Societal Directions and Alternatives

A critical guide to the literature


Societal Directions and Alternatives: A Critical Guide to the Literature, by Michael Marien, Lafayette, New York: Information for Policy Design, 400 pp., $16.50 (paper)

Michael Marien is to be given due credit for making an ambitious effort to prepare overview essays and analysis and brief review summaries of 917 books and articles (the important ones, in his view) for "social scientists, futurists, ecologists, system theorists, planners, journalists, humanists, conservatives, liberals, radicals, optimists and pessimists." As a work explicitly oriented toward reflections on alternate futures and foreseeable options, however, it falls short—principally because Marien is a sociologist with a discernible bias against certain forms of science and technology. Consequently, some of the most important books on the future and on technological forecasts are missing even though they contain vitally important data on societal alternatives for tomorrow's world.

Failure to mention Sir George Thomson's now-classic 1955 forecast, The Foreseeable Future, along with predictive books by Asimov and Clarke, is difficult to understand, and Marien's text implies that some included items enjoy general acceptance by the scientific community when, in actual fact, they are exceedingly controversial. For example, considerable space is given to three articles by Princeton's Gerard K. O'Neill in which he proposes to solve population problems by sending 15 billion humans to artificial "space habitats" within the next 102 years! O'Neill is a physicist without space exploration experience, and astronautic experts consider his proposals to be ludicrous, but in this case the text states that "all of this is predicated on existing technology." Yet important predictive space books by von Braun and others are never mentioned.

Marien observes that "there is a remarkably small quantity of literature" concerned with libertarianism and other forms of conservatism that are "directly opposed to the 'leftist' liberal position, which represents a large portion of the literature covered in this guide." Although he does have a brief chapter on "Freedom from Government," its content reveals that he is not aware of some of the more conservative futurists. One can see that an attempt has been made to be fair to F.A. Hayek and other libertarian writers, but Marien's bias against large corporations in general and multinational corporations in particular is evident throughout the book.

"Redistribution is an important aspect of both reforming the economy and reforming the government," he comments, but this comes with recognition of the danger of "diminished individual freedom" posed by such egalitarianism and is tempered by opposition to any excessive degree of bureaucratic centralism. Marien appears to be sympathetic to the decentralist anarchosocialist proposals of E.F. Schumacher and Ralph Nader.

This critical guide does bring to light many "lost" predictive articles and books published between 1864 and 1957—items that will be of interest to the professional student of the future. If the reader is aware of its author's biases and the many important omissions, it can serve as a useful reference source if used in association with similar predictive literature guides published by the World Future Society.