Monday, December 28, 2009
In the final days of the 21st century's first decade--a busy time for trend pieces--I'm posting a piece I wrote just before the decade began, on what it was going to be called. My suggestion of "the Oughts" (as explained in this opinion piece) didn't catch on. But neither did any other name. As it has turned out, we really didn't call this decade anything. Some late attempts (like "the noughties") may turn out to be what the future calls this decade. But so far, nothing.
A version of the following piece was published in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette in late 1999.
What We Ought to Call the Decade to Come
by William Severini Kowinski
So what are we going to call them? The zeros? The double o’s? The blanks? The nothings? Sandblasted to a stony silence by millennium hype, annoyed and preoccupied with Y2K bug preparations, we’ve pretty much ignored what we’re going to call the decade following January 1. But the nineties will be over. The question is, what will begin?
We’ll have to call them something, even though we know it’s all pretty artificial. Dividing history into decades may be handy shorthand but the habit distorts at least as much as it names. Consider that everybody knows what the Sixties refers to, although few could actually agree: does it mean the antiwar movement (mid 1960s to mid 1970s), Civil Rights (late 1950s to late 1960s), or the counterculture, with its’ roots in the 1920s, 30s and 50s, that didn’t hit most of America until well into the 1970s?
Even dividing the past into centuries produces images that distort more than they enlighten. We may think of the 20th century as modern (airplanes and automobiles to atomic bombs) in contrast to the 19th (Civil War and horses in the western dust.). But in fact Abraham Lincoln (died 1865) and Einstein’s special theory of relativity (1905) were well within a single lifetime. Little more than a decade went by between the Wounded Knee massacre (1890) and the first airplane flight (1903), with the car (1893) and the quantum theory (1900) in between.
But of course such arguments won’t cut any ice with the marketing people, the trend writers and media pop historians. Without a name, the decade can’t fulfill its greatest function in recent, well, decades: the all-purpose excuse. Tagged with cynicism, superficiality, mindless obsession with speed and lust after quick riches from the stock market, we can stare at our accuser and simply say, hey--it’s the nineties. Just as we absolve ourselves of past indiscretions, such as selfishness, veniality and lust for quick riches from junk bonds, because that was the eighties-- what else could you do?
So we’re going to have to face this problem. Because what seems a simple matter of succeeding numbers (70s,80s, 90s...) turns out not to be. We can’t call them the 2000s, since that’s the whole century, maybe the whole millennium. We can’t call them the 20s, unless, like legislators who use Social Security funds to balance the budget, we want to steal from the future and let them deal with it.
What’s interesting about the alternatives is the effect of our selection on the collective psyche. What would it mean if we called them “the zeros”? (or even the “double zeros”)? That we’re starting over, like the odometer of a new car? Or that we’re bankrupt--without ideas or ideals, that our civilization has come to nothing?
“The nothings” would seem to carry post-modernism and 90s cynicism an appropriate step farther, foreseeing a decade without qualities. Or we could call them the “oh’s,” if we want an entire decade to sound like a generic breakfast cereal or a baseball team, or an ambiguous expression of recognition, disappointment, delight or surprise. But even with “the ohs” the sense of a void still clings.
The problem arises mostly because there is no satisfactory precedent. Naming the decades wasn’t so popular as the twentieth century began. There was however a way people referred to dates in that first decade. They might refer to the year 1902 as “nineteen ought two,” with “ought” meaning zero. Popularized in England when a version of Tick Tack Toe was called “crosses and oughts” for x’s and o’s, it’s an archaic alteration of “naught,” or nothing. But that’s an obsolete use of “ought” that hasn’t been used for generations, except sometimes to refer to that antique decade.
Still...there’s a certain appeal. “Ought” is a word that seems to have gone out of our public language in more ways than this one. In its sense of moral imperative, the English “ought” developed over centuries, always associated with obligation and duty. Duty became a complicated concept during the tumultous 20th century, due in part to its obliterating technologies of war and floods of political, economic, sociological and science-inspired changes: so many shifting borders and frames of reference, and so much mendacity and betrayal. Yet there was that planetary portrait from the lunar point of view, and duty seemed poised to undergo another transformation.
In defining “ought”, the Oxford English Dictionary cites this 19th century example from William Gladstone: “The two great ideas of the divine will and of the Ought, or duty, are the principal factors in the government of our human world.” Perhaps this is the Ought that we ought to be concentrating on as we begin the 21st century. Instead of buzzing about the profit opportunities of globalization, we ought to be attending to our duty to the globe.
