Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 2 January 2018

Tipping points to watch in 2018

There are many issues on a fast or slow boil and some of them could reach a tipping point in the new year.


Another new year has dawned, and time to preview what to expect in 2018.

The most obvious topic would be to anticipate how Donald Trump, the most unorthodox of American Presidents, would continue to upset the world order.  But more about that later.

Just as importantly as politics, we are now in the midst of several social trends that have important long-term effects.  Some are on the verge of reaching a tipping point, where a trend becomes a critical and sometimes irreversible event. We may see some of that in 2018.

Who would have expected that 2017 would end with such an upsurge of the movement against sexual harassment? Like a tidal wave it swept away Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, film star Kevin Spacey, TV interviewer Charlie Rose and many other icons.

The #MeToo movement took years to gather steam, with the 1991 Anita Hill testimony against then US Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas being a trailblazer.  It paved the way over many years for other women to speak up until the tipping point was reached.   So, in 2018, expect the momentum to continue and in more countries.

Another issue that has been brewing is the rapid growth and effects of digital technology.  Those enjoying the benefits of the smartphone, Google search, Whatsapp, Uber and on-line shopping usually sing its praises.

But the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” is like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.  It has many benefits but also serious downsides, and the debate is now picking up.

First, automation with artificial intelligence can make many jobs redundant.  Uber displaced taxis, and will soon displace its drivers with driver-less cars.

The global alarm over job losses is resonating at home.  An International Labour Organisation report warning that 54% of jobs in Malaysia is at high risk of being displaced by technology in the next 20 years was cited by Khazanah Research Institute in its own study last April. TalentCorp has estimated that 43% of jobs in Malaysia may potentially be lost to automation. 

Second is a recent chorus of warnings, including by some of digital technology’s creators, that addiction and frequent use of the smartphone are making humans less intelligent and socially deficient.

Third is the loss of privacy as personal data collected from internet use is collected by tech companies like Facebook sold to advertisers.

Fourth is the threat of cyber-security, cyber-fraud and cyber-warfare as data from hacked devices can be used to empty bank accounts; steal information from governments and companies and used as part of warfare.  

Fifth is the worsening of inequality and the digital divide as those countries and people with little access to digital devices, including small businesses, will be left behind.

The usual response to these points is that people and governments must be prepared to get the benefits and counter the ill effects.  For example, laid-off workers should be retrained, companies be taught to use e-commerce, and a tax can be imposed on using robots (an idea supported by Bill Gates).

But the technologies are moving ahead faster than policy makers’ capacity to keep track and come up with policies and regulations. Expect this debate to move from conference rooms to the public arena in 2018, as more technologies are introduced and more effects become evident.   

On climate change, scientists frustrated by the lack of action, will continue to raise the alarm that the situation is far worse than earlier predicted.

In fact the tipping point may well be reached already.   On 20 December, the United Nations stated that the Arctic has been forever changed by rapidly warming climate.  The Arctic continued in 2017 to warm at double the rate of the global temperature increase, resulting in loss of sea ice.  “The Arctic shows no sign of returning to the reliably frozen region it was decades ago,” according to scientists.

2015-2017 have been the three warmest years on record.  The target of limiting temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, a benchmark just two years ago by the UN’s top scientific climate panel and the Paris Agreement, seems outdated and a new target of 1.5 degrees could be adopted in 2018.

But it is much harder to meet this new target. Will political leaders and the public rise to the challenge, or will 2018 see a wider disconnect between what needs to be done, and a lack of the needed urgent response?

Another issue reaching tipping point is the continuing rise of antibiotic resistance, with bacteria mutating to render antibiotics increasingly ineffective to treat many diseases.  There are global and national efforts to contain this crisis, but not enough, and there is little time left to act before millions die from once-treatable ailments.

Finally, back to President Trump.  His style and policies have been disruptive of the domestic and global order, but last year he seemed unconcerned about criticisms on this.  So we can expect more of the same or even more shocking measures in 2018.

Opposition to his policies from foreign countries will not count for much. But there are many in the American establishment who consider him a threat to the American system.  Will 2018 see the opposition reach a tipping point to make a significant difference?  It looks unlikely.  But like many other things in 2018, nothing is reliably predictable.