Back To The Future
New Internationalist Issue 269
Five minutes to four. A bit ahead of myself. Time to kill. Check the door. No 70. Look out for tell-tale signs. A small totemic figure hanging from the doorbell. Seems promising. Feeling nervous.
She leads me into her consulting room, apologizing for the smell.'My last client was a chain-smoker.' I'm overwhelmed not by the smell of smoke but of incense. 'I don't go up as far as 2025,' she had told me on the phone. Never mind. It's the process of looking into the future - or futurism - that I'm interested in. My motives are initially journalistic.
Anna Sandham, Tarot reader and astrologer, lays out four cards, each dealing with a general area: Spirit, Law, Earthly Matters, Romance. I choose the card relating to the area I wish to explore. I surprise myself by choosing'Spirit'. She lays the rest of the cards face-down in an arc before me and tells me to pick 13. When I have picked them and handed them to her she takes the first card, lays it down and interprets it.
I know it is easy to find connections if you are looking for them - but one after another the interpretations are uncannily resonant for me. After a while I realize that although I've come to have my future told only some of the cards actually relate to the future. Some relate to the past but most relate to very personal things that are submerged in the present. This, she explains, is because we are working largely in the realm of the unconscious. It is this that will affect the future. Afterwards I realize that a simple future projection would have been quite meaningless; that the'future' cards make sense only in the context of the'past' and the'present' cards. To separate past, present and future doesn't feel relevant or meaningful.
Later I read something by W Warren Wagar, the New York State University historian and futurist. He puts it in a different way: 'Standing in the middle of a river looking upstream one sees the past. Standing in the middle of the river gazing downstream one sees the future. But it is always the same river.'1
Crossing boundariesTwentieth-century physics is also telling us that rigid past, present and future divisions are not as real or useful as our timepieces suggest. Before Albert Einstein developed the theory of relativity in 1915 space and time were thought to be fixed. Einstein's theory got rid of this idea and showed that space and time were dynamic.2
Although this radical insight shook up the Western scientific world, it would not have been so strange to many people less thoroughly conditioned by modern scientific rationalism. Within traditional cultures there is a regular crossing of time boundaries. A peasant woman in the Peruvian Andes will talk freely and easily about hearing los ancianos - the spirits of the past who inhabit the mountains - advising her on what to do in the future. Spirits are notoriously disrespectful of time-boundaries - and if spirits are part of your daily conceptual framework you probably have less regard for those boundaries too. Within these traditions there is nothing weird or wacky about trying to see into the future: it is simply another way of reaching the gods. Whether reading the entrails of a sacrificial animals in Ethiopia or visiting a voodoo priest in Haiti, the attempt to divine the future is usually for moral and spiritual guidance.
In more secular societies ruminating on the future has usually been driven by intellectual curiosity and playfulness. It has been especially fertile ground for writers, whose works have ranged from fictional ideal worlds - or utopias - to popular Sci-Fi. The former enabled thinkers like Thomas More or William Morris to criticize obliquely their own societies while suggesting alternatives. Such imaginative, fictional approaches to the future have proved to be about as reliable - or unreliable - as more plodding 'probable' scenarios. In fact, that's one reason we chose to ask eight fiction writers to help us look at the world in the year 2025 in this issue of the NI.
But in recent years looking into the future has become more serious - 'factual', philosophical and commercial. Eager to gain academic recognition, those who study the future now argue that their subject has its place alongside others like history or geology. In their own defence futurists claim to study alternative futures just as historians study alternative pasts.
Beware, bewareIt sounds fair enough, but prophecy - like history - is powerful stuff. Facts can be manipulated easily enough in the present to constitute lies. With the future the prophet has an even freer hand.
Even George Orwell, creator of that most famous futuristic dystopia or 'reverse utopia' 1984, came to the conclusion that futurism pandered to fear and cravings for power.3
This rings particularly true in a century that has seen charismatic leaders such as Hitler, Mussolini and Haiti's Papa Doc Duvalier propagating their version of the future. The fascist leader needs to create a convincing vision to mobilize people to do things they might otherwise find morally repugnant. The end has to be convincingly conjured to justify the means - even if it involves genocide. If a particular group of people are the problem, the source of fear and insecurity, they must be removed. Once people have escaped into the easy solution they can be easily dominated by it - as in Rwanda and the former Yugoslav republics today.
