O.E.C.D. Interfutures: Facing the Future: Mastering the probable and managing the unpredictable

Interfutures. Facing the Future: Mastering the Probable and Managing the Unpredictable. Paris: OECD, 1979. vi + 425pp. $20.00 (paper).

Photographs of the earth taken from space strikingly illustrate its fundamental unity. While this powerful insight may not yet have transformed international relations, there can be little doubt that is has helped to stimulate the debate about global futures. Facing the Future is the latest intergovernmental contribution to this fast-developing field. Its central theme is the necessity, and indeed the profound desirability, our learning to manage an interdependent world economy with greater justice and effectiveness then we have so far achieved. Of particular interest is the attention it pays to the interrelationships between nations and to the possible measures that might be taken to increase global economic co-operation.

With the onset of a new recession, financial and energy problems looming, the technology/unemployment equation as yet solved and the recurrent temptation to a resort of economic protectionism, this report is a timely one. It is a massive, complex and sophisticated exercise that attempts to outline many of the difficult problems and choices facing both the developed and the developing nations of the world.

While the report is not primarily concerned with prediction per se, it does portray a world confronted with changed of unprecedented scope and magnitude. For example, it foresees an ultimate world population stabilised at about 12 billion persons (three times the present total), an inexorable movement of economic power away from most of the present OECD countries, the strong probability of recurrent crises over the distribution of energy and some raw materials (but not, apart from oil, their ultimate depletion, – a myth effectively dispelled here), increasingly serious threats to the global ecology and severe problems of adjustment both within and between nations.

The method adopted for dealing with such issues is the prospective analysis of six carefully constructed global scenarios, which acts as testbeds for a variety of assumptions and policy options. These dramatise the fact there is no such thing as “the future” which we must passively accept, but rather a cone of alternative possibilities, some more attractive than others, which continually arise from chance, existing structures and the exercise of reasoned choice. The authors rightly emphasis that “the complex relations between values, growth and structures, now make any linear view of development untenable.” This fact is of profound importance for all those involved in education at whatever level. The knowledge that man is now responsible for the future not only suggests that the future should receive at least as much attention as the past in educational programs, but also, in view of the transformations that will characterise the late 20th century, suggests that attempts to understand educational tasks simply in terms of cultural reproduction are no longer adequate. With the classical convergence theories of economic development now in considerable doubt, this has just as much significance for third world countries as it does for others.

Facing the Future attempts to deal with the great global issues from an explicitly macro-economic viewpoint, and this accounts for both its strengths and its weakness. On the one hand it speaks in a language that will be understood the world over, and this should ensure that some, at least, of its proposals will be adopted. Also to its credit is that, unlike some earlier exercise, it does attempt to build various assumptions about value changes into the scenarios. On the other hand, the adoption of an economic/managerial viewpoint does commit the authors to a particular view of reality that leads them to undervalue non-economic phenomena, including other equally important approaches to these issues. Thus, while it is admitted that the so-called “new” post-materialist values may modify one or another of the scenarios, the authors fail to see that the ideas underlying some of these values can change the nature of the whole debate by re-conceptualising the choices that can be made. Thus, in the case of energy, the authors advocate the continued widespread construction of nuclear reactors as if these were an inevitable and vitally necessary part of the energy future. This is by no means the case as Leach (1979) and Lovins (1977), among others, have shown. Similarly the authors remain optimistically committed to the ideal of “full employment”, as if this were still a viable option in the age of the ubiquitous microprocessor. In both cases it might have been more fruitful to reflect on the cultural assumptions embedded in the concepts employed to describe these issues.

Even on purely economic grounds the study has its weakness. Instead of using some measures of net social welfare, the authors uncritically base many of their arguments upon simple GNP statistics which, as is now commonly understood, lumps together social costs (such as car accidents, pollution controls, crime etc.), along with a host of increasingly dubious benefits. Apart from the ambiguous nature of some of the latter, critics such as Henderson (1978) and Mishan (1977), have argued that in the developed countries at least, the social cost component of GNP, along with inflation, may now account for the major part of economic growth. Such writers may be wrong, but nowhere in this report do the authors properly consider the possibility that the overall costs of economic growth, as conventionally measured, may now outweigh the benefits. This omission inevitably casts a measure of doubt upon some of the prescriptions offered.

One is therefore tempted to conclude that the report is just another well-intentions exercise, so characteristic of international organisations that will actually do little to solve the problems it addresses. And it is true that despite some far-reaching proposals, it accepts too uncritically many of the aspects of the status quo that have brought us to the present “confluence of crises”: the epistemological legitimacy of industrial progress, rationalistic scientism, the alienating dichotomy that sanctions hubris and allows men to believe that they are entirely separate from nature, and so on. Yet to reject the report for these reasons would be too harsh by far. Within its own terms it remains a serious and valuable contribution to the overall debate. It brings a massive amount of information into a coherent relationship with a clearly defined framework of ideas. So long as it is approached critically and with caution it will be of value to call those who are interested in the future.

The report identifies four main critical issues: the energy transition (from fossil fuels), the search by the developed countries for policies appropriate to the new economic conditions, the need for a common effort to stimulate third world development, and the need to develop new forms of international co-operation. Among the final recommendations are the need to stimulate a “positive” attitude to the future, and a rather timorous suggestion that in the light of the issues raised in the report, a review of educational programmes might be appropriate. It is, impossible to disagree. Until these issues become central concerns within the educational processes, there can be little hope of an effective response to the challenges set out here. One final criticism concerns the omission of an index to this long and weighty book. Thus greatly reduces the accessibility of the wealth of information that it contains, and really is inexcusable in a work of this importance. However, those who can afford to purchase their own copy will find that the margins are wide enough for copious note-making. Indeed this is a book with which one can have what some would call an “on-going dialogue”. For all its faults and omissions I feel sure that people will be returning to this book, testing its assumptions and discussing its recommendations for many years to come.

Dept. of Educational Research, University of Lancaster, November, 1979.


Henderson, H. Creating Alternative Futures (1978)

Leach, G. A Low Energy Strategy for the United Kingdom (1979)

Lovins, A. Soft Energy Paths (1977)

Mishan, E. The Economic Growth Debate (1977)