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Highway to dystopia: time to wise up to the looming risks

In that world of peripheral vision, essential for business, social and political leaders, it is surprising that the World Economic Forum’s report, Global Risks 2012 has not received greater publicity or…

Serious, interconnected risks are closing in on the globalised community, from climate change to anarchy. Are we heeding the warnings? AAP/EPA/Daniel Deme

In that world of peripheral vision, essential for business, social and political leaders, it is surprising that the World Economic Forum’s report, Global Risks 2012 has not received greater publicity or provoked greater public interest. It is a measured examination of 50 major risks, clustered in economic, environmental, geopolitical, social and technological risk categories, facing the world in the next 10 years. Its contributors number more than 469 of the world’s leading business and economic leaders as part of the Davos process and it paints a shocking and bleak picture.

Scoring each risk category for both likelihood and impact, the report highlights that all risk-categories contain elements that have a near certainty of occurrence within the next 10 years with an impact that will be devastating. Scoring most highly in terms of both likelihood and impact are the risks associated with water and food shortages. Next come the economic risk factors including chronic fiscal imbalance, severe income disparity, and extreme volatility in energy and agricultural prices. Then there is a cluster of environmental risks that include rising greenhouse gases, failure of climate change adaptation, and the failure to manage urbanization and land and water resources.

Scoring slightly lower in terms of risk are the technology and geopolitical risk categories respectively, where cyber attacks, information systems failures, data fraud, terrorism, fragile states (produced by various combinations of the above), and pervasive entrenched corruption dominate.

The world’s urban population will double by 2050, calling for more city-building than has happened in the past 4000 years. AAP/EPA/How Hwee Young

Putting all elements of the risk categories together, water supply and food shortage crises, volatility in energy and agricultural prices, fiscal imbalances, income disparity, and greenhouse gas emissions control, dominate the high scores.

Perhaps more significant than their relative scores is the fact that these risks are highly interconnected. Unsustainable population growth, currently with age peaks both in the young and in the old, produce enormous consumer demands for basic living requirements, societal pressures for maintenance, and issues of fiscal instability and urban management. Greenhouse gas control and climate change have major impacts on agricultural prices. Fiscal imbalances have impacts on inflation, currency stability and market imbalances, which in turn impact on national and global governance. And in this globalised lean economy, with its “just in time ” supply chain manufacturing, we have the complicating factors of critical systems failure and cyberterrorism as additional risks.

The complexity of these interdependencies and the increasing velocity of change in these transformative processes are said by Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chair of the WEC, to threaten to overwhelm countries, companies, cultures and communities. His view is that the world’s foremost challenge is to master this complexity.

A very short while ago, “globalisation” was the key to economic success for society. It predicted a world of increased wealth, consumer choice and confidence aided by globally distributed workforces, along with “just in time” manufacturing, hyper-connectivity of markets and stock exchanges, and the death of the command economy.

Brace for more: Mozambican security forces patrol the streets the day after six people were killed and 80 injured in protests over the rising cost of food and power. AAP/EPA/Antonio Silva

The linkages across a range of fiscal, demographic and societal risks lead the authors to describe the world of 2012 and beyond as “dystopian” (the opposite of “utopian”), a place full of hardship and devoid of hope. Moreover, since the start of the global financial crisis the risk profile has moved heavily in the direction away from geopolitics and economics towards a connected cluster of risks linking society, environment and economy focusing on issues such as economic equity, the availability of food, and unsustainable water withdrawals. It also uses the word “dystopian” for the first time to describe what happens when attempts to build a better world go unintentionally wrong - the norm of “unintended consequences”.

In this case, the unintended consequences include a new class of critically endangered states emerging, as formerly wealthy countries are unable to meet their social and fiscal obligations, and they descend into lawlessness and unrest. Clearly the prediction of unintended consequences must be part of all of our scenario planning.

The population projections alone are formidable. By 2023, the world’s rural population will decline in absolute terms. By 2050, the global urban population will have doubled to nearly 6.2 billion, 70% of the world’s population. This will require an unimagined increase in urban capacity in the next 40 years that is equivalent to all of that built in the past 4000 years, but somehow without the accompanying environmental destruction and failure.

