The Future of Futures Studies. Futures for the Third Millennium: Enabling the Forward View
Reviewed by Graham May, Foresight vol. 2 no. 4. August, 2000 (To open click here)
The Future of Futures Studies. Futures for the Third Millennium: Enabling the Forward View
Reviewed by Graham May, Foresight vol. 2 no. 4. August, 2000 (To open click here)
Review : Futures for the Third Millennium : Enabling the Forward View, Richard A Slaughter, Prospect Media, Australia. 1999. ISBN : 1 86316 148 1. Pp 368. Price : AUD $39.95.
Futures for the Third Millennium covers a lot of territory – the inadequacy of the Modern worldview, futures in education, foresight institutions and practices, critical futures methods, moving from an individual to a social capacity to do futures, and a new paradigm for the discipline. One has to admire the immense industry and erudition of the author and his courage and insight in questioning the current paradigm. Like any great undertaking, it has its flaws, but these should not divert us from paying close attention to the telling critique it contains of the Modernist paradigm of futures studies. This by itself makes 3rd Millennium an important book.
It would be impossible to adequately cover the large range of topics in a review of this nature, so I am going to treat most of the book lightly and focus on what is most radical and innovative which in my view is the handling of critical futures and particularly the proposal that the central purpose of futures studies be “to illuminate the way beyond limited and instrumental interests altogether to shared transpersonal ends. This involves identifying the ‘escape route’ from (Ken Wilber’s) ‘flatland’  and helping to facilitate the re-integration of ‘The Big Three’: the ‘It’, the ‘I’ and the ‘We’. ” This is a challenge which now faces science as well as futures studies. The quest to integrate Einstein’s Theories of Relativity with Quantum Mechanics to form a complete explanation of the physical all the way from the cosmic in scale to the very small, so called Quantum Gravity, also involves incorporating the ‘I’ with the ‘It’ i.e. with describing a physical system in which the observer is part of the system, not outside it, as he or she is in conventional science. It involves a cultural discontinuity of the first magnitude, essentially overturning the underlying tenets of the Modern. But to begin, we have to address a very basic issue about the nature of futures studies itself. It seems to me that the discipline is fundamentally about improving the capacity of societies to adjust to change through more effective learning. It does this in two ways. Via anticipatory futures it provides content (what the issues, trends and options are) and analytical skills, from technical tools like delphi to critical skills. Through participatory futures it provides a praxis for better social decision making. Essentially it is about improving the capacity of societies to learn from their environments and their internal dynamics so as to make better decisions at the societal level.
What futures studies has never done to my knowledge is to study how societies have learned in the past and continue to learn today. In short, it has no data based model of societal learning on which to hang all its prognostications about content and process. If futurists make an explicit assumption at all, it tends to follow the models of management science or, as in the case of participatory futures, futures techniques are bodged on to the front end of existing representative democratic processes as in Alternatives for Washington and the Colorado Front Ranges Project. But that is not how societies learn, as I will discuss below. This is, to say at the least, an enormous technical hole in the discipline. The discipline is trying to improve the efficiency of a process for which it does not have an empirically defensible model.
This issue is of great importance to thinking about 3rd Millennium, for what RS is proposing is that Western Civilization undertake a monumental episode of societal learning, in which current assumptions will be turned upside down, much as occurred in the 17th century when the Modernist mythology was created. He nowhere proposes how this enormous project will be accomplished, though he does have a model he calls the Transformative Cycle which links changes in meaning to changes in institutions though negotiated settlements (though we are not told how these occur). Both the discipline and RS tend to portray societal change as rational, bloodless, intellectual dialogue of fact and counter fact, argument and counter argument, until the better side wins. In RS’s Transformative Cycle conflict does not rise in intensity above civil unrest and disobedience. This is quite ahistorical. Past episodes of societal learning have been accompanied by great violence. They are typified by persecutions, pogroms, autos-da-fe and civil and international wars. The emergence of the Modern Worldview in the 17th century was accompanied by civil wars in England and France, the Thirty Years War between the Protestant and Catholic powers which left one third of the population of Germany dead, pogroms like the Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve (the state sanctioned mass murder of Huguenots in France), waves of witch trials and executions and the consignment of the disaffected (in France) to lunatic asylums. Societal learning is not a bloodless debate using Robert’s Rules of Order. The casual manner in which the futures profession calls for paradigmatic and worldview change, without even mentioning these typical accompaniments, let alone offering ways of avoiding them, is naive at best and grossly irresponsible at worst.
Historically, emotion and transcendence have been central to the societal learning experience. Ironically, transcendence is one of the things RS wishes to introduce to the discipline, yet he does not consider its Modern role, presumably because he believes, following Wilber, that it has been unimportant in Modern times. This is not so. Changes in values are emotional affairs, not simply rational choices. Values are embedded in peoples’ psyches, their sense of who they are and why they are. It takes great fear and great hope to cause them to leave go of them. Many will fight to the death, literally, before they will give them up. Others will kill any who refuse to join in the shift, because they, or their leaders, have seen the Light (have undergone a transformational emotional or spiritual experience deliberately brought on by “ascent practices” such as meditation, dance, sleep deprivation and use of hallucinogenic drugs – see , , , ) and believe that those who haven’t are inferior and expendable. It is always led by outgroups who form fundamentalist, evangelical sects of one kind or another (whether they are called Royal Societies, Bolsheviks or Methodists), who develop values and concepts which enable them to survive the turmoil of change and which unerringly resonate with the needs of the times. They are consequently co-opted by the ingroups, unless there is a successful social revolution in which the outgroup becomes the ingroup (as in the English, French and Russian revolutions). This linking of transcendence and emotion in societal learning continued during the modern era (,  ) in the form of sect led Awakenings and Revivals out of which came the socio-economic paradigms for each evolutionary change in the Modernist Worldview.
