Future, All That Matters (series), Hodder & Stoughton, London, 2013
Futures Studies in its modern incarnation has been around in one form or another for at least half a century. During that time it developed and evolved into a complex, globe spanning and diverse entity that can be hard to describe and explain to newcomers or interested others. Yet, despite an obvious need and various efforts a truly satisfactory and culturally aware introduction had proved elusive. Some ten years ago I had a conversation with Sardar about collaborating on one. The message that came back at the time was that publishers were simply ‘not interested.’ So the first thing to say about this handily diminutive and very welcome book is that I’m glad one publisher finally did see the point. Secondly, while no two people would approach such a book in the same way, I doubt if a better person could be found to take it on. As a former editor of Futures, and a formidable scholar and writer in a number of areas, there can be few anywhere better equipped to deliver the readable introduction we now have.
The book begins and ends with the same carefully nuanced question: what are you doing tomorrow? This firmly locates ‘the future’ right where it belongs – in the structure and texture of everyday life. Sardar quickly dispenses with the common tendency to assume that the future will ‘take care of itself.’ Of course it doesn’t. You only have to reflect on familiar topics such as family, schools, property, careers, investments, pensions and so on to know that. So this is a great way to begin. Furthermore, he points out that everyone has an investment in the future – especially now in a world beset by powerful forces of change.
He takes the view that FS is a mode of enquiry – rather than a discipline per se – that takes as its subject the contesting and negotiation of ideas about the future. Its underlying purpose is to ‘keep the future open to all alternatives, and to ensure that ideas about the future do not simply become steps toward new forms of oppression.’ This sense that FS can be intensely liberating is maintained throughout, as is the importance of valuing diversity and traditions. He briefly shows how culturally embedded views of time have consequences and walks the reader through the familiar quartet of possible, probable, plausible and preferable futures. His answer to the problem of how to reconcile the plethora of mid-term futures on offer is a clear and comprehensible one – consider the consequences for future generations.
There’s an enviable and, in this context, necessary lightness of touch as the author runs through a short history of FS, terminology, principles, concepts and methods. A short chapter is devoted to scenarios, arguably the most widespread and well-known method. Utopia and dystopia are covered as part of the history and in terms of their contemporary uses. Then there’s a section intriguingly called ‘Looking in all directions’ where he provides a fine overview of two influential perspectives – Integral Futures and causal layered analysis. Having worked with Sardar over many years I have some idea of where he actually stands on these and was impressed by the objectivity and restraint displayed. In many ways the overview provided is also a model for presenting complex ideas to a broad generalist audience. Then in order to show how FS is relevant to people and communities, the penultimate section deals with community futures. Issues of powerlessness vs. participation are briefly raised and also illustrated by reference to different examples in three contrasting cultures.
A short final section called ‘What’s next?’ reprises the history of failed predictions to drive home the point that ‘the future is less a domain of prediction and more … an arena of change and action.’ It draws on various sources to argue that short-term thinking and the priorities of major western institutions are currently working against widely shared interests in peaceful and liveable futures. A highlight in ‘bold’ similarly provides a brief but powerful critique of how current business interests in shareholder value, consumerism and growth appear unsustainable and even ‘misguided.’ It was at this point that I found myself wondering why the author had decided to quote others but drew back from making any real comment on his own behalf. He makes a valid but more general point that ‘futures thinking becomes meaningful when it identifies and critiques potential hazards that could close the future or colonise it, and attempts to make sense of the present.’ Who could disagree with that? Or, again, with the author’s view of the ‘overriding concern’ of FS which is characterised as the need ‘to make the future more real, more accessible, more immediate and hence make the present the domain where action is taken to transform the coming decades.’ So why leave aside what I call the ‘global emergency’ and others call the ‘megacrisis?’
I noted earlier that no two writers would approach a work of this kind in exactly the same way. Still, knowing something of Sardar’s fearless and normally forthright style I was surprised that he did not take up the opportunity to ‘make the future more real’ by explicitly and directly mentioning the two greatest threats to our species – runaway global warming / climate change and the growing prospect of ‘overshoot and collapse’ futures. Crucially, both provide strong support for the rationale set out earlier. That is, reasons not only for taking FS more seriously but also for supporting its emergence as a mainstream concern.
While it is true that, on the whole, many people prefer accounts of positive futures, the fact remains that we are simply not going to reach any of them without clearly identifying and dealing with these intractable issues. They arguably stand at the heart of the futures enterprise regardless of how it is conceptualised within different cultures or traditions. The collision of cultures with geophysical cycles is an unavoidable fact of our time. In this view it’s essential to be clear about the growing likelihood of near future Dystopian scenarios. Since they ask a great deal of us the latter are widely mischaracterised as fatalistic ‘gloom and doom’ predictions that are best avoided. Insufficient attention is paid, however, to the very fortunate fact that challenging images of downbeat futures can help to elicit the very human and social forces that are required to falsify them. Citing others on such issues and not being more clearly explicit about them does, I think, rather weaken an otherwise impressive piece of work. The bottom line is that humanity is genuinely running out of time to deal with the global trap its own blindness and expansionism have created. So a short, to-the-point paragraph or two on ‘overshoot, collapse and descent pathways’ would, in my view, have given the conclusion a usefully positive lift and thereby enhanced its overall impact.
The final reference section neatly labelled ‘100 Ideas’ is a valuable, wide-ranging and generously expansive resource that I hope many people will consult. Item 36 to the ‘famous Australian Foresight Institute’ is certainly appreciated but if there’s a second edition I hope that the notion of it being a ‘hotbed of futures studies in the 1990s’ will be revised as teaching actually started in mid-2000. Overall, however, and as noted at the outset, I doubt if anyone, anywhere, could have done a better job of writing this long awaited introduction. It deserves to be widely read, distributed and promoted by any and all who care about the future of the area and, indeed, the world it seeks to serve.
Published in Futures, 2014.