For as smugly or dazedly blank as we might feel and the future might seem, we hear convincing voices suggesting that the early decades of the twenty-first century will be crucial and defining. If humankind really sees its duty to the planet and does the right things, it may survive intact (but not unchanged) and continue without serious setback (though with altered course), in concert with the natural world that nurtures all life. If this duty towards this living planet is not met and the right things are not done, the coming century could be more cataclysmic than any previous one, taking us to the tipping point of an inevitable downward spiral.
That’s perhaps hard to believe when according to conventional wisdom we’ve solved the problem of perpetual prosperity. By this logic we should do nothing different, and so the name of the nothings, the zeros, would be fitting in more ways that one, for it would indicate just how clueless and gutless we are.
Knowing these dangers and doing nothing about them is appropriately expressed with the weak and cynical irony of “oh.” But if we revive the old meaning and give it a twenty-first century twist, we might give ourselves a goal and a guide as well as the decade a name. Maybe we ought to call them the Oughts.
Sunday, August 23, 2009
What follows is basically a combination of two pieces from 1975 and 1976, both about the then-booming field of studying the future. The first—reflecting several drafts—was a piece I reported and wrote for New Times magazine. It was never published, victim in part of my editor leaving the staff. His name was Frank Rich, future columnist for the New York Times, and before that its drama critic.
In 1975 he was an editor for this new national magazine called New Times, and he wrote its film reviews. He left to become the film critic for Time magazine. Before he left, he did some editing on one draft that I have, so some of what I present here reflects his edits. Before and after this, New Times published other articles I wrote, including "The Malling of America."
Only pieces of other drafts of this piece survive, including material I added after attending the 1975 World Future Society convention in Washington. That convention had its elements of drama, which I wrote about in a piece the next year, published in a fledgling alternative weekly called Washington Newsworks. I was its editor at the time, so getting this published was easier. That 1976 article focused more on Washington, and reported both on that WFS convention and its aftermath a year later. There’s less of this piece included here, partly because I cannibalized this New Times material for that article. I’ve made my own new edits, trying to balance relevance and historical record. It was a fascinating period.
Though this field has much less cache in the early 21st century, many of its characteristics are the same, including incipient problems I noted in the 70s, such as the lack of diversity in its practitioners (it is still criticized for lacking enough women and non-white leaders and participants, and various political, technological and national biases. Still, photos from the 2008 World Future Society convention show a lot more female and minority faces.) One place self-described futurists have flourished in the years since is the corporate world.
Also I note that after more than 30 years, they still haven’t settled on what to call themselves or their field: futurism, futuristics, futurology, futures studies and other variations are still at war (as recently as the debate in 2009 on Wikipedia.) Except for the clearly academic field of futures studies, I’m personally settling on futurism, even at the risk of offending the memory of my long lost uncle Gino Severini, founding member of the early 20th century Italian art movement called Futurism. I think the capital letter is good enough to distinguish them.
In reading this material now, I have a few impressions and updates. I wrote about the dramatic events surrounding Hazel Henderson at the 1975 World Future Society convention, and how she was basically pulled out of the crowd (at least from my perspective) to become the convention’s star. What I didn’t say—perhaps in deference to the reigning sensibilities of the publications I was writing for—is that besides being intelligent and articulate, she was also tall, blond, charming and convivial, which definitely enhanced her stardom. I had some correspondence with her for a few years after that. She’s since published several books and is a legend still actively working the futures field, although probably no one calls it that much anymore.
Apart from Senator Ted Kennedy, you might note that a Governor Carter of Georgia is mentioned as a futurism backer. Not much more than a year later he would be elected President. Another political figure I recall UMass at Amherst futurists talking about was a young conservative congressman named Newt Gingrich, who was interested in futurism. I recall mentioning him in earlier and now absent drafts.
While noting that a lot of major issues of the mid-70s remain the same as the first decade of the 21st century ends, some may feel comforted that the apocalypse didn't come. I don't think that invalidates these concerns. I'm reminded of the title of a book about the decline of the steel industry in Pittsburgh, after many warnings were dismissed as "crying wolf." The book was called And the Wolf Finally Came.
My own interest in the future as a topic did not begin with these articles, nor did it end there. I’m still writing about it in 2009, so for me in particular it’s worth revisiting the future’s past... Which suggests this final warning: the present tense ("is," etc.) in the following posts dated today is located in 1975-76.
“Some speak of the future,
my love she speaks softly.
She knows there’s no success like failure
And failure’s no success at all.”
Bob Dylan Love Minus Zero/No Limit
Apocalypse: “A prophetic disclosure or revelation.”
