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.

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:

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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.

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.

Cascio clearly believes that humanity has the ingenuity and the smartsto beat back threats to its continued existence. He doesn't, however, assume that the persistence of the United States is necessarily the most-desirable outcome. It's possible America will collapse as we try desperately to save it—or perhaps the country will shrivel up and go away when its time has come and gone. "It's not necessarily how America will survive," Cascio says, "but how do the values we hold dear … survive even if some of the institutions don't?"

You've seen what the professional forecasters think. Now we want your thoughts on America's demise. With our "Choose Your Own Apocalypse" tool, you can pick the scenarios you think are most likely to terminate the United States and compare your selections with those made by the rest of the Slate audience. At the end of the week, I'll file a report on the most popular choices and investigate what clues your favorite scenarios give us about the American psyche.

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