Yvonne Curtis

Review of The Biggest Wake Up Call in History
by Richard A. Slaughter, Foresight International, 2010.

The Biggest Wake Up Call in History moves the climate change and “the end of the lifestyle we are used to” debates into new territory. Slaughter does not continue to debate as to whether climate change is happening and if the present historically rapid warming is largely man induced. He starts from the assumption that humanity is facing a world that is slipping deeper and deeper into a crisis and that many resources that had been considered infinite are actually finite and are approaching exhaustion. Slaughter focuses on how we might be able to harness and use our human ability to understand changing situations. To enable decisions about which everyday practices will affect our collective situation for better or worse, to more effectively provide hope for the future.

For although he agrees the outlook is bleak, he asserts that that outlook is still not a given and that our main hope lies not only in new technologies that fascinate most, but as well in our human capacity to imagine possible futures that will enhance our well being in the long-term. His reading and analysis of a range of climate change literature found this human focused perspective missing in much of the often-quoted literature published to date. Having set the scene, Slaughter then demonstrates that using some of the tools of the Integral Method of futuring can provide a new way of examining the global crisis to find new drivers and ideas that might speed up human initiated actions that will really make a difference.As Slaughter states in the preface:

“I’ve found an Integral perspective useful as it is perhaps most able to provide a
panoramic and in-depth view of the human and civilisational prospects confronting
us. As a perspective and method it is constantly evolving. To the extent the present
work succeeds, it is to no little extent a result of the power, depth and inclusiveness
that the Integral perspective offers.”

Part One: Understanding the Problem
The book is in two parts with the first section setting the background and scope of the global problem. But this is discussed in a different framework to most earlier climate change or peak oil literature, as it focuses more on human responses rather than the science or technical aspects. For example, because climate change is complex and has been mainly happening too slowly, it is difficult for most people in the developed world to link it to their everyday lives. While for those in developing nations and for the poor, their circumstances mean that their priorities must be focussed on just surviving day-to-day. These human realities are just as important as finding new technologies, or setting new regulations to address the crisis, as human responses will be the ultimate determining factors of which of the possible futures becomes the reality.

The chapter headings and subheadings give a good indication of how Slaughter presents this background. For example Chapter 2 Conventional responses with sub headings Business as usual; Reality avoidance and universal advertising; and Missed and misused signals.Most of the material in the first section was not new to me, but I enjoyed and appreciated how Slaughter put the various aspects together to help clarify some of the complexity. Chapter 5 reminded me that I was also guilty as many others in underestimating the power of the “collective shadow”, exemplified by those in any community who, at times, engage in thoughtless activities that can harm many, but also those who deliberately resort to crime and promote anarchy. He includes a sub heading, The fantasy economy, in this chapter. It is not helpful to try to be charitable and not factor in these negative human activities as significant hurdles as part of any solution.

Part Two: The Search for Solutions
The first chapter in this section introduces Slaughter’s reframing of the ‘problem’, an introduction to the Integral method tools he uses to analyse some significant recent literature looking at climate change and community collapse, and the findings from this analysis. The most significant fact is that Slaughter’s analysis indicates that of the fourteen texts analysed, all bar one, engage with only two of the four irreducible perspectives of how humans view the world. They consider only the exterior physical world and to a lesser extent the interior world of cultures etc, with little notice taken of the interior world of each individual or of their exterior world of human action and behaviour. So that most of the solutions look only at technical and, to limited extent, cultural responses to climate change and limitations of resources. He goes on to point out that no matter how compelling the facts, it is the humans who are going to initiate any action. Also that a person’s understanding, the level of their capacity to reason, and their cultural setting will limit these actions. For individuals, he defines four levels of complexity through which reality is perceived. To these, for the individual, when considered as part of a community, he adds four further levels for collective worldviews. At the individual level they range from very self focussed to those who see their spiritual self linked with others at many levels, and at the collective level they range from very traditional communities to those that are subtle, tolerant and open to the new.

