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Book Review: Next 100 Years – A Forecast for the 21st Century

I recently finished rereading Issac Asimov’s classic Foundation Trilogy. These books concern themselves with Hari Seldon and the dynamics of his statistically based psychohistory.

This book review is not about the Foundation Trilogy, but the book that inspired me to go back to it:

Friedman, George. 2009. The next 100 years: a forecast for the 21st century. New York: Doubleday.

This is another book I enjoyed through Listen Alaska Plus.

George Friedman is not a psychologist, but the founder of Statfor, a private intelligence company whose free offerings I always find worthwhile to read. If I was in a business with overseas operations, I’d definitely subscribe to their premium service. His book is not about psychohistory, but about geopolitics. Mr. Friedman does not predict decline for the American Empire but asserts that our best years are ahead of us, that the 20th Century was the last gasp of the European Centric world and that the 2000s will be an undeniable American Century.

Still, the parallels with the Foundation Trilogy are striking. Things will happen the way they will because of where we are and what the global population trends are. People can fight against the current, but will be swept away. If you have five minutes, watch this video for a flavor of Mr. Friedman’s book.

Mr. Friedman goes to great lengths to say he is not predicting exact events at exact times. To demonstrate the utter futility of doing so, he opens his book with an examination of the world in 1900 and what the predictions were for 1920. He continues in 20 year jumps until he reaches the year 2000. I was convinced by 1960.

For the larger trends that Mr. Friedman says will be a part of our lives, I find him mostly persuasive and he backs up his predictions with a good amount of documentation and arguments from geographic and demographic imperatives. I only find fault with his easy solution to the problem of peak oil. It is a problem that he acknowledges and one that says if not solved would make American dominance difficult to maintain. But I think that beaming microwaves from space may well create more problems than it would solve. Specifically, I think space based solar power stations beaming microwaves to earth would have to transmit so much energy that they would essentially be space-based energy beams that could be hijacked with horrifying results. Better to blanket the Southwest and Colorado with solar panels. If you’re aware of research that addresses the safety of Space Based Solar Power TRANSMISSION systems, I’d like to hear it.

There is one other parallel with the Foundation Trilogy that I’d like to highlight here. One of Hari Seldon’s psychohistorical axioms was that psychohistory wouldn’t remain predictive if mass groups learned its basic workings. There MAY be a similar issue with geopolitics. For example, in Friedman’s interpretation of geopolitics, US control of the world depends on its control of the seas. Controlling the seas means ensuring that the Eurasian continent never generates a powerful land nation secure enough to field a globe girdling navy. Blocking a rising Eurasian power is mostly a matter of keeping Eurasia as a whole in chaos. If any potential power is constantly looking over its shoulder from land-based neighbors, it will never be able to build a navy large enough to challenge the United States. The implication of Mr. Friedman’s logic is that our security and desire to remain a global power require Eurasia’s misery. It also explains the US bipartisan commitment to extended chaotic occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. We didn’t have to win or rebuild either country, we just needed to keep neighboring powers preoccupied and off balance. And so we have. So far.

If this insight could be internalized by a large enough mass of Americans, Europeans and Asians, I have hope that the US could be forced into a more constructive position that truly valued the well being of non-Americans. I have less hope that this insight can be internalized, but you never know. Our communications in 2010 are nothing like what was available in 1910. It’s harder to keep people isolated.

Overall, I find this book well written, justified and interesting. Parts of it depress, but others provide hope.

If you’ve read this book, I’d like to hear your thoughts.

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