What is interesting and instructive is that the literary form adopted by RS and others (such as Lester Brown, the Meadows’ and Paul Erlich) is identical to the rhetorical pattern of the sects – an apochryphal vision of a future world hell bent on destruction which can only be avoided by repentence and following the New Word or New Light. For one thing, this is quite at variance with the careful, scholarly, agnosticism cultivated by the futures profession. For another, it reveals that societal learning has some deep cultural patterns which persist through time.
So what is RS criticizing, what are his criticisms, what is his new paradigm and where could it take us? He believes we face a civilizational challenge which has two parts: an unsustainable pressure on resources and the global ecosystem; and a break down of meanings and value. The breakdown in meanings and value is occurring both because of the environmental crisis he sees and because of the contradictions being created by instrumental rationality and reductionism which have led to the loss of the transcendent, to science and technology being used for irrational ends, to the desacralization of nature, and to the substitution of having for being. These characteristics of Modernism are what are driving the ecological breakdown he prophesies. His solution is to put instrumental rationality and irrational science in their places with wise ethics, to rediscover the transcendent through meditation etc, to resacralize nature, to substitute being for having and to recover a holistic worldview by reintegrating ‘We’, ‘I’ and ‘It’, to use Wilber’s terminology.
Futures studies will have a role in all this by shifting its focus to critical and epistemological analysis, creating more effective institutes of foresight to do the basic research and improve the capacity of societies to undertake foresight, and lobbying to introduce futures studies into educational curricula. I don’t think too many futurists would deny the breakdown in meanings and values which is occurring and there is a pretty good consensus on which meaning and values are breaking down along the lines RS suggests. It is a path well beaten by Capra , Berman ,  and Bateson , among others. There is nothing new here. What is new is the discussion of what it means for the discipline and what it should focus on. RS has a useful categorization of futures: pop, problem oriented, critical and epistemological. Pop looks at trends in a relatively short-term, simplistic, unsystemic way. Problem oriented focuses on helping organizations make better decisions. Critical futures examines assumptions and premises. Epistemological futures traces sources of meaning in the culture. What RS suggests is that the centre of gravity in futures studies should shift to the last two and particularly to the last one, as they offer the most insight into breakdowns of meaning and the creation of new worldviews. The current dominance of the first two categories he feels is due to the American domination of the discipline, with its emphasis on the empirical and assisting decision makers.
RS believes that while individuals are hard wired for foresight, organizations and societies have no inherent mechanism for it. While organizations have successfully adopted foresight techniques (he is thinking of MNCs and US corporations in particular here) he doesn’t believe this has happened at the societal level. Foresight has thus been harnessed for private needs but not for public ones. I find this conclusion puzzling, given the way in which foresight tyechniques have been employed in Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, France and Japan as part of the official planning apparatus and to participatorily reorient cities and states in the United States. He only discusses the Australian experience which surely is a marginal and unsustained effort compared with those in the countries mentioned. Nonetheless his call for institutions capable of supporting broad based public discussion of issues is well founded. With the exception of the US efforts at participatory democracy, the examples I cite did not involve the public, but were confined to the upper echelons of government and social elites. Equally justifiable is his criticism that existing institutes of foresight are national in their orientation at a time when the issues are more global and citizens taking on international institutions and MNCs require support at that level. Given the paucity of resources in this area and the need to open the discussion up to other than western viewpoints, his call for them to operate in a collegial network with others around the world is well made. How much these Institutes of Foresight will be of assistance in helping create a capacity for social foresight is a moot point. Providing support for citizen visioning, issues identification and analysis would certainly help.
Whether critical and epistemological futures would make the process of societal learning more effective in the absence of an adequate, empirically grounded model of how it happens, is doubtful. It may have the opposite effect from what is intended. For despite RS’s opinion that there is no foresight capacity at the societal level, this is just not so. It resides in outgroups who innovate new paradigms to help them cope with times of turmoil and structural change and the capacity of elites to co-opt what they create. Any program to achieve worthwhile change and improve the efficiency of societal learning has to recognize the existence of this process, how it works and who is involved. As it stands, these groups are not big readers of the professional futures literature. Whether it would be helpful for them to look 100 years into the future, as RS recommends, is also debateable. One thing one learns from the study of history is that while certain long terms trends can be discerned, trying to anticipate them is virtually impossible. One can argue that there are cycles in the history of mankind, associated with influences like climatic change and technological and social invention, for example, but trying to anticipate or forecast the consequences in a way that will assist people to make present decisions about their lives and their society, which will prove to be wise in the long term, is another thing entirely and very unlikely of fulfillment. Human society is just too inventive and mutable, generating almost infinite surprise, a conclusion for which RS himself makes a strong case.
