he was a broadcaster for CBS radio and is the author or editor of nine books and numerous scientific publications.

In his latest book, Which World? Scenarios for the 21st Century, Hammond essentially asks one question: Will the world make it? The answer, says Hammond, could be yes or no depending on the choices we make as we move into the new century.

To illustrate the results of these choices—and that includes both conscious and non-
conscious ones—Hammond developed three scenarios, which are based on factual data. All three are plausible, the question is: Which one will come forth as reality? In a recent conversation, Hammond discussed his book and his view of the future.

First, where did you find the facts and information upon which the scenarios in your book are based?

Hammond: The information comes from several sources. One was a research project, called 2050 Project, which was a venture among the World Resources Institute, the Brookings Institution and the Santa Fe Institute. The 2050 Project looks at long-term sustainability issues one world region at a time.

Another source was the Global Scenario Group, which is made up of a dozen or so members who develop quantitative scenarios as a means of global analysis. I borrowed their framework and language to write the book. Also, in my position with WRI, I oversee the biyearly publication of a 400-page report that serves as the United Nation’s environmental database.

Finally, I set up a network of journalists in countries around the world who could tell stories that would put a human face on the book. These stories are not abstract, but represent real-life situations. So, while the book is built on material generated and used by scientists, the storytelling aspect makes the reading appropriate for a non-specialist audience.

Why did you decide that scenarios would be the best way to convey the information contained in “Which World?”

Hammond: Scenarios are not predictions. They are plausible stories about what could happen depending on the choices we make individually and collectively. They have been used for years by corporate strategists and military planners to make tough decisions in the face of uncertainty. Now it’s time to use these tools for wider social purposes, such as public policy decisions.

In the case of Which World? scenarios allow a reader to respond emotionally to a vision of the future. Graphs and charts do not elicit that kind of response, so scenarios are more effective and powerful. They allow us to think about the choices we have and then focus our attention in order to tilt the balance toward a favorable outcome.

What are the scenarios you write about in your book?

Hammond: There are three scenarios, all of which are viewed from the year 2050 back to our present time. The first is Market World, which is based on the power of markets and private business to generate prosperity and thereby improve human welfare. To quote from Which World?: ‘The private sector is the engine of economic growth—so turn it loose. Global economic integration is the engine of development—so break down the barriers to free trade. Individual initiative and expanding prosperity are the best ways to improve human welfare—so provide opportunities and incentives.’ Could Market World become reality? Yes, but even if it does, it may not bring prosperity to everyone.

And that brings us to the second scenario, Fortress World. If Market World fails, then undoubtedly there will be large numbers of humanity left or thrown into poverty. Furthermore, unconstrained markets and worldwide poverty could lead to devastating environmental effects, such as mass deforestation, soil erosion, water pollution, the collapse of the world’s major marine fisheries and severe changes in the earth’s climate. As conditions become more and more desperate, the have-nots will rise up against the haves. There will be violent protests, wars and criminal organizations and terrorist groups will grow increasingly powerful.

Could Fortress World actually happen? Yes, if we’re not careful. We’re already seeing bits and pieces of it today. Gated communities are becoming increasingly popular and in the U.S., private security forces outnumber public police officers three to one. In Russia and South Africa the ratio is 10 to one. So we see that the wealthy are already beginning to construct fortresses in an attempt to keep out the poor and their problems.

Fortunately, there is one more scenario—Transformed World. However, it will not come about without a leap of faith that requires great social and political change. To quote from my book again, ‘Imagine a society that seeks not just wealth but also human welfare, not just security but also fairness. A society that is a steward, not exploiter, of Earth.’

There are a few indications today that Transformed World could become reality. All of the 20th-century examples that I mention in the scenario for this future are real. For instance, in just the last 10 years we have seen smoking go from being commonplace to being considered a nasty habit that is banned in many public places, and tobacco companies are having to pay for the enormous cost of health damage they helped create. On the political front, there have been remarkable changes in Poland and the Czech Republic, and South Africa went from racist minority rule to a multiracial democracy. There are major corporations, like McDonald’s and Procter & Gamble, that are joining forces with environmental groups to develop new ways to reduce pollution and waste. Finally, new technology, the Internet and e-mail are forging communication links that are already bringing information and services to previously isolated communities.

You say that these three scenarios must be considered within the context of current trends and regional differences. Can you please explain what you mean and give us some examples?

