14 February 1998
Do look now
By Barry Buzan and
Simon & Schuster;
295 pages; £20
THE worst books about
the future, especially those written because of an arbitrary benchmark
such as the millennium (rather than, eg, because the author has something
to say), are those that use a few supposedly world-changing trends, generally
in technology, geo-politics and the environment, to make shocking claims
about the world a century hence. By contrast, the better such books are
not really about the future at all: they are keen observations about the
present and past, showing what in today’s and yesterday’s worlds could
matter most in tomorrow’s.
This one, by two
international-relations academics based in London (one of whom, Gerald
Segal, is also a reviewer for The Economist), is thankfully in the
better category. Indeed, a fair measure of its emphasis is that, despite
its title, “Anticipating the Future” begins to talk about the future only
after 190 of its 295 pages. The first two-thirds are devoted to a bold
survey of human history over the past 15,000 years, and an analysis of
where mankind stands now.
Naturally, the details
are a bit sketchy. But this approach serves a useful purpose. It leads
the reader to abstract himself from the petty, short-term concerns of this
year or even this decade, and to consider instead the march of human progress.
And it thus predisposes the reader to rise above the usual pre-millennial
On such a platform,
the futures discussed in the final third of the book, written as if by
historians writing in 2050, 2500 and 7000, are relatively healthy ones.
But in one respect, dear to this newspaper, the authors seem blinkered.
Much is made of a trend of “economism”, when in the late 20th century people
came to believe that market forces were all, a trend which will apparently
shortly give rise to a worldwide wave of crime and social disorder.
The authors’ error
here is the one they so usefully avoid elsewhere, namely of dwelling on
the short term. A proper historian, looking back from 2050 at the changes
in the role and extent of the state between, say, 1980 and 1998 would surely
detect only modest change except in those countries that in 1980 were communist
or socialist. The authors seem to have wanted to settle a score or two
against Margaret Thatcher, rather than to see recent economic events in
a long historical sweep.