They certainly will not be helpful if they continue the Club of Rome, Meadows, Worldwatch approach of projecting historical trends into the future, a tendency to which RS is particularly prone. While helpful as a wakeup call to the dangers of the present course, they are not very helpful as ways to analyze or anticipate the future. Simply put, they are Old Science and therefore anachronistic. They mechanically and linearly project into the future. The New Science is organic and non-linear. It sees the world as dynamic and complex, continually bootstrapping new solutions which are full of surprise. This has already proven to be the case at the level of predictions of resource use and pricing, symbolized by the famous wager between Julian Simon and Paul Erlich. People have attacked Simon for his values and paradigm (neo-classical economics) and not paid enough attention to his data, which are unimpeachable and fully support his position that historically resource prices have continually fallen for centuries despite declining resource quality and enormous escalations of use. It is a trend as unimpeachable as any RS adduces in defining his civilizational problematique, yet he attacks the person instead of the data. Simon’s data is a canary singing the anthem of self-organized adaptation in the coalmine of futures studies. It means that RS’s apocalyptic vision is unlikely to transpire. The Club of Rome, Meadows et al caught the public and decision makers attentions. Simply repeating the mantra serves no purpose at this point other than to instill fear, and dash hope that the future can be better. We should be focusing on alternatives, “discerning sources of inspiration and hope” as RS puts it (p 10).
RS recommends that we explore the use of Ken Wilber’s map of the human cosmos as a place to begin our epistemological endeavours. Based on a monumental study of the human race’s religious, philosophical and scientific traditions, the map consists of four hierarchies describing four spaces: the intentional, the behavioural, the cultural and the social (system). The intentional portrays the development of mind; the behavioural the physiological development of the nervous system; the cultural the collective consciousness or mental style of the culture; and the social the nature of social organization. The map covers both the interior and the exterior, the collective and the individual. The Modern Worldview considers only the external (right hand) side of the map which Wilber calls ‘It” – the physical. His intent is to marry the ‘It’ side of the map to the left hand side which covers the ‘I’ (intentional) and the ‘We’ (cultural), without losing the advantages of the Modern such as individual freedom, egalitarianism and sexual equality. How this would be accomplished, exactly, is not described, though one has the impression that it would be through individuals practising meditation and other ‘ascent practices’ until a critical mass of people operating at a higher level of consciousness is created which in some way will change the direction of the culture.
Wilber is not simple-mindedly recommending a return to the guru or sect model in which a leader achieves transcendence and then either establishes a followership which remains with its feet on the ground and merely mimics the outward forms of the experience, as in most radical protestant sects, or establishes a school of meditation and followers who imitate by rote, but an open-eyed, aware individual exploration of the transcendental. In Eye to Eye he writes at one point that the meditative experience is replicative, that is, that when a person follows a certain set of injunctions as to how to meditate, a specific experience results which other people, following the same injunctions, will also experience . Moreover, he sees people comparing notes on the “data” as peers, as in science. Like the Rosicrucians he is melding one tradition transcendental) with another (Modernist scientific replicability and freedom of thought). My thoughts on Wilber’ map are: that it is a brilliant and monumental piece of scholarship; that it would be a good idea to check whether in fact such a mapping does defensibly emerge from the literature of human culture, the way Wilber says it does; that if valid it provides a wonderful context within which to place critical and epistemological futures; but that as an action plan for improving the combined future of mankind and the planet it is problematical.
It is problematical for several reasons. To begin, the practices will not remain within the safe confines of a group of wise, well-meaning and worthy people. It will inevitably escape, just as it did in the 17th century, when more books were published (in enormous numbers) on alchemy than on any other subject. This contributed to an explosion of sects during the English Revolutionary period, some of which are still with us, like the Quakers and Unitarians. It was employed by the less worthy and more concretely minded to do things like find stolen goods (a big by-line of Church of England clergy of the time who dabbled in alchemy, ). It created groups of people who believed in different doctrines and were so convinced of their rightness, by virtue of the certainty that transcendental experience engenders, that they were entirely intolerant of one another. In short, it created spiritual automatons. On the extreme, it can produce a Hitler, as Berman argues, and a nation of automata capable of great evil. Berman’s solutions to the downside of a global culture rooted in transcendent experience are “self-determination, strong local community ties, neighbourhood spirit” , but this was true of the Cathars and the 17th century radical protestants. The Cathars were murdered en masse by Papal decree and the radicals lost out to the landed aristocracy and Arkright’s version of industrialism. They don’t seem very strong bulwarks to guruism in a world of the Internet for which such local ties would be weak. The downside risks seem so large to this writer that other alternatives should be considered (see below). Moreover, transcendental cultures are prey to many of the evils rational modern ones are. RS and others believe they will be wise cultures in which the evil excesses of industrialism, for example, will not occur. How then to explain the Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages which was started by one group of transcendentalists who withdrew from the world and urban life – the Cistercians – and either co-invented or adopted by another unworldly, “wise” group, the Cathars. It had all the putative excesses of the modern Industrial Revolution – greed, short term thinking, pillage of nature, pollution, resources exhausted etc. . The same thing happened in China when Buddhism (as “other wordly” and “wise” as you can get) married with Confucianism to create an oriental Industrial Revolution at the same time period , .