Having established this lack in the current literature he then continues in Part Two to explore options that help open out possible new paths to action. One hurdle that Slaughter sees as preventing action is the fixation on continual growth being needed for success and well-being. The imperative to multiply is a basic life characteristic that drives all living creatures, but Slaughter points out this has been distorted and exaggerated in the West in the recent past, by the rise of the industrial culture and the accompanying myths and symbols that it is based on. These need to be replaced by different myths and symbols. Life without oil, and fewer material things tend to be perceived as an inferior option for the future and as a failure for society, but that is only when defined by the present myths. It will not be going back to “old” ways but going forward differently with the new knowledge we now have that allows the creation of new myths. Part of being able to do this, is to clearly identify the current myths and why we are trapped by these myths. Slaughter uses material from K. Farnish (Times’s Up, Darington, Green Books, 2009) as an example:

“Some of the strategies—or ‘tools of disconnection’— are, he[Farnish] suggests, in common use by the powerful to keep people subjected to the current system. They are listed in Figure 8.3.


Reward us for being good consumers

Make us feel good for doing trivial things

Give us selected freedoms

Pretend we have a choice

Sell us a dream

Exploit our trust

Lie to us

Scare us

Abuse us, and

Give us (false) hope.

Figure 8.3 Tools of disconnection”

The wealth of material and ideas in this section is again not easily put in a few words but chapter headings and subheadings give a hint of the scope of the suggestions for solutions. For example Chapter 7 Beyond collapse – an emerging narrative with subheadings, Peak oil and the global energy dilemma; Paths not taken; and Beyond gloom and doom.

In Chapter 11 he moves the narrative from vision to action with the following reflection;

“As I’m sure the reader is keenly aware, the central point of this book is that we need as individuals, societies, cultures and a global community to recognise the dilemma that we have collectively created. That is, to bring it to full awareness where the implications are not only visible but also unavoidable. It is only by so doing that we can develop the clarity of understanding and purpose that precedes action. If we remain unmoved we will indeed see the biggest civilisational crash ever experienced on this planet and the rapid onset of a dark age that could last for centuries—and perhaps forever. This can—and often is—read as a cause for anxiety, depression and hopelessness. Viewed, however, as a ‘wake up call’ we’ve seen that many other responses are not only possible, they actually constitute a personal and civilisational escape route. The crucial point is this. If we truly understand what is at stake and what there is to lose, if we have any feeling at all for the ethics of mass extinctions, and if we have any real concern for future generations then it does not take a huge stretch of imagination to recognise that new and renewed motives can begin to emerge and to exert pervasive effects. That is, under the pressure of insight and ethics, necessity and responsibility, powerful new forces may be emerging in the upper left and lower left domains [Wilber quantrants]. These arguably represent our best hopes for bringing about the necessary changes in current ways of life.”

Slaughter then goes on to expand on this statement and suggest the role that futures studies might have in, and in particular how the tools of the Integral method are central to, the process of finding ways that help us actually make these changes. He concludes the chapter with a brief overview of ways which three individuals he considers have “walked the talk”. Slaughter’s final pages of Conclusion reiterate his reasons for strongly encouraging considered urgency in addressing these major global issues. He notes that new climate events are happening, new information gathered and new insights emerging that need to be added and contextualised constantly. His final sentence is tantalisingly sublimely simple.

Quite simply, it’s time to wake up and take collective responsibility for what happens next.

The Biggest Wake Up Call in History is the latest in Richard Slaughter’s line of foundational writing in future studies. I read and use Richard’s earlier scholarly compilations regularly. They have served me well as signposts and cornerstones in my understanding of futures studies, and the value of different techniques for constructively thinking about the future, that provide a sound base for action. Over the years he has consistently expanded the boundaries of the current future studies theories and methods to produce material that, I think, help more accurately identify likely nasty surprises in the future that, with the insight gained, can be better managed.

The challenge is to be able to get the messages in the book to as wide an audience as possible. Just as he identified reasons why earlier texts have not had the impact they should this publication is also limited in the audience it is likely to appeal too. I consider The Biggest Wake Up Call in History a must read for all who are interested in future studies and those in academia. It is the foundation for them to then write the different stories needed to reach people where we are, to help us move from our present passive paradigm, to actively build our new future.

October 2010

Yvonne Curtis, Futures Thinking Aotearoa (NZ Futures Trust)