Richard Bawden

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.