This is one of the great weaknesses in the “our ecological problems are caused by the modern way of life and in particular modern science and technology” school, which therefore assumes that if we rid ourselves of, or transcend, industry and classical science, we will be well on our way to cleaning up the world and living sustainably. The historical record is quite clear, all sorts of non industrial, non scientific cultures, most of them “transcendental”, have choked to death on their wastes and exceeded the carrying capacity of the ecological niche their mentality and technology made them master of. Ur, Babylon, the high civilizations of the Americas all collapsed in this way. Transcendence and/or non-industrial economies/societies by themselves do not solve the problems of human hubris and ecological sustainability. (See Attenborough for a history of how ancient civilizations ravaged the Mediterranean Basin ). Only in Ancient Egypt, because of the unique capacity of the Nile to renew the land’s fertility and wash away salts in its annual flood, was this story not repeated. There are alternatives to ascent. Berman proposes a science which incorporates the observer in the experiment, though he is not clear on how this would be achieved beyond some conceptual discussion of the role of Mind, following Bateson. Contemporary physicists like Lee Smolin who are trying to integrate the General Theory of Relativity with Quantum Mechanics so as to create a single theory of the physical world from the cosmic scale to the very small, find they have to create a space for the observer within the theoretical system, as any theory which explains all the universe cannot have an observer standing outside of it looking in. This was foreseen by Whitehead and Russell in their Theory of Classes , by Whitehead in Process and Reality  and, in a slightly different form, by Goedel in his Incompleteness Theorem . Russell, Whitehead and Goedel’s results would suggest that Smolin is on a wild-goose chase, that you can’t get there from a Modernist mentality. Another alternative is to abandon the “vertical”, transcendental route via “higher” states of consciousness, and to live horizontally, that is to live with a full awareness of the connectedness of all things, with an ethic of equal value to all the inhabitants of the natural world, in essence of the sacredness of nature, and to use that value and that ethic to guide the use of Modern mentality. For us, horizontality implies staying in current consciousness, at the existential level. Horizontality is not new in human experience. Progenitors include St. Theresa and her Doctrine of Small Things, St. Francis, the Celtic Christians, the Buddhists (including modern Buddhists like Fritz Schumacher) and many North American Indian cultures. It may be, as Berman suggests, and as North American Indians practice, that the approach to horizontality is by a singular experience of ascent or transcendence to the level where the experience is of being connected to everything else – one innoculation of oneness by ascent perhaps being good for a lifetime of immunity to Wilber’s ‘flatland’, of horizontality.
So what are we to day in conclusion? That this is a courageous, pathbreaking book for the discipline; that it is erudite and scholarly; and that the profession should take up the challenge it presents of developing critical and epistemological futures studies.
 Wilber, Ken. A brief history of everything. Boston: Shambhala, 1996.
 Clark, Samuel Delbert. Church and Sect in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1948.
 McLoughlin, William G. Revivals, awakenings and reform: an essay on religion and social change in America, 1607-1977. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.
 Hollinshead, Michael J. “The brain, the mind, and societal and cultural learning: the emergence of a new paradigm of futures research.” Futures, forthcoming.
 Hollinshead, Michael J. The myth of Canada, McFarlane, Walter and Ross, forthcoming.
 Hollinshead, Michael J. Social visioning and leadership: a modern history and policy guide. Edmonton: Facing the Future Inc., 1986
 Capra, Fritjof. The turning point: science, society and the rising culture. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982.
 Berman, Morris. The re-enchantment of the world. New York: Bantam, 1984.
 Berman, Morris. Coming to our senses. Body and spirit in the hidden history of the West. New York: Bantam, 1990.
 Bateson, Gregory. Steps to an ecology of mind. New York: Ballantine, 1972.
 Wilber, Ken. Eye to eye. Boston: Shambhala, 1983.
White, Lynn Jr. Machina ex deo: essays in the dynamism of Western Culture. Cambridge Mass.: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1968
 Thomas, Keith. Religion and the decline of magic. Harmondsworth: Peregrine, 1978.
 Gimpel, Jean. The medieval machine: the industrial revolution of the Middle Ages. New York: Penguin, 1977.
McNeill, William H. The pursuit of power. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.
 Chinese Academy of Sciences. Ancient China’s technology and science. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1983.
 Attenborough, Richard. The first Eden. London: Collins, 1987.
 Whitehead, Alfred North and Russell, Bertrand. Principia mathematica. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1927-35.
 Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and reality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1929.
Nagel, Ernest and Newman, James R. Goedel’s proof. New York: New York University Press, 1958.
Michael Hollinshead, President, Facing the Future Inc., 15003 56 Avenue, Edmonton Alberta T6H 5B2, CANADA. ph and fax +1 780 438 7342 email email@example.com
|Futures Studies: Crystal Ball Gazing or Disciplined Scholarship?Michael Green, Australian National University
Richard A. Slaughter, Futures for the Third Millennium: Enabling the Forward View, Prospect Media, 1999, (381pp). ISBN 1 86316 148 1 (paperback) RRP $40.00.
Richard A. Slaughter (ed.), Gone Today, Here Tomorrow: Millennium Previews, Richmond Ventures, 2000, (145pp). ISBN 1 8631 6122 8 (paperback) RRP $35.00.
The ability to see the future is one of the most fabled and desired mythical powers, yet futures research is neglected. Our governments are shortsighted, unable to see much beyond the next election. The market might trade in 30-year bonds and futures, but it is rooted in the immediate. With Futures Studies, Richard Slaughter aims to develop a coherent approach to the future; not as an empty space to be colonised or a single fate towards which the wheel of fortune inexorably turns, but as a realm to be mapped. Slaughter argues that humanity needs to find a way out of ‘the global problematique’, which comprises ‘a late industrial system, classical economics, international trade, “trickle down” development, the mechanistic world view and a deteriorating environment’. He believes Futures Studies can help by being a ‘seed bed’ for ‘social and methodological innovations’.
