The Study of the Future, by Edward R. Cornish, with members and staff of the World Future Society, Washington, D.C.: World Future Society, 1977, 307 pp., $9.50 (paper).
"If anything is important, it is the future. The past is gone, and the present exists only as a fleeting moment. Everything that we think and do from this moment on can affect only the future. And it is in the future that we shall spend the rest of our lives." With these words Edward Cornish begins one of the five or six best books about the future written to date. And the study of the future is the "most exciting intellectual enterprise of today," he declares.
It is refreshing to read a predictive book by an optimist—a cautious optimist without illusions who recognizes the potential dangers of nuclear war, ecological destruction, economic collapse, and related social disruption—who still believes that "we have it within our power to create a civilization incomparably superior to any in human history."
Members and staff of the World Future Society (WFS) assisted Cornish with his book, but it essentially remains the work of one man—a very remarkable futurist. He founded the WFS in 1966 and, serving as its only president, Cornish has built it into the largest futurist association in the world with 28,000 members in 81 countries. Moreover, he has served as the central catalyst in transforming the study of the future into futuristics, "a unique combination of science and art, management and morality, electronic intelligence and common sense that manages to avoid collapsing into total confusion because it maintains a unique perspective on reality—that of looking forward in time. This concentration on the future provides an organizing principle for the creation of a powerful framework for thought and action that can enable mankind to manage human civilization with increasing wisdom in the years ahead."
Futuristics, he adds, is not some "necromancer's brainstorm. Instead, it was developed by scientists and scholars who wanted to apply knowledge to solving human problems. Futuristics takes historical fact and scientific knowledge and adds human values and imagination to create images of what may happen in the future. Futuristics is science standing on tiptoes; it is history seeking to look forward instead of back."
Today, the new field of futuristics is severely polarized between the "catastrophists," who predict that the exhaustion of terrestrial resources combined with excessive population growth will lead to collapse of civilization, and their intellectual adversaries, the "cornucopians," who believe that inexhaustible supplies of food, raw materials, and lebensraum can be found for a human population they expect to reach 20 or 30 billion (even larger in some scenarios). Too many people? "Simply send them to space colonies," say the cornucopians. Some catastrophists expect a population crash between 2020 and 2050, in which starvation and pestilence reduce the global population to the 1970 level of three billion humans.
And futuristics is further polarized by heated debates between the "technological optimists" and the "technological pessimists." The technological pessimists are very critical of the petroleum, chemical, and nuclear power industries on the grounds that they are highly polluting and dangerous. They believe that solar energy is the only acceptable technology—their universal panacea. In contrast, the technological optimists "generally concede that technology has many unwanted side-effects, but argue that technology is essential to maintaining a high quality of life. Without modern technology, the technological optimists say, man would quickly return to barbarism. The opponents of modern technology, according to the technological optimists, are romantics who fantasize about the joys of simple rural living while forgetting the brutal realities of wresting a living from the soil without modern techniques."
STUDYING THE FUTURE
The man who has been able to build and hold together the WFS in spite of these extraordinarily hostile ideological divisions is not a charismatic leader oozing deceptive charm. Instead, he has the outward appearance of a quiet, modest man who nevertheless has been able to keep warring factions of futurists together and create an organization that now influences America's most powerful leaders in industry, the media, academia, and government (recent US presidents included). To do this, Cornish walks the razor's edge of true outward neutrality; and this is reflected throughout his book, which has no discernible biases, liberal or conservative, pro- or anti-technology. It is neither cornucopian nor catastrophist. Instead it is descriptive, an exceptionally well-worded review of what contending futurists believe and foresee, who their principal leaders and gurus are, along with the most authoritative available summary of how futuristics has evolved from times gone by to its present status as a discipline that may allow man to design the future.
Cornish starts off with a discussion of the basic principles of "futurism." The evolving methodologies being refined for studying the future are described in text that can be understood by, and be of great value to, every reader who must make long-range plans for his business or related professional requirements. The actual experiences of private and governmental organizations who have employed technological forecasting and other branches of futuristics are summarized. Page 49 contains the best list of future trends I have seen—if recent trends continue (and the "if" should be stressed).
The ideas, motivations, prognostications, and influence of 11 prominent futurists are described in considerable detail, along with insightful biographical data on each of them. Cornish makes the important point that these individuals have been actively involved in futuristics but that many other persons "would have an equal or better claim to be among the top futurists." The point is not to illustrate "average futurists" but to display futuristics in practice.
There are flaws in every book, and The Study of the Future has some errors of omission. This may be due to the fact that most of the data in the book originated with people who live in the Boston-to-Washington axis. Excellent long-term forecasts made by Western aerospace firms are almost totally ignored. To some extent these deficiencies are made up for by an excellent list of 128 of the most influential future-oriented books, accompanied by brief synopses of their contents.
