Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Future Debate: How to Profit From the Coming Apocalypse

“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.