Ukraine down the drain?

Writing at A Fistful of Euros, Edward Hugh suggests that some countries may die demographically, losing population so severely that they are no longer sustainable as politico-economic entities:

It leads me personally to ask the question whether it is not possible that some countries will actually die, in the sense of becoming totally unsustainable, and whether or not the international community doesn’t need to start thinking about a country resolution mechanism somewhat along the lines of the one which has been so recently debated in Europe for dealing with failed banks.

Hugh has insights into the socioeconomic spiral that countries with rapidly declining populations may find themselves in, but also seems to be talking about the actual dismantling of existing countries. This leaves me wondering why and how this death would occur. Effects in three spheres come to mind:

  • Demography — Population decline could leave too few people to inhabit a place. But most countries could lose vast numbers of people and still have more population per square mile than the least densely populated today. Hugh cites Ukraine, which is projected to lose one-third of its population over the next 50 years. Yet it would still have 30 million people; even if the population fell to 2 million, it would still have a higher population density than Mongolia, Australia, and other countries. Low-population spaces create governance challenges — hence current unrest in the Sahara — but don’t threaten the basic viability of a state.
  • Defense — Demographic collapse creates defense issues: lack of people to staff militaries and inhabit places to demonstrate sovereignty. This does not seem central to the problem, however, as countries are now pretty well protected (at least from outright conquest) by international custom. Except in a couple of messy post-colonial situations (South Vietnam and Western Sahara come to mind), no country has absorbed another by conquest in the last 50 years. Consider vast, empty Mongolia. It certainly cannot defend itself by force from its Russian and Chinese neighbors, but it may be enjoying more independence now than it has for the last century.
  • Economics — Hugh demonstrates how a downward spiral could make life more and more unpleasant, but this still does not seem to threaten states’ existence. The world is accustomed to tolerating miserably poor countries and countries that bungle their economic policies; declining countries may still be more economically sound than a Central African Republic or Zimbabwe. In some cases, smaller populations might actually help, when this leaves more wealth to go around from resource extraction. Indeed, an illustrative example — with the usual resource course dangers — is now unfolding in Mongolia.

Finally, mechanisms may already be in operation to keep marginally viable states within security and humanitarian bounds the world finds acceptable — international forces and aid are used to prop up states (or the spaces once occupied by them) in Somalia, Haiti, Kosovo, and DR Congo, for instance. These mechanisms may be enough to counter the pressures of demographic implosions for a long time to come.
(Via Joshua Keating at Foreign Policy)
Whirlpool image courtesy Tolomea (Flickr)

The crowdsourced surveillance that unfolded in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Boston is no surprise to futurists. Indeed, it sounded rather familiar. Poking around, I found this scenario vignette in a paper I wrote for the Proteus security conference five years ago:

They thought they had the assassin: he was at the rally when it happened, affiliated with a radical pro-male group in his homeland; he had ranted violently against Ms. Harstad’s UN activities on his blog, and he had a traditional blowgun like that used to deliver the tiny dart. Crime scene investigators ran the coordinates against public images and video: there were approximately 15,000 still images and 300 videos of the square that day. After a moment’s collation, the computer delivered the three-dimensional reconstruction of the hours around the speech. The team zoomed in on where Mwazi claimed he had been standing. There he was. They watched him from the front and each side, and it became clear: he never raised his hands near his mouth, and never used a visible comm device or even seemed to say anything. Unless they could hold a man for scowling, they were going to have to let him walk.

As I allude to in the vignette, it will be possible to automate many of the processes now being done laboriously and partly by hand. Experiments have shown that public photos can be used to reconstruct 3D images of places.

Meanwhile, the spontaneous crowdsourcing around the Boston case has shown uneven results. The most prominent effort, on Reddit, failed to spot the real suspects, while singling out many uninvolved people, and crowd-based efforts also seem to have misidentified an innocent missing person as a potential terrorist. On the other hand, a bystander did discover a high-quality image of a suspect in one of his snapshots.


