Bigger Middle Class a 'Black Swan' Event?

The middle class is a rising scourge.

They drive cars, and spew carbon into the atmosphere. They connect on smartphones and fatten themselves on everything from burgers at McDonald's to buffets at Whole Foods.

I count myself among them, living as I do in an oversized house with oversized televisions, feeding oversized appetites. The problem, however, isn't just me. It's the billions more who want to live just like me.

Consumerism was only beginning to run amuck when I incarnated on this planet in 1961. Then, there were only 3.1 billion people. Now there are 7.1 billion. And in 2030, there will be 8.3 billion.

The global economy--despite its many challenges--will lift billions of souls from poverty, according to the "Global Trends" report released Monday by the National Intelligence Council.

This global intelligence report, which comes out every four years, is at once optimistic and pessimistic. Putting billions of people into the middle class sounds like a good thing. Right?

"By 2030, majorities in most countries will be middle class, not poor, which has been the condition of most people throughout human history," the study says.

But it also notes the world's rising middle class will strain resources, and those who don't make it into the middle class by 2030 will find it increasingly difficult to find food and water.

The rising middle class, you see, will eat more food than ever. They will consume more energy and produce more waste. Yet they will hardly feel satiated.

They will have cable TV and Internet phones. They will see lifestyles of the rich and famous forged amid the world's rising trade imbalances. They could be left feeling as restless as ever. Here's how one participant in the study described it to researchers:

"We tend to think that when people have access to more goods and services, they will calm down. But when they have more, they have rising expectations. New generations do not have the patience to work 20-30 years to get rich, so they will be more destructive."

The rising middle class will converge upon the world's cities, rapidly accelerating a global trend of urbanization. "Historically, large-scale corruption has been a feature of rapid urbanization," the study says. "Badly managed urban settings have also been a cauldron for political and civil strife, including revolution."

Nobody will be in charge. The U.S. will lose its hegemony as China becomes the world's largest economy.

Increases in democracy, so dear to any middle class, don't mean increases in peace. "Countries moving from autocracy to democracy have a proven track record of instability," the report noted.

Individuals and small groups, organizing in cities, will have better access to weapons and the tools of cyberwarfare, gaining "the capability to perpetrate large-scale violence and disruption," the study says.

Cyberattacks may become more likely than terrorist attacks--disrupting people rather than killing them.

Social networking will empower individuals to organize, but it will also allow governments to more effectively monitor and control populations. The Internet, which started out as an electronic utopia, could swiftly become an Orwellian nightmare.

So even the good news can be bad news. A rising middle class won't solve the world's current economic problems. The study predicts that between now and 2030, we won't fully recover from financial crisis that began in 2008. "A return to pre-2008 growth rates and previous patterns of rapid globalization looks increasingly unlikely," the study concludes. Instead, we'll continue suffering a "crisis-prone global economy" and face one economic calamity after the next.

Any number of other really bad things--dubbed "black-swan events"--could happen, the study notes. There could be a pandemic, a nuclear war, or a solar flare that takes out the power grid.

An unruly exit from the euro zone could cause at least as much damage as the Lehman Brothers collapse. Rapid changes in the Earth's climate could lead to more droughts and famines. And as the U.S. loses its power, or its will, to police the world, we could enter a new era of global anarchy.

The study projects these and many other global trends out to 2030. Despite an expanding middle class, the world will still be here.

(Al's Emporium, written by Dow Jones Newswires columnist Al Lewis, offers commentary and analysis on a wide range of business subjects through an unconventional perspective. The column is published each Tuesday and Thursday at 9 a.m. ET. Contact Al at or