The youth component of this may be largely unemployed, placing a requirement on society NOW to give consideration to the educational requirements of the imminent next generation, including potentially radically redesigning educational systems, including universities, and extensively fostering entrepreneurship to prevent the seeds of dystopia from taking root. Perhaps these entrepreneurial skills could be directed to solving the pressing environmental constraints that stem from progressive disengagement of urban communities from rural issues.

As our numbers and desires grow, so too does our toll on the land. This woman and her daughter paddle in Jakarta after floods some blame on deforestation. AAP?EPA/Jurnasyanto Sukarno

What is required now are new conceptual models to understand and interrogate these complex systems. In the face of real uncertainties about the future, we have to develop an understanding of what will confer resilience to potential solutions. We must get better at predicting the “ifs” in the “what if” scenarios, but accept that solutions must be robust to challenges we cannot imagine. There is real urgency here. We do not have time to lose political momentum to arguments over relative minutiae such as the carbon tax; such distractions hide the fact that we lack a coherent vision to address these interrelated and pressing issues in the coming decade. The need for a coherent vision is crucial if our education systems are to develop in the young the knowledge and skills needed to build a sustainable future for Australia - knowledge we can export to less fortunate countries that lack the means to similarly invest in their futures.

Australia already has a report on Food Security, but it was published in 2010 and much has happened in the world since then - it would be interesting to see an update on progress on the “suite of actions” recommended in the report: actions including lifting agricultural R&D as a matter of urgency, boosting PhD scholarships for agricultural and food processing studies, and setting up an Australian Food Security Agency.

More interestingly, it would be fascinating to see the outcomes of a World Economic Forum-type appraisal of Australia’s risk register. What cluster of hazards and challenges await our economy, society, environment, geopolitical space and, of course, technology, and what are we going to do about them?

Emeritus Professor Bernard King CBE CCMI FBS, and Tony Coote AM also contributed to this article.

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30 Comments sorted by

  1. Dale Bloom


    Risk management could be a science rather than a tool, but if some primary risks are eliminated, it tends to reduce various other risks as well.

    High population numbers and high levels of consumption seem to be primary risks.

  2. Michael Shand

    Software Tester

    Why are we not recognising and dealing with these issues?

    Why are we not heading the warning signs?

    Because people are dishonest and are encouraged to be, they are encouraged to believe things on faith even if the evidence shows otherwise. The same society that says "Its alright to be an australian member of parliment and also be a young earth creationist" is the same society that says "Its alright to be leader of the opposition and deny climate change" is the same society that says "Its…

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    1. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Michael Shand

      Just as a caviat to my comment, I work in IT with some very intelligent, mature, well educated people.....some of whom believe in reincarnation, taro cards, 6 day creation, the soul, chakra's, telepathy, some deny climate change altogether others deny humans involvement in climate change, etc, etc

      We teach our children that faith, believing things without or in spite of evidence, is a virtue......and then we wonder why as a society we struggle to deal with reality on reality's terms when it really matters

      we dont teach them how to value truth or how to inquire and uncover truth

    2. Emma Anderson

      Artist and Science Junkie

      In reply to Michael Shand

      There's more to religion than just religion. In some ways, the economic status quo (globalised capitalism) is a religion; and so are the currently proposed alternatives (like communism).

      Nonetheless not all religions, or people who follow a particular religion, have the same dogma or follow all the dogma of that religion.

      An example of religious dogma is some ideas concerning 'man's dominion over the earth' and procreation. People who believe it is effectively their god-given right to exploit…

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    3. Emma Anderson

      Artist and Science Junkie

      In reply to Emma Anderson

      I should add that I agree that critical thinking (as well as sex education and responsible consumption) are not currently taught at schools adequately and this is to the detriment of all.

      Our kids are at the behest of a sophisticated, totalitarian marketing machine. That's definitely part of the problem.

  3. Tim Paton

    Automotive Engineer

    I wish I could share the authors' optimism.
    The report makes scant mention of resource constraint; of oil in particular. It gets a mention as an "X-factor" - that possible future wars over oil might cause some instability.
    The world is at peak capacity for oil production, and has been for at least 5 years. Regardless what model of post-peak oil production one subscribes to, the fact remains; there is no long-term option to increase the global oil supply.
    What is the proposal for feeding the urbanised…

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  4. Lorna Jarrett

    PhD, science educator and science advocate

    My neighbour says he doesn't want any rain - "it'll only make the grass grow". What would your average Third World landless villager think of this man? He owns his own plot of flat, fertile land in a temperate climate - and the only thing he can think of growing in it is something that swallows up time and energy, and is more valued when it fails than when it thrives!