Image: TheGameWay (Flickr)

Fictions about the future and present realities engage in a perpetual exchange. Many scientists and inventors recount being inspired by a particular Star Trek gadget or science fiction movie.

Here’s an intriguing example that suggests how tight these loops can get: the designers of the computer game Call of Duty: Black Ops II wanted to add some futuristic elements. They wisely consulted Peter W. Singer, a defense expert and author of Wired for War.  One of the things he suggested was a small armed quadcopter drone, and this idea was incorporated into the game.

To promote the game, the company put up a simulated video showing what was supposed to be a real-life prototype of such an armed drone. Millions watched the video, including, Singer says, some people in the US Defense Department. According to Singer, the American officials

said “hold it; this crazy Russian guy has something better than what we have now – we want one”. Now the Pentagon is working on developing their own a fictional drone from a TV commercial. Essentially, in trying to be a projection of the future, the science fiction accelerated the future – we were saying this is what’s most likely to happen in the 2020s. Now it’s going to happen before then – largely because of the game.


It is only a matter of time before many people will be wearing always-on streaming video cameras when they are out on the street. They may do this for a variety of reasons, including self-quantification, but an immediate application will be personal security: it would be riskier to mug or assault someone if you may be filmed, live, while doing so.

Because such devices would be an effective deterrent to crime only if obvious, people may advertise that they are wearing them with a highly visible badge or light.

This could create a secondary effect. Some anticrime technologies, such as LoJack for cars, reduce crime by making it easier to catch criminals. But others merely divert it elsewhere; this is said to be case with anti-burglary systems. When criminals see the “protected by” signs in the yard, they are likely to simply move on to a house that is not protected. Muggers might make a similar decision, avoiding the video-protected.

In areas where crime worries people, this could drive rapid adoption of what might otherwise be a niche technology.


Image courtesy Ha-Wee (Flickr)

Just after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, my colleagues and I sat down and considered their likely impacts, in the short and long terms.

The short-term list was based mostly on observation: what was happening around us.  The long-term list was provoked by people’s assertions that everything would be changed for a very long time, even “forever.”  For instance, irony itself was said to be dead.

We knew that many things would change, some for a very long time, but, as futurists, we knew also how resistant to change people are, as individuals and as a society. So we set out to make some forecasts of what would be affected, and for how long.