Traditional societies could educate their members in the ways of the past, confident of their value for a future similar to the present. But modern capitalism, with its ‘creative destruction’, its continuous revolution of technique, and its accelerating pace of change makes conscious engagement with the future a necessity. We need to ‘steer’ into the future with great care. Why do we teach our children so much about the past, Slaughter asks enviously, when it is the future they will inhabit? Despite the precarious state many historians believe their discipline to be in, they need not jump to the barricades. History is essential for futures work to go beyond mere speculation. Slaughter acknowledges the need to ‘look back and develop a view of the “historical trajectory”’, to ‘understand the present in depth’, and to assess ‘historical continuities’. Indeed, history appears to be the paradigm discipline underpinning Slaughter’s conception of futures scholarship.
But if history remains important, Slaughter thinks we face perhaps unprecedented challenges. Human activity is having measurable impacts on the major ecosystems that sustain life-as-we-know-it. The natural lags of large-scale systems like the atmosphere and the oceans together with the lead times for change in our values and institutions make it a matter of survival that we look far ahead and take precautionary action. Slaughter’s ‘200-year present’ stretching a lifetime into the past and a lifetime into the future symbolises the perspective he believes we need to take on the significant issues confronting us.
Futures for the Third Millennium is aimed at practitioners and students of Futures Studies. Its programs include educational projects from school through to graduate programs that seek to engage students in thinking seriously about ‘futures’, activities to engage corporate and government leaders in thinking about the longer term in a systematic way, facilitated by futures professionals, and critical futures research and ‘institutions of foresight’. But above all, Slaughter wants to inject discipline and a critical theoretical perspective into a field hitherto ‘inhibited by inadequate methods, superficial language and a lack of commonly accepted standards and foundations’. So, aside from his other ambitions, Slaughter hopes to bring a new meta-discipline into the academy and establish its respectability.
Why meta-discipline? For one thing, Futures Studies relies on the outputs of many other fields of practice, scholarship and research. Its methods range from trend extrapolation to world-systems modeling, from ‘futurescan’ workshops to scenario building, and from metaphor analysis to critical theory. Slaughter identifies two major conceptual barriers Futures Studies needs to overcome. First is the notion of the future as ‘empty space’ that in one view doesn’t exist and in another is a place to locate our hopes and fears. To counter this, we have the obvious human capacity of ‘foresight’ and the demonstrated capacity for technoscientific prediction of the stars and many other things. Second are the notions of fate, inevitability, and determinism, which construct the future as determined by god(s) or by ‘laws’, whether they be laws of technological progress, of evolution, of economics, or of history.
Slaughter’s answer is the metaphor of the future as a map, with specific terrain that constrains us, surveyed by ‘futurescan methods’ and critical Futures Studies. This terrain gives us many choices and possibilities as we move through it. I like the map metaphor. It gives a sense of some options being easier than others. Surely, the highways on the map of the future are the path of least resistance; the short cut is the road to ruin; and the road paved with good intentions the hard road, the long road and the narrow way. Rather than plodding forward head down, Slaughter would have us look up to the horizon and look around for other roads we might take or make. And he would like to see animated discussion at intersections along the way.
Slaughter’s map has continuation of the current consumer-capitalist society — hooked on technological advance and increasingly devastating the ecosystems of the planet — as the path of least resistance. Futures Studies, he hopes, will help us realise this is the road to ruin and motivate us to turn off, to travel the road paved with good intentions from which we climb onto the hard road of consciousness transformation that leads out of the ‘global problematique’ to a sustainable society.
But we need critical futures work to get our bearings, because according to Slaughter our view is distorted by popular culture and by our limited concepts of ‘progress’. Twentieth century classics like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984 have so shaped our ideas of what is to come that it is difficult to escape their influence. Orwell’s surveillance society overseen by Big Brother provides the premise of the most successful new television format of recent times. And how much of the bipartisan opposition to human cloning stems from Huxley’s image of a production line of babies in bottles at the beginning of Brave New World and the genetically determined society he imagined?
Mass media constructions of the future envision societies almost identical to our own, except for their more sophisticated technology. Star Trek is a typical example. Others depict a catastrophe or a dystopian nightmare unleashed by technology-out-of-control. Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner, in which genetically engineered humanoid cyborgs seek emancipation while specialist termination agents hunt them in a seamy and decayed technopolis, is an exemplar of the genre. Our thinking about the future is also prescribed by the modernist idea that progress consists of advances in science and technology. This shrouds fatalistic cultural traditions in a fog of pseudo-rationality to form a mountain of ideology that prevents us from seeing a wider horizon.
And, Slaughter acknowledges, Futures Studies has its own problems and failures to overcome. First, an American school largely concerned with the interests of big business and government and wedded to conventional notions of progress through science and technology dominates Futures Studies. This school promotes ‘business-as-usual’ futures like those depicted in the popular 1960s cartoon The Jetsons, where futuristic technologies go hand-in-hand with unchanged and unexamined social relations and institutions. These kinds of futures dominate popular culture, including TV shows like Catalyst. They also prevail in the science, technology, and other professional communities.
Second, he examines a range of ‘institutes of foresight’ including Australia’s erstwhile Commission for the Future, finding them ‘under-designed and under-equipped’. Slaughter argues that they fail to produce work of the requisite quality to raise their status and give them legitimacy — consequently, they are largely ignored. None, for example, is as well known or influential as any number of economic think tanks, or even the newer and more radical outfits based on ecological disciplines. Slaughter believes that staffing with trained Futures Studies professionals would improve the performance of institutes of foresight. However, Joseph Coates, writing in Slaughter’s edited collection Gone Tomorrow, Here Today, rejects the standards and professionalisation agenda, arguing instead that ‘the best test of a futurist is the intellectual, practical and public market place’.
