Friday, January 04, 2008

Nobody Asked Me, But...

Special Crystal Ball Edition

The problem with trying to predict what stories will matter in any given time frame is two-fold:

First, you end up looking foolish when events swerve off-track and another story ends up being bigger. For example, does anyone recall that the issue of Time Magazine on the newsstands on September 11, 2001 called that year, "The Year Of The Shark"?

Second, so many of the stories do not stand alone. One could conceivably list them in any of a number of categories or incorporate them into any of a number of other stories.

These are the stories I will be watching closely in 2008, not necessarily in this order (or else some FReeper will count up the number of words I write on each topic and call me a liar):

1) Sub-Saharan Africa -
Kenya, Nigeria, Sudan (particularly Darfur), Ethiopia, and Somalia are all in the grips of political and ethnic crises that threaten to take along with them countries like Chad and Angola.

2) Global Warming - This is going to be a watershed year for global warming. I'm afraid that we will discover that the effects are going to happen much faster than anyone dreamed of and will be more permanent than most suspected. I'll go out on a limb here: a major portion of the Greenland or Antarctic ice sheet will collapse into the sea, threatening to take out most South Pacific islands, and impact much of the eastern American seaboard. Also, global warming will manifest itself in a major drought (that's already shaping up) in Nigeria, Chad and Ghana. In other words, sub-Saharan Africa.

I could be wrong. I pray I am.

3) Oil - To put it mildly, this is a story that no one should be surprised at, but I'm not interested in how high the price will go, but whether the industrialized world (basically, us) will take any steps to mitigate the crisis of higher gas and oil prices, particularly ahead of the 2008 election. My sense is Bush will twist Saudi arms, but that's not going to do all that much. China is now the dominant player in the oil markets, even if they aren't the largest consumer yet. You don't get in the face of what will be your biggest customer for politics' sake.

Add to that the fact that our remaining reserves of oil are dwindling away, and you've got a situation in this country that will lead to Depression.

Nigeria, a sub-Saharan African country, is a major producer of sweet crude oil (the kind oil companies executives have wet dreams over), so you wonder why the money isn't making it into the pockets of the people in some fashion. (This is in large part why I think Africa is the number one story for 2008)

My guess? Crude will top out over $200 a barrel before falling back to a more "comfortable" $175. That's about $7.50 a gallon.

4) 2008 Elections - Obviously, the Presidential election is important, but I'm also going to keep an eye on the Congressional races, particularly in areas that could tip either blue or red. My instinct tells me that Dems will pick up several seats in the House, perhaps as many as fifteen, but the Senate may see them fall short of a filibuster-proof sixty members.

It is these races, far more than the Presidential one, that will shape this country for the next administration.

5) Biotechnology - I predict that 2008 will be a watershed year for biotechnology as a whole and genetic engineering specifically. For example, by the end of this month, the FDA will approve the sale of milk and meat produced from cloned animals.

We've been hearing about the biotech revolution for almost a decade now, and indeed, some advances have been made in terms of treatment of diseases with new drugs and therapies that better target invasive pathogens. Or glow-in-the-dark cats. Goodness knows, sometimes it's hard to see ThumbPer when I have to pee in the middle of the night.

But this bit, the use of genetically modified foods and cloned meat, I'm uneasy about. While the technology could go a long way towards helping the Third World and to ease the suffering of sub-Saharan Africa, the capacity for mischief on the part of the cloners is endless.

6) Beijing Olympics - In effect, this is China's debutante ball (or coming out party, you decide). Since the Olympics are never just about the sport, I suspect several political statements will be made here, most notably by dissidents in the Chinese underground. I don't think any terrorist attacks will occur. China has too many friends in the less-Western-friendly sectors of the world. We might make a stink about China's blossoming petro-relationships with dictatorial countries in sub-Saharan Africa (like Sudan, Chad, and even Nigeria), but we won't dare boycott the China games.

They hold too much of our debt, and take insults like that seriously.

7) Economic disaster - This would be the number one story if it was going to be globally as bad as it will be here, with the stipulation that I could make economic statistics bearable on a regular basis (Hey, just because I'm a wonk doesn't mean I'm trying to convert you! I want to write stories that you'll care about and be able to carry with you in your heart).

I personally feel the meltdown in the economy will be unlike anything anyone has ever seen in history. This comes with the turf of being the single biggest economy in history.

Remember this fact, and you'll understand why: every single recession this nation has ever had has started with a sitting Republican president, and it took a Democratic president most of his first term to solve it. Bush was handed the single strongest economic engine in the universe and somehow managed to give it away to his cronies, borrowing from countries that would cut our throats as soon as assist us.

The gathering storm of troubled mortgages, unemployment, and global economic uncertainty due to the twin pop of political unrest and oil price spikes will force nations to start calling in those loans to shore up their own currencies.

8) Nationalism - Hand in hand with the weakened US economy will come a wave of foreign investment in American companies, real estate and entertainment. We've already seen such major institutions as Merrill Lynch and Citibank get cash infusions from the Middle East and Asia, and the prices of condos and co-ops in Manhattan is about the only safe bet in real estate appreciation across the nation, because Europeans are snapping up apartments for a fraction of what they would go for in cities like London or Paris.

I mean, my God, Jaguar and Land Rover are going to be bought up by an Indian auto manufacturer! Bet you didn't even know those were American auto companies!

This will help the US economy, particularly our trade deficits, somewhat, but the benefits will not trickle down to you and I, unless our 401(k)s happen to be invested in foreign exchange funds. Not bloody likely, if statistics are any indication.

9) Indonesia - The rumblings of various volcanoes and fault lines suggests to me that a major eruption/earthquake/tsunami is about due to hit this region.

The frightening thing for Americans in all this is the Lake Toba supervolcano in the heart of the Indonesian archipelago. When it erupted some 75,000 years ago, it wiped out, nearly decimated, the human population, and adding sulphuric acid to the atmosphere that still exists today. While Toba is not likely to go off again in that mass, Mount Tambora is active and may be primed for such a cataclysm.

This likely won't happen this year, of course, but the signs from the activity indicate widespread geologic activity in that region and we should keep an eye on it.

10) Avian flu - Not much in the news about this lately, except for the possible cases of human-to-human transmission in China, but it's been appearing in sub-Saharan Africa lately as part of the migratory bird influx, so couple this killer with Ebola and you could be talking about a major pandemic within days.

Yeesh. That's a pretty scary list!