Turbulence and Turning Points

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Björn Theis, head of Foresight, has been increasingly asked by colleagues from inside and outside of Evonik whether the "Turbulent Times" scenario is now becoming reality. He is now replying with this article

Russia‘s unjustified invasion of Ukraine is shaking us all: the present is becoming more horrific by the day, and, not least because of the repeated threat of the use of nuclear weapons, the global future more uncertain. Therefore, it is not surprising that in the last few weeks I have been increasingly asked by colleagues from inside and outside of Evonik whether we are in the Turbulent Times scenario. As a quick reminder: Turbulent Times is one of the five scenarios my team and I developed about the future of the specialty chemicals industry. It depicts a possible multipolar and crisis-ridden world in the year 2040 where globally growing nationalism has replaced the former liberal world order and led to de-globalization. The economy is suffering from trade wars and increased protectionism while societies are extremely polarized. Facts hardly count anymore. Populist, autocrats, and authoritarian governments have pushed back democracy, the free press, and an independent judiciary. You can find a brief cinematic overview of all five scenarios here.

I thought a lot about these questions, which I think are very valid. After all, Russia's leadership is currently steering the country as well as the entire world exactly in the scenario’s direction with shameless lies and a blatant disregard of existing law and human lives. The global economy is stumbling due to the conflict. In some countries, the supply of essential goods, such as energy as well as food, is in peril. A free exchange of opinions as well as a free press have been restricted in Russia – very reminiscent of the dystopian novel "1984" by George Orwell. I find it difficult and painful to imagine, but just like in the book there must be thousands of Russian Winston Smiths (the protagonist) currently busy monitoring Russian as well as international media. In order to distort the truth for the Russian public they are blocking, manipulating or deleting facts and opinions – true to the motto and goal of Orwell's Big Brother: "He who has power over history has power over present and future."

Of course, Russia is by far not the only country that uses propaganda to shape the opinion of its citizens: The Trump administration, President Bolsonaro, the Brexiters in the UK, or the German AFD are just a few recent examples of governments and political groups that do not take the truth too seriously in order to form and control the public opinion ‒ exactly as outlined in the Turbulent Times scenario.

All this seems to speak in favor of such a turbulent future. However, it need not be so ‒ nothing is decided yet. Just consider the unity in the EU, UN and NATO triggered by the war and the numerous new considerations to join NATO or the EU. The international adherence to sustainability goals and the immense civilian willingness to help and donate, also paint a different picture.

While these developments are strong indicators that we might not have to face a world of turbulent times in 2040 (the time horizon of our scenarios) we should remain skeptical. There is no guarantee that everything will be fine. On the contrary, what these developments show is that we are at a crossroads between different futures ‒ we have arrived at a global turning point with an unknown outcome. 

Therefore, another important question arises: If peace, international cooperation, free trade and free press, as well as the exchange of knowledge have had such a positive effect on the development of the world in recent decades, how could this current situation have come about at all?

I found a possible explanation in the book “Future Shock” by Alvin Toffler and Adelaide Farrell from 1970. The authors describe a threatening psychological state of individuals and whole societies ‒ the Future Shock. The shortest definition for the term is a perception of “too much change in too short a period of time”. It is the psychological and physical stress suffered by individuals as well as nations that are unable to cope with the rapidity of social and technological change. According to Toffler and Farrell, symptoms of a future shock can range all the way from anxiety, hostility, and seemingly senseless violence to depression as well as physical illness on the individual level. They argue that in the future (from their 1970's perspective) societies will undergo massive structural changes, moving from an industrial society to a super-industrial society. This change might shock people and therefore nations if they are not prepared for the transition.

This might offer a plausible explanation for the behavior of Wladimir Putin and the Russian leadership. With the era of fossil fuels coming to an end, Russia has little to offer economically for a post-industrial world of the 21st century. In the past, Russian policymakers have failed to initiate the necessary structural transformation. As a result, the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik), concludes that Russia is in a phase of long-term stagnation. And at the end of 2021 the British Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR), predicted in its annual world ranking of economies, that Russia might not make it into the top ten economies until 2036. This is not good news for a supposed world power, especially since Russia also justifies its claim with military strength. The Russian leadership must, however, be aware that the current economic development will also cause it to lose out in the medium term in terms of armaments.

Is Wladimir Putin suffering from a future shock? He, at least makes no secret of his imperialist ideology and emphasizes Russia's alleged thousand-year history, which in his mind goes back to Kievan Rus. It seems, he longs for a future already gone. In all likelihood, we will never know whether this war is the result of an old white man who is in shock about the future and therefore will stop at nothing to stop change. Nevertheless, we should consider the possibility. It could be that other powerful leaders like Putin also succumb to such future shock – and then the Turbulent Times scenario would unfortunately become a lot more likely. 

Consequently, and despite the current terrible turmoil, we must not forget two facts: First, that the future is not something that happens to us but is actively shaped by many, and secondly that the best remedy to future shock is a positive future for many. Therefore, if politics, the economy and we, the people of many nations, work together to restore peace in the Ukraine, to bring the war criminals to justice, and make certain that such a cowardly assault will never again be tolerated, I am optimistic that we can safeguard a untroubling, sustainable and prosperous future ‒ hopefully together with Russia.