Think tank chief: World must avoid 'short-termism'

Thursday, March 2, 2006

Erik Peterson is worried that political leaders aren't thinking beyond the next election.

The world is a big, scary place laced with traps but also brimming with opportunities.

That eternal condition has been magnified in the past 20 years and will be multiplied again in the future, creating a period of "hyperpromise" and "hyperperil" for the world, the leader of a major think tank said Wednesday at Southeast Missouri State University.

Erik Peterson, director of the Global Strategy Institute of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, described an emerging world that will test the ability of governments, corporations and individuals to cope.

Peterson spoke to about 200 people for about 90 minutes. Proceeds from the ticket sales will be used as seed money for an endowment for university students to study abroad, said Gerald McDougall, dean of the Harrison College of Business and director of international programs.

In a talk titled "Seven Revolutions: Scanning the World to the Year 2025," Peterson was optimistic about advancing technology, worried about sustaining the world's population and economy, and anxious that political leaders aren't thinking beyond the next election.

The more important people are, he said, the less ability they often have to consider long-term trends and solutions.

"We have to break out of the gravity of short-termism," he said. "You have to fight every minute, every second of every day to think in the long term."

The seven areas Peterson wants his audiences to focus on include technology, population, resources, knowledge, economics, conflict and government. In every area, there are challenges and opportunities, he said, though some of his topics face trends that can lead to severe problems.

Each is intertwined with the others. Population is a good example of an area Peterson covered that will strain many of the others. The global population is expanding by 77 million people a year, he said, or the equivalent of 1,925 cities the size of Cape Girardeau. The current world population of 6.5 billion will increase to 7.9 billion by 2025 and 9.1 billion by 2050, he said.

Immigration pressure

About half of that growth is concentrated in eight nations, with India and the United States among the eight. But in many of the developed industrial countries, population is declining and the result will be strains on the work force and increasing pressure for immigration.

"We have a tremendously complex future in front of us with the movement of these populations," he said.

The extra people will strain resources, such as energy and water, the economies that must support them and the food supplies that must sustain them.

Bright areas Peterson sees include rapid technological innovation that means better health care and faster transmission of knowledge and information. But there are also dangers in those areas, with a widening divide between regions that can afford new technology and regions that cannot.

For example, he said, a baby girl born in Japan today has a 50 percent chance of living until the year 2100. But a baby girl born in Afghanistan has a 25 percent chance of dying by age 5.

Those facts, and others outlined in the talk, make thoughtful leadership an imperative, he said.

"I am worried that we have a severe deficit in strategic leadership in the world, and especially in the U.S.," he said. "My view is that there is plenty of blame to pass around on both sides of the political spectrum."

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