American Heritage Dictionary
Some say the world will end in fire; some say in the year 2115. Others wonder, why quibble? But figuring out the future is now an international obsession, occupying scientists, government leaders and professional consultants, as well as students in over a thousand Futures Studies courses offered by North American universities, and many more around the world. Besides the think tanks and other government and quasi-government consultants, there are global-oriented organizations like the Transnational Institute and the Club of Rome, the more exotic independents like World Game and Earthrise, and a host of groups and individuals who are constructing, forecasting, analyzing, planning and actively pursuing possible and probable states of the future, correlating vast amounts of information and looking at it from a bewildering array of perspectives.
Futurists have become public figures, beginning with Herman Kahn, formerly the Doctor Strangelove of the RAND Corporation, and now proprietor of the Hudson Institute. Well-known futurist authors include Alvin Toffler (Future Shock), Arthur C. Clarke (Profiles of the Future), Robert Theobald (Futures Conditional), John McHale (Future of the Future), Buckminster Fuller (Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth), Robert Heilbroner (The Future As History), Paul Ehrlich, Daniel Bell, Kenneth Boulding, Stewart Brand and Gregory Bateson.
Futurism (or futuristics, futurology, future studies, or even futistics) has been quietly cooking in the back stacks for several years: suddenly, in 1975, with three-quarters of this unquestionably weird century gone and only a generation left until the apocalyptic-sounding year 2000, it is booming.
Futurists include those whose work extends in scale from microbiology to the demographics of all humanity, to the climate cycles of the earth, to the untapped but perhaps useful potentials of space—both outer and inner. What they all have in common is their preoccupation with what is going to happen to us in the next ten or 25 or 100 years…So, according to them, what is going to happen? What is the future, if any, going to be like?
They don’t know.
“Forecasting the future is now in about the same shape as forecasting the weather was before the United States Weather Bureau,” says Billy Rojas, a pioneer in academic futures studies who is associated with Alvin Toffler, author of Future Shock. “It’s disorganized. There’s no set of standards that everybody goes by. I’d say it will be ten or fifteen years before future forecasting is validated.”
But, I objected, everything I’d been reading indicates that the decisions made in the next decade, partly based on forecasting, were going to be crucial to the world’s survival. What about that? I asked him. “Yes,” Rojas agreed. “That does make it…awkward.” We both laughed. You don’t have to have a sense of humor to be a futurist, but it helps.
But forecasting is not the only goal. “We’re not all Herman Kahns,” Billy Rojas quipped. Within the burgeoning futures movement there are activists as well as scientists, and a strong humanist wing that is trying to solve the crucial problem of how to plan for the future without yielding to totalitarian solutions.
The challenge is the sheer multiplicity of factors and possibilities: the intimate relationships of everything from technology to sexual preferences to insect habitats to society’s moods are relevant to what the future might be like—and important to shaping what it should be like. What futurists do and think about is as various as whatever the future may hold.
Futurism begins with an attitude towards time. It is best expressed by John McHale, author of The Future of the Future, in what might be called McHale’s Litany: “The future of the past is the future/The future of the present is in the past/ The future of the future is in the present." Time interrelates, feeding backward and forward. What will happen depends partly on what has been done already and partly on what we do now, as well as on what people are going to do (including what unforeseen inventions or insights they come up with.)
For example, by figuring out the effects of decision that have been made, scrutinizing the decision that can be made now—and by adding some shrewd imagination in the process—forecasters can begin to make scenarios of various possibilities for the future.
Forecasting begins by trying to answer the basic question: What will the future be like? This is usually approached by assuming that things will continue pretty much on their present course, with foreseeable innovations in technology. This could mean a future generally like the present, or it could mean a very different one, depending on the strength and interrelationships of these trends.
But by weighing data and assumptions differently, perhaps adding or subtracting some factors, forecasters can develop what are called alternative futures. These can be ranked as “probable” or “possible” futures.
These forecasts can then become information that other sorts of futurists use in considering the question they want to answer: What kind of a future do we want? From possible futures they select their desirable futures. The third question may then be: how do we make our desirable future happen? This is the area of futurist activism.
In practice, these categories often overlap and intermix. But there are strong advocates and practitioners who concentrate on one, and may even criticize and disparage those who practice the others.
Large-scale, computer-generated scenarios are the most obvious illustration of forecasting. The first Club of Rome report, Limits to Growth, tabulated and compared statistics on food, population and industrial growth, and came up with a single forecast of world-wide collapse. But partly because of the furor it created, and partly because the process became more sophisticated, the second report (Mankind at the Turning Point) developed short, medium and long-range alternative scenarios for the world, separated into ten economic, energy and resources regions. It also considered politics and values as well as material factors.
The difference between these first two reports illuminates the public debate now going on about these titanic (and I use that word advisedly) world problems. In particular, the Lifeboat vs. Spaceship Earth debate is a classic confrontation, specifically dealing with world food distribution policy but ultimately all the major issues of world survival.