Third, Slaughter regards popular futures writing, such as Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock and John Naisbitt’s Megatrends, as superficial. Slaughter places considerable faith in the practical techniques of Futures Studies such as ‘futurescan’ and the ‘transformation cycle’ through which organisations can construct their own map of the next twenty years or so. He represents these techniques as departures from conventional strategic planning, but they appear to have more in common with it than not: I wonder whether the average middle manager participating in such an exercise would notice the difference.
Adam Kahane provides one of the more inspiring pieces in Gone Today, Here Tomorrow. Kahane describes his personal journey from corporate scenario planner at Shell, though his role in the Mont Fleur scenario team that developed some concepts and language for thinking about the future of the new South Africa, to a Columbian scenario project. In the process, he leaves behind the intellectually challenging but inauthentic life of the corporate planner and develops a much more emotionally engaged approach that embraces the opportunity to make the world a better place. His four lessons are to let go of the arrogance of knowing, to relinquish control and secrecy in favour of openness and influence, to engage the heart and spirit, not just the mind, and to move from adaptation to the world to creating a better one.
Dipping into Gone Today, Here Tomorrow, I couldn’t help wondering what insights its contributors had had into issues that have since come to prominence. Geoff Mulgan’s investigation of the centrality of ethics to global businesses is brought into sharp focus by the almost instant evaporation of the Andersen partnership in the wake of the Enron collapse. He counters business leaders who only think about management, marketing, and trading with a prophetic rejoinder:
in an interconnected global economy it should be apparent that ethics are simply part of the environment … If you’re dealing with very different markets, very different governments, then one of your most valuable assets is your trustworthiness. Lose that and soon you can lose everything else.
Michael Kirby of the High Court of Australia analyses the challenges confronting us in genetic research. He argues that we need to choose actively to ensure that the Human Genome Project contributes to advancing the human rights of all individuals: ‘we must have the will to do something and not simply drift’. In Kirby’s view, this will require co-operation between nations and between scientists and political, social, and legal leaders. Jerome Glenn and Ted Gordon identify fifteen issues for the 21st century, including the threat posed by terrorism. In 1997, they recommended that (among other things) ‘governments, with some leadership from the UN Security Council, should expand co-ordination and co-operation among nations (especially among those who might not normally co-operate) regarding information, early warning, apprehension and punishment of terrorists’. There are also pieces by Barry Jones on work and by Richard Eckersley on progress, to name a couple more of the many Australian authors included in this collection.
While Here Today, Gone Tomorrow illustrates the wide range of futures writing, it does highlight some problems. Too many authors appear to invoke a very broad-brush, almost cartoon-like notion of history. Geoff Mulgan, for example, explains the (putative) poor performance of governments in dealing with ethics and transparency by saying ‘governments … have their origins in warfare, in top down command’. There are the usual caricatures of the industrial revolution and countless simplistic generalisations. Futures writers seem to favour a kind of abstract systems history, disconnected from the nitty-gritty of events and personalities.
At the core of Slaughter’s work is his conviction that if we continue on our present course, we are headed for disaster. This is given substance by drawing on Meadow’s world systems modeling, first brought to world attention as the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth report. Slaughter’s answer is ‘critical Futures Studies’, built around ideas drawn from critical theory and philosophy. The path to redemption lies in Habermasian ‘emancipatory knowledge’ and Ken Wilbur’s spiritual renewal and transformed consciousness. He hopes to unify a school of Futures Studies around these ‘critical’ ideas and to disseminate them through a range of educational, organisational change and research projects.
Slaughter presents a worthwhile survey of his field, and his emancipatory ideal is admirable. However, he has some more work and some deeper thinking to do to integrate Habermas, Wilbur, and Meadows into a coherent meta-discipline able to cut the mustard in the academy. How might the transformative possibilities of emancipatory knowledge and spiritual renewal be included in world systems modeling? What role would world systems modeling play in helping to develop an authentic public sphere? How are the conflicts between the professionalisation of Futures Studies and an emancipatory approach to the future to be resolved?
But perhaps the most significant omission from Slaughter’s framework for Futures Studies is the absence of any but the most superficial engagement with economic ideas. The key contrast to be resolved is as old as economics itself. Meadows and other world systems modellers are heirs to Malthusian deterministic analysis of the impact of human activity on the physical environment, and the limits it imposes. Their more sophisticated, computerised techniques based on finite global resources lead to pessimistic conclusions that update Thomas Malthus, but are not different in character from those he derived from the finite supply of land. Malthus’s conclusions are what gave economics its pejorative nickname ‘the dismal science’. Adam Smith, in contrast, famously believed that self-interested exchange in markets resulted in efficient production and distribution, through the operation of the ‘invisible hand’. Smith also saw changes in the way things are produced — such as the specialisation of labour — as contributing to fundamental changes in productivity. He was optimistic that innovation, trade and markets would transform the wealth of nations.
The experience of mass affluence in the West is widely seen as repudiating Malthus, while Smith’s heirs reign supreme in the academy and in corporate, national, and international policy-making. Slaughter needs to bend his considerable energy to engaging and — if possible — resolving these two contrasting philosophies of economics if future studies is to influence established planning and policy frameworks.
