Futuretelling

The New York Times editorial board recently wrote about the latest report published by the collective of American intelligence agencies: “Global Trends 2040”. Since a while, such a report is being issued every four years, at the beginning of the term of a new U.S. administration. It aims to assess and to anticipate where the world will be headed over the next two decades. Released April 15, 2021 by the National Intelligence Council, quoting from the OpEd, the report “finds that the pandemic has proved to be “the most significant, singular global disruption since World War II,” with medical, political and security implications that will reverberate for years. That’s not sturm und drang. It’s the prologue to a far darker picture of what lies ahead.”

The report can be downloaded here, and it is a very interesting read. As the authors themselves make clear, “scenarios are not intended to be predictions but to widen the aperture as to the possibilities, exploring various combinations of how the structural forces, emerging dynamics, and key uncertainties could play out“. Noone can foretell, at least until now, the future by analysing the key dynamics of the past and the current situation. But even without the five scenarios which the report is drawing up, already the five general themes identified by the report are a valuable narrative and assessment themselves, not least because the report synthesizes intelligence methodology and information with a wide range of global consultations outside the intelligence community, inter alia including societal stakeholders and civil society.

148 pages can not be summarized correctly here. Neither I want to do this. Rather, I would like to create interest in reading it oneself, by reflecting a little bit, including through own thoughts, on the themes of the report.

Five themes are identified: (1) Global Challenges, (2) Fragmentation, (3) Disequilibrium, (4) Contestation, and (5) Adaption.


Global challenges include climate change, disease, financial crises, and technology disruptions. The report states that they are likely to manifest more frequently and intensely in almost every region and country. Their impact on states and societies will create stress, or even catastrophic shock. The report assesses the current pandemic as “the most significant, singular global disruption since World War II, with health, economic, political, and security implications that will ripple for years to come.

This assessment resonates a lot with what some, or increasingly many, of us begin to realize: The pandemic was not a temporary event which would cripple us for a few months until summer 2020. It is ongoing, and I belong to those who feel that it will not be gone for a longer period of time, despite all containment efforts, including lockdowns, and vaccinations. Moreover, I feel we might be in a transitory phase where “defiance meets acceptance”, where things have become a norm which we would not have believed to witness a few years ago. Last weekend, I walked over an empty promenade along the shores of the river Rhine. Provisional signs regulated that, between Friday 1 pm and Sunday 7 pm, as well as between 10am and 7pm on public holidays, this strip could only be used wearing a facemask. Boy, those who got self-righteous when seeing people without facemasks, how many of them would have raised their eyebrows when seeing Asian tourists wearing facemasks on airports, just a few years ago?

This example of weird and perhaps over-regulating buerocracy just being used as a picture for my feeling that we transition into a new normal, where the fabric of societies is becoming altered beyond a temporary timeline. The depth of any analysis needs to go deeper, but some of those changes which appear to be there to stay, they become slowly visible.

It is also true that over the past year or so, the pandemic discussion with all its horrific extremes, including through simply denying it, playing it down, glossing it over, inciting polarisation and anger, it all deflected from the big threat underneath: The threat through climate change. Nothing made this less urgent, we just stopped paying attention.

Fragmentation flows from these global challenges almost logically. Whilst each of these challenges is transnational, even global, the report also pays attention to a new “smallness”, as I would coin it. Psychologically even understandable: Overwhelming threats will lead to a reflex raising the shield, or “turtling up”. In my view, such a defensive reflex will also be increasingly accompanied by selfishness. Every self-protection is a selfish but necessary act, simply because it is about protecting myself. However, with many things perceived as being at threat, including medical and economic well-being, this may lead to an unwillingness to share, outside a limited and accepted circle. But we may also see that such a fragmentation, somehow, works, because it may not affect global trade or global communication. The Internet grew during the pandemic, and so did the transportation of goods. There are winners in the economy, Amazon being just one of those, and most visible for us when we pick up our jeans, underwear, or groceries on our own doorsteps.

Disequilibrium is the third theme of the report, flowing again from the previous, fragmentation. It may be less visible for many, especially during selfish times, but it carries enormous destructive potential. The report focusses on its effects in a widening gap between what societies, communities, and individuals expect from governance and services, and what they can deliver. Thus, the report addresses the credibility challenges which became apparent already before the crisis. Legitimacy of democratic governance, and credibility of elected officials in such a system, this is not something new since the beginning of last year. Neither is the profound inability of systems of international order providing peace, security, and other important issues enshrined in the sixteen Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations. The pandemic may just have been the rocket fuel which incensed the already existing slow-burning wildfire. Like I said in my previous blog entry: Feels like a perfect storm.

