According to a recently released report by the U.S. government’s National Intelligence Council, the future isn’t looking so pretty, especially when it comes to human and environmental well-being. The NIC’s latest assessment of our world and its future, Global Trends 2030 Report: Alternative Worlds presents readers with four different scenarios for the year 2030 that stem from a range of megatrends and so-called “game-changers.” It is mostly focused on the social, economic, and political challenges that we face and will continue to face in the decades to come, but in light of this focus, the report does consider natural resource constraints, environmental degradation, and population demographics.

So—will sustainability still be possible as of 2030, according to the Global Trends report?

The answer: it’s up to us as middle class global citizens. Not surprisingly, two of the megatrends identified by the report are the increasing possibilities for individual empowerment among the world’s peoples and the growing demand for natural resources worldwide. Logically, these trends are both contingent on the underlying phenomenon of a burgeoning global middle class.

Cover of the National Intelligence Council's "Global Trends 2030" Report

Cover of the National Intelligence Council’s “Global Trends 2030″ Report

The general consensus is that higher incomes tend to be accompanied by higher education, health, political influence, and overall empowerment. Nevertheless, more intensive consumption patterns also tend to follow an increase in income—and we’re all aware that these are unlikely to have a positive impact on long-run sustainability. As we progress on initiatives to alleviate poverty (necessary and admirable in their own right, of course) humans will have no choice but to reconcile increased living standards with a still expanding population and more importantly from a sustainability perspective, with a finite supply of resources.

During the next two decades, it is estimated that up to two more billion people will be considered ‘middle class’. In other words, according to the report, the planet will have to go from sustaining 1 billion middle class consumer lifestyles to 2-3 billion. Globalization’s impact on the consumption patterns of this new class, which will likely be modeled after the ‘overdeveloped’ consumer lifestyle , does not promise to yield positive results for the environment.

Global Trends identifies a common reaction amongst readers, citing a Brazilian who predicts an “ecological disaster” occurring as a result of the rise of the middle classes. As the world’s population consumes more resources, the report identifies accompanying social and economic tensions that increase the risk of conflict and violence. Water wars, land wars, and food wars don’t appear to be so far off, after all, thanks to climate change. Interestingly, it was Chinese analysts who expressed concern about the governance gap in global resource management: “if there is no global governance in 2030, we will still need to satisfy our economy with resources. As there is no global governance mechanism, it could be a crisis.”

And yet, perhaps there is hope in the growing middle class. More economic development promises more education, the closing of the gender gap, more widespread access to technology and information, and increased participation in political processes. In their landmark 1997 study of the relationship between democracy and development, Przeworski and Limongi note that no democracy has ever failed below a GDP per capita of $6055. Unfortunately, a one planet lifestyle with a population of 7 billion people averages closer to $5000 per capita, so this relationship may not be replicable in 2030—especially when there will be closer to 8 billion people alive, and more of them living consumer lifestyles. (Erik Assadourian’s chapter in State of the World 2010, “The Rise and Fall of Consumer Cultures”,  offers further analysis of sustainable consumption thresholds).

The American middle class rises against climate change (Steve Rhodes via Flickr)

Even so, education and social change remain some of the most important vehicles to achieve long-run sustainability, and these are only feasible with an active and empowered citizenry. Perhaps, any hope that we may have for mitigating the threats of environmental disaster lies in this new middle class. And not because they can vote with their forks and wallets, but because higher incomes can mean higher levels of political and social power.

Inevitably, the NIC’s verdict is more negative than positive. Still, the report does well to emphasize its aim: “We do not seek to predict the future—an impossible feat—but instead provide a framework for thinking about potential outcomes, their implications, and opportunities to influence the course of events.” In other words, there is room for hope. If we can identify the problems we face as citizens of this planet and deal with them head-on, with courage and determination, with reason and compassion, we may just be able to avert ecological catastrophe. Or at least live through it with our humanity intact.

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