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Anticipating the Future

Some draft introductory material from a new book by Barry Buzan and Gerald Segal for Simon & Schuster, to be published in the autumn of 1997


Table of Contents


1- Introduction

Part One -Looking Backward

2- Globalisation and World Wars

3- European Expansion

4- Civilisations, Empires and Barbarians

5- From Pre-History to Civilisation

6- Looking Backward, Looking Forward

Part Two -The Here and Now

7- The Planetary Environment

8- Population

9- Identity

10- Knowledge

11- Capital

12- Sovereignty

13- Military Power

14- Where Are We Now?

Part Three - Memories from the Future

15- On Progress

16- The View from 2050

17- The View from 2500

18- The View from 7000

Further Reading


Why would two academics want to write a book like this? The judgements are sweeping (although we hope not glib), the language is deliberately un-academic (although we hope not simplistic ), and there are no footnotes (although there is a list of suggested readings). When we began this project four years ago we had three motives in mind.

Our obvious starting point, and it has been one for various other authors, was to assess where humankind stands today on the verge of a new millennium. Unlike most of the millennial literature, we felt it important to stress the extent of human progress. While we recognise the often close run contest between triumph and tribulation, we find that in the long view the human story is fundamentally upbeat. We also wanted to do something different. Much of the late 20th century literature about the state of the world tends to deal only with changes over the past century or so. We thought it important to stand back much further, reflecting on twenty millennia of the human experience.

Our third objective was to show that academic specialists need not shy away from phrases like "reflecting on twenty millennia of human experience". The authors’ collective curriculum vitae includes over three dozen books, many of which were written for a specialist audience. Some of our usual readers will be appalled that we even thought of writing on such a huge and speculative subject. But we felt that social science theory and detailed knowledge of specific areas of the world (the academic expertise of the authors) are worth much more if they can be used to say something meaningful about bigger pictures for wider audiences. It was those spirits that led the authors to write earlier books on "mind mapping" or a layman’s guide to world affairs for trade publishers.

When we began talking about millennial issues, it became clear that we had a major argument to make. An important part of the stimulus to write this new book was the feeling that uncritical judgements were being made about such things as "A Pacific Century" , "The Clash of Civilisations" and "The Decline of the West". We felt too many millennial authors ignored evidence from the broader sweep of human history. In our age of micro-specialists, we felt there was a virtue in taking a longer look back, a more anticipatory look forward--and all so that we could understand better where we are today.

Chapter 1: Introduction

This is not another book about the new millennium--it is something far more audacious. It is a book about where humankind now stands in its own history. It is based on an understanding of where we have come from in the past several millennia, and where we are placed for the next few. The central idea is that we can best understand where we are now, with reference to where we have been and where we might be going. Unlike much conventional cynicism, we think that there are firm grounds for optimism about the human condition, and that the new millennium marks an important turning point in many vital aspects of human history. Our two core themes are thus progress, and transformation.

Much millennial pessimism arises from taking a too short-term view. There are plenty of Cassandras about, ranging from the milder sort who find it hard to escape a gloomy projection of the status quo, to the wilder sort who believe that we stand on the brink of some sort of ecological or social disaster. But a longer perspective suggests that human beings have made remarkable progress, albeit unevenly, and sometimes with major setbacks. We find no compelling evidence that this trend is about to stop. We are impressed by the steady long term geographical spread and civilisational deepening of the human enterprise, by the relentless expansion of knowledge, by the huge material gains that have enabled ever more people to realise their human potential, and by the learning curve that despite all the setbacks seems to generate ever larger, more sophisticated, more capable, and in many ways more just, economic, social and political orders. Our vision of human progress is not just material, but also political and moral. We recognise the perils of the future, but the longer view of history suggests that awareness of such risks is part of what helps humans stay on the path of progress. That such awareness is now sharper and better organised than it has ever been before is in itself grounds for optimism. Our full stall on progress is set out in chapter 14.

Our second core theme is transformation. The late twentieth century seems to be a time in which many large-scale historical patterns reach their turning points. Everyday conversation and media discussion offer some limited insight into this phenomenon with catch-phrases such as "the End of the Cold War Era", and "the rise of East Asia". These do indeed capture important turning points. The ending of the forty-year Cold War, and even more so of the 75-year twentieth century, seemed to bring to an end an era of violent ideological struggles about how best to organise the economic and political life of modern societies. The rise of East Asia is supposed to point towards restoration of an older pattern in which the East Asian civilisations dominated the world economy and Europe was a relative backwater. Asia accounted for at least a third of world GDP at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and that is roughly where they will be again two hundred years later. There is no doubt that some East Asian states have made remarkable progress in recent decades in lifting themselves out of poverty, and that they are virtually the only parts of the developing world to have put themselves successfully on the road to modernisation.