Contestation is the fourth theme. We see it already. Wealthy societies pump their reserves into handling the crisis, and into the race of getting out on the other side in the best position for competing, on economical and power levels. But the report also identifies disruptive potential of contestation inside societies. In my view, these will just increase the intent of societies and states to stay competitive. In this regard then, wealthy societies will stand a much better chance. Poor societies will be left to their own devices of internal contestation. Conflict, violence, exodus, displacement, migration will have an effect on those more developed societies which, given all the above, might even lock themselves down even more. Lockdowns keeping others out. For me an interesting question: How will tourism develop? The more we can pay, the more likely we will spend our holidays in protected resorts? May be in wealthy societies we will see the “One Percenters” enjoy themselves in even more luxurious seclusion, those who always have been local and rural might not feel a difference at all, and the forces tearing things apart will be felt by the many in between?

Adaption being the final theme, I have the most diffiulties to identify with the anticipation, because it is so difficult to see where adaption will lead us to, locally, regionally, and globally. Of course, we will adapt. We already have begun. However:


My blog is about peace, security, trauma, and reconciliation. Somehow, all my entries here revolve around this set of topics. So, whilst I encourage to also read the scenarios in depth which form large parts of the main body of the report, I wanted to offer some thoughts just related to this introductory part of the report itself. Thoughts related to my focus.

The challenges for values, such as human and individual rights, democracy, the rule of law, they have only been growing over the past many years. The Covid-19-pandemic is pouring gasoline on this fire, and some of the developments become more visible for more people. The influencing factors which may lead to even more erosion during a time of new adaption, they are captured well in the five themes raised in the report. Not necessarily expressis verbis, but one can see it. Much will also receive more detail in the main body of the report, but in these introductory sections, these challenges are incorporated in a larger context, but are not made standing out for those who may only read executive summaries.

But taken together, global challenges, fragmentation, disequilibrium and contestation do pose significant risks to how we help an international system in its adaption and, at the same time, transfer as much of these values into it, these values which have meant so much for many of us for many decades. In a competitive world driven by economic and power contest on the one hand and more fragmentation on the other hand, maintaining these values is one of the big challenges. We can only maintain values “at home” if we also contribute to their promotion abroad. With a different phrase, Kemal Atatuerk said the same, or the European Union in their strategy documents from 2003. It stays true, however, and even more so today. Otherwise, gaps will be filled by others, and ultimately the usefulness of these values will also be questioned in any disequilibrium at home. Selfishness will lead to greed if others are more successful, with or without values like the above. Ultimately, forces which contest these values will grow.

So, in preparing for a new world order, it continues to be absolutely vital for us “at home”, wherever that is, and whatever it means, if we continue to share.

That is where we need visionary leaders, willing to take risks by maintaining that we need to share, even if the storm of anger from those who feel disenfranchised blows straight into their faces. We will see much more erosion, we have not reached rock-bottom yet.

Manipulation feeding off from emotional pain – A perfect storm

I am waking up after a sufficiently long sleep. I had felt exhaustion yesterday evening and fell asleep early. Keeping my eyes closed, and ignoring my cat making it clear he wants me to get up, to feed him, and to let him out of the campervan for his morning patrol, I am focusing for a few minutes on dreaming up positive pictures of this new day.

I am getting up, making my first coffee, feeding my cat, and not the other way round. Looking at the blue sky presiding over a cold April morning, I am not seeing the beauty of the lake, but struggle with what is going on in my head. I try to turn around the worry and the burden which is created by thinking about very simple things I have to do. Very simple things have become stressful when thinking about that I have to do them. I always knew this feeling, but it has become a prevalent stressor one year into the pandemic. Which gets me into the past, mourning everything my head is telling me that I have lost it. Worrying about the upcoming little things in my future again, I am loosing, once more, my ability to enjoy the present. Enjoying solitude, or suffering from loneliness? I have the choice, and more often than not, I fail to manage moving on a more enjoyable path for the day. Or I manage at the beginning, and fail all of a sudden throughout the day due to a small event, or just when daylight is waning.

I am attempting to disrupt my morning routine, which usually includes reading global news first. I have learned that reading these, mostly bad, news first thing over a coffee just fuels my being upset, being worried, feeling helpless and angry.

Instead, I am focusing on a voicemail which I received from a friend. My friend apologises for not having reacted earlier on previous mails from me. She explains the crippling inertia and depression which she is running through in this pandemic situation. I know her from before. She used to be so vibrant. Everything she describes about her struggle for today and the next days, I can perfectly relate to. I experience the same.

