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Social capital is the glue that holds societies together. It includes how members of societies interact and cooperate with one another, especially strangers; the strength of their identification with society; the existence of shared values, norms, and understanding; and social trust. Because the elements of social capital are interrelated, a substantial breakdown in social trust would have catastrophic consequences that would not be isolated to a society’s social aspects. It would also be felt across its political, economic, technological, and environmental dimensions. This makes the possibility of a substantial breakdown of social trust in the near future important.

The frequency and intensity of natural disasters will likely increase in the next five to ten years due to climate change. Multiple natural disasters will often take place simultaneously. The frequency and intensity of these disasters will stress government resources, which means that fewer resources will be available to respond to them and these responses will be delayed. This will leave areas without the necessities of life for significant periods of time, making them vulnerable to the spread of disease, hunger, and other dangers.

When there is a high level of social trust, people cooperate with one another and adhere to the law, even in the chaotic aftermath of a natural disaster. If a natural disaster like a flood, hurricane, drought, or heat wave hits a society that has experienced a substantial breakdown of social trust, it is likely that there will be widespread unrest that could include theft, sporadic violence, and even the formation of armed groups. This is due to the resulting scarcity, uncertainty, and lack of effective government services and control. Already strained governments will have limited resources to restore the peace and to address the scarcity of resources. The longer an effective government response is delayed, the more significant the impact of the breakdown of social trust is on other elements of social capital and on the people in the area. Frequent disasters will seriously strain the social capital needed to hold together a society.

Substantial breakdowns in social trust would also make a state vulnerable to hybrid warfare. These efforts often come in the form of misinformation designed to worsen existing fissures related to social trust and other elements of social capital. They target beliefs and attitudes regarding perceptions of the government’s effectiveness and intentions, economic fairness, and the motivations and actions of competing groups. As governments and societies come to rely on technology even more, they will find themselves even more vulnerable to attempts to disrupt services, creation of deep fakes that are indistinguishable from reality, exposure of private data, and influencing of news sources that have become even more decentralized and biased.

A substantial breakdown of social trust makes tactics of hybrid warfare even more effective and places the targeted state in grave danger. Disaffected citizens may stop obeying the law and may resort to violence to advance their agendas and protect their interests. This erodes social trust and other elements of social capital even further, perhaps irreparably. Attaining consensus between political opponents will become nearly impossible, and governments that have used technology to operate more efficiently and effectively may be completely shut down leaving them unable to deliver essential services. Authoritarian leaders may appeal to people with promises to defend disillusioned citizens or to provide stability for those in power. If those responsible for acts of hybrid war are discovered, there is a good chance of armed or other types of conflict.

Recent actions by independent traders to drive up the price of struggling companies demonstrate the opportunities technology provides, now and in the future, to manipulate markets and to target large investment firms as well as other components of the economy. We are also seeing increased interest in cryptocurrency, which may soon compete with national currencies. Economic inequality, which is significant now, will be sustained and exacerbated by the pandemic and will continue to limit opportunities for many over the next decade and shape perceptions of the economic structure. The likely transition to clean energy and increased use of automation in the workplace will also shape the economic dimensions of society in the coming years.

A substantial breakdown of social trust would lead to continued and more sophisticated manipulation of the financial markets and the possible withdrawal by investors. Frustration with continued economic inequality might lead to significant pressures, through or outside of political processes, to fundamentally change the economic structure. Since social trust is the foundation for the use of money, a breakdown could lead significant numbers of people to switch to some form of cryptocurrency, which will have domestic and international implications. This will be especially significant for the U.S. Dollar, which could be, at some point, replaced by a cryptocurrency as the world’s reserve currency. All of this will disrupt domestic and international economies.

Over the next decade, technological and scientific advances will continue to change how we live and work. Self-driving cars will be on the streets in moderate numbers by the end of the decade. Robots will be increasingly used in workplaces, especially to complete dirty, dull, and dangerous work. The collection and analysis of data will inform how we make decisions and will provide access to our personal data to a wide range of organizations. Medical advances like nanobots and gene editing may be used widely, which will improve human health and longevity. Our infrastructure will rely even more on technology, and we may see the widespread use of renewable energy across society. Governments will enhance their effectiveness, along with their power and reach, through technology. All of these advances have downsides ethically, but they also promise many benefits.

It is not unusual for technological and scientific advances to be met with distrust. Even now significant numbers of people are not planning to receive the COVID vaccine and are expressing concerns about privacy regarding workplace technologies. A substantial breakdown of social trust, however, is different in that it could lead to a widespread rejection of technological and scientific advances. This would reverse significant gains made over the next decade in such areas as health, work efficiency, ease of life, and the environment.

Companies that produce and sell these products could be forced to lay off massive numbers of people. Movements like those who oppose vaccines may grow broader into other types of health care. Violence and sabotage may occur as people target networks and other technological and scientific elements of society, effectively shutting down government operations and society. This would not only be inconvenient; it could set back society decades.

A substantial breakdown of social trust in the near future would have a devasting impact on society because of the effects described above and others. These effects will be especially destructive due to an increased reliance on and advances in technology, continued inequality, and the climate crisis. Because of this, governments and civil societies should monitor and attempt to thicken social trust and other elements of social capital through focused efforts. Not doing so leaves states and the international community extremely vulnerable.

© Chris Mayer 2021

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