Tracey Barnett: What our planet will be like in the next 100 years

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Prepare yourself. The next 100 years might get a little tetchy for those who don't want to see Ronald McDonald as head of the UN someday.

Political scientist and global intelligence forecaster Dr George Friedman makes the future look like a giant, wigged-out Risk game, with North America holding the dice.

Take a big gulp - because American power is just getting started, if Friedman's soothsaying comes to pass. Friedman, founder of the intelligence firm STRATFOR, and author of The Next 100 Years, completely flips conventional wisdom that America has begun its inevitable decline.

He predicts that the US, and eventually Mexico, will become a North American powerhouse that will reign for 500 years, similar to Europe's 500-year dominance that preceded it.

How? Through a combination of good geography, economic muscle and military might that already extends into space. Space will not only become our next frontier for war, but our new source for solar energy too.

Despite current economic doom and gloom, America isn't exactly going down the gurgler yet. It's easy to forget what a gigantic behemoth the US economy still is today.

America's GDP alone is roughly the size of the next three to four biggest world economies combined.

It has an additional strength up its sleeve, something that no single nation has ever held. The US has dominance over all the world's oceans, controlling vital trade and military routes worldwide from both its Atlantic and the Pacific coastlines.

Having an adolescent economy doesn't hurt either. America ruthlessly reinvents itself by destroying old industries to allow new ones to be born. Unlike Europe, the US allows destructive capitalism and creative capitalism to go hand in hand. Tough luck Detroit.

But wasn't this supposed to be the dawning of the Chinese century? Not likely.

There may be big problems ahead for China. Ultimately growth will slow because China is an economy dangerously reliant on exports.

"If America catches a cold, China gets pneumonia," Dr Friedman said. "One out of every seven containers shipped out of China today go to the Republic of Wal-Mart."

Geographically Chinese power will always be limited by the isolation of the Himalayas, Siberia and desert borders. Indeed, he foresees that one of China's biggest future challenges will be to remain whole.

Which nations will be the next pivotal players by the end of this century? Not who you may think.

Watch for Poland, Turkey, Japan, and Mexico, according to Dr Friedman.

These countries will pull strategic weight because they are geographic gateways to larger powers; Poland to Europe and Russia, Turkey to Europe and the Middle East, and so on.

They will be the source of future growth and political advantage, similar to South Korea, a sleepy rice-farming economy 50 years ago.

Contrary to overpopulation predictions popular in the 1970s, Friedman predicts worldwide birth figures will decline.

They already are, even in countries like Bangladesh. Last century birth rates rose by a staggering 400 per cent. This next century, our workforce will fall dramatically, with only 50 per cent population growth, making technology and robotics essential to address a smaller, ageing labour force.

Friedman's inconvenient truth about global warning? We won't solve it by cutting consumption. Conservation won't save us because we won't give up our lifestyle.

Instead, two factors will help us; our declining birth rate will ease pressures somewhat, along with our new energy paradigm, harnessing the sun for space-based solar power.

It will be necessary to take energy production beyond earth, where there are no clouds to block the sun, and no size limitation for the endless number of solar panels that can be built in space to answer the world's ever-growing energy needs.

Sound like science fiction? Nasa already has a programme working on it.

Despite Dr Friedman's confidence, there is still one tiny piece of the future that makes this all seem like a house of cards - the certainty of the undiscovered.

If a country like China perfected motion-generated energy through harnessing vibration sources, crowds walking, trains through tunnels - something now being developed as the Pacesetter Project in London - think how differently the tarot cards of the world's future could fall.

The biggest cloud in Dr Friedman's crystal ball is that he is basing his forecasts on what exists, choosing what he can see, not what we have yet to find.

If history has taught us anything, there is always one seemingly quiet, but stunning game-changer - a printing press, a world wide web, a new parallel universe discovered.

The one idea we could never have imagined, no matter how outrageous - or simple.

This week Obama's new energy czar, Dr Steven Chu, said that just by painting our roofs and pavements white, the reflected sunlight and conserved energy would be equivalent to taking all the world's cars off the road for 11 years.

I'm rooting for the white paint to save the world myself.

- NZ Herald

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