Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Trick to Save the Future

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.”