    We need to address the destructive, pointless and wasteful behaviours that have become so ingrained in our culture in the last 50 or so years that the are no longer questioned by most. 50 years ago maybe we could afford them - not any more.

  5. Colin MacGillivray

    Architect, retired, Sarawak

    Quite likely in large areas of the planet, both urban and rural, but not in major Australian towns and cities, where people concentrate on their own back pocket and their own back yard.
    Hence the disinterest.
    (And I live in Sarawak!)

  6. Mark Duffett

    logged in via Facebook

    There is a school of thought to the effect that the increase in urbanisation is, on the whole, a good thing (see for example, including for the environment, essentially because it tends to concentrate rather than diffuse the human footprint. Of course, as others have pointed out, the urban model is predicated on low-cost transport.

    1. David Boxall

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Mark Duffett

      In Robert Silverberg's "The World Inside", the planet's carrying capacity has been increased by replacing cities with huge buildings. With land devoted to buildings minimised, agricultural capacity has increased. Estimated capacity of the planet is 200 billion.

      While the thought of recycling everything, up to and including the body heat of billions of tightly-packed humans is intriguing and that of bulldozing cities appealing, we probably need to think it through before adopting that solution.

      In the world that some of us think might be real, I reckon we're past the point where we can afford to alienate productive land by building on, paving, polluting or mining it, or doing anything else that risks its productive capacity. And we do need to think about reclaiming some of the land that's already been alienated.

    2. Craig Read

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Mark Duffett

      I think urbanisation would be good if it did concentrate the human footprint. In our country, it doesn't though.

      Our cities are centred on the most fertile land in a relatively infertile country, and they spread out from there. Meanwhile wealthy inner-city Nimbys complain about losing their precious views to high rise apartments and/or block any multi-story developments altogether.

  7. Marian Macdonald

    logged in via Twitter

    You've touched on a very sore point for this dairy farmer. Our terms of trade (effectively our standard of living) has dropped by about one-third since I was a teen in the 1980s (see, while food standards have steadily increased.

    We are told by our leaders that we must increase production to "feed the world" over and over again but we are not receiving the right price signals to do so.

  8. Peter Dann

    Technical writer

    Recently I have come across several mentions of "the prisoner's dilemma", a so-called "game" (or decision situation) studied closely by game theorists. The game models a highly paradoxical situation wherein both players would achieve an ideal outcome if they act in a certain way, but to each player this way out appears to be contrary to their own best interests.

    This is precisely the situation we find ourselves in with climate change. We all recognise that it would be in 'everyone's' best interests to act in a certain way (start controlling emissions), but at the same time it is strongly in our own best interests not to do this.

    I can't see how we're ever going to solve this problem until we can come up with a way of tackling the paradox inherent in "the prisoner's dilemma".

    1. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Peter Dann

      At the risk of making a banal statement of the obvious, Peter, I think we'll have to stop being prisoners...

    2. Jeff Haddrick

      field manager

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      Not banal at all, because for the majority it's not obvious. Sure many feel frustrated, but that's a far cry from knowing why or being aware of what looms over the horizon.

  9. Peter Lang

    Retired geologist and engineer

    “Greenhouse gas control and climate change have major impacts on agricultural prices.”

    Greenhouse gas control will certainly have major [detrimental] impact on agricultural prices. However, it will not alleviate the problems outlined in this report. It will make them worse by wasting money on the wrong issues. And the proposed policies – pricing CO2 - will make no difference to the climate, sea levels of agriculture.

  10. Peter Lang

    Retired geologist and engineer

    Methodology, P21, says:
    “These four Critical Connectors, which link the main clusters of the system, are highlighted as black dots in the diagram. They are:
    • Severe income disparity (economic)
    • Major systemic financial failure (economic)
    • Unforeseen negative consequences of regulation (economic)
    • Extreme volatility in energy and agriculture prices (economic)”
    All economic. And notice the third dot point!

    This is an interesting report:

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  11. Gil Hardwick

    anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

    Well, yes, some of us at least have been trying to have these issues discussed and taken seriously for a very long time now, at the risk of being beaten up, ostracised as alarmist, being "negative" . . . .

    A great deal of these future scenario predicitions have also been written up in literature and treated as fiction.

