Having grown up in Mexico, it took me a long time to understand what true power is and where it comes from. You see, I had great role models; perhaps that was part of the problem. Throughout the developing world, as in Lansing and Iowa, there are many smart, tough, hardworking folk who still think power resides in today’s politics, unions, punditry, faith, painting, poetry, literature, agriculture, manufacturing, or architecture. Each sphere can immortalize or destroy individuals or regions. But, long term, to paraphrase Darwin, the only way for a country to survive and thrive is to adapt and adopt.
Problem is there is a winner’s bias. To paraphrase a winemaker, tradition is an experiment that worked. A religion originally thrives because adherents find it improves their lives. Sometimes faith is a way to cope with the horror of the present and to improve health and survival. (Suppose there is any regional basis for the coincidences in Kosher and Halal restrictions?) But most religions, and most countries, forget they became powerful by continuously experimenting, learning, tweaking, improving. They begin to ossify myths and traditions. As others grow and thrive, they begin to fear change. They celebrate the past, becoming more nativist and xenophobic.
The rest of the world does not wait. It keeps gathering data. It keeps changing minds and methods. Successful religions and countries evolve new testaments and beliefs from the foundations of the old. The alternative is to merge, fragment, become irrelevant, go extinct. Museum basements are full of statues of once all powerful emperors and Gods that demanded, and got, blood sacrifices.
Who is truly powerful over the long term? Those running most of the successful experiments. And nowhere does this happen faster, more effectively, and more often today than in science-related endeavors. True power flows primarily from science and knowledge.
As we double the amount of data generated by our species over the course of the next five years, universities and science-driven businesses are the key drivers of new experiments. You can find many examples of fast growing countries that are rich and poor, North and South, communist, capitalist, and socialist. But all have a core of great science schools and tech entrepreneurs. Meanwhile much of Latin America lacks many Silicon Valley wannabes. Start ups are rare. Serial entrepreneurs sell cheap Chinese imports on sidewalks instead of dreaming up IPOs. Scientists often earn less than accountants. Real growth has been absent for decades.
Few governments understand how quickly they must change, adopt, teach, and celebrate the new. (Never mind religions). It is no coincidence that some of the fastest growing regions today were either isolated or largely irrelevant a few of decades ago. Singapore, Ireland, China, India and Korea, were considered basket cases. But often those with little to lose sometimes risk a new strategy.
Who eventually survives will be largely driven by understanding and applying digital and life code, by creating robots and nanomaterials, by working inconceivably large data sets and upgrading our brains. Meanwhile many U.S. leaders proudly proclaim no evolution and little knowledge of science. They reflect a core of scared voters experiencing massive disruption and declining wages; that core fears elite education, science, immigrants, open borders, and above all rapid change. As income and knowledge gaps widen, many fall further and further behind; many grow to hate an open, knowledge driven economy. Change is rejected, blocked, vilified.
It took me a long time to shift focus from the politics, art, literature, and concerns of today towards the applied science of tomorrow. But had I not done that, I would have found it much harder to understand which countries are likely to succeed and which could disappear. And the disappearance and fragmentation of whole nations is an ever more common phenomenon. Without the ability to adapt and adopt to science driven change, no matter what type of government, geography, ethnicity, or historic tradition you have, you will find that power devolves… even in the most powerful of empires.