Historian and futurist, Warren Wagar concedes: 'Virtually all totalitarian regimes of our century have been informed by a past-centred or future-centred ideology that tells their hapless subjects precisely what the past ordains or what the future demands.'
This happens, he says, when people take a 'too rigid view of time, imagining they know more than they do'. They end up 'devaluing present life and happiness in the name of some imagined past or future felicity'.1 It is a bit reminiscent of the Queen of Hearts' comment in Through the Looking Glass : 'The rule is jam tomorrow, jam yesterday - but never jam today.'
Fascism is not the only political force to conjure future visions in a manipulative way. Max Dublin, who has become one of the fiercest critics of futurism since working as a strategic planning consultant to the Canadian Government, states: 'Prophecy is a basic tool of ideology, Left or Right, East or West.'4
The USSR preached that communism would lead to a glorious future of a classless, egalitarian society - with plenty of promised jam. The US pointed to a different future of repeated conflict with the'evil empire' in order to stoke up Cold War fever and justify feeding its rapacious military-industrial complex. A favoured activity of Cold War planners was to work on imagined 'wargames' which explored options for 'contained' nuclear war.
Whose business?Today the Future is a booming business, especially in North America and Japan. With the millennium around the corner think-tanks, research groups and consultants are peddling their prophecies hard and fast to planners and policy-makers. Many claim their methods are 'scientific' and they rely heavily on computer projections. And more and more policy-makers are using their work.
Dutch futurists Henk Becker and Joseph van Doorn observe that today: 'A policy-maker either uses the results of a futures research project to beat his [sic] opponents or his opponents attack him by using futures research and he needs to have this kind of research available to hit back.'
The title of a recent futurist conference in Toronto says it all: Getting to the future first! Newt Gingrich, right-wing Republican Speaker of the US House of Representatives takes such things to heart. He has hand-picked the US's most famous pop-futurist Alvin Toffler as a close adviser. Toffler's ideas are useful to Gingrich - especially the idea that there is going to be a great radical leap into a 'Third Wave' and this will involve dismantling a great part of government. Gingrich interprets this to justify his own hostility to state intervention in the economy and to welfare safety nets for the poor.
This alliance of politics and prophecy is nothing new. In the first century BC the Roman Senate would not make a move without consulting the book of the Sibyl, a famous collection of prophecies made by an inspired woman. Today, reports churned out by futurists serve the same function. Unfortunately, they are not churned out by inspired women - or inspired men for that matter. Instead they are produced by Western technocrats (mostly white and male) using state-of-the-art computer technology. Despite these sophisticated machines, Michael Marien, US editor of Futures Survey, thinks the quality of futures study has actually declined in the past 20 years. And computer projections, he says, have not helped.'You have to start off with an assumption and if that is wrong then the whole thing will be wrong.'
Most commercial futures research assumes that competition and domination will go on being the way the world is ordered. Tacit assumptions are made based on things remaining as they are - only 'more so' in whatever direction the trend is stretched. The effect is not to broaden horizons but actually to narrow down options.
The fact is that these prophecies say a lot more about who has produced them than about any likely future. You can see how this works by looking at future projections from the last century when there was a firm belief that hot-air balloons were to be the transport technology of the twentieth century. Many of our current obsessions with 'virtual reality' may prove to be as inappropriate and risible to future generations.
Reclaiming the futureSo does that mean that trying to glimpse the future is a waste of time - and a dangerous one at that?
If it means passively following the technology fads and self-interested forecasts of big business and its political allies, then yes. But it need not be that. Looking ahead can sometimes help us to think more clearly and imaginatively. It can shed light on the present and help us make the changes now that will affect the future.
Teacher Noel Wilson works with teenagers in Australia and the UK and gets them to depict what they think the world will be like in 30 years. After collecting examples from 600 students he was able to see a clear pattern emerging. Over half of the drawings showed computers and robots in block houses, skyscrapers and domes. Most revealed landscapes of bleak devast-ation. Nearly all were negative and dehumanised. Most had no human presence at all.5
What's so worrying about this sense of hopelessness - which other teachers and researchers confirm is the norm - is that it produces passivity and a sense of fatality. The despair itself becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy Joanna Macy addresses this in workshops and in her book Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age. For a start, she teaches that feelings of pain for our world are natural and healthy and only morbid if denied. Information alone, she says, is not enough and unlocking repressed feelings can release energy and clear the mind. Unblocking pain for the world, she concludes, reconnects us with a larger web of life. This is all good therapeutic stuff. In imagining the future we can get in touch with our deepest fears and desires. Then the positive work of imagining alternative scenarios and thinking about how they might be achieved can begin.
