North Americans are in for some shocks as we enter the new millennium, predicts Diane Francis, and advances in science and technology will be at the forefront of that change.
The editor of the Financial Post gave a wide-ranging talk titled "Challenges of the 21st Century" to about 250 people in the Alumni Auditorium on September 24. The annual Abitibi-Consolidated Lecture was part of Homecoming '98.
Fax machines, the Internet and video cameras were just the tip of the iceberg compared to what's coming soon: inexpensive, voice-activated computers that will allow millions of PC-illiterate people to use the crucial medium. "It will be like the leap from the telegraph to the telephone," she said.
Thirty to 40 years from now, she predicted, people will have microchips implanted in their brains to enable them to speak and understand foreign languages.
Advances in science will also help eradicate heart disease, new pills will prevent weight gain, and plant-cloning technology will allow northern countries like Canada to grow plants that have, until now, only prospered in the tropics.
Our continent is on the cusp of greater prosperity, as benefits from the North American Free Trade Agreement kick in and our "Anglo-Saxon" capitalist system is adopted by more countries, widening our circle of trading partners. And now that the Cold War is finished, billions of dollars have been freed from the arms race (which Francis called "a religious war"). This explains the surging stock markets of the last few years.
North America's adventurous immigrants, who think individually and not collectively, create a greater pool of wealth-hungry innovators. "We have a culture of risk-takers," she said, unlike Europe, where "cradle-to-grave socialism" reigns. "There are no Bill Gates in Europe."
Like immigrants, women will help North America attain new levels of affluence, Francis said, leaving countries that repress women behind. "Women's liberation is our Number One competitive advantage," she said. "Any country with equal women's rights doubles its [manpower] and collective IQ."
But not all countries will prosper in the coming century, especially the former Soviet Union. "Russians have the least chance of getting their act together of any country of the world," she forecast glumly, pointing to the country's economic chaos and absence of the rule of law.
Dramatic changes in politics are also a certainty, she said; the United Nations' powers may eventually supersede those of governments around the planet. "We've seen the slow strangulation and death of politics," she said. "Governments have to realize that if you're out of sync, you sink."
Maintaining a transparent society, with a free press, is paramount, though pollution and poverty must be addressed. Increasing tolerance in places like Ireland, the Middle East and secessionist Quebec will go a long way to creating stability. "We need to learn that we're human beings first, not a member of an ethnic group," she said. "Humanism will save us from ourselves, if nothing else."
Francis is the author of books on such subjects as the concentration of Canadian wealth and the Bre-X scandal. She will be editor-at-large of Southam's new national newspaper when it is launched late this month by Conrad Black. The Financial Post will be merged into that publication.