Books: Doom, gloom and wildcards

Robert Shapiro's predictions on global politics and economics are alarming but challenging. His 'pragmatic realism' had Marian Salzman reaching for the Valium.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Don't pack Robert Shapiro's book for an afternoon on the beach. I began reading Futurecast 2020: A global vision of tomorrow on a transatlantic flight, and found myself worrying more than usual. And my own vision of the next five years is fairly gloomy: not a glass half-full on the economy, world peace or my love life. But Shapiro is a sharp analyst and he focused my anxiety on several genuine threats, from the cost of the 'baby bust' and the extraordinary power of China and what that means for everywhere else, to terrorism of all shapes and sizes and motivations.

He even had me thinking - make that worrying - about smallpox and whether or not it would be the next anthrax. And all this before the stewardess offered complimentary bottled water in mid-flight. Reading his words about terrorist sabotage and its potential to wreak havoc on the scale of Chernobyl, I found my mind wandering. There was that shoe bomber on an American Airways flight; would a terrorist-in-training figure out how to infect all of us via the air cooling system? Is tonight the night?

Shapiro also raises lots to ponder about the economic implications of both the immediate threat of terrorism and the indirect, slow-brewing threat. The latter, he reminds us, is more real now that the 'us versus them' confrontation isn't as clear-cut as it was.

And when I wasn't worrying about terrorists in the air conditioner, I was wondering how the US could ever regain its economic footing. Mine is a nation so used to living beyond its means that saving is as alien a concept as learning a foreign language or establishing universal healthcare.

Shapiro has compiled a dense yet well-written overview of the heavy factors that will remake the world for those who have been enjoying increasingly high-quality standards of living - unless you live in a smallish country that has created a successful niche economy. And even then, what's thriving in Finland or Ireland today might soon be displaced by better, newer, faster technology from somewhere else. Shapiro believes in the primacy of globalisation and highlights its two poles, the US and China, each one highly troubled but for entirely different reasons.

So much has been written about China in recent years that I, for one, am overloaded; in fact, I bore myself when I make predictions about Chinese consumption, the increasing importance of the Han internet or the role that China will play (or not) in green politics. And I disagree with Shapiro's calculation that India will play no role on the central stage in the near future.

Shapiro presents a thorough and gifted analysis of the current commercial climate in India, but he underestimates the passion factor - the mysterious drive that makes Indians proud and even arrogant but patient too. If education is fuel and if they can master infrastructure, I'd say that in the new flat world, we'd all better send our kids for a gap year in Mumbai.

I agree wholeheartedly with Shapiro's analysis of Russia, and his take on India does not turn me off the balance of his predictions, most of which I find stunningly interesting at worst and alarmingly possible at best.

And that's why I pondered whether to pop a Valium with my Evian. I'm a doom-and-gloom person on the best of days, so this book struck new fears in me.

I knew we shared a pragmatic realism when I read: 'Over the next 10 to 15 years, the baby busts of Europe and Japan will make the economic burdens of their social welfare systems basically irreconcilable with healthy economic growth. At a minimum, Europe and Japan will not be able to slow the demographic drain in their prosperity by inducing significantly more of their shrinking labor forces to work or work longer hours or more years.' It sounds so absolute, but he argues brilliantly.

Shapiro devotes an entire chapter to 'The looming decline of Europe and Japan' and another to 'The coming crises in health care and energy'. As a New Yorker who happened to be a quarter- mile from the Twin Towers on 9.11.01, I was less than 100% happy reading the last and best chapter, 'History's wildcards: catastrophic terrorism and technological breakthroughs', while sitting in an American Airlines cabin 38,000 feet above the Atlantic.

Here, Shapiro writes: 'An early test of leadership for the next US president will involve rebuilding national support for global missions that no other country can carry out.' He could mean many things by this prediction, but none of them makes me feel great, not after having read lots of other doom-and-gloom scenarios about places near and far and about issues economic and geopolitical.

Futurecast 2020: A Global Vision of Tomorrow, Robert Shapiro; Profile Books; £15.00

- Marian Salzman is a partner at Porter Novelli.

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