Sunday, August 23, 2009

The future of the future: Lifeboat v. Spaceship Earth

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.