Kennedy, P. Preparing for the 21st Century

Preparing for the 21st Century, Kennedy, P. Harper Collins, London, 1993. 428 pages + xvi

As the 1990s wear on and the 21st Century approaches, we may expect to see a two-fold publishing boom. One part of it will address the 20th Century: what was it about, what are the key themes, what can be learned? The other part will look ahead and ask parallel questions: what are some of the key trends, what should we be aiming for, how can we achieve a viable future?

Paul Kennedy has produced a book that conforms to neither approach, though he is certainly more at home with the former. He is clearly an intelligent generalist with a global view and a broadly historical outlook. The approach he has taken is to provide us with a fairly detailed snapshot of our present or, rather, our recent past. Although the title of the book prominently features ‘the 21st Century’, in fact it is clearly a book about the 1990s. In Part One he surveys a number of ‘general trends’, and in so doing covers much familiar ground, including: the population problem, economic and political change, agriculture, technology (particularly communications, biotech. and automation) threats to the natural environment and the future of the nation state. So far, so good.

The picture thus established is again approached in Part Two, this time from the viewpoint of ‘regional impacts’. Here the uneven working out of change processes on different countries and regions is competently surveyed. The conclusion reiterates some key points. Two major problem areas are population trends (implying a world of over 10 billion people) and the serious political impediments to effective action. Three areas of policy or action are also identified. There is a key role for education: “the forces for change facing the world could be so far-reaching, complex and interactive that they call for nothing less than the re-education of humankind” (p 339). It is important to improve the position of women, particularly in the poorer nations. There is a need for much more effective political leadership. However, such conclusions will surprise no one. They are remarkably slight for a book of well over 400 pages. Why, then, is it a disappointment? For this reviewer there are three reasons.

First, the approach is not original. Over recent decades many generalists (including some highly qualified ones) have trawled through broadly the same territory. The result is a long series of books surveying the ‘global problematique’ in very similar terms: here are the problems; here are some of the things a reasonable person would do to solve them. Yet this genre tends to be toothless and repetitive. Why? It lacks a critical purchase on the underlying causes of the global predicament. Thus, many well-meaning books end up saying much the same thing. A new writer tackling these same issues in the 1990s should be aware of this background and, perhaps, take a different tack.

Second, it is legitimate to expect that books purporting to address ‘the 21st Century’ will, in some way, draw upon existing futures literature. For reasons outlined below, this makes it possible to engage with the subject in ways that are both credible and useful. But Kennedy neither uses the literature, nor makes any reference to futures methods. So his book comes across as the effort of an earnest amateur. His intellectual credentials may be impeccable. But a futures writer he is not. So the implied subject of this book remains vague. The view of the future as a kind of ‘blank space’ about which we can know nothing is not new. It conforms to one of the commonest stereotypes that afflict futures work.

Third, the analysis we are given is largely derived from a reading of external, empirically-verifiable trends. This falls squarely into the trap that robbed Naisbitt and his over-hyped ‘Megatrends’ books of much of their legitimacy and usefulness. For the fact is that the so-called ‘major trends’ that can be observed are largely outcomes, or external expressions of the way we construe the world. I am not trying to be obscure. What has been widely overlooked in the global futures debate is that what counts as a trend does not simply depend upon things, events, processes happening ‘out there’. Crucially, it depends very largely upon the prior structures, values, pre-judgements, commitments of the world ‘in here’. That is, the world of cultural editing, paradigms of knowledge, epistemological frameworks and, indeed, of worldviews.

Ultimately, then, Kennedy’s book achieves little in the attempt to prepare us for the coming Millennium. What we actually get is an up-date on global issues which is certainly of interest, but which falls a long way short of the title. To be fair, the conclusion acknowledges that the book is essentially a “survey” (p 334) which “is intended as a guide to understanding global changes, not as a technical primer for responses to them” (p 337). However, one cannot ‘prepare’ for something one cannot see. The key question therefore is: how can one see ahead clearly enough to begin these preparations?

The short answer is that it is perfectly possible to construct a broad-brush view of, say, the next two decades, using futures concepts and methods. While in a strict philosophical sense it is true that we can ‘know’ nothing whatsoever about the future, in practice we can say a great deal about it which is appropriate and useful. No, we cannot predict future events. What we can do is to study processes of continuity and processes of change. Crucially, however, these should not be seen only in empirical terms. Rather, they must explicitly refer to some of the deeper questions noted above. From such material it is entirely possible to develop a structural overview of the early 21st century. The lack of a futures vocabulary and method means that Kennedy was not able to take this second step. Such an overview will include the key empirical trends (population increase, resource depletion, environmental deterioration etc.), changing ideas (the growth of a stewardship ethic, the implications of the ‘new science, the benefits of systematic foresight etc.) and, perhaps, the author’s views of our progress toward a renewed worldview (if any).

Some of these processes are so massively established that, like the mythical supertanker, they will continue to move ahead with vast momentum. Some are more volatile or even chaotic. Some change hardly at all from millennium to millennium. However, futurists have evolved a range of methods to cope with complexity, uncertainty and unpredictability. So, while a comprehensive overview may test individual writers, collectively the futures field provides a variety of ‘maps’ of the near-term future. What do these maps look like? Some come in the form of stories (eg. Le Guin’s novel Always Coming Home). Some are future histories (Wagar’s A Short History of the Future). Some are learned treaties (Berman’s The Reenchantment of the World). Some are accessible and popular books (Moorcroft’s Visions for the 21st Century). What do they tell us?

My reading of this material suggests that we are, first and foremost, living in a time between eras. That is, a time when the industrial system, and much of what it stood for (bland optimism, uncontrolled material growth, nature as a resource and so on) has collapsed around us. This view helps to explain the prevailing sense of angst, anguish and fear, particularly among the young. It also accounts for the dominant (largely spurious) view of the future as a dark and forbidding place. What most empirical trend-spotters have tended to overlook is the fact that it is the western worldview that is in crisis. It is this that drove the rapacious engine of growth. It is this that gave powerful constituencies the apparent right to transform the Earth without thinking through the long-term implications. Now that some of those implications are becoming clearer, we are in a better position to re-design the worldview and re-assess our human and cultural commitments.

It is at this level that the most important work remains to be done. But Kennedy and others who have written in a similar vein, are silent on such matters. They cannot see that, to a large extent, the roots of the future lie in a profound, critical, in-depth view of the present. It is true that this is demanding work. But, then, nothing much was ever achieved in a day. The point is this. If writers want to take up the theme of ‘preparing for the 21st Century’ they should understand the nature of the task. It is a sobering one that requires far more than a survey. A more productive starting point would be to begin with the futures literature itself. It is a rich resource.

Re-stating the problem is not a sin. But a world stranded in the interregnum – the gap between eras – needs something deeper, more original and creative.

Published in 21C, Commission for the Future, Melbourne, Summer 1993/94, pp 90 – 91