But in the long view of history these are merely local events. Our perspective focuses on three much broader developments which set the context for all of these shorter-term movements. The first of these is the shift from a world directly dominated by the West, to what we call the Westernistic era. This era is defined by the interplay between the spread of Western ideas around the globe on the one hand, and the reassertion of non-Western cultures on the other. Our age is Westernistic because most of the economic and political ideas around which it is organised come from the West. The East Asians succeeded because they adopted and adapted capitalism and political pluralism, much like countries in the Atlantic world did in the previous two centuries. The rise of the Asian phoenix was made possible by acceptance of Western ideas. Any abandonment of their key Western features will undermine Asia’s ability to continue meeting the challenges of the future. As East Asians and others join the prosperity of the Atlantic world, they enrich the ever-adaptable notions of the West. The Westernistic era will see a more multicultural world, but one bound together by a shared legacy of widely accepted Western ideas. The important question is not about Western decline. It is about the change in the nature of the relationship between a still potent West and the other cultures of human civilisation some of which are recovering their voice and their economic and political power.

The second broad turning point rests on a much longer time line. It is about what we call the culmination of the making of a single human space on the planet, a process that has been underway ever since the first modern humans began to migrate to the distant corners of the world. In this perspective we stand on the edge of a new phase of human existence. It is only within living memory that humans have effectively discovered and mapped all parts of the earth's surface, and only some 30 years ago that we first saw our planet as a whole from outer space. It will not be too long before the size of the world's population stabilises for the first time in history. This filling up and knowing of the planet mark a sharp departure from the fundamental conditions that have shaped human history over all the past millennia. They bring us into a new relationship not only with ourselves, but also with the earth as an ecosystem and even the earth in the cosmos. They may even redefine our notions of progress.

A third, and potentially more far reaching turning point is our new-found ability to change the very components of ourselves. This process—for example manifest in our ability to control conception and therefore free women to take greater control of their lives, has had a far reaching impact. And there is more to come. Although human history is replete with scattered efforts to understand who we are and how our bodies work, it is only in our era that we have become able to alter our bodies and perhaps even our minds. This is not just a matter of new drugs or the uncertain virtues of psychoanalysis, but much more a matter of our new ability to fix our broken or worn out body parts and change our genetic makeup. We may also be on the verge of learning how to slow ageing and/or make a direct interface between humans and machines. But we certainly have learned to take control of when we give birth, how to implant new organs and how major parts of our genetic code work. We have only just begun a fundamental debate about how much we want to do with our new powers over our bodies. When do we wish to define the start or end of life? How much more tinkering with human form and function should we tolerate? These are new and awesome questions and these issues are also aspects of the central discussion about the meaning of progress that forms a central theme of this book.

In order to capture the twin themes of progress and transformation we need to take an unusually long view of the human condition. But we did not want to follow the tradition of wrist-breaking millennium books and world histories. We wanted an essayish, accessible book for those interested in how to think about where we are and where we are going. This means we have to move fast over a very large and varied terrain. To make this strategy work, we have adopted an unusual approach, part history, part current affairs analysis, and part science fiction.

Part I of the book deals with history. The human story is a relatively certain subject matter, though one that can be endlessly reinterpreted. We begin with the present and work backward through the main eras: the twentieth century, the rise of Europe, the era of classical and ancient civilisation, and prehistory back to the end of the last ice age. This is not history in fine detail. It paints only in broad brush-strokes, and concentrates only on grand themes. The purpose of this account is to tell us where we are now in relation to where we have come from, and to identify what if any historical momentum propels us into the future.

Part II focuses on the present. Here the relative certainty of the past dissolves into a series of questions, debates and puzzles, reflecting the pervasive uncertainty of our own time about itself. We examine the current condition of humankind in terms of seven themes: environment, population, identity, knowledge, capital, sovereignty and military power. Their purpose is to reflect current preoccupations, and to relate these to where we have come from and where we seem to be heading.

But one of the insights from history is that the human experience has so far always been marked by deep patterns of uneven development. At any point in history since the beginning of civilisation, and still today, we find peoples in radically different stages or types of development. It makes as much sense to lump together an understanding of the fate of a refugee in Rwanda and a bond trader in Frankfurt, as it does to believe that life for a resident of London in the late twentieth century is much the same as in the 15th century. The differences in modern space are akin to differences in vast swathes of time. The existence of these different worlds makes it difficult to form single generalisations about humankind in the past, now, or for the future. Human history has to be told as a set of overlapping stories.

