Marcus Bussey

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.