I’ve just had a crack at coming up with a vision of what the world might look like in 2050 (see 'The World we Made), and am left feeling rather exposed. What kind of idiot must one be to suppose that it’s possible to predict what’s going to be happening in two or three years, let alone 35?
In August I was in Brazil, exploring how Unilever’s much-vaunted Sustainable Living Plan is working out in Latin America’s economic powerhouse. Not a single person I met there had predicted the dramatic manifestation of social unrest that erupted onto the streets of Brazil’s major cities back in June. And not one felt confident enough to say how things would look in 18 months’ time, when the next election is due to be held. So I didn’t spend a lot of time talking about 2050! Before the unrest, there had been an indeterminate kind of consensus that went as follows:
‘Former President Lula may not have got it all right, but his social programmes defied the trend towards worsening inequality in every other emerging economy, and as a result secured some kind of social stability. The hundreds of millions of dollars that have been injected into the economy (distributed directly to families) have massively increased average purchasing power, and huge numbers of businesses – big and small – have benefitted from this. Lula’s ‘anointed’ successor, Dilma Rousseff, has not a shred of his charisma, but can be counted on to secure the legacy. And lastly, winning the bid to host the World Cup for 2014 and the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro confirmed Brazil as a world power – and what a party there will be!’
Like so much chaff in the wind, that consensus has now gone. All bets about what happens in Brazil are off; there’s an almost intoxicating sense of uncertainty and danger. This matters on a global scale. While Brazil isn’t quite in the same league as China and India, which are both deal-breakers for a sustainable world in the future, it is a massively influential country. It has around 190 million people, and the potential to become a real leader on sustainability.
Social justice will make a difference. Although there are still more than 50 million people living in extreme poverty, at least that many have moved out of it over the last ten years, and are beginning to flex their muscles as both aspiring consumers and demanding citizens.
For them, corruption is still a huge issue. The misuse of public money in building the stadium for the World Cup, presided over with maximum complacency by FIFA, was probably the crucial factor to transform a small-scale protest [provoked by a rise in transport fares] of fewer than 10,000 people, into the awe-inspiring reality of more than a million people out on the streets across the country – in just a few days. The ‘sleeping giant’ was awake.
Lula’s legacy is now exposed to more scrutiny than ever before. The failure of his Government to invest in either education or health is widely recognised. Demands for a ‘FIFA education’ or ‘FIFA health service’ became popular refrains during the protests.
Another concern is his Government’s failure to invest in infrastructure. Roads are in a terrible state beyond the Sao Paulo/Rio de Janeiro corridor. The railways and ports are also suffering from under-investment; China is the principal source of new funds, primarily so that it can ship out Brazil’s natural wealth (iron ore, soya beans and more) with greater ease. Productivity is also falling, inflation rising and economic growth has declined from a regular 7/8% to little more than 1.5/2%. The best news is that unemployment rates continue to fall – a success story that many European countries would love to replicate.
The clear beneficiary of the protests is Marina Silva, who stood for the Green Party in the last Presidential Election and has now created her own party for this election.
But opinions are divided on the relevance of a conventional Green agenda. Polls indicate very high levels of concern about the environment – higher in some surveys than in most European countries. But there’s a sense that Brazil’s new middle class are more concerned with better public services and accountable democratic systems than they are with the state of the Amazon, or with air and water pollution.
So all bets really are off. With so many unforeseen events in just nine months, the idea of ‘predicting’ the state of Brazil in years to come is laughable. Still, for what it’s worth, I’ve got it down as an out and out success story in 2050… Rainforests protected; 100% renewable energy; massive offshore reserves of oil and gas still in the ground; low average fertility holding down population growth; and an economy that is sparer, more inclusive and less environmentally destructive than any other in the Americas.
Just don’t ask me to tell you where Brazil will be this time next year!
Jonathon Porritt is Founder Director of Forum for the Future www.forumforthefuture.org
Photo credit: Nick Woodford