Doomsday Criers & Technocrats

Optimism gives the technocrats no reason to plan for anything, while pessimism gives them sufficient reason to plan for everything.


Images of the Future, edited by Robert Bundy, Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1976, 236 pp., $12.95

The Next 200 Years, by Herman Kahn et al., New York: William Morrow, 1976, 228 pp., $8.95

Despite anything you may have heard to the contrary, futurology has been in existence since the beginning of mankind. Human beings have always been interested in events before they happen. Consequently, there has always been a fairly good market for those who convince their fellow citizens that they can foretell the future with a reasonable degree of accuracy. For centuries now, intelligent people, apparently sane and in command of their senses, have turned over some of their hard-earned cash to fortune tellers of one kind or another. Astrologers, crystal-ball gazers, card readers, palmists, numerologists, religious fanatics, and mutants within this species have all found a receptive market for their exotic occupations. The law of supply and demand has served us well. If there is a demand for knowledge of events before they actually occur, it is to be expected that crafty entrepreneurs will step forward to fill the demand.

So it is not the business of futurology or futurism or futuristics or whatever else you want to call it that is alarming. Not at all. What is upsetting, however, is the elevation of this occupation to the realm of science within the past 10 or 15 years and the influence this pseudoscience is beginning to have on public-policy decisions. This development is all the more distressing when you consider that the overwhelming majority of those working in the field are calculated or misguided pessimists with a vested interest in sounding the alarums.


Years ago, the doomsday criers did not have quite so much potential political power. For the most part they were religious fanatics who ran from village to village dressed in rags, predicting the end of the world. Pessimism, the more provocative the better, has always been lent an ear.

All this, although annoying, was relatively harmless in its time. But now we have made a science out of the entire business. We have technologized, mathematicized, and computerized the job of predicting the future. We have created models of the future—scenarios—and offered them up for public consumption. Most dangerous development of all, the various scenarios for energy, population, food production, pollution, and so on—embellished as they are with a veneer of alleged scientific fact and computer printouts—have been seized upon by politicians and public planners, and their political and economic decisions are affected accordingly.

Invariably, the more pessimistic the scenario, the more likely it is to attract the attention of the media and, ultimately, the authorities in power. Why is this so? If Herman Kahn presents a scenario indicating that things are not so bad and are likely to improve over the next 20 years, it is not so catchy as Paul Ehrlich crying that we are all going to starve to death within the next 50 years. Putting it more succinctly, optimism gives the technocrats no reason to plan for anything, while pessimism seemingly requires their planning for everything. In return for their help in keeping the governmental bureaucracy intact, in the second half of the twentieth century the purveyors of gloom have been rewarded with unprecedented respectability (and subsidies in some cases).

All of which brings us directly to the subject of the two books under review. The first, Images of the Future, is a collection of essays that evolved from a special issue of the Humanist magazine. The writers' views range from stark pessimism to a rather bouncy optimism about the future. Some of the contributors are professional futurists in that the major part of their labors are related to projecting scenarios for the future, while others are professionals in a wide variety of fields.


The book is launched on a moderately optimistic note with an essay by Fred L. Polak, whose opening remarks are general and noncontroversial. He maintains that we are the only beings capable of transforming the concrete, "observable" world we live in into a "not-exiting state of being" conceived in our own imaginations. Since we are rational, volitional creatures, we are able to alter our environment according to our own designs. This view of man falls into the Aristotelian, classical liberal tradition, which should cause no trouble for libertarians, especially since Polak keeps his comments general; he does not get specific about the kind of society he thinks we ought to evolve toward. And he is moderately optimistic that, in view of man's basic nature, we will survive and create a good, civilized world society.

The following piece by Geoffrey Squires is disappointing—and not primarily because of Squires' pessimistic outlook. We cannot dismiss a doomsday scenario just for its pessimism. If it is the result of sound, analytical thought, it is worthy of a hearing. But Squires rests his case on a tired, conventional, unimaginative, and unimpressive line of reasoning. His lament is the now familiar one that technology is somehow destructive and has reached its "limits" anyway. His alternative is equally familiar: poetry and spiritual values can save us. He talks about technology as though it were an alien force out there that has destroyed our ability to stay in touch with the poetic and spiritual aspects of our nature. He sees the world in dichotomous terms. There is a great war raging between materialism and spiritualism, and unless we abandon the former for the latter, modern civilization is destined to go to hell on roller skates.

The choice of the editor of this book to have Polak and Squires lead off the discussion is an interesting one. He selected thinkers who represent two classically divergent systems of thought, and their contrasting weltanschauungen symbolize the tone for most of the confrontation in this area over the years. At the risk of oversimplifying these views, this is a debate that started with Aristotle and Plato and has yet to be resolved. Is man a rational, integrated creature capable of directing his own life (and future), or is reality irremediably split into two broad categories: real reality versus perceived reality; spiritual reality versus material reality; poetry versus technology? Polak, the Aristotelian, believes that man has the capacities—rationality and volition—to survive on his own; Squires, the Platonist, believes that only a special elite group can save man from himself—poets, in this case.