The debate begins with some givens: millions of people are starving. Over 400 million suffer from malnutrition, and 10,000 die of hunger and hunger-related diseases each day. The controversy over what to do about this situation has raged in academic journals and at various international meetings, such as the Rome Food conference. The debate began in earnest with articles by California social scientist Garrett Hardin, proposing that the population problem in the undeveloped world was so severe that nothing could be done by developed countries to prevent starvation there, and that both rich and poor nations would suffer if they tried.
Hardin asserted that Buckminster Fuller’s metaphor of Spaceship Earth, which stresses the interdependence of all humanity, “can be dangerous when used by misguided idealists to justify suicidal policies for sharing our resources through uncontrolled immigration and foreign aid.” His substitute metaphor was the Lifeboat, representing the rich nations, with the poor nations swimming around it. Because even the resources of the rich are finite, bringing the swimming aboard by sharing food would only result in everything being eaten up faster. Hardin concluded that if the poor are brought aboard, “…the boat swamps, everyone drowns. Complete justice: complete catastrophe.”
Hardin based his assessment partly on the first Club of Rome report, and his conclusions were shared by M.I.T.’s Jay Forrester, a major figure on the Limits to Growth team. Together they proposed that the U.S. save its resources, and engage in triage (parceling out surplus food for political benefits.) Their proposals were greeted with shock and moral outrage, and then by informed critiques.
Rodger Revelle of the Harvard Center for Population Studies called the report’s population projections oversimplified, and questioned its understanding of what limits population growth. Alan Berg of the World Bank questioned the accuracy of the food figures. Ecologist Barry Commoner predicted that “Wars of Redistribution” would be encouraged by Hardin’s approach. Economist Robert Heilbroner also foresaw political and military conflicts induced by such policies, including nuclear terrorism.
Geoffrey Barraclough of Brandeis University maintained that economics is the real culprit: price and monetary policies rather than actual scarcities are responsible for shortages. Others pointed out that the U.S. already practices triage—in 1974, 43% of Food for Peace aid went to allies South Vietnam and Cambodia—and this only makes the situation worse, since most of the food wound up on the black market.
Others saw the problem in a larger context. They emphasized that the limits to growth are real, but they are planetary, so the more practical approach is not an isolated Lifeboat but a global Spaceship Earth. Climatologist Stephen Schneider pointed out that long range climate change affecting agriculture, for example, can hit the currently rich nations as well as the poor. Harvard’s Jean Mayer asserted that the real population and food problem is in the rich nations, because they consume and pollute more. Nutritionist Frances Moore Lappe claimed that rich nations are wasting incredible amounts of protein food through poor agricultural planning and overly beefy diets--in other words, that Lifeboat Ethics is really Hamburger Ethics.
So what seemed like a simple forecast turned out to be, if not totally inaccurate, then at least not so simple, and therefore such a harsh policy prescription seems to lack prudent justification. Part of the lesson is the complexity of future forecast, based on the true complexity of present reality. Food availability, a range of experts were saying, is a consequence of the interplay of distribution, organization, energy, diet, consumption, weather, transportation, monetary policy and population—which in turn are affected by everything from levels of industrialization to dominant religious beliefs to the number of young females who watch television.
The second report of the Club of Rome reflected an adjusted perspective. It concluded: “…what is really needed is a simultaneous consideration of all aspects of mankind’s evolution from individual values and attitudes to ecological and environmental conditions.” The third report is expected to concentrate on values that inhibit positive change, which itself reflects a trend in futurism: the examination of values and the emphasis on human consciousness in shaping change.
Another lesson of the Club of Rome controversy is the role, not only of morality and shared values but also the “political realities”: not just the influence of those values, but also the impact of self-interest, as well as selfishness, ignorance, venality and stupidity of leaders and the groups of various sizes they represent. Which is why some futurists despair... and some get involved in politics.
Those who despair of the future or the usefulness of futurism often make the same objections: people and nations cannot learn to cooperate or plan because they will always take the short-run benefit over the long-range good. Democracy in particular, they say, is a poor form for effective planning, and the only realistic (perhaps inevitable) alternative is planning imposed by a dictatorship.
But there are others in today’s futurism trying to build what Alvin Toffler calls “anticipatory democracy”—political forms that allow a future-aware public to participate in the planning of their own futures. Some elected officials, such as Governors Ray of Iowa, McCall of Oregon and Carter of Georgia, have personally involved themselves in mass planning meetings sponsored by their state governments. Hawaii has held similar planning events, and the University of Hawaii is a leader in futures studies.
There are a few grassroots groups, such as Earthrise in Rhode Island, that undertake community future-consciousness raising. Earthrise, loosely affiliated with the Rhode Island School of Design, is also involved in the state’s official long-range planning effort.