I could go on with stories of so many of my friends and family struggling with the same experience. With the ordeal of my ex-wife who single-parents our children 6.500 km from me, in a country equally affected by never-ending shutdowns, almost erratic closing of schools, and strict lockdown rules. I could describe in detail our worries about the depressive effects which the lockdown has on our teenage children, and our worrying about it, and how we wonderfully cooperate in coping with it. I could write about my single-parenting friend with three young children here in Berlin. I guess I would just describe individual stories which we all experience in countless variations right now.

We feel trapped, we feel helpless. We feel angry, and we suffer from our energy being sucked out of our lifes. We feel despair, because everything feels like a burden, simple tasks become more and more difficult. We daydream, we need rest after some work way earlier than we used to. A mental task, some office work, the need for a break comes after an hour, or sometimes after a few minutes. My friend in Berlin got help from a wonderful friend for a few days, taking care of her children. The time she had on her own, it felt like heaven. When the kids came back, the positive energy of this break lasted a few hours, only. Do people without small children really appreciate the effects of a protracted absence of Kitas, kindergardens, and schools being open?

I am attempting to describe the effects of depression, however, there are way more qualified writers than I am. But what I see is both an endemic increase of depression and, at the same time, a drastic increase of numbers of people who do not even realise that what they suffer from is a sustained series of depression attacks. This collective increase is a consequence of the protracted measures which we have imposed on ourselves in order to stay healthy and safe during a pandemic hitting us on an unprecendented scale.

But here is what I know about depression: At its core, it is a deep-seated and profound form of emotional pain. I also know that, like other unpleasant emotions, this pain easily separates itself from the triggering events and develops a life of its own, if experienced for too long. The trigger may vanish at some point, but the negative emotion stays. This is how anxieties develop, or phobias. Enough triggering events, and they are meant to stay even after the situation has long disappeared. It is the same with depression attacks. Because the point I want to make in this blog is a very different one, I stay away from explaining the neurophysiological reasons for this.

So, firstly, I state that increasing numbers of people in our societies are currently suffering from lasting emotional pain. Which creates a strong longing to make it disappear. May be through painkillers of various types, including meds, including drugs, including alcohol. But whether we sedate, or not, the pain stays, and it is a very deep pain. What happens if I have a headache and it doesn’t vanish after taking Ibuprofene? I feel helpless, I feel angry, I may double down on the painkiller, but I also try to understand why I have this pain. If the Doctor can not explain the pain, and make it go away, I may begin to distrust the Doctor.


We are facing anger, helplessness, feelings of being trapped, profound absence of a past which appears to be gone, on a societal scale. There is no discussion these days which I have which will not focus on Covid, or at least at some point invariably touch the issue. More often than not, this leads to an angry ramble.

We feel trapped because we are. Not only the unending cold weather is keeping us in our houses. We are strongly advised to stay in. We are advised to do home office. We face the protracted shutdown of any place where we used to mingle, whether the coffee shop, whether the shopping mall, whether any recreational place. We are living in areas where we face curfews, or we are being prevented from going to places just for touristic or any other recreational reasons. When I compare Berlin with Belgrade, just as an example, life is very different in Berlin. Much more shut down, like in other places in Europe. And yet, even in more permissive places, we all feel the effects of being prevented from engaging in what our brains need: Human contact, not over Zoom, but real contact.

We all know this, I am just stating it here to make my argument. We all feel that we began fighting this pandemic by hoping, and being told, that this will be over soon. But until now, it never was getting anywhere close to being over. I remember times last November when we faced yet another lockdown, hoping to re-open in January. And we did not, or only temporarily and in a very limited manner, re-open. We face a seemingless never-ending oscillation between hope and despair.

I suspect this is an issue seriously re-wiring our brains, to an extent unknown to many of us. Like, will I ever feel comfortable again when people come close to me in a crowded situation, whether on the bus, or in a crowded pedestrians zone? I crave proximity, and I fear it at the same time. I fear being surrounded by an invisible enemy. Again, I am making this argument for a purpose, not digging into the emerging scientific findings about how it affects us in all our societies. I have, for example, written on the impact of the pandemic and how we handle it, on domestic violence and on violence against women. What I want to express here is that fear, and anger, and helplessness, and the wish to make this going away, they have taken a deep root.

