The world of 2030: U.S. declines; food, water may be scarce

Sorry, everyone, but flying cars don't appear in the "Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds" report that the director of national intelligence's office made public on Monday.

Instead, the National Intelligence Council paints the picture of a world in which the U.S. is no longer the unquestionably dominant global player; individuals and small groups may carry out devastating cyber or bioterror attacks; oh, and food and water may be running short in some places.

The 160-page report is a great read for anyone in the business of crafting the script for the next James Bond movie, a treasure trove of potential scenarios for international intrigue, not to mention super-villainy. But the council took pains to say that what it foresees is not set in stone. The goal is to provide policymakers with some idea of what the future holds in order to help them steer the right economic and military courses.

"We do not seek to predict the future—which would be an impossible feat—but instead provide a framework for thinking about possible futures and their implications," the report cautioned.

Other ideas the futurists reported: Global population will reach "somewhere close to 8.3 billion people," and food and water may be running scarce in some areas, especially regions like Africa and the Middle East.

"Climate change will worsen the outlook for the availability of these critical resources," the report said. "Climate change analysis suggests that the severity of existing weather patterns will intensify, with wet areas getting wetter, and dry and arid areas becoming more so."We are not necessarily headed into a world of scarcities, but policymakers and their private sector partners will need to be proactive to avoid such a future."

What about America in 2030? The report predicts that the U.S. "most likely will remain 'first among equals' among the other great powers." But "with the rapid rise of other countries, the 'unipolar moment' is over and Pax Americana—the era of American ascendancy in international politics that began in 1945—is fast winding down."

Also, "Asia will have surpassed North America and Europe combined in terms of global power, based upon GDP [Gross Domestic Product], population size, military spending and technological investment," the report said.

It also suggests that Islamist extremism may be a thing of the past in 2030. But that doesn't mean small groups won't try to wreak havoc.

"With more widespread access to lethal and disruptive technologies, individuals who are experts in such niche areas as cyber systems might sell their services to the highest bidder, including terrorists who would focus less on causing mass casualties and more on creating widespread economic and financial disruptions," said the report.

Four "megatrends" shaping the world were cited: growing individual empowerment; diffusion of power; major shifts in demographics; and rising demand for food, water and energy.

The report also sees the potential for "black swan" shocks to the system. These include: a severe pandemic; faster-than-forecast climate change; the collapse of the European Union; the collapse of China (or its embrace of democracy); and a reformed Iran that abandons its suspected nuclear weapons program. They also include a conflict using nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons, or a large-scale cyber-attack; solar geomagnetic storms that may knock out satellites and the electric grid; or a sudden retreat of the U.S. from global affairs.

So what about the flying cars, a staple of science fiction? The report is mum on that front, but it does raise the intriguing possibility that "self-driving cars could begin to address the worsening congestion in urban areas, reduce roadway accidents, and improve individuals' productivity (by allowing drivers the freedom to work through their commutes)."

And the cool cats over at Wired magazine's "Danger Room" national security blog have underlined how the report sees the growth of other technologies, including "superhumans" potentially roaming the landscape.