One group that is trying to apply new communications technology to such a process is the Committee for the Future, headquartered in Washington, that experimented with using video to conduct “Meetings to Design a Desirable Future” in eight U.S. cities. These meetings drew a diversity of people into gradually widening discussions on the future of government, technology, the arts, economics and social needs.
This organization was founded and is run by Barbara Marx Hubbard (heir to the Marx toys fortune who poured considerable funds into the project) and John Whiteside, a former NASA press officer. They and a group of young associates used an experimental form called SYNCON (for Synergistic Convergence) which divides participants into separate rooms to discuss a given subject from a future point of view. The groups are initially connected by closed circuit television, which has on occasion been broadcast to a larger community, with feedback from outside viewers. In Boston, a three day Town Meeting of the Future was broadcast on WGBH, the public television station. Later in the process, walls between the participants literally come down, as groups combine until everyone is discussing all the issues together.
But futurism of one kind or another is also influencing more traditional politicians. In the U.S. Congress, futurists point to two victories: the Foresight Provision of H.R. 988, which requires that all committees of the House study the future impact of all bills they send to the floor, and the creation of an Office of Technology Assessment, which is responsible for keeping Congress informed on the possible effects of technological change, and recommends new technological solutions. Senator Edward Kennedy, one of the prime movers behind OTA and its first Chairman, is drafting three future-oriented bills.
Senators Jacob Javits and Hubert Humphrey proposed an Office of Economic Planning, a bill endorsed by the United Auto Workers. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Russell Train has called for “a continuing and comprehensive census of the future.” Ann Cheatham, an aide to Representative Rose of North Carolina, operates a “Congressional clearinghouse on the future,” seminars reputed to be among the most successful futurist activities in Washington.
Senator John Culver of Colorado believes that political decision-makers, under increasing pressure from constituents to solve critical problems before they become insurmountable, will turn for help to those who are prepared—the futurists.
Meanwhile, according to a survey by consultant W. W. Simmons, long-range planning of some kind was underway in at 13 states in 1973. Futurism has infiltrated the corporate world as well. W.W. Simmons shows that more than 35 major U.S. corporations engage in futures forecasting, most of them in research of social and environmental conditions up to 20 years away. They include General Electric, AT&T, Ford, Mobil Oil and Xerox. MIT professor and Club of Rome consultant Carroll Wilson has even persuaded executives of major companies to study ways to limit their own growth.
Functional futurism can seem to be pretty mundane. Some forecasters and planners look at a particular area (what will mental health services be like in our state in 1985?) or particular places (what will Southern California cities be like?) Futures research is often conducted with an eye toward what can be done in the present. The city governments of California wanted to know how bad smog and traffic would be, and what they could do about it. (A consultant told them that all cars would have to be banned from downtowns by 1985.)
Scott Paper hired future researchers to find out whether people are likely to want paper towels in 1990, whether there will be resources available to make them, and what other products might fit the times. Meanwhile, the Washington (DC) Chamber of Commerce claims to employ 30 professional futures researchers, to help it lobby for business interests.
These are some of the targeted tasks performed by professionals who use forecasting, trend analysis and other techniques, and may not necessary even want to call themselves futurists. But to find the more visionary views, and to locate the future of futurism, look on campus.
The range of courses being offered just at North American colleges and universities include “Utopias, Dystopia and Scenarios” (Harvard), “The Sociology of Aerospace” (Simpson), “California As the Wave of the Future” (Case Western Reserve in Ohio), “Conflict Research” (UCLA), “Geography of the Future” (Penn State), “Future of the Family” (Colorado State), “On the Limits of Prediction” (Simon Fraiser in Canada), as well as numerous courses on the the future and…drugs, computers, bioengineering, sex, government. The University of Massachusets offers a PhD in Futures Studies.
There are futures studies courses in high schools—the Maslov-Toffler School on Long Island is completely devoted to a futures curriculum—and in adult education, notably at the New School in New York City. Courses at all levels are increasing by about 50% every two years, according to Dartmouth sociologist H. Wentworth Eldridge, who watches the field closely. Classroom approaches vary from the usual lecture format to modular, team-teaching system
Some of the big names in the futures field—Toffler, Daniel Bell, Robert Theobald, John Platt, Robert Heilbroner—teach futures courses, or used to, but most of the work in education is being done by people like Rojas and Eldridge, who have become active since academic futurism started catching on in 1968, plus teachers who were trained in social studies, science or theology. They are being joined by graduates from their own programs.
Yet as a discipline, Futures Studies is still in its formative stage. “Identification of ‘futurism’ and clarification of the concept,” Eldridge wrote in his latest report on futures education, "remains the dominant problem.”