In another project, when 400 young people from different backgrounds and from different continents focused on how they would like the world to be, two images kept recurring in their utopias. One was 'boundarylessness' - a free flow of people, thought and activities unimpeded by occupational or political or national barriers. The other was of a'bright, clean green world with clear blue oceans'.5
If there is one area where changes we make now will affect the future it is in our relationship to the environment. Because environmental damage is happening gradually it's possible to ignore it. But if we ask ourselves what will happen if current trends are not reversed - holes in the ozone layer, global warming, water pollution and the accumulation of toxic and nuclear waste - then things look grim indeed. Unless you believe that technology or 'market forces' will get us out of this mess (not a wise bet), then there is no choice but to start taking the environment seriously. Unlike most catastrophes in the making, the eventual collapse of the environment is one we can safely predict - before the suffering actually hits. But can we learn to act now for the future?
David Hicks, Director of the Global Futures Project at Bath College of Higher Education in England, is making a start. He gets his students to imagine what 'sustainability' would look like in the North, in the South and globally. And then he challenges them to think about what needs to be done to achieve it.
And there are lots of possibilities. We can start the move from fossil fuels and nuclear power to safe renewable sources of energy like solar or wind power. We can introduce an environmental cost in our economic calculations. We can start moving to a philosophy of sustainability as opposed to lemming-like economic growth at whatever cost to the environment. We can adopt an approach of responsibility and stewardship towards our planet rather than exploitation.
This may seem like pie-in-the-sky. After all, since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 most governments have shown that their actual - though unprofessed - commitment is to keeping things as they are.
And the futures research that politicians and corporations choose to use is unlikely to tell them to stop what they are doing and think about the earth. A report called The Highly Probable Future: 83 assumptions about the year 2025, sponsored by 18 American and European multinationals, is typically woolly on the subject of the environment. The report concludes: 'Global environmental management issues will be institutionalized in multinational corporations as well as through the United Nations and other supranational entities. 'It goes on to assert: 'The multinational corporation will be the world's dominant business form.'6
This is not the future that many of the world's peoples want or are prepared to have decided for them. Resistance is growing everywhere. Environmental activists from Bangladesh to Brazil, from Kenya to Canada are challenging governments and corporations and gaining increasing popular support. When the Nigerian Government recently turned its guns against its own Ogoni people to make way for petroleum drilling by the Anglo-Dutch multinational Shell Oil, international protest was quickly mobilized by activists using global e-mail and other networks. And the scale of recent anti-road-building protests in Britain has taken everyone by surprise. More and more people around the globe are recognizing that we cannot 'tinker' - or build - our way out of the problems we have created for ourselves and future generations. Our relationship with the planet will need to change radically.
It's now just five years to the turn of the century and a new millennium, traditionally a time of great upheaval. Astrologers are gearing up for it. The planets will be lined up in Taurus (a powerful Earth sign) in the year 2000. According to Anna, my Tarot-reader, it could mean two things: either we will embark on a new way of relating to the earth; or we will obstinately cling to our old ways. Which is it to be?
The kind of world we will have in a few decades depends on our capacity to start making big changes now. In this sense, the future is present.
1 W Warren Wagar 'The Future Without End' in Visions for the 21st Century, ed. Sheila Moorcroft, Adamantine Press, London, 1992.
2 Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time, Penguin Books, London, 1995.
3 George Orwell 'James Burnham and the managerial revolution' in Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1968.
4 Max Dublin Futurehype: The Tyranny of Prophecy, Plume Books, 1992.
5 Richard A Slaughter ' Changing images of futures in the 20th century' in Preparing for the Future: Notes and queries for concerned educators, ed. David Hicks, Adamantine Press, London 1994.
6 Joseph F Coates The Highly Probable Future: 83 Assumptions about the Year 2025, World Futures Society, Bethesda, Maryland, 1994.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995