Sunday, August 23, 2009

Politics of the Future: Government, Grassroots, Education

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.”