Hammond: There are what we call critical long-term trends that will affect the future. For example, we know India’s population is not going to shrink in the future. In fact, trend analysis indicates that India’s population is likely to double in the next half century. Obviously such a population boom will have a tremendous affect on every aspect of India’s future.

The other trends I cover in the book, besides population which comes under the heading of demographics, are economic and technological trends, environmental, security and social and political trends. It is important to note that trends are not destiny. People do have the ability to change the future. But trends can place constraints on the future. Going back to the issue of population growth, that’s a problem that will likely take a couple of generations to slow, depending on economic and social conditions. Pollution is more than likely going to rise, especially as rapidly industrializing economies increase production. So, by analyzing these trends, we can suggest the most likely course of a country’s future. It’s a technique called critical trend analysis.

Now, as far as regional differences, different regions of the world face different problems, and how they choose to address those problems will dramatically affect not only that region or particular country, but the entire world.

For example, everyone thinks Southeast Asia’s economy has collapsed, but the fact is the Asian tigers—South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong—have improved the lives of their populations and in the next 30 years, Southeast Asia has the best chance of economic success. China has also improved the lives of its population, but it faces enormous unappreciated constraints. While it is home to 20 percent of the world’s people, it has only four percent of the world’s arable land and it faces an acute water crisis. Moreover, in only the next 12 years, 300 million people are expected to migrate from rural areas to China’s cities. Will there be enough jobs for all these people? If not, it could cause serious political instability and this really scares the Chinese.

Now, Latin America has more natural resources per capita than any other developing region of the world, it has a larger industrial base than China, plus it has proximity to China. But equity is the stumbling block here. Unlike Southeast Asia, there has been no land reform in Latin American countries. For instance, in Brazil, 50 percent of the farmland is owned by one percent of the population. There is a marked contrast between Latin America’s extremely wealthy and hopelessly poor. Is it any wonder then that corruption and violence have a home here? People who are outside the loop of progress and prosperity are the most likely to revolt.

Africa’s problem is a lack of governance. Rulers get rich while everyone else starves. If they can fix this problem, they might make it.

North America has an interesting problem. Our past success has been because we are an open society. We’ve welcomed immigration, free trade, innovation, technology. But now our youth-oriented population is aging and the debate rages whether we should turn inward and deal with our problems at home or continue with high levels of foreign aid. It’s not clear which way the debate will go, but one thing is clear. If we turn inward, our economy will stagnate. But if we turn outward and lead, help other regions to succeed, then we can stay on top.

The problems are so diverse and regions of the world are so far apart. Is our success really linked to the success or failure of these other regions?

Hammond: Absolutely. Look at what recently happened to the New York Stock Exchange when Thailand’s markets failed. Consider terrorism. These disaffected young kids who have no hope are given a gun and a uniform and then they’re told that the bad guys are Americans. So we are connected to terrorism via the world’s poverty.

Disease links us, too. The World Health Organization recorded 30 new diseases in the last 20 years. We expect that rate to continue or even accelerate. AIDS is not the last. The next disease is only a plane ride away. So what happens in Africa affects our health, our economy and our security. We definitely have a stake in whether or not Africa makes it.

We can’t control our destiny without participating in the destiny of countries overseas. And that means making important choices. There was something in the news not too long about what it would cost to vaccinate all of the world’s children. The cost was a fraction of what the U.S. spends each year on defense. There’s a problem we could solve by simply making the choice to solve it. But we seem to lack the will or sense of urgency. We need motivation to solve these problems.

So, all things considered, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the world?

Hammond: I am optimistic that people will find the will and the creativity to face the challenges and overcome the constraints in order to set a course for a future that more closely resembles a Transformed World than a Fortress World. But it won’t be easy, and it’s certainly not inevitable. People must envision the future they want and then begin to make it happen. We must engage in some strategic thinking and that is where scenarios come into play.

If I may quote from Which World?: ‘Humanity is no longer just another passenger on planet Earth. The sheer numbers of people and the scale of the human enterprise are now such as to have a lasting, perhaps irreversible, environmental impact; our capacity for destruction and the potential size of the human disasters now possible are equally large. The constraints of a finite planet and of human poverty and ignorance are real. Just as parents struggle to teach their children to think ahead, to choose a future and not just drift through life, it is high time that human society as a whole learns to do the same.’

Hammond can be contacted at the World Resource Institute, 10 G st. N.W., Ste. 800, Washington, DC 20002; 202-729-7600;
fax: 202-729-7610.

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