How is America going to end? The world's leading futurologists have four theories.

How it will happen.
Aug. 3 2009 2:33 PM

How Is America Going To End?

The world's leading futurologists have four theories.

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Collapse: In this scenario, the country has devolved after a series of catastrophes: unchecked climate change, a pandemic, nuclear war—the stuff that Jared Diamond booksand disaster movies are made of. A catastrophe that breeds internal division, Schwartz argues, is more likely to eradicate America than any kind of external threat. A country is like a family, he theorizes. If you feel threatened from the outside, you band together—rather than tear the United States apart, 9/11 galvanized us against a common enemy. The laggard response to Hurricane Katrina, on the other hand, meant that our own government became the common enemy. A long, uninterrupted series of nationwide Katrinas—and a concomitant series of bungled federal responses—is the recipe for collapse.

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Schwartz submits that government incompetence might not be enough to trigger America's implosion. After all, we could always just vote out the bozos who let us down. What we need to destroy the country, he argues, is Zimbabwe-sized corruption: a succession of executives who pilfer the national treasury and refuse to hold free elections. In that case, the country could fall apart as our national creeds of freedom, democracy, and openness are gradually abandoned.  

Friendly breakup: In future No. 2, the country dissolves peacefully because the overhead of running a large nation becomes unmanageable. Schwartz likens this to the breakup of the Soviet Union, a case where the cost of holding the country together proved too great and the advantages too small.

While Igor Panarin—the Russian who forecasts America's demise for 2010—would certainly agree with that idea, making parallels with the USSR seems a bit dubious. Unlike the Eastern bloc, the United States isn't an agglomeration of states with strong ethnic identities. It was foreseeable that a socialist republic like Lithuania, which had its own long-standing culture and language, might someday become an independent nation. In modern America, where English predominates and a highly mobile population flits from place to place, is it possible that some state or region could develop enough distinctiveness to split from the union? GBN's Michael Costigan suggests that self-segregation could lead to an amicable parting of the ways. If Democrats migrate to Democratic cities and Republicans cluster in GOP strongholds, we could reach a point where the redder-than-red states and the bluer-than-blue states decide to go it on their own. Hey, it's the future—it could happen!

Global governance: In our third future, the national government declines in importance relative to the world community. Barack Obama's recent brief in defense of American exceptionalismis just one indicator among many that the United States is nowhere near willing to cede its position as the greatest of the world's great powers. But Slate contributor Robert Wright argues in his book Nonzerothat humankind must come together to head off the challenges of the "non-zero-sum," globalized world: climate change, biological weapons, pandemics. While Wright tells me that "you wouldn't need something so centralized" as a souped-up United Nations, he believes that if in the next 100 years "America's identity has not dissolved into some sort of larger body of global governance, then chaos will reign."

Global conquest: The final scenario and the grimmest of all: a figure described variously as a "global Napoleon," "a much more empowered Hitler," and "a super-Mao" conquers America and the rest of the world via brute force. This idea, which Schwartz classifies as the least likely of the four, leads us to debate whether it's harder to subjugate the world than it used to be—Schwartz believes it is, as there are "more people with military competence spread across the world." That's followed by a discussion of the best method to exercise dominion over the globe. "I think the way you conquer the world these days is from space," he says. "You can put weapons up there and shut down the world."

A real GBN client would use this scenario matrix to initiate a change in behavior—a shift in corporate strategy perhaps, or a call for new public policy. For me, the end-of-America scenarios are the stopping point. I'm trying to foresee our pathways to societal upheaval, not prevent it from happening.

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Futurologists are generally fairly sanguine about man's ability to save himself, even if they do delight in thinking up dystopias. Jamais Cascio, a former GBN employee who now consults for the Palo Alto, Calif.-based Institute for the Future, is a connoisseur of disaster scenarios—worlds torn asunder by ocean acidification and nanoscale weapons—that you weren't aware you should be terrified of. For IFTF's Ten-Year Forecast spring retreat —attended by corporations like Kraft, Procter & Gamble, Nokia, and Wells Fargo—Cascio went beyond the program's usual decadelong timeframe to write up three 50-year forecasts, each laying out a distinct vision of the next half-century. One of the timelines, the "Long Crisis," begins with "global storming," a run of catastrophic weather events around the world. By 2023, the United States has defaulted on its debts to China. Eventually, in the aftermath of Global Famine II, the U.S. breaks into eight pieces. On the plus side, African biohackers find a cure for AIDS in 2026. Yippee! (You can read Cascio's whole "Long Crisis" scenario here.)

Cascio insists that the "Long Crisis" isn't merely a scary story.   Rather, his goal is to goad policymakers into dealing with the century's biggest challenges: climate change, Sino-American relations, the global food supply. "What futurists and scenario planners provide is a wind tunnel of sorts," Cascio says. "The scenarios we construct allow organizations to test their strategies, to test their decisions, to say, If we follow Course X,what kinds of outcomes might we expect as the world around us changes?"

For more of Cascio's thoughts on futurology—why it doesn't matter that every detail he comes up with will be wrong, his belief that the United States could break apart in the next 50 years, and how America and China might forge a partnership to fight off an asteroid strike—watch the video below.