Yesterday's Tomorrows: 1968-1998

Books that got the future right--and wrong

1998 marks the 30th anniversary of REASON. In the tumultuous year of our
founding, few people would have envisioned the world as it is today. The future has a way of surprising us. Some guides are, however, more prescient than others, and some ways of analyzing trends more promising. For this year's Special Book Issue Symposium, we asked a distinguished group of contributors to identify three books on the future--one that accurately identified important factors that made a difference between 1968 and 1998, one that fell flat, and one that appears to best identify the trends shaping the next 30 years--and to explain their choices.

The books did not have to explicitly engage in prediction: Indeed, often the most prescient works are those that identify something about current, or even past, conditions that turns out to be important in shaping the future. Conversely, many a book has been written on a current movement or "crisis" that fizzled.

Walter Truett Anderson

I don't much like the title of Jean-Marie Guéhenno's The End of the Nation-State (University of Minnesota Press, 1995, translated by Victoria Elliott), partly because I don't think the nation-state's end is anywhere on the horizon. Nor, for that matter, do I agree with many of the specific propositions in this quirky, idiosyncratic work. Nevertheless, I think Guéhenno captures the essence of what is and will be going on in the world much better than Samuel Huntington's much-discussed The Clash of Civilizations. Guéhenno, who recently served as France's ambassador to the European Union, argues that the kind of world now emerging is in a way more united and at the same time without a center, that fixed and definite territories are becoming largely irrelevant, and that networks are becoming more important than 19th-century institutions of power: "We are entering into the age of open systems, whether at the level of states or enterprises, and the criteria of success are diametrically different from those of the institutional age and its closed systems. The value of an organization is no longer measured by the equilibrium that it attempts to establish between its different parts, or by the clarity of its frontiers, but in the number of openings, or points of articulation that it can organize with everything external to it."

Conversely, there is much in Fritjof Capra's The Turning Point (Simon & Schuster, 1982) that I do agree with--his insistence on the importance and value of ecological thinking, feminism, and the human potential movements of the 1960s and '70s--at the same time that I heartily reject his simple pronouncement that all those hold The Answer and are destined to build the civilization of the future. It is a simplistic model of change, and such thinking historically proves not only wrong but dangerous. Capra reveals those dangers in his cheerful willingness to impose New Age agendas on the bad guys with the full power of the state: Nationalize oil, restructure society, do whatever is necessary to get everybody thinking right. In a fairly typical passage of policy recommendations he writes: "An important part of the necessary restructuring of information will be the curtailing and reorganization of advertising....legal restrictions on advertising resource-intensive, wasteful and unhealthy products would be our most effective way of reducing inflation and moving toward ecologically harmonious ways of living."

Finally, I nominate Susantha Goonatilake's Merged Evolution (Gordon and Breach, 1998) as a useful peek into the future. Goonatilake (of Sri Lankan birth, now based in the United States) brilliantly explores the interactions among what he calls three different "lineages" of evolution--biology, culture, and artifacts--and focuses on the capacity of information and communications technologies to, as he puts it, "cut a swath through the biological and cultural landscape as no other technology has hitherto done." He does not explicitly address the political and organizational themes that Guéhenno raises, yet his analysis provides a good understanding of how we are entering into an age of open systems--not only political systems but also biological ones--and also why narcissistic visions of green goodness are an inadequate guide to the 21st century.

Walter Truett Anderson is a political scientist and author of Future of the Self (Tarcher/Putnam).

Ronald Bailey

In the late 1960s and early '70s a plethora of terrible books about the future were published. In 1968, Paul Ehrlich published the neo-Malthusian classic The Population Bomb (Ballantine). "The battle to feed all of humanity is over," he notoriously declared. "In the 1970s the world will undergo famines--hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now." Ehrlich was far from alone. In 1967, the Paddock brothers, William and Paul, asserted in Famine 1975! (Little, Brown) that "the famines which are now approaching...are for a surety, inevitable....In fifteen years the famines will be catastrophic." In 1972, the Club of Rome's The Limits to Growth (Universe Books) suggested that at exponential growth rates, the world would run out of gold by 1981, mercury by 1985, tin by 1987, zinc by 1990, petroleum by 1992, and copper, lead, and natural gas by 1993. The end was nigh. The modern heirs to this strain of doomsaying include Lester Brown at the Worldwatch Institute and Vice President Al Gore.

But the silliness was not confined to the environmentalist front. Take a look at John Kenneth Galbraith's 1967 paean to planning, The New Industrial State (Houghton Mifflin), in which he asserted: "High technology and heavy capital use cannot be subordinate to the ebb and flow of market demand. They require planning and it is the essence of planning that public behavior be made predictable--that is be subject to control."

Galbraith, too, has heirs--most notably, Robert Reich and Lester Thurow. In his 1980 book The Zero-Sum Society (Basic Books) Thurow suggested that "solving our energy and growth problems demand [sic] that government gets more heavily involved in the economy's major investment decisions....Major investment decisions have become too important to be left to the private market alone." Thurow ended with this revealing claim: "As we head into the 1980s, it is well to remember that there is really only one important question in political economy. If elected, whose income do you and your party plan to cut in the process of solving the economic problems facing us?"

Ultimately, the neo-Malthusians and the zero-summers are pushing the same egalitarian agenda: Stop growth and then divvy up the static pie.

Fortunately, a far more prescient and optimistic intellectual tradition opposed the melancholy millenarians. In 1967, Herman Kahn, the founder of the Hudson Institute, published The Year 2000, (Macmillan) in which he laid out a variety of scenarios for the next 33 years. Today's U.S. GDP is at the low end of Kahn's most likely scenario. (Hudson Institute analysts claim that the breakdown of American public education is to blame for this lower than expected GDP.) But Kahn was spot on when he predicted the flooding of women into the work force, the growing equality between the races in the United States, and the boom in Japan. Later, in direct contrast to Thurow, Kahn published The Coming Boom (Simon & Schuster, 1982), which predicted the enormous economic growth that the United States has experienced since then. Kahn also pleaded for the reestablishment of "an ideology of progress":

"Two out of three Americans polled in recent years believe that their grandchildren will not live as well as they do, i.e., they tend to believe the vision of the future that is taught in our school system. Almost every child is told that we are running out of resources; that we are robbing future generations when we use these scarce, irreplaceable, or nonrenewable resources in silly, frivolous and wasteful ways; that we are callously polluting the environment beyond control; that we are recklessly destroying the ecology beyond repair; that we are knowingly distributing foods which give people cancer and other ailments but continue to do so in order to make a profit.

"It would be hard to describe a more unhealthy, immoral, and disastrous educational context, every element of which is either largely incorrect, misleading, overstated, or just plain wrong. What the school system describes, and what so many Americans believe, is a prescription for low morale, higher prices and greater (and unnecessary) regulations."

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