Keynoter Zakaria Urges Optimistic Approach to Global Challenges
Speaking to a capacity crowd in the Arie Crown theater Sunday morning, Keynote Session presenter Fareed Zakaria, a best-selling author, CNN host, and expert on international affairs, urged an optimistic approach to solving the world’s challenges.
The emergence of a world that is less dominated by the West and with more economic growth and scientific and intellectual advances coming from nations like China, India, and Brazil, means a greater supply of “human capital” capable of addressing challenges like feeding an expanding population and dealing with water shortages, he said.
Taking an optimistic approach is difficult, Zakaria acknowledged, because humans as a species tend to be pessimistic. An historical approach helps put this gloomy viewpoint in perspective, however, he reflected, noting that throughout history the world has tended to bounce back from economic crises. For example, in 1987 when the stock market crashed, dropping 22% in a single day, it bounced back within two weeks.
In the early 1990s the United State experienced what he described as a “long and difficult” period of recession and economic anxiety—which was followed in the rest of the decade by a sustained economic boom. Then in 2000, the technology bubble burst, once again plunging the nation into a period of market instability and economic gloom. But within 18 months, he noted, entrepreneurial internet concepts like Facebook were cropping up—and their impact on the marketplace is history.
“The point I’m trying to make is that we always tend to worry about crisis, collapse, doom, and somehow we always recover,” Zakaria said.
He cited two forces—one new and one old—as fueling his optimistic perspective. First, he said,
“We have created a new global economy over the last 20 or 30 years.” In the 1960s and 1970s, he said, the world was divided geopolitically, a reflection of the schism between the United States and the Soviet Union.” But after the collapse of communism in the late 1980s, “all of a sudden what you start to wind up with is a single global system.”
Now the economy is truly more global than ever before. “The big story,” Zakaria said, “will be what I call the rise of the rest.” The rise of countries like India, China, and Brazil is creating a “new global system.” He cited a few statistics in support of his claim: In 1979, he said, there were 30 countries with an annual economic growth rate of 3% or more; this year there will be about 80 nations is this category.
“So there’s volatility, but also greater stability,” Zakaria said, noting that “there are pools of capital all over the world. The extraordinary shift that has taken place in the global economy has given us a certain kind of systemic stability that we don’t fully appreciate.”
Looking to the past, Zakaria cited the example of British thinker Thomas Malthus who predicted that population growth would lead to mass starvation in England in the early 19th century. “What Malthus didn’t think about,” said Zakaria, “was that human beings would respond to this challenge” with an agricultural revolution that would mean fewer and fewer people working the land to produce more and more food.
Why do people tend to believe that problems are impossible to solve? “It is very easy to describe a problem,” said Zakaria, “but what you can’t explain and can’t begin to describe is the human response to these challenges because that is disaggregated, decentralized, and bottom up. What we have to encourage and harness is the human response to these crises.”
In this new global economy, scientific advances must stem from genuine collaboration—collaboration that is truly borderless. “Science works best when there is a kind of collision of ideas,” Zakaria said. That’s when real innovation occurs.
The Opening General Session was sponsored by Solazyme, Booth 2991.