It isn’t the only problem. The sudden prominence, as well as the internal strengths and weaknesses of today’s futurism were on dramatic display at the 1975 international convention of the World Future Society at the Hilton hotel in Washington.
The WFS was begun in 1968, and this was just its second quadrennial convention. Though the society reserves its inner sanctums for professionals, its convention turned out to be the big tent of futurism. The turnout was impressive, in numbers and especially in variety.
The luminaries of established futurism were there, including Herman Kahn and super-sociologist Daniel Bell. Authors Alvin Toffler and Paul Goodman roamed the halls, both wearing sunglasses. Counterculturalists were well-represented, including Whole Earth cataloger Stewart Brand and Karl Hess. Frances Fitzgerald was covering the convention for Harper’s (and I was there representing New Times magazine.)
Participants included the director of Technological Forecasting of Tel-Aviv University, government planners from Japan and India, and the director of marketing for Hooker Chemicals and Plastics. City planners in Hush Puppies and corporate forecasters in khaki suits mingled with university students in cutoff jeans.
There were parapsychologists, members of communes dedicated to ecological self-sufficiency, and at least four Members of Congress. Sessions explored topics from long-range economic and environmental planning to new technologies and systems analysis, to science fiction and the future of religion. The exhibit hall was filled with future-oriented products, from flushless toilets to books on the anthropology of outer space.
There was heady talk, of challenges and trends. Daniel Bell said the era of “American Exceptionalism” is ending, and American must adjust in attitudes and lifestyle to the inevitable economic, political and cognitive changes. The Third World will become increasingly important, and the future will depend a great deal on whether the U.S. can recognize new realities. That perspective echoed that of several Third World speakers, who startled some of their listeners by asserting that they weren’t interested in American advice anymore.
Senator Ted Kennedy was a principal speaker, and proposed the creation of an Experimental Futures Agency to showcase new technologies. “We have to openly assess future trends and options,” he told the assembly, “not to lay out some precise master plan which would be imposed on our people, but to honestly present the full range of ‘alternative futures,’ with their relative costs and benefits…Only in this way can our citizens may informed choices on the vital issues before us.”
Accordingly he also proposed a Citizens Assessment Act, “to provide adequate financing for public participation in complex policy issues involving technology…These CAA’s would be voluntary associations of citizens joined together to address major policy issues like environmental quality, nuclear power plant siting, mass transit programs, the use of pesticides…” It sounded to some listeners like a program for federally funded Nader’s Raiders.
He also provided futurist inspiration with the Kennedy touch. “But what we need above all else is the courage and commitment to shape the future. In the words of [philosopher Alfred] Whitehead, ‘Modern science has imposed on humanity the necessity for wandering. Its progressive thought and technology make the transition through time from generation to generation, a true migration into uncharted seas of adventure. The very benefit of wandering is that it is dangerous and needs skills to avert evils. We must expect, therefore, that the future will disclose dangers. It is the business of the future to be dangerous;and it is among the merits of science that it equips the future for its duties.’”
“Let us take up the spirit of the American pioneers,” he said. “But this time, we must be pioneers in time, rather than space.” He finished with a line that both his revered brothers used. “I should like to say that my brother Robert was always a futurist at heart. His favorite quote from George Bernard Shaw, which he repeated through his last campaign in 1968, is, I believe the central charge of this assembly: ‘Some men see things as they are and say, ‘why.’ I dream things that never were and say, ‘Why not’?”
But not everything went so well. In fact, the convention almost collapsed on the first day.
Because futures studies by its own premise is comprehensive, and has to include everything about the future, the logical policy for the WFS is to be inclusive and open. Since new interest in the future is coming from young veterans of 1960s upheavals and those engaged in subsequent political and social activisms, as well as those pursuing new consciousness and ideas, they were interested and included. But they didn’t come without a cost. They were just as they were determined to have their voices heard by the futurist establishment as they had been by political leaders.
The futurist establishment—principally the first postwar generation of Think Tank forecasters—was on full view for the convention’s opening press conference. Among the luminaries on the stage was Herman Kahn himself, the paradigmatic establishment futurist, trying to leave behind his identification with thermonuclear war and megadeaths, and reinvent himself as predictor of a sunny American future.
Kahn, looking more like Santa Claus than Dr. Strangelove, was speaking softly, gravely and authoritatively, when suddenly a woman invaded the stage. She was Wilma Scott Heide, a past president of NOW, and her presence made her point: standing uninvited among a group of middle-aged white men, she was protesting the exclusion of women in the convention's planning and from the list of main speakers.
At first organizers had tried to handle the situation by literally shoving her off the stage. But when she finished speaking to the applause of onlookers, conference representatives sheepishly mumbled something conciliatory.