So, if there is an invisible enemy which I can not fight, I will feel threatened by anything happening close to me, getting me out of my comfort zone. My neighbor can make me angry, a tourist can, a foreigner can. Here is a strong vector fueling nationalism, through the fear created by anything alien to me.


At the same time, in our attempts to find a way through this, I feel from my conversations with a great many friends that we are establishing a narrative which justifies our own subtle non-compliance. Like many, I feel the temptation to not comply, in the security of my own private space. Where, as I said, the protracted cold weather plays a role because we are forced to stay in our houses. Where we all try to find ways to balance physical health with mental health. Mental health requires contact to other human beings. As we begin to rationalize this, I suspect that we may begin to move away from super-spreader-events to a mass of hidden mini-spreader-events.

My friend in the U.S. said, a few months ago, that in a situation where there is a choice only to either prioritize physical health or mental health, this friend will choose mental health, simply for survival purposes, thus meaning meeting people. We all want that. The conundrum sits with that it is not only about our own mental health, but about the physical health of other people, at the same time. If I prioritize my own health, I have to mitigate the many connections to vulnerable people which connect the people who I meet, with others. Mini-spreader-events carry the same viral potential, therefore, as super-spreader-events do, but they stay invisible. We have no guidance on how to mitigate, nor tool to assist, we are sitting with our own devices having to navigate through this huge responsibility. We are being told not to meet with more than a limited number of people in the “safety” of our homes, but how do we do this? The number of friends of mine who recently mention that they are going on a date, or, let me suspect, several dates, who knows the numbers? What about the absolute necessity of teenagers to hug each other?


So far, my argument expresses my suspicion that, the longer the fight against the pandemic lasts, the more we are being driven into “underground defiance”. If that is true, then the virus is being spread despite all public containment attempts. In a totalitarian regime, this may lead to even intruding into private space for controlling compliance. In democratic societies, it may simply lead to that all measures remain ineffective.

Here, the vaccination dilemma comes into play: The longer the vaccination campaign is being slowed down by insufficient supplies, resistance, doubts, administrative problems, and else, the longer the virus will thrive and prosper, unseen, at a too large scale. And the longer this happens, the more likely new mutations, and our inability to catch up with updated vaccines. We seem to be at a critical juncture of a whack-a-mole game, where we may get exhausted at an unknown point in the future.

If then, like today, some countries appear to be more successful with vaccination campaigns than others, and if, like we can see, these countries begin to release restrictions, the emotional impact on those who still live under lockdowns, will add exponentially to anger and helplessness. They will feel greed, and the wish to keep things for themselves, too. Another vector leading into nationalism.


Finally, in order to present my argument, a last story, from yesterday:

Another friend consulted me, by attaching a video to his mail. A video spreading through social media, one of uncounted similar types floating around. A well-dressed very attractive female presenter, propped up against a professional studio background, exhaling all visible criteria aiming at making her appearance credible and professional, spread a gargantuan conspiracy theory. That the virus does not exist. That the vaccines are evil. That all this is proven. That it is all about a global cabale of people subjugating their populations. The usual allegations, in this case against Bill Gates, were part of the blend.

The professionalism made me sick and angry. Because the flawless design of this presentation requires a deeper intellectual effort in order to pierce through the fog of manipulative rhethoric. Which is something which many people will not invest into. It took me two efforts in order to find a way demonstrating to my friend why these are incredibly well-crafted lies.

My friend almost apologised, because I had begun to ramble myself. He explained that this video was sent to his aunt who is hospitalised. He told me that in his circle of friends he hears entirely confusing advice about vaccinations, including hearing from a medical doctor in his circle that one should avoid the vaccination at all costs. He just told me another story about how deeply confused all of us are. In asking me he was trying to find guidance within a field which left him scared.

So it depends on who is giving you advise in such a situation. And I believe that more often than not the advise being given is half-baked, or uninformed, or even coming from people with a desire to manipulate.

This morning, I read a German news article about the German intelligence organisations watching extreme right-wing political movements and also noting new forms of extremism coming up. New forms of extremism connected to protests against Corona-measures. The key sentence in this news piece: The intent of some in this movement, and in right-wing political parties, to sow doubt in the confidence into the free democratic order which forms the value-base of our constitution.

That is my argument: That the helplessness, anger, fear, and facing the protracted, seemingly never-ending, nature of the crisis, is being used for increasing the base of those who just doubt the value-base which we have nurtured for more than seventy years. Automatically, by increasing the base of people willing to listen to the pied piper (Der Rattenfaenger von Hameln, for my German friends), one increases the number of people willing to vote for the pied piper.

For me, this sounds like a perfect storm.