The world is being buffeted by the war in Ukraine, an upending of the global energy order, a surge in the cost of food and the cost of living, the spread of populism and authoritarianism, the rapid growth and use of powerful technologies, and increasingly sophisticated efforts to mislead and misinform people on almost any topic. Climate change is increasingly making itself felt. The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic are far from over. Inequalities are widening worldwide. People increasingly distrust governments, science, leaders — and one another.
2023 promises to be a time of multiple crises. At the same time, crises have the potential be catalysts for change. How can the world reckon with these profound geopolitical, economic and technological changes? Can the year prove to be a turning point?
SEI’s “Currents 2023” is a launching point for a discussion and debate on these and other trends – and their implications for us all. The project taps SEI’s expertise and insights from the institute’s centres on five continents to examine these interweaving currents and to better understand what they portend.
The Currents concept: introducing the premise
SEI Currents 2023 taps the institute’s expertise and insights from SEI centres across five continents to examine trends emerging in 2022 and beyond. SEI Communications Director and Head of Strategic Policy Engagement Robert Watt introduces the series, which brings together perspectives from around the globe.
The democracy deficit
Global freedom is under threat. Authoritarian regimes have become more effective at co-opting or circumventing norms. For 16 consecutive years, the world has experienced a decline in global freedom, according to the Freedom House project’s 2022 Freedom in the World assessment. West Africa has experienced a growing rate of coups. The pandemic led some countries to clamp down on freedom of expression and push for more control.
With recent research suggesting that island countries are more vulnerable to government oppression after natural disasters, there is a concern that the increased frequency of severe storms due to climate change could lead to the rise of more autocracies around the world.
Even countries that have been viewed as standard bearers of democracy are experiencing anti-democratic currents. For example, many people in the United States have denied the validity of the 2020 election results, while a new law in the UK imposes additional restrictions and penalties on protesters. Democratic norms are under challenge in countries throughout the world. Brazil’s 2022 election results are under challenge. Autocrats, empowered by political, economic and technical tools, have exerted their might, while pressure from democracies appear to be waning.
What is driving this trend? What are the implications for sustainable development and climate change?
The “meaning” crisis
Our world is increasingly flooded with misinformation, disinformation, conspiracies, fake news and fake science fuelled by endless and apparently well-funded “bot” campaigns. The casualty is trust – erosion in trust in democratic processes, public institutions, media, science and each another. People are questioning the legitimacy of pillars of society. Confusion, cynicism and apathy are on the rise. “Alternative facts” is a catch phrase of the era.
The trend has been exacerbated by rhetorical distortion and outright manipulations of the truth by politicians, unkept pledges by leaders in public and private sectors, clampdowns on criticism of authoritarian governments and media coverage – flourishing on unregulated digital platforms – that deliberately distorts information to boost audiences, gain clicks and earn revenues at the expense of enlightening the public.
The costs for us all are evident. We see fragmentation of societies, an intolerance for different views, a decline in civil debate and perhaps a loss of the critical thinking skills needed to analyse evidence and arguments. This atmosphere affects all walks of contemporary life – from the smallest day-in, day-out interactions to global-level aims.
How can we work together if we each have our own “facts”? What are the implications going forward in a world in which trust has worn thin?
The rising cost of living
Rising prices are squeezing living standards worldwide. The prospect of recession looms in many countries.
Shockingly, the poor in the Northern Hemisphere this winter are finding themselves choosing between heating and eating. In 2022, food prices rose to the highest levels since the Food and Agriculture Office was established in 1945. Globally, food scarcity is on the rise – with the potential to lead to instability, violence, and increased use of child labour. A growing global population – 8 billion and counting – and changing diets are driving up demand for food, with crop yields and natural resources, including those from the ocean, stretched thin.
Things are likely to get worse; the world will need to produce about 70% more food by 2050 to feed an estimated 9 billion people, a World Bank report indicates. The world economy, already weakened by the pandemic, is faced with the ramifications on food and fuel and geopolitics – from the war in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund Global Economic Outlook is “gloomy and more uncertain”. The European Central Bank’s Isabel Schnabel has called this a new age of energy inflation – combining “climateflation, fossilflation and greenflation”.
This could be a watershed moment for the energy transition – but in which direction? Will soaring costs spur a green transition – or lead countries to rely on more polluting sources of energy?
Technology and equity
The world is in the midst of what has been called the Fourth Industrial Revolution: a transformation created by technological advances that have radically altered how we live, work and interact. Artificial intelligence (AI) is a key driver – and not just of autonomous vehicles. Machine learning makes it possible to harness data in ways that previously would not have been possible and at speeds that were once unimaginable.
AI has the potential to be a powerful, perhaps necessary, tool help us solve the climate crisis; at the same time, machine learning poses unique dangers – with the power to turn governments into surveillance states. Largely free of regulation, AI is rushing ahead (hello Alexa and Siri!), powered by algorithms, and the data we freely hand over when we use our high-tech devices – perhaps even altering our own collective psychology.
Computer “intelligence” is only as smart and accurate as the data on which it relies, yet some experts warn that we must now begin to confront the prospect of “superintelligence” that will one day exceed human cognitive skills, making the technology difficult to control and even posing existential risks. The technological disruption has begun in the workplace, with some low-skilled work increasingly automated and high-skilled work commanding ever-higher salaries.
Who benefits and who loses out from the technological disruptions we are experiencing now and will experience in the future? What are the implications – for inequality, data protection, privacy, surveillance and transparency in decision-making? What can ensure that technological power is used as a force for good rather than a tool that further divides people?