Years from now, when people look back at 2017, it will be seen as an epic year: epic hurricanes, epic flooding in some parts of the world, and epic droughts in other parts.
But it’s not just the weather or the climate. We are living in an epic world. Every year seems more “epic” than its predecessor, and it’s not our imaginations.
The world is undergoing epic changes. Extreme weather events are gradually becoming standard fare. While American attention was riveted on the suffering inflicted by Harvey and Irma, a disaster of equal, if not greater, scale unfolded in South Asia, whose monsoon season was the heaviest in many years. The International Red Cross reports that 24 million people were affected by last month’s flooding in Nepal, Bangladesh and India. More than a 1,200 people perished.
Epic events—record flooding, record droughts, and record temperatures—are becoming the new norm. Old metrics, like 100-year floods, are becoming obsolete, and the long-range outlook is for more records…and more suffering. If the climate change forecasts are even half-accurate, far worse is in store for us.
And climate change is not the only epic challenge we are confronting. World population this year crossed the 7.5 billion marked, and we are now adding another billion people to the planet every 12 years.
And the vast majority of that growth, upwards of 95 percent, is occurring in the developing world, and much of it in areas already afflicted by hunger, severe poverty, and chronic conflict.
Population distribution is also a challenge. The number of refugees and displaced persons in the world set a post-World War II record last year; more than 65 million were uprooted from their homes. There is also a growing tide of economic refugees. In many developing countries today, the farms cannot support the growing numbers of people, so young men and women move to the cities in hopes of finding employment. Urban slums in many parts of South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa are experiencing epic growth, as housing and infrastructure cannot keep up with the influx of new residents.
Over the past half-century, the population growth in coastal areas and along major rivers has been epic. A growing percentage of the world’s population is living in areas potentially affected by rising seas and flooding rivers. And, if the climate change forecasts are correct, an epic number of people will need to move to higher ground before this century is over.
An epic number of people are “living in harm’s way.”
If they are not at risk for drought or flooding, they face the threat of conflict, persecution, social unrest, or economic dislocation.
Water and food are also epic challenges.
In many parts of the world, water scarcity is a mounting concern as lakes and rivers shrink, and water tables fall. Water scarcity, in turn, will inhibit the higher crop yields needed to accommodate a growing population and more meat-intensive diets.
A world stressed by demographic pressures, climate change, and lackluster economic growth is experiencing political strain, as citizens lose confidence in their governments and institutions. Democratic institutions, including the United States, are facing epic challenges.
Long before the election of Donald Trump, democratically-elected governments in Europe, North America, and East Asia began experiencing record-low disapproval ratings. Political dysfunction is becoming the new norm.
The economic challenges are also multiplying. Advances in automation and artificial intelligence are threatening to dislocate large segments of the world’s labor force. Just as machinery replaced human ‘brawn’ in the 20th century, computers and artificial intelligence now threaten to replace human ‘brains’ in the 21st century. And make no mistake about it; the challenge is real. Without greater investments in our human capital, the ‘robots’ will win, unemployment will rise, and economic inequality will widen.
Epic challenges like these will require an epical reorientation in our thinking. If all we do is react reflexively to change, the reactionaries will win, and all of us will lose. We need leaders who are capable of critical long-range thinking, leaders who can inspire and unite us.
None of this will be easy. It’s an epic challenge.