The Meaning of the 21st Century

One of the most important books I have read in the last year is James Martin’s “The Meaning of the 21st Century” (Buy it at Amazon or Kalahari). The subtitle explains: The Megaproblems of the 21st Century.

You can hear me talking about it on a ClassicFM book review show.

I recently came across the author’s website, and found this excellent summary of his book. From James Martin’s own website:

The problem most talked about at the moment is global warming and its effect on the Earth’s climate. It’s important to understand that there are other problems, some more serious than climate change, for example, the possibility that a World War with nuclear and biological weapons could wipe out civilization. here are 16 large-scale problems that we face.

The following are the large-scale problems of the 21st century:

  1. GLOBAL WARMING Global warming will lead to severe climate change. Unless stopped, it will upset the basic control mechanisms of planet Earth.
  2. EXCESSIVE POPULATION GROWTH World population may grow to 8.9 billion people, with a growing demand for consumer goods and carbon-based energy, far exceeding what the planet can handle.
  3. WATER SHORTAGES Rivers and aquifers are drying up. Many farmers will not have the water essential for food growing. There will be wars over water.
  4. DESTRUCTION OF LIFE IN THE OCEANS Only 10% of edible fish remain in the oceans, and this percentage is rapidly declining.
  5. MASS FAMINE IN ILL-ORGANIZED COUNTRIES Farm productivity is declining. Grain will rise in cost. This will harm the poorest countries.
  6. THE SPREAD OF DESERTS Soil is being eroded. Deserts are spreading in areas that used to have good soil and grassland.
  7. PANDEMICS AIDS is continuing to spread. Infectious pandemics could spread at unstoppable rates, as they have in the past, but now with the capability to kill enormous numbers of people.
  8. EXTREME POVERTY 2 to 3 billion people live in conditions of extreme poverty, with lack of sanitation. The difference between rich and poor is becoming ever more extreme.
  9. GROWTH OF SHANTYCITIES Shantytowns (shantycities) with extreme violence and poverty are growing in many parts of the world. Youth there have no hope.
  10. UNSTOPPABLE GLOBAL MIGRATIONS Large numbers of people are leaving the poorest countries and shantycities, wanting to find a life in countries with opportunity.
  11. NON-STATE ACTORS WITH EXTREME WEAPONS Nuclear or biological weapons are becoming easier to build by terrorist organizations, political groups or individuals, who are not acting for a given state.
  12. VIOLENT RELIGIOUS EXTREMISM Religious extremism and jihads may become widespread, leading to large numbers of suicide terrorists, and religious war between Muslims and Christians.
  13. RUNAWAY COMPUTER INTELLIGENCE Computers will acquire the capability to increase their own intelligence until a chain reaction happens of machines becoming more intelligent at electronic speed.
  14. WAR THAT COULD END CIVILIZATION A global war like World War I or II, conducted with today’s vast number of nuclear weapons and new biological weapons, could end civilization.
  15. RISKS TO HOMO SAPIEN’S EXISTENCE We are heading in the direction of scientific experiments (described by Lord Martin Rees) that have a low probability of wiping out Homo sapiens. The combination of risks gives a relatively high probability of not surviving the century.
  16. A NEW DARK AGE A global cocktail of intolerable poverty and outrageous wealth, starvation, mass terrorism with nuclear/biological weapons, world war, deliberate pandemics and religious insanity, might plunge humanity into a worldwide pattern of unending hatred and violence – a new Dark Age.

All of these mega-problems are multinational. None could solved by one country alone. All countries participate, to different degrees, in causing most of the problems, so they should naturally participate in the solutions. Perhaps the worst problem is the least probable – #15: the possibility that some scientific activity could accidentally wipe out humanity.

The 16 mega-problems are interconnected, and because of this, the solutions are interconnected to a large extent. Most of the solutions are not technically very difficult; they’re not “rocket science.” There are two exceptions to that.

Most of the problems are the consequences of bad management and absence of foresight. There is no silver bullet. Many different factors have to be brought into play to deal with the problem, as is the case in the management of corporations.

Just as the problems are the result of bad management, so the solutions need to be the application of excellent management. This is an age the most brilliant management in corporations. Every year there is crop of superstar corporations, that are wonderfully well managed. But, the brilliant management is being applied where there are large profits to be made, but not to the giant problems listed above. This is one of the changes needed.

3 thoughts on “The Meaning of the 21st Century”

  1. I agree – awesome book. I followed it up with The Power of Unreasonable People – Elkington & Hartigan which, in my opinion, highlights some profound ways to actually address the various mega problems.

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