The Economist

14 February 1998
 

The future 
 
Do look now  

 
ANTICIPATING THE FUTURE: TWENTY MILLENNIA OF HUMAN PROGRESS
By Barry Buzan and Gerald Segal. 
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 gloom. 

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. 

BILL EMMOTT