    Again, and I say this often, we already know all this, there is nothing new in it. The question arises on what does it take to communicate reality? A few years back I found myself…

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  12. Yuri Pannikin


    After 40 years in the environment movement, as a working contractor and an activist, I've all but thrown the towel in. With China and India developing a middle class, I see no hope for a halt to environmental and ecological degradation.

    What's worse, people still vote for people like Queensland Premier Campbell Newman, who, in my opinion, is the most pro-development and anti-environment premier since Joh Bjelke Petersen.

    What's with people on that side of politics? Dumb and dumber is all I can deduce. Humans will rush on blindly and fill the global ecological niche, creating a dystopian cesspit from which there is no recovery. And then we'll be gone -- and a good thing, too.

    1. Jeff Haddrick

      field manager

      In reply to Yuri Pannikin

      Don't lose heart, they're still rational in China and India.
      Sadly, some people here who did well at the time want to use the legacy from the decade of darkness by adding raw emotive input to a population whose humanitarian instincts were already compromised.
      Here as in the USA, they surf on the tipping point of irrationality.

  13. Philip Brentnall


    We can only take action in Australia, but at least that would be a start, by offering free vasectomies or tubal ligations to everyone who has produced two children.

    1. Lorna Jarrett

      PhD, science educator and science advocate

      In reply to Philip Brentnall

      Free contraception??????? Gosh you're brave to bring that up - I'm still smarting from that time I pointed out that in Britain, all contraceptives are free to everyone.

    2. David Boxall

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Lorna Jarrett

      Perhaps I'm just a grumpy old man, but I do wonder when I see people congratulated on announcing their pregnancy. We really need to get over the idea that having children is a good thing.

      Instead of a baby bonus, perhaps parents should be taxed to cover, in advance, the costs of supporting and educating their child.

    3. John Hargreaves


      In reply to David Boxall

      Agree. It beats me why so much political bluster and policy is aimed at supporting 'battling' families. Once it was the need to create armies. Now it's the need to feed economic growth (a gross misconception). A dear friend of mine insists that most people have kids for largely narcissistic motives. Stop chucking money at procreators. Stop having kids you lot! Trouble is, no one has the political guts to challenge the breeders or do anything ground-breaking to restrain our runaway consumption.

  14. Derek McKinnon


    Every Malthusian enthusiast has been proven wrong over the last 200 years. But you just can't stop your pessimism overflowing into print. Read the Rational Optimist and realise that the world is a much better place than you realise.

    1. David Boxall

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Derek McKinnon

      Derek McKinnon: "Every Malthusian enthusiast has been proven wrong ...".
      As they all will - except the last one.

      Derek McKinnon: "... the world is a much better place than you realise."
      You may have faith that it will stay that way, or get better, no matter how careless and stupid we are. Not all of us share your faith.

  15. Bruce Tabor

    Research Scientist at CSIRO

    Excellent and timely article John (Bernard & Tony). I'm often struck by how - in broad outline - the world is evolving in a way projected in Donella Meadows' 1972 book "Limits to Growth" (LTG) and its sequels.

    The basic thesis of this work is that in a world of finite resources with unchecked economic and population growth, some form of overshoot and collapse is inevitable. The work does NOT assume that society doesn't adapt to the challenges…

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  16. Marian Scott


    I have read the original article by Professor Crawford and since posted comments by others. This is somber yet brilliant reading. My concern is how we educate our grandchildren to the reality of an ever changing world and the need to have effective visionary govt policy as well as a functional democracy. This mean "be very careful who we vote for". Instead of narcissists who sing to the "battling families" maybe the "battling environments" need center stage. It's now over to the faceless people (like me) to stand up and be counted.

  17. Ben Beccari

    PhD Student in Risk and Emergency Management at Istituto Universitario di Studi Superiori di Pavia

    The report and article highlight some of the problems of our globalised world. Unfortunately it focusses a little too much on the problems and not on how they may be solved.

    The fact is that increasingly interconnected problems require increasingly interconnected solutions.

    Every inquiry and report into disasters from 9/11 to the Black Saturday Bushfires to the GFC highlights lack of communication and collaboration as key factors in those disasters.

    The problems outlined in Global Risks 2012 are surmountable, but they will require new links to be forged across and within governments, NGOs, businesses, multi-lateral organisations and the community. No easy feat but there are great examples of this out there.