Contemporary society, according to social and political scientists, is characterised by at least three fundamental directions: These are some examples, but they are many more. These presentations are the result of a number of fundamental changes that are irreversibly transforming our daily lives, our way of thinking and perceiving the world and our way of living together. Among these fundamental changes are: improvements in life conditions, life expectancy, literacy and gender equality; changes in domestic and international political institutions; and the breakdown of natural equilibria.
The United Nations estimates that, at the beginning of the 20th century, about 60% of the world population lived in conditions of extreme poverty. In 1981, 40% of the world population lived extreme poverty. In 2001, the percentage had been halved to 20%. Several developing countries, in particular in Sub-Saharan Africa, still suffer from social and economic backwardness, but life conditions have significantly improved in most regions of the world, in particular in Asia.
The overall improvement in life conditions and the role of technologies now available have contributed to increase gross domestic product per capita by one and a half times in less than half a century (1960–2005), with peaks of over eight times in Eastern Asia. Only in a few countries, concentrated in Sub-Saharan Africa, growth of per capita income has been very slow.
In 1960, the average life expectancy of the world population was 50 years. Forty-five years later, in 2004, life expectancy had improved by over 30% to 67 years. Improvements in health care and the reduction in child mortality have led to a jump forward in middle-income countries, where life expectancy is now over 70 years.
In high-income countries life expectancy is now over 80 years, extending well beyond the traditional length of working life, causing social and economic problems. It has led to people having an extra four hours of free-time during working days.
The ability to read and write is next to universal: in 2004, 80% of adult men and 73% of adult women had basic literacy skills. Of great social importance is the rapid growth of female school enrollment and the increasing presence of women in the labor market. These deep changes constitute a primary driver of economic growth in developing countries.
Female literacy has great consequences in terms of fertility. When female school enrollment and employment rates increase, fertility rates decline rapidly and tend to stabilize around the natural rate of reproduction of 2.1 children per woman (see E. Todd, "After the Empire"). Several demographers believe that, as a consequence, the world population will stabilize over the next few decades, at a level compatible with the resources of the planet [reference].
The world population has a number of "passive" (broadcasting) communication technologies (radio, television) that cover the whole globe. Moreover, a large portion of the population uses "active" communication technologies (telephone, internet). Internet connections are expanding rapidly: in 2004 there were 140 Internet users every 1000 inhabitants (according to data from the "International Communication Union"). The spread of information and communication technologies (ICT) is remodeling the material fundamentals of society. The sociologist Castells believes that these technologies have started a revolution of the productive structures of society and of daily life.
The new communication technologies represent a critical instrument to obtain consensus and as a result, they are transforming the organisational models of the State and of politics. The power system becomes less visible but more pervasive in the way it can influence choices and ways of thinking M. Castells, "Galassia Internet", Feltrinelli, 2002).
The economic success of authoritarian regimes, mainly in Asia, suggests that (at least in the short term) economic growth is independent from the democratisation of political institutions. However, economic development favours the development of democratic institutions—but only if economic growth leads to substantial changes in cultural and social structures. (R. Inglehart, "La società postmoderna"). The "World Values Survey", which captures political values in 43 countries, shows that no country with a per capita income below the poverty line has democratic or free institutions. Almost the totality of nations with high per capita income are classified as democratic.
Over the last fifty years, world gross domestic product has increased by about five times, while trade has increased tenfold over the same period. These data suggests that the intensity of the commercial exchange between countries has developed faster than the overall economy. However, globalization has gone beyond the exchange of physical commodities and it is progressively modelling also the lifestyles and consumption patterns of individuals and societies. The Swiss think-tank KOF has developed a number of globalization indicators that show the increasing development of global individual, social and commercial networks.
New international flows have diminished the role of traditional political institutions—sometimes with negative consequences for social stability. In many societies, stability (or slow evolution) has been substituted by unstoppable and irreversible transformations. As a result, individuals and communities perceive a high degree of insecurity—insecurity that touches every aspect of their lives. Growing masses of people feel threatened by the changes that affect their material (work, income, house), psychological (personal relationships), and cultural life (with the need to continuously update knowledge and professional skills).
The social improvement of the masses—resulting from increasing literacy and income, universal means of communication and a new social role of women—has eroded the traditional role of the elites and have weakened the traditional regulatory role of the state. As the speed of social, spiritual and cultural evolution sweeps away old life habits, religious beliefs, ancestral moral convictions and radicated political opinions, the anxiety towards a future that is mutating and unknown causes a cultural opposition that is at the root of fundamentalism. Opposition against new life conditions is justified also by increasing economic inequality: "the gap between the wealth of the North and that of the South of the world has increased by a multiple of five since the beginning of the 20th century" (Daniel Cohen (in French), "Trois leçons sur la société postindustrielle").
When demographic growth is multiplied by the growth of per capita income and consumption, one can have a measure of the global impact on environmental sustainability. Demographic and economic development is endangering our current forms of civilization and social co-living and our future ability to inhabit our planet.
Alternative scenarios developed by international organizations suggest the possibility of a serious breakdown of natural equilibrium unless political, scientific and economic tools are directed to a correction towards an acceptable equilibrium between humankind and nature.