The global economy is transforming nations' relationships with one another at an increasingly rapid rate, and fueling a variety of related effects:
- Rising expectations, independence, etc. of individuals in newly developing nations as their level of information, communication networks, affluence, etc. increases.
- Leaders taking extreme measures to preserve ideology under the pressure of rising expectations.
- Shifting of some economic activity away from established locations to newly developing nations - successively "mining" lower-wage areas.
- Economic growth in previously undeveloped nations, and attendant population growth, at rates that will accelerate the depletion of resources for which no known substitutes exist, increase pollution, etc.
- Lawlessness by individuals and unaffiliated groups, at an international level, including economic crimes and attacks on populations.
"Growth," in not only economic output but also population, is a virtual mantra in the U.S., and it carries many potential benefits. Aggressive growth, however, challenges the sustainability of systems. Rapid growth increases our inability to absorb shocks to the system, in a physical as well as institutional-management sense. Today, new ways of producing and packaging goods and services, and expanding a market base, receive the most attention and earn the highest rewards commensurate with the effort involved. Such productivity gains are in fact strong drivers of wealth creation. However, these advances force society to adapt so that new technological and organizational systems can be used most effectively, not necessarily in order to achieve a desired, targeted social goal. Rapid change tends to hamper the kind of social learning that comes from working out solutions to living together harmoniously over time. We have very limited "social progress" skills, and must rely on contrived means of joint problem-solving -- if we are willing to do this at all.
Economic specialization is also essential for economic growth and now for dealing with a complex net of technological and institutional systems. In this role, specialization makes us increasingly interdependent on one another. Millions of people are living side-by-side in places where everyone is highly dependent on everyone else doing his/her job. This is a delicate balancing act. Most people are isolated from the essential functions of sustaining life: obtaining food, securing and maintaining shelter, and providing for their security. The greater a society's wealth, and (by inference) the more artificial its social and physical structure has become, the farther it has to fall if the foundations of that society's civilization start to fail. If financial markets were to collapse, or a major infrastructure system failed over a large area, how would people cope?
Meanwhile, complexity in the economy keeps many people employed. Employed people are confident people, and consumer confidence is a powerful force in creating and sustaining wealth. It is also an ephemeral one. Our economic system is a marvel of social engineering, and a virtual wealth-creating machine. It is also inherently unstable, but at the same time too complex to micromanage. We tend to assume that ongoing, rapid, and pervasive changes in technology, international economics and politics, the demographic make-up of populations, etc. will nevertheless result in a viable (even desirable) future. Risky business.