American people are not interested in what goes on in the rest of the world. Nevertheless, America today is the only superpower and the world’s richest nation. The mantle of world leadership is on our shoulders—if only by default. How we exercise our world leadership—and what we do with our wealth and military strength—and how we conduct our foreign policy will be prime determinants of whether this shrinking globe will become a sustainable society, a goal often talked about but completely elusive.
A U.S. presidential election is not just about America; it is about the world. The problems we face—climate change, disaster mitigation, the spread of infectious diseases, safe drinking water, food security, the dramatic loss of species, protection of critical infrastructure, terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction—do not stop at anybody’s border. When dioxin from an incinerator in the lower 48 finds its way through seal meat into the bodies of Inuit people in the Arctic, one sees how small this complex world really is. A Russian cosmonaut said he realized that “we are all sailing in the same boat” when he saw an orange cloud that had formed from a dust storm over the Sahara reach the Philippines and settle there with the rain. The Ebola virus has an incubation period of four days—long enough for a 747 to take an infected person a very long way and to many different countries.
I commend the National Academy of Engineering for its concern about these issues. I strongly believe that our scientific and engineering resources can provide bases for addressing the world’s major problems. But I was also pleased to see in the summary notes of the NAE summer workshop a recognition that science and engineering cannot provide solutions to all of the equations that bear on the huge, nonlinear systems underlying our global problems. Cultural, social, political, even religious factors—all of these with coefficients that vary radically from nation to nation—must also be included in the calculations. They could even turn out to be more important than technology.
With the end of the bipolar Soviet-U.S. standoff, we not only have no New World Order. We have a new world of inordinate disorder. Just how disorderly? There are 6 billion people, and the population is increasing by 80 million a year. At that rate, we will have about 9 billion people by 2050. People live in 191 countries, including Taiwan. They speak 3,000 to 4,000 different languages. We can’t print world maps fast enough to keep up with the changes. In the business world, megamergers are announced almost weekly as even the biggest companies combine with each other to serve global markets. But in the political world, centrifugal forces prevail. Ethnic tensions and nationalist ambitions continue to divide people, and official sources count some 34 wars in progress at the present time. More than 14 million refugees subsist without permanent homes. Infectious diseases kill 40,000 to 50,000 people every day. The world consumes 78 million barrels of oil every day, and every year we release 6 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere. Many people are convinced the world climate is already showing the effects.