Our Forecasts from 2001

Sphere Effects as of 2001 Forecast for 5-10 Years
  • Concern about building security
  • Questions about future of tall buildings
  • Unease among landmark building tenants
  • Attention to escape methods from tall buildings
  • Attention to building security
  • Attention to safety in and escape from tall buildings
  • Fire-resistant structures
Business practices
  • Economic downturn
  • Heightened attention to security of personnel and facilities
  • Disruptions to logistics and shipping
  • More attention to vulnerability of international operations
  • Restrictions on flying
  • Suspicion of mail and packages
  • More interest in telecommuting
  • Heightened attention to security of personnel and facilities
  • More attention to vulnerability of international operations
  • Logistics and transport changes.
  • Concern about being in target cities
  • Questions about future of tall buildings
  • Attention to infrastructure protection
  • Concern about impact of insurance costs
  • Attention to infrastructure protection
  • Downturn
  • Airlines and tourism hard-hit
  • Other issues get priority, and activism is muted
Foreign policy
  • Focus on terrorism
  • Shifting of alliances and priorities
  • New sense of utility of allies
  • Strengthened ties to rest of the West
  • Heightened American nationalism
  • Heightened awareness of cost of Palestinian impasse
  • More sympathy for US in many places
  • More tension with Islamic world
  • More discussion of root causes of terrorism
  • Concern about lack of awareness of rest of world and lack of reporting
  • Focus on terrorism
  • Sense of utility of allies
  • Likely discontinuity in Mideast
  • Possible discontinuity with Pakistan
  • Possible discontinuity in Southeast Asia
  • Heightened attention to the future, “what comes next”
  • “That will never happen” events dismissed less readily
  • Police powers are being expanded
  • Higher public approval of and trust in government
  • Closer partnerships between intelligence and law enforcement
  • Heightened costs and disrupted operations for Postal Service
Medicine and health
  • Attention to health system as bio attack early warning
  • Do-it-yourself biochemical defense
  • More interest in rapid detection and diagnosis
  • Increased use of anti-anxiety drugs
  • Attention to health system as bio attack early warning
  • More interest in rapid detection and diagnosis
  • Increased attention to homeland defense
  • Increased attention to asymmetrical threats
  • Increased attention to weapons of mass destruction
  • Increased popular support for ballistic missile defense
  • Increased attention to homeland defense
  • Efforts at mobility and deployability
  • Increased attention to asymmetrical threats
  • Efforts to counter WMD
  • National security has highest priority
  • Less tolerance of dissent
  • Tensions within Republican party
  • Heightened sense of the relevance of politics
  • Sept. 11th being used to promote other issues
Risk and safety
  • Heightened sense of risk
  • More people preparing for disaster
  • Attention to wills and life insurance
  • Acquisition of cell phones for safety
  • Attention to how technologies can be misused
  • More attention to infrastructure security
  • Concern about safety of food supply
  • Attention to how technologies and systems can be misused
  • More attention to infrastructure security
  • Heightened sense of vulnerability
  • National security has greater weight judged against other matters
  • Concern about porous borders
  • More security for facilities and transportation
  • More monitoring and surveillance
  • Heightened sense of vulnerability
  • National security has greater weight judged against other matters
  • Tightened border controls
  • More security for facilities and transportation
  • More monitoring and surveillance
  • Heightened sense of national unity and patriotism
  • Higher approval of government and its effectiveness
  • Shift in weight of freedom vs. security issues
  • More positive sense about direction of country
  • Less tolerance of dissent
  • Decreased support for immigration
  • More desire for information
  • Concern about flimsy immigration regime
  • Fewer foreigners coming to US
  • Heightened awareness of Islam in US
  • Shift away from certain content in media
  • Heightened interpersonal trust
  • Shift in weight of freedom vs. security issues
  • Tighter immigration regime
  • Heightened awareness of Islam in US
  • Attention to how technologies can be misused
  • Concern about infrastructure vulnerability
  • More monitoring and surveillance
  • Shift in privacy vs. law enforcement debate
  • Heightened concern about Internet security
  • New attention to security technologies
  • Heightened attention to videoconferencing
  • Interest in security-related database management
  • Attention to how technologies can be misused
  • Attention to infrastructure vulnerability
  • More monitoring, sensing, and surveillance
  • Shift in privacy vs. security debate
  • Attention to security technologies
  • Decreased air travel convenience and usage
  • Increase in train use and driving


Most of the effects we thought would diminish did in fact do so, so we can count many accurate forecasts.

There were also misses in our ten-year forecast:

  • Foreign policy — We missed how the unilateral inclinations of the Bush administration would result in alienating allies, not valuing them, despite our noting heightened American nationalism. We also missed increased tensions with the Islamic world, though that was heavily driven by the invasion of Iraq.
  • Government — We did not forecast that expanded police powers would persist, though we did foresee a long-term shift in the privacy vs. security debate. We also didn’t state that  improvements in intelligence-law enforcement would be ongoing, and that has happened, at least in part.
  • Society — We did not state that hostility to Islam in the US would spread, and be openly embraced by some politicians.

Some of these misses are due to the fact that we ended up in a scenario that was intermediate between a one-off attack and an ongoing crisis. We also wrote this in 2001:

“If conflict becomes prolonged and marked by recurring events:

  • All the changed drivers are strengthened, and more of them push things past tipping points.
  • The possibility of discontinuity-level attack rises.
  • Higher probability of tension with and discontinuities in Muslim world.
  • National security trumps other matters in attention and budget.
  • Tourism and airline industries suffer badly.
  • People subjected to long-term heightened stress.
  • Lower confidence in affected systems, possibly including food, air, water.
  • Heightened suspicion of Arab and Muslim Americans.
  • More personal attention to security and survivalist-style autonomy”

On the whole, I would count this a solid forecast.

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