Ironically enough, if Squires and his doomsday vision were to prevail, he and his special poets would be relegated to an even lower rung on society's totem pole than they occupy at present. For the experts who would be called in to run things would most assuredly not be poets. They would be the same knotty claque of technocrats who have been directing our economy, our wars, and our foreign policy for 50 years and longer. Squires has picked a straw man to flail away at. If he is truly concerned about the future of poetry, he would be well advised to reexamine his concepts. Poetry and technology are not mutually exclusive. They are both positive creations of man and thoroughly compatible.


Those who have not read Jacques Ellul will have a good chance to get acquainted with him in this book. Ellul is never dull. Whether or not one agrees with his ideas, one must acknowledge that he is a stimulating and provocative intellectual gadfly. He starts off by claiming that utopian views have not done humanity any good; unrealistic, they are "an attempt to avoid reality." Writers and artists, according to Ellul, have made their major contribution in showing us the "kind of future we should avoid." Here he cites Orwell, Huxley, Kafka, More, Campanella, and Fourier. In a somewhat bumptious manner, Ellul states that Jesus was another utopian who failed to present a realistic view of the future, since his thrust was "eschatological"—"the very opposite" of an image of the future. (To be a bit provocative: fans of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged might ask whether it presents a realistic image of the future or whether it, too, deceives us, avoiding reality with a utopia.)

Ellul goes on to claim that there are three components of a "socially effective" image of the future. The first is "the real experience of a people"—history, which serves as a launching pad for future decisions. Second, we have "the range of the possible." Science tells us what we are capable of doing, while our imaginations enable us to conjure images of "desirable" futures. The range of the possible is imagination tempered by scientific feasibility. Finally, the values dominant in society will strongly determine the quality of the future we choose. If a set of values is not shared by a people collectively, says Ellul, then one group will end up imposing its own values.

But is it realistic to expect fundamental values and their ordering to be shared "collectively" by a large, heterogeneous society of people? This might be possible on a tribal level, where everyone is privy to the same moral and social pressures (and ostracized for deviation). But in a society as diverse and sprawling as, say, the United States? Hardly likely. The result here, under our present form of government, is that powerful lobby groups get all kinds of conditions imposed on the common folk. So it is no surprise that Ellul seems to be advocating a form of spontaneous anarchism close to Bakunin's. He also describes himself as being close, philosophically, to the decentralist, Jeffersonian anarchism of Ivan Illich. He calls this evolving tradition a semicapitalistic, humanistic individualism.

All this is fascinating enough intellectually, but one cannot resist asking Ellul one simple question before moving on: If utopian ideas, according to Ellul, are unproductive because they "avoid reality," hasn't he fallen into the same trap himself by making spontaneous, humanistic anarchism a precondition for a civilized world of the future?

Other contributors to this volume are worth reading for a variety of reasons. Robert Bundy is concerned about keeping the futures movement, as he calls it, from becoming a "subservient arm of government, the military, and Madison Avenue." Wendell Bell talks about "past facts, present options, and future possibilities" and notes that too many futurists act as though they know the future. He warns that there is no such thing as "future facts"; we are left only with forecasts. Some contributors, such as Lester R. Brown and Robert T. Francoeur, do little more than intone the standard litany against leisure, technology, population, etc. One thing that strikes the reader more than anything else is that there are nearly as many routes to creating positive images of the future as there are futurists. All in all, this book is a good introduction to the kind of diverse thinking that pervades the futurist movement today.


Herman Kahn is one of the most intriguing futurists around, and it pays to read the interview with him in Images of the Future before turning to his own book, The Next 200 Years. He has achieved considerable notoriety for his outrageous optimism, and his views have never been stated in a more curmudgeonly manner than in this interview. And they are backed up with technical data and computer studies published in The Next 200 Years.

Kahn claims that the image of the future projected by the Club of Rome several years ago is "almost unbelievably childish," reflecting "narrow technicism" and an even narrower "class interest." The study "has no virtues. It does not understand the whole system; its assumptions are awful; its technique is bad." The "hysteria" concerning overpopulation, says Kahn, "originates with an attitude held by a certain class of people." A family making $10,000-$20,000 a year in Portugal can afford servants, cars, and houses and enjoys a higher living standard than an American family earning $50,000 a year. "The standard of living in upper class elites all around the world goes down both absolutely and relatively as the world gets richer. And they recognize it." This is why the upper classes resent the spread of affluence among more and more people and speak about limiting the numbers of the upwardly mobile lower orders. In terms of real numbers, Kahn expects global population to taper off naturally at around 10 or 15 billion before the year 2100. Given what we know already, he says, "it doesn't take very high-quality decision making to make sure that we don't run into pollution deaths of any great magnitude or that we don't have mass starvation on the order of hundreds of millions of people."