Among other things, it was a moment of high irony: the principal organization dedicated to anticipating the future found itself having its feminist crisis five years after everybody else. Anticipating it wouldn't have required a systems analysis, just reading the newspaper.
But this turned out to be only a prelude. That night a women's caucus was formed, and the convention's leaders were persuaded to add a woman as a main speaker, the very next morning. She was Hazel Henderson, a highly independent and creative former economist, and she galvanized the convention. Her speech was what many of the new futurists had been waiting for.
She told the assembly that she wasn't interested in developing strategies and scenarios. "I have humbler goals. They are to open up processes and decision mechanisms, to expose underlying values and assumptions buried deeply in our so-called value-free methodologies. Citizens now understand that professionals with narrow, specialist training cannot adequately define our problems. Not that professionals aren't essential to the debate, but they must now see where the limits of their technical competence end, and where their values carry no more weight than those of any other citizen in a democracy."
Hazel Henderson was instantly the new star of the convention, and her message inspired a fierce energy and focus for the rest of the proceedings. Henderson was an economist and a consultant to the Office of Technology Assessment, and so she knew Senator Ted Kennedy. When they later walked into the hall together for his speech, it symbolized the character of the convention. No one from the World Future Society had predicted this.
Towards the end of the convention, an alternative session led to a list of recommendations which were shouted from the podium in a free-form manifesto for the emerging future-populists. In the last hours, several individuals, including Alvin Toffler, tried to set up some sort of continuing communications network. But while those efforts were incomplete, there was a sense that something had begun.
A year later, futurists in Washington were still talking about what happened at the Hilton. A few weeks after the convention, Toffler’s Anticipatory Democracy Network sent follow-up letters noting, “Clearly the Washington meeting was an intense experience for many people.” A gathering of Washington futurists after the convention resulted in an ongoing group, the Planning Committee for a Model Futurist Organization, which produced a simulated annual report dated 1980, four years in the future. It anticipates and promotes a more participatory and rigorous futurism.
But not much else survived the burst of enthusiasm. Toffler’s network died on the vine, and other groups, in the words of Washington futurist Bill Moore, “just melted away…Futurists don’t like to organize,” he explained.
Sally Cornish of the WFS international office had another explanation. “You know how it is at a convention,” she said. “People have an interesting time, but there’s not a lot of follow-through.”
Meanwhile, there was still Herman Kahn. His new book, The Next Two Hundred Years, forecasting a sunny future for government and corporations as long as they keep doing what they are doing, received respectful coverage in the news columns of major newspapers. Kahn is probably still the only futurist who can command that kind of attention, and some younger futurists were getting really sick of it.
“What’s the mechanism by which he gets so much attention?” asked Dick Maynard, president of the Washington chapter of the World Future Society. “Does it mean what he says is true? It doesn’t say he’s right—it just says he’s good at P.R. But when it’s time for a futurist to testify at a congressional hearing, they call Herman because they know his name.”
“These guys are really playing a safe game,” Maynard continued. “They get famous for saying things that can’t be validated. The people who predicted the energy crisis didn’t get big press, but Herman did, and he missed it.”
But Maynard also expressed a frustration reflecting the perspective Hazel Henderson articulated. “How many people really get a chance to talk with Herman? It’s always a select group. People like Herman are so closed off and culture bound. That’s why we need wider participation and chances for feedback.”
“All our problems are interacting on a daily basis. I think it would be fantastic if they all worked out as he says they will. But we have a capability to monitor these things—we don’t have to play a high risk game. We don’t have to depend that Herman is right. We can’t afford to take the chance that Herman is wrong.”
Where futurism in Washington is right now may be best symbolized by the Committee for the Future, gearing up to host an international symposium with phone hook-ups to other cities as part of the Bicentennial Horizons Day. With an emphasis on communications technology and process, this group would seem to be what future populists are looking for: a way for everyone to learn and communicate about the future equally.
But their Syncon process and their technology have problems. “We started out six years ago to search out new options for the future and get them out to the public,” said co-founder John Whiteside. “But we still don’t really know how to do that.” Their attempt to use video at the end of the Washington convention to replay comments made by participants earlier, failed entirely when the technology wouldn’t work.
The organization otherwise seems caught between the two strong personalities of its founders: Barbara Marx Hubbard, a strong visionary who calls herself a “transformational evolutionist” and radiates a sense of purpose and care for people that attracts future populists. And Whiteside, a former military and NASA communications officer who exudes technical enthusiasm and optimism. His technocratic bias shouldn’t make any difference, but it’s one thing to take at face value the list of priorities for the next century he says he wrote one morning in his room, and something else to hear him say, while chatting about 1976 presidential candidates, “I’m not for any of them but I’ll tell you who I’m against—Jerry Brown. He’s contrary to the human spirit—he’s a Buddhist.”