Dr Michael Green lectures in engineering at the Australian National University .
|ISSN 1443-8607The Drawing Board: An Australian Review of Public Affairs
© 2000–2002 School of Economics and Political Science, University of Sydney
Futures for the Third Millennium: Enabling the Forward View. Richard A. Slaughter. St. Leonards, NSW, Australia: Prospect Media, June 1999, 381pp
Michael Marien, Future Survey, World Future Society, MD, USA
There remains a vast disjuncture between the needs of all societies for commitments to meaningful purposes and goals, and the so-far minimal investment in creating and applying the forward view by leading bodies and public institutions. As a result, we continue to plunge into a most unstable and difficult time, without the tools of understanding that are needed to deal with the ‘civilisational challenge.’
These 23 collected essays, first published in the 1984-1999 period are arranged into six parts. (1) Futures Studies as Disciplined Enquiry: long-term thinking and the politics of reconceptualisation (on the need for national 21st century studies), the knowledge base of futures studies as an evolving process. (2) Context and Critique: the Western industrial worldview and the resulting social and ecological dilemmas in Bermuda, futures workshops and imagining different futures. (3) Futures in Education: a rationale for futures in schools, supporting proactive school leadership, technology and violence in young people’s media, creating positive views of futures with young people, critical futures studies as an educational strategy for post-graduate courses. (4) Foresight Institutions and Practices: barriers to the wider use of foresight, lessons from Australia’s defunct Commission for the Future, foresight and the rise of nanotechnology, a national foresight strategy for Australia.
(5) Critical Futures Methods: an overview of the futures field (encompassing futures research, futures studies and futures movements), the American mindset, an outline of critical futures study (‘the best futures work is concise, economical and iconoclastic, revealing aspects of our world that we had overlooked’), the six elements of a structural overview of the next 20 years (main continuities, major trends, important change processes, serious problems, items in the pipeline, main sources of inspiration and hope), environmental scanning and the Futurescan process, a critique of the two Naisbitt megatrends books, developing strategic foresight (‘a high-quality, coherent and functional forward view’). (6) Beyond the High-Tech Wonderland: from individual to social capacity in futures studies, the nuclear threat, implications of Ken Wilber’s transpersonal metanarrative for futures studies 9seen as providing a renewed world story, and a critique of the systems approach as holistic flatland) and the rationale for dissenting futures.
Slaughter is the most prolific champion of critical futures thinking today, and this book offers a fine overview of his writing, as well as an impressive personal bibliography of some 150 books, reports and articles.
From: Future Survey 21, 10, October 1999, p 16-17.
Futures for the Third Millennium: Enabling the Forward View
R.A. Slaughter, Sydney, Prospect Media, 1999, 381pp
Reviewed by Marcus Bussey
Richard A. Slaughter’s new book, Futures for the Third Millennium: Enabling the Forward View, comes both as a summing up of the current state of play for the broad field of futures studies and as a signpost for some of the greater possibilities that still lie dormant within this young discipline. The book has a presence about it…a sense of pregnancy. As I read it I felt Slaughter’s sense for the historical forces at work upon Futures Studies, not as the dusty work of a chronicler but as one who has himself trod the path for over a quarter of a century and dealt with many of the contradictions of this field.
Certainly Futures for the Third Millennium: Enabling the Forward View is a summation of Slaughter’s own work to date. As such it is enlarged with a greater sense of synthesis and vision than his earlier works, but it also conveys a feel for the fin de siecle. Even though at one level he steps back from the Western preoccupation with our own time line and the imminent new millennium, as the title itself proclaims, it is a work that promises action: an enabling of the forward view. As such Slaughter’s work seeks to embrace both the theoretical and the practical with the result that when I read his books I reflect upon my own experiences, particularly at an institutional level. Slaughter’s vision of futures studies is of a process of active interaction with and participation within our environment. It is essentially a transformative process motivated by the human gift of foresight, energised and directed by a reflective forward view towards participatory action that enables us to create enriched futures for future generations.
So here in a nutshell we have it. Futures for the Third Millennium: Enabling the Forward View is a work that looks back and offers an excellent summation of what has been achieved in futures studies over the past century. It reflects upon, describes and analyses the major schools and methods within the field. It offers a comprehensive examination of Institutions of Foresight, which Slaughter sees as major agents of change and renewal; and then precedes to look at the critical and epistemological subversions, dissenting futures, that make the field of futures such an interesting one.
But, though it comprises the majority of the book, this is not all. In this text Slaughter steps beyond his previous thinking by introducing an expanded vision for Futures Study which he dubs ‘transformative’ futures. This is a method based in part upon the vision offered by Ken Wilber. It moves away from the wisdom culture Slaughter describes in The Foresight Principle, and embraces what he calls foresight cultures that offer ‘humanly-compelling futures’. Such futures embrace our need for human-scale progress. Not the ‘mega’ that threatens to sweep all that is recognisable away. Ultimately Slaughter’s interest is in “futures in which scientific and technical developments achieve a positive dialectic with human and cultural developments to produce societies and civilisations that are, in a profound sense, ‘in balance'” (p 360).
