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.

Illustration of a person looking in a crystal ball by Digital Vision/Getty Images.
Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor. You can email him at sportsnut@slate.com, visit his website, and follow him on Twitter.

The Global Business Network answers the same question for all its corporate and government clients: What happens next? GBN handles a lot of different whats, and even the occasional what-in-the-hell. In 2003, the group's chairman, Peter Schwartz, and his colleague Doug Randall whipped up a not-so-rosy, 22-page report on "abrupt climate change" for the Department of Defense ("The United States and Australia are likely to build defensive fortresses around their countries"). Last year, the municipality of Amsterdam asked the firm to help figure out how it might deal with immigration. GBN has also loaned out its brainpower to Hollywood, advising Minority Report director Steven Spielberg on whether Congress and the Constitution would still exist in 2054. (The answer: yes, with a few buts.)

GBN, which since 2000 has been a part of the management-consulting firm the Monitor Group, specializes in scenario-based forecasting. Professional futurologists have long used complex computer models to prognosticate, say, what the Middle East will look like in 2050.   The Global Business Network comes up with stories. Schwartz, the group's lead philosopher, argues that "scenario planning"—coming up with a broad array of yarns, "good and bad, expected and surprising"—brings rigor to the inevitably imprecise art of forecasting. "It is critical to push people's imagination out to the very edges of believability to see the full range of the possible," Schwartz and Randall explain in the book Blindside. The best way to reach the outer limits of the imagination, they believe, is to tell a good tale.

The Global Business Network's Peter Schwartz (left) and Stewart Brand. Click image to expand.
The Global Business Network's Peter Schwartz (left) and Stewart Brand.
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Today, I've asked the world's leading provider of futuristic consulting to help me think about America's downfall. I'm at a conference table in the group's San Francisco office with six forecasters, including GBN founders Schwartz, Napier Collyns, and Stewart Brand.   Our mission: plot scenarios by which the United States could end in the next 100 years. GBN's head of marketing and communications, Nancy Murphy, suggested the time limit. "Beyond 100 years it gets so science fiction-y," she explains.

Before my meeting, I collect some pointers from Schwartz's foundational scenario-planning text, 1991's The Art of the Long View. He suggests that wannabe futurists inhale science and tech news, embrace fringe cultures (though Schwartz admits that his chats with UFO aficionados "offered no insight about the future"), and look for social trends in nascent cultural phenomena such as gangsta rap and America's Funniest Home Videos. (Forgive him: The book was written 20 years ago.) The big picture: If you want to glimpse the future, seek out remarkable people and open your mind to loony-sounding ideas.  

I also learn from Schwartz's book that the sensible futurist prefaces everything by saying This is not a prediction of the future—the professional forecaster is not an oracle. That said, Schwartz has made his share of good calls. When Schwartz was the head of scenario planning for Royal Dutch/Shell in the 1980s, his team told the company's higher-ups to watch out for an unknown Soviet pol named Gorbachev. If Gorby were to assume a leadership position, Schwartz said, it would be a strong indication that the USSR would open to the West and oil and natural gas prices would drop. When the price plunge came, Shell execs—having anticipated this eventuality—swooped in and bought oil reserves at a discounted rate.  

This morning, in a conference room full of fellow forecasters, Schwartz happily plays the emcee for the end of America. He speaks more quickly and authoritatively than anyone else, and he's the one patrolling the line between what's crazy enough to destroy the United States and what's just plain crazy. His first idea: racial warfare. By 2050, whites will no longer be a majority in the United States and Hispanics will make up an estimated 29 percent of the population. "Most violence is committed by males 18 to 35," Schwartz explains. "Now picture a very large, low-employed Hispanic population of males not too pleased with their lot or their ability to control a white-dominated world. … That population then becomes violent and disruptive. And now you get into racial and identity politics—it's all those illegal immigrants we let across the border." Add in a flailing economy, mega-droughts in the Southwest, and the "Colombianization" of Mexico and you've got The Road Warriorcrossed with an unusually rabid episode of Lou Dobbs Tonight.

This is just the beginning. For nearly three hours, we run through America-killers that range from the believable to the science fiction-y: rising sea levels, a collapse of entitlement programs, an attack by a foreign power on American soil, a pandemic 10 times worse than the 1918 flu, global domination by a space-faring nation that uses geo-engineering to "turn off" climate change, and the emergence of a transnational class of biologically enhanced supermen and women ("They're all about 6-2—and that's the girls," Schwartz says) who identify more with one another than with any particular nation.

Despite the fun of imagining America succumbing to the Super Friends, Schwartz believes the most likely scenario for the next 100 years is "that the city of Washington will still be a capital of a nation-state on this continent." America has abundant natural resources, relatively low population density, and—with oceans on both coasts—a built-in security system. The collapse of a country with those inherent advantages sometime in the next century would require a low-probability series of events. But low probability isn't no probability. Schwartz ends our exercise by sketching out the possibilities in a two-by-two box.

Most scenario-planning sessions end with the world stuffed inside a grid. The " scenario matrix" is a means of transforming everything we've learned into a range of credible stories—four futures that are as different as you can possibly make them, covering the broadest range of possible outcomes. Joel Garreau, a longtime Washington Post writer and editor who regularly works with GBN, explains that the scenario matrix is a framework for thinking logically about an illogical subject—a way to minimize the "oogabooga" that's inherent in futurism. When he was contemplating whether to buy a generator in the run-up to Y2K, for example, Garreau drew a matrix of four possible post-Y2K worlds. The generator, he found, would come in handy in only one of his four futures; he didn't buy it.  

Ultimately, the American collapse probably won't occur in the next century. If it does, though, it might take one of these four forms. Without any further oogabooga, here's Peter Schwartz's matrix for the end of America: