Writing the future

What does the future hold for the global economy? Will living standards rise worldwide, as today's poor countries leapfrog technologies to catch up with richer countries? Or will prosperity slip through our fingers as greed and corruption lead us to deplete vital resources and degrade the natural environment on which human well-being depends? Humanity faces no greater challenge than to ensure a world of prosperity rather than a world that lies in ruins.

Like a novel with two possible endings, ours is a story yet to be written in this new century. There is nothing inevitable about the spread—or the collapse—of prosperity. More than we know (or perhaps care to admit), the future is a matter of human choice, not mere prediction.

Despite the ongoing economic crisis in Europe and the US, the developing world has sustained rapid economic growth. While the International Monetary Fund forecasts that the advanced economies will grow by just 1.5% in 2013, developing-country growth is projected to reach 5.6%. Asia's developing economies, now the world's pacesetters, are expected to grow by 7.2%, with output in Sub-Saharan Africa set to rise by a healthy 5.7%.

What is happening is both powerful and clear. Technologies that were once found only in rich countries now belong to the entire world. Mobile phone coverage in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, has gone from nearly zero subscribers 20 years ago to around 700 million today. And those phones are helping to bring banking, health care, education, business, government services, and entertainment to the poor. Within a few years, the vast majority of the world will have access to wireless broadband.

Yet there is another truth as well. Last year was the hottest ever recorded in the US. Droughts afflicted around 60% of US counties, including the breadbasket states of the Midwest and the Great Plains. In October, an extraordinary "superstorm" smashed into the Atlantic coastline around New Jersey, causing losses of around $60 billion. Climate problems—floods, droughts, heat waves, extreme storms, massive forest fires, and more—also ravaged many other parts of the world in 2012, including China, Australia, Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, and Africa's Sahel region.

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