To get to this point is the purpose of the book. It is a work that promises much, in that it is an argument for a strategy to move beyond the crisis that threatens to engulf us. As Slaughter states:
“I do not think it possible to resolve the ‘global problematique’ in a direct or simple way. My approach to this meta- or mega-problem is demonstrated throughout the book. First, we need to deal with world-view defects such as short-term thinking. Second, we need to create social contexts (such as Institutions of Foresight) where the forward view can be created, nurtured and implemented continuously for a wide range of organisational and social purposes. And third, we can marshal all our capabilities to design and sculpt the kind of suggestive mindspaces that I believe are the precursors of social action.” (360)
Certainly Futures for the Third Millennium: Enabling the Forward View lives up to this aim. Yet as Slaughter neared the end and began to expand on his personal vision for the future and Futures Studies I found myself wishing that he would bridge the dichotomy between mindscape and social action that he highlights in the third step. Of course this mindscape is formative through all three steps and engaging in any step is in and of itself social action. But the depth to which Slaughter seeks to take Futures Studies, the depth he argues is there for those seeking to engage the forward view, still seems remote. I think this is due to an oversight that comes from accepting that the transformative is something other than life as we live it.
This is a common problem for those seeking to describe human action in meta terms. The individual’s process is somehow lost in the grand sweep of things. I am reminded here of the Buddhist writer and activist Joanna Macy’s observation that “action on behalf of life transforms”. So I would seek to add as a postscript to this excellent work that simply engaging in what Slaughter is proposing at an intellectual level is potentially transformative. That fundamentally thought and action are one and the same.
If it can be released, there lies in this somewhat paradoxical assertion the energy that could really move us towards the actively transformative futures that Richard A. Slaughter’s Futures for the Third Millennium: Enabling the Forward View heralds.
Published in New Renaissance Issue 29, 1999, p 39.
Futures for the Third Millennium: enabling the forward view
Richard A Slaughter, Prospect Media, Sydney, 1999, 381 pp. + x
Reviewed by Richard Bawden
It is always a pleasure to review anything written by Richard Slaughter, as he is one of but few voices in this country to write both clearly and critically about the futures that we face. Over the years his message has been both persistent and consistent, with a logic and in a genre that it is ultimately appealing. He is the master of the bad news/good news approach to life. The bad news is that things in the world are bad, and in grave danger, and choose that phrase advisedly, of getting worse. The good news is that there is a lot we can do to improve that situation.
Slaughter is certainly not alone in pointing out and elaborating on the dimensions of the serious problematic that we face as a civilisation at the dawn of a new millennium. Nor is he alone in arguing that ‘the dominant trends that are well established throughout the global system do not lead to a world of peace, prosperity and plenty … (but rather to) … a world that is devastated and diminished in nearly every respect’. And finally, his is not a lone voice in calling ‘not merely for a change in direction but a fundamental and systemic re-conceptualisation of humanity’s place on this shrinking and imperilled planet’. Indeed, it is measure of his scholarship that he is generous in the extent to which he cites the words, the evidence, and the wisdom of others in support of his contentions.
The refreshing novelty that Slaughter brings to the discourse lies in the critically and innate optimism of his responses to the worrisome pictures that he paints. If we first recognise the ‘true state of affairs’ and their implications for our future, and the thinking styles that have led us to them, then we can both change those thinking styles and their outcomes for the better through studying the future. The essence of this far-reaching book, with the pun intended, is a call for what the author refers to as ‘critical futures studies’ and for the institutions of foresight necessary to support such endeavours. Critical future studies lead to the creation of ‘futures relevant knowledge’ ‘that can help individuals, organisations, and indeed humankind as a whole, to navigate within this complex and ever-changing environment.’ The author not only continues to build his convincing argument in support of the need for knowledge about the future, but creates persuasive propositions regarding the nature of ‘advanced futures discourse’ through which wise and responsible people can develop viable future views’. This is not an easy task, as he is quick to concede, while suggesting that there is a systematic series of levels of futures work with which the serious futures student needs to engage, and through which he or she should aim to pass. The first of this progression is what Slaughter refers to as ‘pop futurism’ which, as it takes existing social relations as a given thus unconsciously providing support for the status quo, should be regarded as ideologically naive.
The next level is represented by problem-focussed futures study which identifies problems and then seeks to explore solutions from a perspective which also tends to remain uncritically superficial. At the third level, so-called critical futures study, the influence of different cultural assumptions and styles of enquiry are actively considered, while at the formal level, epistemological futures study, the sources of problems are located within worldviews and ways of knowing. With the logic and characteristics of these levels as his foundation Slaughter critically establishes the case for futures in education, and for his ‘institutes of foresight’, all the while emphasising the need for much more fruitful, informed, and critical discourse, as the focus for critical future studies. He exemplifies such critically with his review of a number of other futures initiatives, including the Commission for the Future established in this country by Barry Jones back in the early 1980s.
Perhaps the most useful part of this book is where the author devotes an entire section to methods for critical futures inquiry. A central message here is that ‘knowledge of the future is not primarily drawn from the empirical domain, nor from that of the “hard’ sciences. It is not a matter of predictions; rather it is generated within a critical/interpretative milieu. It is perhaps in this section that Slaughter is at his most insightful as he carefully constructs the case for what he terms ‘strategic foresight’, while elaborating on processes, methods and methodologies, for its generation. He not only identifies four categories of such methods – input, analytic, paradigmatic, and iterative/explorative – but describes both their uses and their limitations.
Continuing in the genre of the author – If the bad news is that we have much to do in Australia to change the way we approach the world about us if we want to enjoy better futures, then the good news is that the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne has had the foresight to appoint Dr Slaughter as its Foundation Professor of Foresight.
May we all long enjoy the fruits of that appointment.
From GBN Australia Book Club Vol 5 No 4, December 1999.