On poverty: "There's practically no poverty in the United States." We define poor in terms of X amount of dollars per year, but when you mean poor the way the rest of the world means poor, American poverty is strictly relative, and this condition "will presumably continue throughout history." There are "some very poor people in Appalachia and the South," admits Kahn, but this is still not "absolute poverty" in world terms.

On growth: "You can't totally limit growth and, second,…the pluses for increased growth are probably overwhelming." "If you want to stop the population growth, I believe you have to make the poor countries richer." The best way to do this is to make the rich countries very rich, which pulls up the poor countries."

Isn't the gap between rich and poor increasing? Yes, but this is the "dumbest" lament being made today. If rich people make $2,000 per capita and poor people make $200, the gap is $1,800. If, in a decade, both rich and poor double their real incomes to $4,000 and $400 respectively, the gap is then $3,600. "The poor people of the world are delighted to double their incomes," and they couldn't care less "what per capita earnings in rich countries are." "Their interest is solely in increasing their income." True to form, Kahn states that "intellectuals really feel gaps," and they assume that everyone else feels them too. If you tell a chauffeur that Rockefeller lives a lot better than he does, he won't bat an eye. Tell him, however, that another chauffeur makes ten cents an hour more than he does, and he's likely to get ulcers. That's the only gap he's worried about. Kahn is an ardent defender of the "trickle-down theory" which states that, if you permit the more affluent people and nations to increase their riches, the results will trickle down to the poor. If you penalize the wealthy, you will ultimately hurt the poor.

What about energy? Hasn't growth led directly to an energy shortage? The real problem, says Kahn, is one of "mismanagement." "We took something like natural gas, which is the most convenient fuel you can have, and we priced it at twenty cents a thousand cubic feet.…This is fuel that clearly should be sold at one dollar per thousand cubic feet. So naturally everybody uses gas instead of oil or coal, and you get a complete distortion of the market. This is not the same as a real shortage." As far as future supplies are concerned, if the price is high enough, there'll be no shortage of energy.

What is Kahn's own prediction about the kind of society we are heading toward? He is optimistic about life on a material level, maintaining that more people are getting richer at an accelerated rate and that there will be plenty of resources to go around, but he does have some warnings about the quality of life. He thinks the world will become increasingly middle class by American and European standards, which is fine for the lower and middle-middle classes, but the quality of life of the upper and upper-middle classes will suffer a bit. The world will be a busier and less private place. Those rising out of poverty won't mind that at all, but those who have been accustomed to the exclusivity of wealth are likely to grow resentful about the democratization of affluence.


Does Kahn foresee any major problems on the horizon? "The risk of serious war is now starting to go up again, precisely because people are not worrying about the problem." First of all, "technology is producing some very dangerous" weapons, which are getting easier to buy. Second, "the kind of balance achieved by World War II is gradually weakening." Kahn believes that we avoided nuclear war in the 1950's precisely because both the United States and the Soviet Union distrusted each other and thus kept a cautious, well-balanced attitude toward each other. Disarmament talks can be destructive, he says, unless you know exactly how many missiles and weapons the other side has. Also, the major powers are less capable today of keeping the smaller countries from having a go at each other—for example, Kahn thinks there is a serious danger that China and Japan will start hurling nuclear weapons at each other in their competition for the control of Asia, with the USSR and the United States standing ineffectively on the sidelines.

Kahn also foresees a crisis of values and morale. The upper classes have a culture and morality of their own with which they have been comfortable for generations. The middle classes, says Kahn, are in a state of transition, abandoning traditional religious values and middle-brow cultural attitudes, but without a new system to replace them. He thinks the American president is in a unique position to direct the middle classes in dressing up their self-esteem and finding a new self-image. (This was published before the presidential election of 1976. Although Jimmy Carter is offering middle-class Americans some spiritual identity, he is doing this by repopularizing the old-time values rather than by presenting a new set of values and cultural attitudes to identify with. It would be interesting to find out whether Kahn considers this a positive development.)

The charts, graphs, and data published in The Next 200 Years are the results of a study by Kahn and his associates at the Hudson Institute. Those readers who are interested can analyze Kahn's figures along with the data published by the Club of Rome and other doomsday groups and can conclude for themselves which camp has a better handle on the direction in which the human race is heading.

It would be encouraging to see more futurists with Kahn's orientation enter the prediction business—even though some of what he has to say is debatable. As long as these people have an influence on our politicians and central planners (an influence that is growing every year), it would be preferable to have Herman Kahn at the ear of the president instead of Paul Ehrlich or the Club of Rome—just as, if someone will be advising the president on economic matters, it would be better to have Milton Friedman than, say, John Kenneth Galbraith.

The prediction business is a burgeoning field, and it is still in its infancy. Professional futurists may soon be ordained as the high priests of the 21st century. It seems that we will all have to learn to live with them, since they are not about to go away. For those who would like to keep abreast of what is happening in the field, these two books are well worth looking into.

Mr. Tuccille is the author of four books, two of which deal with futuristic themes: Here Comes Immortality and Who's Afraid of 1984? His new book, on investing wisely, will be published in a few months.