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.
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Michael Hollinshead, President, Facing the Future Inc., 15003 56 Avenue, Edmonton Alberta T6H 5B2, CANADA. ph and fax +1 780 438 7342 email firstname.lastname@example.org