Tuesday, 27 February 2007

The Breaking Of Nations

by Robert Cooper

ISBN 1-84354-231-5

I was attracted to this book for a number of reasons. To begin with, Robert Cooper is a much respected commentator on International Affairs. He is one of the UK’s most senior diplomats and was formerly a special adviser to Tony Blair on foreign policy. Merely by being at the centre of events at an important point in recent history ensures that we ought to listen to what Mr Cooper has to say. However, Mr Cooper does have much to say that ought to be heeded if we are to understand events in the contemporary world. In the context of our “America 2025” project (see project), his book delivers an important conceptual model, which we will find of great use when undertaking the creation of the scenarios.

I see this as an important book, one that is worth reading. I liked the style of the writing and I found that I could follow the arguments without a great deal of effort on my part. Parts of the book were very illuminating and parts of the book contributed greatly to my understanding of the world. For this reason, I would recommend the book.

READ the full review

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Monday, 26 February 2007

The Russian Upswing

There is one school of thought that believes that much of what happens in the world is the product of cycles. If this theory is correct, then there would be no beginnings and no endings to human affairs - just undulations revisiting territory that we had seen before.

My attention was attracted to a piece in the Engish edition of Le Monde Diplomatique that seemed to take the view that we do, indeed, live in a cyclical world. Apart from providing an interesting perspective from the non-English speaking world, the article argues that we are about to see the re-emergence of he Cold War between Russia and 'the West'. (See article) Ignoring who 'the West' are, an interesting spin in the article is that President Putin is increasingly behaving as the Tsars behaved. (See list of characters).

This resonates with a view that we have taken for some while now. Enriched as a petro-economy, there is much evidence to suggest that Russia is likely to enjoy a resurgence in the short to medium term. How profound that resurgence is will depend upon how 'the West' reacts to it. We suspect that this is an issue where the interests of Europe will diverge from the interests of the US. We produced a scenario on this last year, where the US is isolated by a resurgent Russia and Russia wins the Second Cold War by 2018. (See scenario).

Of course, a scenario is not a prediction. It is a vision of what the future could hold. If we wish to avoid this vision (I certainly do), then we need to act in the present to avert this particular future coming to pass. So, when you leave a room, turn off the lights. It will help to lessen our energy dependency.

Thursday, 22 February 2007

The Chaos Point

by Ervin Laszlo

ISBN 1-57174-485-1

Some would say that this is not an easy book to read. It throws out so many questions to the reader that, as you read the book, you find that your mind is moving off at a tangent for most of the time. It is, however, a book worth struggling over, as it is quite an important book.

I enjoyed the challenge of the book. It is a hard read – both in terms of style and content – but an important read nonetheless. It is worth the effort to struggle through the book because of the macro-model of the world that it presents. The argument is well reasoned – if obscure at times – and does actually sound a clarion call to action. I was convinced by the future worth creating and I rather hope that others rise to the challenge.

READ the full review.

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Wednesday, 21 February 2007

The Fourth Power

by Gary Hart

ISBN 0-19-517683-9

This book is one of the most important books that I have read in recent years. Additionally, for those whose aims are to supplant the US in global geopolitics, this is an extraordinarily dangerous book. Gary Hart has simply re-stated the fundamentals that made America a great power. In doing so, he has breathed life into the concept of what it is to be American.

I really enjoyed this book. It is well written, the argument flows very well, and, although the topics are quite difficult at points, it is an easy read. The book is not too long, and does not dwell on points, which helps it to avoid being long winded. We can thoroughly recommend the book as it covers an important topic in an informed way, with a style that helps the reader to understand the points being made.

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Tuesday, 20 February 2007

The European Dream

by Jeremy Rifkin

ISBN 0-74-563425-7

It would be hard to argue against a proposition that something is happening in Europe. There is a force that first emerged after the Second World War that gathered momentum during the final quarter of the Twentieth Century, and is now starting to assert itself on the world stage. Defining exactly what that force is poses a much larger problem. We know that something is there, but we can’t quite say what it is. This lack of clarity on my part drew me to this book. I hoped that it would help me to define the essence of the European Project.

READ the full review.

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Friday, 16 February 2007

Where Will It End?

It's always interesting to watch TV with young people. This week I was watching MTV with one of my daughters. We were watching the show 'My Super Sweet 16', which is a programme about the 16th birthday parties of reasonably well off children. (Click here for the Wiki page on the series). To date, all of the shows have been based in the US, but this is mere accident. They could equally apply to youngsters in London, Paris, Tokyo, or wherever there is a class of people with large amounts of money and not too many things to spend it upon.

I managed to catch Episode 23, where Nicole from San Francisco was given a party by her parents that cost $200,000 USD, along with a present of a car costing $49,000 USD. There were about 50 to 60 friends at the party. If the San Franciscans follow what we would see as normal rules of hospitality (if you come to my party, you are obliged to invite me to yours), then, on this level of spend, the group of friends would have had something in the region of $10 million USD to $12 million USD spent just on birthday parties.

