Every year Chantell Ilbury and I look at the topics which could at one stage or another become breaking news in the next 12 months. Here is our list of the top twelve for 2014.
1. Super storms, super heat and super cold
2013 was probably the worst year on record for the frequency and intensity of twisters in the US and certainly it was the hottest year on record in Australia.
2014 has begun with abnormal rain and tidal surges in Britain and blizzards in the north-east of America. Climate change is now being classified as a security threat to life and property, whether it is a man-induced phenomenon or part of a natural cycle.
Our planet is becoming more extreme.
2. Mars One
Mars One is a project to establish a human colony on Mars by 2025. Applications for the first crew of four astronauts have already been submitted and the selection process will start in 2014. There is even talk of a reality TV show to whittle down the numbers. A Dutch entrepreneur, Bas Lansdorp, is leading the initiative. Perhaps the timing of this project could not be better if we are beginning to make the earth uninhabitable.
3. Centenary of First World War
This year is a huge one for all the nations that participated in the First World War, which broke out on 28 July 1914. The Battle of The Somme which lasted from July to November 1916 was trench warfare at its bloodiest. More than a million casualties were inflicted among British, German and French troops during this offensive.
We all say never again but the conflict to watch out for this year is between China and Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea. There is no love lost between these two nations.
4. Spring fever
Two elections to watch in 2014 are the one for the European Parliament and the South African national election. The world has already experienced an “Arab Spring”, where the discontent of the masses in North Africa created a tipping point, and the same could happen in Europe and South Africa.
Nationalist movements in Germany, France and Britain are on the rise caused by tensions over immigration and the price being paid for propping up Eurozone unity. In South Africa, the discontent is over corruption, lack of service delivery, and a sluggish economy. It makes for an interesting year in the polls.
5. The change in the energy game
Fracking has demonstrated that a new technology can change everything. America is now self-sufficient again, having had to import 30% of its energy requirements a couple of years ago. The oil price is maybe $50 below where it would be without fracking and the breaking future is that it dives below $80 a barrel – which is good news on the inflation front.
Meanwhile, the Middle East has suffered an irreversible decline in status and probably in its economic fortunes as well. The long-term environmental consequences of fracking are still uncertain and may one day outweigh the economic benefits.
6. A bit of gold in Bitcoins
Welcome to the world where a digital currency called Bitcoins is starting to make its presence felt as a medium of payment and a store of wealth.
The amount of currency in circulation is controlled by a computer code invented in 2009 by an anonymous group or individual under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto. At the moment, $10.6bn of Bitcoins are in circulation and 30 transactions take place every minute (still well below 200 000 Visa transactions a minute).
The price of a Bitcoin oscillates as wildly as the gold price, so buyers beware. However, it is a sign that the public is losing faith in governments printing oodles of money and getting themselves up to their ears in debt. Electronic wallets are preferable.
7. The super-rich/middle class divide
It would appear that much of the newly printed money from the US, Europe and Japan has bypassed the real economy and gone straight into the stock market and property. In the US, the former rose 20% in 2013 and the latter 10%.
The rich with substantial investments in both have done very well whereas the middle class is still in economic hard times with little chance of saving anything. Wealth inequality is now overtaking income inequality as the burning issue of the day.
8. The drone zone
Drones have changed the nature of war and now Amazon is testing the use of unmanned drones to deliver goods to customers. Nevertheless, this technology could fall into the wrong hands and one day quadricopters or octocopters could be delivering explosive packages into packed venues – yet another headache for security agencies fighting terrorism.
9. The grey tsunami
Health systems around the world are creaking under the strain of handling the number of elderly patients needing treatment and occupying beds. In accident and emergency departments, triage is being introduced to prioritise patients not only according to their wounds but also taking into account their age.
10. The experiential consumer
Despite the growth in online shopping, a trend is emerging that where shops and shopping malls offer positive and exciting experiences to consumers outside of the normal music and other atmospheric attractions, people will still come.
Human interaction is a critical differentiator and in its physical form, if handled with sensitivity and grace, it will beat the digital alternative every time. Personalised service counts.
11. Vladimir’s world
Although he has been around for a long time and he is accused of having KGB eyes, Vladimir Putin’s star is rising. Russians love a strong leader and Putin is quite capable of springing more surprises on the diplomatic world like the deal he cut with Syria to abandon chemical weapons.
With Sunni/Shia divisions deepening across the entire Middle East, the West following the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan and the curtain rising on a post-American world, Russia’s influence is bound to grow again. The wild card in 2014 is China, given its challenge of reining in its shadow banking system and bringing the expansion of municipal debt under control.
12. Snowden’s torch
Take a back seat, Julian Assange, because the light cast by Edward Snowden to reveal the murky universe of intelligence is much brighter than yours. Time should have made him person of the year as nobody else in 2013 has had the international impact that Snowden did.
Traitor or hero, he has compelled every country to review the way it keeps its secrets secret. You can bet, however, that there will be more revelations in 2014. Spooks are finding that the internet is a torch that shines both ways. George Orwell would be proud of you, Edward, for proving that Big Brother really exists and disobeys all the rules supposed to restrict him.
by Clem Sunter: Scenario planner, speaker and best-selling author.