A 100 Year Forecast Defined by Constraints Is an Uninspiring Future

Forecasting is essentially an intuitive mix of historical patterns, plausible possibilities and imagination. The title of George Friedman’s new book, The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century, is an attention grabber for anyone who finds forecasting the next five to ten years enough of a challenge.

In this geopolitical forecast, Friedman asserts the 21st century will be like all other centuries--shaped by the permanent human condition and the constraints that geography places on individuals and communities. He concludes “that the United States—far from being on the verge of decline—has actually just begun its ascent.” Since at best he describes us as an adolescent nation, this is no reason for us to celebrate and plenty of reason for the rest of the world to be wary.

The arc of his narrative is quite dramatic from the decline of China to the rising influence of Japan in Asia, Poland in Europe and Turkey among the Islamic nations. His final forecast is Mexico’s late century challenge of US dominance of North America. Along the way he delivers a convincing account of these drivers of change:

  • The strategic importance of sea power and North America’s access to two oceans.
  • A significant shift of war and alternative energy development into space.
  • Falling birth rates and aging populations that constrain human resources.

In the epilogue, Friedman explains his core methodology as simply looking at the constraints placed on individuals and nations and understanding how they will be forced to behave and the unintended consequences of their actions. This forecasting method seems to have a troubling unintended consequence of its own. Friedman offers a cynical assessment of the values that could shape our future.

He doesn’t consider another plausible possibility: millions of individuals with personal connections to one another might drive different choices than nation state actors limited to the moves on some strategic chessboard. The greatest constraint on Friedman’s forecasting is a failure to imagine that individuals and nations might choose a vision larger than survival and self-interest. Indeed together they might generate new opportunities and values. This is the forecast that Willis Harman and other futurists have called the global mind change. Our human condition is transformed through increased awareness of our interdependence and shared aspirations.

Friedman might well be correct in forecasting the 21st century will be the American century but how the US and other countries behave in his future account is as troubling as any feared future scenario. When people and organizations confront their feared future, they often become motivated to move toward a future they do want. Let’s hope Friedman’s 100-year forecast works the same way. Once we have enough self-awareness to see how plausible his future is, may we be inspired to embrace our better nature and break free of these failed patterns of human history.