Juxtaposed in my mind is this image from Hurricane Katrina (Click here for the image). What concerns me most is the apparent insouciance displayed by the Sweet Sixteeners towards groups such as the victims of Katrina. It appears that, in 'the West', we have great disparities in income, almost unbridled greed, and an indifference towards the less well off.

And perhaps that is where the futures point comes into play. In the past, in societies where there have been great inequalities in wealth, greed, and an indifference to one fellows, things have not ended happily for the well off. We think of France in 1789, which ended with the guillotine. We think of Europe in 1914, which ended on the Western Front. Even the Debbies of the 1920s - their world ended in the crash of 1929.

If this is a model that has relevance today, then are we close to an epoch ending event? If so, how will it all end?

Monday, 12 February 2007

Cold Winters Ahead?

A couple of articles on the BBC web site caught my attention this week. The first reported a survey from Scottish Widows (an investment company) that only about a third of self-employed people are saving enough for old age (see article). The survey is riddled with holes (for example, it only discusses the acquisition of financial instruments, which have been out of favour in recent years, and not property, which has been in favour). However, despite the reservations, the article sat well with a piece on the inability of UK pensioners to stay warm his winter (see article). We have just experienced a cold snap and this is something of a topical issue in the UK at the moment.

The articles describe the situation in the present. It becomes more interesting if we flesh the trends outwards into the future. If we add an overlay of climate change on top of the diminshed purchasing power of retirement incomes we start to see a point where our behaviour may change. For example, two people can enjoy the warmth of a room as much as one person. And so on until the capacity of the room is reached. I wonder if, in an environment of acute cold snaps, of soaring energy prices, diminishing purchasing power of pensions, we might see a move towards a form of communal living?

In many ways, we are. Many retirement facilities include a communal 'day-room' of some sorts. Churches are starting to place emphasis upon parish visitor groups. And, as the costs of elder-care soar, we are also seeing the reconnection of the extended family. It is now more common to see three or more generations living in the same house.

Perhaps we have reached a high water mark for the atomistic family. Perhaps financial circumstances will re-connect the family as a unit?

Tuesday, 6 February 2007

Made In Britain?

We often buy goods and services that have a stamp for their country of origin - Made in Britain, Made in China, and so on - but how often do we think about exactly what this means? There was an interesting note on the Interactive Investor web site this week that poses this question from the perspective of an investor (See Article).

The main tenor of the article was to argue that an investment in the largest of companies (e.g. the FTSE 100 in the UK) is, actually, an investment in the world economy, only from a peculiarly British slant, as British companies bring all of the baggage of the British commercial heritage.

In many ways, this is quite a natural development. As globalisation progresses, we would naturally expect there to be a larger incidence of inter-connected companies. What is, perhaps, most interesting is the degree to which non-European countries (especially Australia and South Africa) are integrating with UK companies. The integration of European companies with UK companies is to be expected as the process of European Integration gathers pace at the commercial, if not the political, level. We can expect this process to continue more rapidly.

From what we can see so far, this distinguishes Globalisation 2 (G2 - which ended in 1914) from Globalisation 3 (G3). G2 involved a dramatic increase in world trade, but without the financial integration that is accompanying G3. This has to be a good thing, because it reduces the chances of G3 ending as unhappily as G2. Certainly, there are still many factors that could blow G3 off course, but most people reading this post will have an interest in keeping G3 on track. This is something that continues to underwrite our prosperity.

In the end, does the country of origin matter? In many ways, this is a litmus test for how we view the future. If it does matter, then we are unlikely to progress that far from the nationalistic divisions that blighted most of the twentieth century. If it doesn't matter, there is a chance that we may have moved on from that point.

Friday, 2 February 2007

Counter-Trade In Rubbish

I came across an interesting story in the Independent this week. Just before Christmas, the world's largest container ship - the MS Emma Maersk - docked in the UK, laden with our Christmas presents. The boat has now turned around and is back on its way to China. (See article).

An important part of International Trade is the concept of counter-trade. It isn't efficient for a boat to sail half way around the world full of goods, and then to sail half way around the world again empty. If so, then an interesting question arises of what it is carrying. With the demise of manufacturing in the UK, what is it that we can export to China?

The answer is our rubbish. The UK has a real problem with waste disposal - there just isn't enough land for landfill sites and the relative cost of recycling rubbish is just prohibitive. Equally, China has a large demand for recyclable plastics, paper, steel and electrical goods. It is now cheaper to send plastic waste from London by sea to China than it is to send it by road to Manchester.

Of course, the cynics would argue that as most of what we import from China is rubbish anyway, the trade simply redistibutes it from one part of the world to another. On a more positive note, the trade is providing a much needed facility for the UK. I wonder if the Chinese would be interested in importing our nuclear waste?