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Asian Renaissance and the Global Future: 2030 and Beyond

By Rakesh Kapoor

Futurist Rakesh Kapoor discusses the key changes that are likely to occur in Asia over the next 15 years and how these will impact the world in 2030.

A pedestrian walks past a mural in New Delhi, India [© AFP Photo/Manan Vatsyayana]

Some of the determinants and trends that will shape the world in 2030 include huge demographic and economic changes, disruptive climate change, widespread technological advances and automation, a changing balance of power between East and West and a ferment arising from a reassertion and reassessment of cultural and religious identities. Individually, each one of these drivers of change will be significant, impacting the nature of global reality in 2030, and will have far-reaching consequences going well beyond 2030. However, if one were to try to imagine the world in 2030, taking into account all these drivers together and the impact that unforeseen wild cards could have, it would be difficult to predict the global situation at that time. All that can be said with certainty is that the world will be more complex, ever changing and uncertain.

One of the most significant markers of the 21st century is the reemergence of Asia as the economic powerhouse of the world. Asia was home to nearly two-thirds of the global population in 2000. By 2030, with steadily declining global fertility rates, Asia's population will start declining too, but the economic share of Asia will only increase over the next 15 years and for another few decades thereafter. On a purchasing power parity basis, Asia's share (excluding Japan) of global GDP increased from 9 percent in 1970 to 28 percent in 2010, and will be 39.5 percent in 2030. By 2050, this share will be 48 percent (50 percent including Japan), climbing back to a level that existed for a millennium before 1820. Seen in this perspective, the last two centuries were an aberration. While Asia will grow economically, population in the developed countries will age rapidly. Europe, Japan and China will have the most aging population and high dependency ratios (more old and young dependents per 100 working-age adults), followed by the US, Southeast Asia and Latin America. India, Africa and West Asia, on the other hand, will have a much younger population, driving their economic growth.

Within Asia, China's meteoric rise has been the most remarkable. It is a popular assumption today that this rise will continue to 2030 and beyond and that China will challenge the US as the global superpower. But this assumption seems misplaced. China's economic growth may well continue, albeit at a substantially slower rate, eventually overtaking the size of the US economy. But China is unlikely to be able to challenge the US as the global superpower for many decades yet. A number of inherent weaknesses will contribute to this likelihood: the export-led economic growth model based on state control and massive overinvestment that is now running out of steam and threatening to erode the credibility of the Chinese state; a rapidly aging population leading to huge labor shortages and the end of cheap labor; a rising middle class and very high inequality, leading to the pressure of political and democratic reform (Facebook is disallowed in China), which may lead to instability; the absence of a powerful and alluring ideology, since China is a "capitalist" society with a Marxist-socialist ideology; and China's inability to deal with religion and with its minorities. The US, on the other hand, continues with its military might and potential to grow steadily with its abundance of land and resources, strong culture of innovation and ability to attract capital and young immigrants.

Nevertheless, Asia, with India, Indonesia and other dynamic economies besides China, will have economic might, thus altering the balance of power between East and West. As Kishore Mahbubani, the Singaporean diplomat-thinker, writes in The New Asian Hemisphere, the two most salient features of our historical epoch are: "First, we have reached the end of the era of Western domination of world history (but not the end of the West, which will remain the single strongest civilization for decades more). Second, we will see an enormous renaissance of Asian societies."

Cultural and Religious Resurgence

The Asian renaissance is beginning to happen in various ways, with a resurgence of culture and religion, seeking ways to coexist and find a new balance with capitalism and modernity. Although there is also the risk, in this process, of imbalance--as has happened with the torchbearers of radical, fundamentalist Islam, with violence and terror as their weapons. The resurgence should become stronger in the near- to medium-term future, as economic clout gives Asian countries greater cultural confidence, and as the challenges of sustainable consumption and climate-induced disasters and disruptions force us all to rethink assumptions and lifestyles and seek solutions for sustainability and stability.

The work of Asian scholars illustrates these creative stirrings. Rajiv Malhotra's book Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism and Pankaj Mishra's From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals who Remade Asia are examples. Zia Sardar's work on Islam in the modern world is instructive. In two volumes of The Asian Future: Dialogues for Change, Asian scholars such as Sulak Sivaraksa, Tu Weiming, Chandra Muzaffar and Arief Budiman discuss how Asian countries can retrieve and draw upon their cultural sources to broaden and influence the concept of modernization.

Climate Change

The issue of the impacts of climate change--on food production, water, sea level rise, livelihoods, health, disasters and forced migration of populations--is fraught with uncertainty, which itself will characterize the world in the 21st century. The implications of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's high and low emission scenarios to 2100 are highly variable. The year 2030, itself, may not see severe impacts, but since greenhouse gases, once emitted, stay in the atmosphere for a long time and continue to affect the global climate for many decades, actions taken in the next 15 years will be critical in shaping the course of global warming in the mid and late 21st century.

To combat climate change, a much greater thrust on renewable energy and energy efficiency is required, as is a much greater level of cooperation between North and South than has been forthcoming. But it is difficult to see how climate change can be mitigated and sustainable levels of resource consumption attained without a major cultural change based on a different ethic of consumption and sharing. Once again, traditional values of austerity, frugality and simplicity to be found in Asian societies and the attempt to balance capitalism with culture, religion and spirituality will be pertinent. It is important to clarify, however, that the turn to simplicity, spirituality and sustainability is also gaining ground in the West.

Technological Change

While advances in technology will bring wonderful gains for human beings in the next 15 years, the combined impact of information technology and other technologies is affecting the human self and the brain in disturbing ways, as the British neuroscientist Susan Greenfield notes. Young people, and even adults, are "longing for experiences rather than searching for meaning." Although Greenfield writes from the perspective of neuroscience, yet again this shows that traditional values and the balance between capitalism, modernity and culture are highly relevant in the 21st century.

In the next 15 years, an economically powerful and culturally resurgent Asia has an opportunity to work toward a global future characterized by a meaningful transformation to sustainability and spirituality and to nurture the deeper, authentic self despite the ubiquitous and often numbing presence of technology and virtual reality. Such a future world will be more balanced, more in sync with human well-being, and thus more civilized.

Rakesh Kapoor, based in New Delhi, India, is founder of Alternative Futures (alternativefutures.org.in), working on ideas, policies and innovations that can help create alternative futures for India and the world. He explores the future and processes of social transformation from the perspective of India and the South. He is also consulting editor of Futures: the journal of policy, planning and futures studies.
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