Starting out in his cluttered living room, with the help of his wife Sally, in a single decade, one dedicated futurist has created a smoothly functioning international organization whose meetings, local chapters, and publications provide a practical and easy way for people everywhere—with all shades of ideological conviction—to participate in the futurist movement or at least to remain in touch with what is happening. For anyone interested in such participation, Cornish's new book is must reading. It should be read many times by anyone interested in the future. Mark it up. Underline favorite passages. Carry the best-worded sentences into your own writing. But do obtain a copy and use it as a tool that will allow you to have some degree of influence on the futurist movement and within rapidly growing organizations engaged in futuristics.
My latter suggestion is especially important to libertarians, who are conspicuously absent from the ranks of organized futurists. With the exceptions of G. Harry Stine, Jerry Pournelle, and Robert A. Heinlein (and myself), no libertarian authors have had any impact on the evolution of futuristics in recent years or are endeavoring to do so today. Instead, those concerned for the future of liberty appear to have abandoned futuristics to eastern and California "establishment" liberals who presently dominate the field.
As long as Cornish remains as the WFS president, however, futuristics and its most influential publications will remain open to all shades of opinion and social-political ideology. In Cornish's viewpoint, "futurists appear to be remarkably open to all types of ideas; in fact they seem to be constantly searching for new information about the world, and are never so happy as when they have found a genuinely exciting idea." Today may be the last opportunity for libertarians to carve out a sphere of influence within the futurist movement, to make certain that their values of personal choice and freedom from the growing specter of Orwellian governmental control are given proper recognition by those who study or engage in the practice of futuristics.
What is a futurist? Cornish describes futurists as "rational, scientific, and pragmatic in their outlook. They are not idle dreamers; in fact, their interest in the future seems to arise out of a desire to be really effective. They want genuine, longterm solutions, not temporary palliatives. They are also sensitive to emerging problems and want timely action taken before a problem grows into a crisis." These words could be easily paraphrased into an accurate description of libertarians. But they must begin to play an active role in futurist organizations, write for their publications, attend their meetings—or the futuristics of tomorrow will be irrevocably contaminated by the ideological beliefs of establishment liberals and egalitarian collectivists whose proselytizing skills are well honed.
I firmly believe that futuristics can serve as a framework for reconciliation and constructive cooperation between persons in leadership positions who, at least when negotiations begin, start out with widely divergent ideological convictions. "The peoples of the world do not share a common past, but they do share a common future." Breakthroughs in communication and transport have erased past boundaries, and there is no reason why libertarians cannot become the principal beneficiaries of the fact that revolutionary new concepts can spread around the world—and quickly become everyday reality—even faster than in past decades and centuries.
But are futurism and libertarianism inimical? Consider this futurist point, that we have it "within our power to create a better and happier human civilization than any that has ever before existed on this planet, but this greater world civilization is not foreordained: It may happen—or it may not. We may be able to avert disaster and continue creating a better world—but we may fail to do so. The issue is not settled." And consider this fact: "Forecasting is not some new and strange activity. It is as natural and necessary as breathing.…Forecasting the future is an action that is fundamental to human beings. Throughout our lives, we are constantly making forecasts." And "Without forecasting the future, there is no freedom to choose a future: The future is simply thrust upon us. By studying future possibilities, we begin to realize new possibilities that are open to us. We are not locked into our present situation."
But these simple truths do not seem to be properly understood by most libertarians. They seem to equate formal forecasting and futurists with the "planned economy" proposals of liberal politicians or the Soviet Union's numerous five-year plans. Their legitimate objections to the latter, however, have contributed to the fact that scenarios of a libertarian tomorrow are almost totally absent from futuristics publications. This absence is the most severe deficiency of contemporary futuristics.
Cornish's words again reassure. "Ideas have made civilization possible and keep it advancing. For example, the division of labor is one simple idea that has proved extraordinarily powerful through history.…Firmly convinced that ideas can move mountains, futurists are extremely interested in the systematic development of ideas. Better ideas will make it possible to improve the human condition." And there is no reason why libertarian ideas cannot become the dominant ideology of tomorrow's world. There are an infinite number of alternate future worlds, each somewhat different. The future need not be an immutable continuum of the present and recent past. The shadowy shape of things to come is not predictable, but we can design and build a libertarian society to replace the restrictive institutions of today.
To achieve this goal, libertarians will have to produce truly innovative solutions (not the standard "don't do anything about it" approach) to the many crises now confronting humanity. As Cornish observes, each of today's crises "is one of the best reasons for thinking about the future. Almost always, the crisis has resulted from a failure to deal with problems before they reached the crisis stage. In retrospect, it is generally easy to see how a modest amount of thought and effort—if invested earlier—could easily have forestalled the crisis, thus effecting huge savings in money and grief."
We live in a world of mounting crises, but one should remember that the Chinese ideograph for crisis is an amalgam of the symbols for danger and opportunity, "If we will really give serious attention to the future, rather than continue to lurch from crisis to crisis, we can hope for enormous benefits in the years ahead. Some of us may even live to experience life among the happy people in the multiple utopias which may someday dot the earth."
Robert Prehoda, self-described as a "pragmatic libertarian," has written extensively on futuristics and has been associated for 23 years with the US space program and privately funded R&D on the retardation of aging in humans.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Science Standing on Tiptoes".