Dick Maynard defends the role of technology in fostering communication. “Futurism does have its technical problems,” he said. “We’re always surer about technology than what it does. It’s easier to do the tangible things that to understand how to use it.” But he defends the attempts because eventually they may show results in greater understanding of complex problems inherent in studying events, causes, effects and patterns systematically.
“Computer graphics and video tape will be really helpful to people who have to make decisions,” he said. “Congressional staffers can compare what witnesses say, and see by means of computer graphics the implications of what they’re advocating. Now at these meetings you just get people waving their hands at each other because they don’t know what the other one is talking about.”
But confusion within futurism also reflects division on how a desirable future can be fostered and attained—or even whether it is futurism’s role to try.
But the point of forecasting the future would seem to be to prepare for what will happen, to try and change what is undesirable before it happens, and encourage the best possible future to emerge. The idea must be to not be a complete captive, especially when it seems our society has at least some control over some of the forces that determine the future.
For apart from the ever-present possibility of cataclysmic accident (not just the great Bomb-bath but such doleful freakishness as a laboratory-created, air-delivered, no-cure epidemic), what happens in the future will depend largely on what people do now. The scenarios vary, but they tell the same basic story: we can continue a society of mechanized junk, with all the snowmobiles and electric hair curlers we want, with the same unlimited growth and without developing a cooperative world economy, and with luck we can reach 2001 with only a few jolts, though we might have to meet 1984 along the way. But there are no longer any serious scenarios for civilization getting very far into the twenty-first century that don’t require major changes.
“There is only one crisis in the world. It is the crisis of transformation.” So states John Platt, in his eloquent call for a mobilization of the world’s scientists to save the future. From Buddha to Emerson and Chardin, there have been individual champions of transcendental attitudes, but after looking at the numbers on their charts, some forecasters are saying that our survival literally depends on change in that direction. That’s partly why futurism includes currently esoteric branches of biology and religion, as well as unconventional possibilities of the mind. Willis Harman, Director of the Social Policy Institute at Stanford writes, “The most carefully designed social measures will not achieve their desired goals unless they involve not only rationally designed programs and structures, but also changes in deep-rooted beliefs, values, attitudes and behavior patterns."
So Billy Rojas practices Buddhism as well as futuristics. At an MIT futurist seminar I met an advertising copywriter who talked about vector analysis and Gurdjieff, and a social scientist who was also a transcendental meditator. Also a Harvard Business School student who had spent four years in Vietnam, an Israeli physicist, several biologists and one economist---and they all talk to each other. There is an operating principle common to biology and futurism, which is that survival during periods of change depends not so much on being well-adapted as on being collectively adaptable.
All of these futurists—as well as Donald Stern, who majors in extraterrestrial sociology at the University of Washington, and Elliot Jacobson, who teaches environmental studies at the University of Massachusetts—are involved in what UMass futurist Fran Koster calls “imaging a richer future.” From forecasts of failure they are developing scenarios for success. The post-hippie program calls for de-toxification of the individual (the road to the future begins with your last cigarette) and new techniques of body and psychological knowledge, as well as technology.
The Spaceship Earth scenario calls for global consciousness, expressed in such mechanisms as a world food bank, world resource monitoring (begun by young adherents of Buckminster Fuller’s World Game) and a cooperative economic system. All scenarios call for alertness, resistance to the shock of rapid change, fortitude, creativity and planetary reverence. Such transformations are not impossible: cultural change is slow but visible.
As systems theorist and member of the Club of Rome Mihajlo Meserovic writes, “If, during the coming half-century, a viable world system emerges, an organic growth pattern will have been established for mankind to follow thereafter. If a viable system does not develop, projections for the decades thereafter may be academic.”
Apocalypse means revelation. Either all of us profit from the coming apocalypse or none of us does. We may be on the brink of complete disaster, or on the threshold of the first conscious evolutionary step on Earth, taken not by mechanization or by manipulating genes, but by solving problems. We will have to solve those problems to get to the intensely involving future some of the more visionary futurists see ahead of us: a future whose tantalizing outlines can be discerned by studying the most advanced sciences and the most ancient knowledge.
“The trick,” futurist Draper Kaufman says, “is to wake up those who are complacent without convincing the rest that things are hopeless.”
If there is hope for reaching that future, some of it is in the people who care enough about it to dedicate their present to not only their own fulfillment but posterity’s, and thereby to the spiraling gleam of life itself. Or as one young futures studies student said to me, “Have you watched that TV series, The Ascent of Man? Can’t you see how essentially beautiful human life is! We’ve got to find a way to go on.”