Part III takes its inspiration partly from science fiction, partly from history, and partly from Peter Schwartz’s ‘Art of the Long View’. Unlike most scenario writers we do not try to creep forward into a prediction of the future, for even the clearest picture of a fuzzy object must itself be fuzzy. Instead, we try out a new method of linking the present to the future. Taking our cue from Part I, we start from the future, and look back at the late twentieth century as it might be seen by historians located fifty, five hundred and five thousand years in the future The future perspective uses distance in time to gain insight into the present, for it is only by understanding the present that we gain leverage on the future. We are interested in the feasible project of anticipating the future, not in the impossible one of predicting it.

On Prediction and Prescription

Only those who have not read any good science fiction would argue that you cannot anticipate the future. The notion of foreseeing does not mean that the future can be understood as well as the present or the past. But it is important to recall that the meaning of the present and even the past are sharply contested. It is not until much time has passed that we understand the past, and even then our sense of the truth is always being adjusted. To an important extent our sense of the future is similarly adjusted as it comes closer to today. Whether it is a matter of looking forward or back, we cannot help but judge on the basis of where we are today. Hence the central importance of understanding where we are now.

Most people are loathe to predict. When asked to do so, say in the context of scenario-planning for business, the preference of most people is to stay close to the present. In earlier times, when change was much less rapid, there was perhaps less risk in trying to foresee the future. But in our modern world, many aspects of life are changing increasingly rapidly, thereby making prediction less predictable. The current vogue in business schools has moved away from long-term planning and now puts more emphasis on quick thinking and adaptable structures and people. Business cycles are usually less than five years and are shrinking. Military specialists are happier to stray out a bit further, if only because it takes at least a decade for new weapons systems to be devised and deployed. Demographers are often happy to operate up to 20-30 years hence, for they can tell you now how many people will be in the workforce in 20 years and roughly how many people will be where on the planet. Astronomers, of course, are only happy dealing in the vast numbers of years that it takes light to reach our planet. That may help explain why there is a sign at the American Jet Propulsion Laboratory that says "we do precise guesswork".

Prediction, as Ernest Gellner pointed out, "does not exclude the possibility of comprehension". There is value in expressing a vision " the hope that its clear and forceful statement will make possible its critical examination". But all those who anticipate the future need to remember, as the old Arab proverb has it, "he who predicts the future lies even if he tells the truth". Prophecy is a leftover from more primitive and superstitious times, and is much despised in our scientific era. The business guru Peter Schwartz, whose The Art of the Long View is a modern classic about scenario-building and the art of prediction, nevertheless argues that in order to act with confidence and live a full life, one must be willing to look ahead and consider uncertainties by using mental radar. Those who react to uncertainty with denial will never break new ground and find the deep satisfaction of having risen to and met a challenge. These are challenges that every good parent should well understand, for they implicitly make such assessments when thinking about their children's future. At a minimum, a willingness to contemplate scenarios is a vehicle for learning. The illusion of certainty is not preferable to an understanding of risks and realities. Herman Kahn's On Thermonuclear War: Thinking About the Unthinkable was not a prediction of nuclear war, but it was a useful effort to overcome the disease of denial. By thinking the unthinkable, he helped ensure that it never happened. Thus while there can be no accurate picture of tomorrow, there can be better decisions about the future and understanding of the present. What we need is that old adage about good theatre, "the willing suspension of disbelief".

Of course we suspend disbelief with great caution. Early 20th century futurists, although good at foreseeing our venture into space, failed to believe that the motor car would be such a huge success and problem. It was only ten years ago that much gazing into the future assumed that we faced a real risk of destroying life on our planet through the use of nuclear weapons. That risk was real, and might still return, but for the time being is much reduced. Our current apocalyptic vogue is concerned with environmental catastrophe. This too is more a sign of the times than an accurate anticipation of the future. It is based on a delusion that life is somehow in a delicate balance, when the reality has always been a more random world of competition where species die and mutate. It is all too easy to quote the by-now laughable predictions of others, but it is worth recalling that Lord Kelvin, the President of the Royal Society in 1895 said that "heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible", that Harry Warner of Warner Brothers said in 1927 "who the hell wants to hear actors talk" and that in 1943 Thomas Watson, the Chairman of IBM, said "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers".

Our look at the present in Part II does allow us to ask certain questions about the future. Will states survive, and if so, where and why? Similarly, how will cultures change? Anticipations of the future are more often based on extrapolations from the current state of scientific research. Thus it is worth asking if humans will live longer and whether genetic engineering will affect basic features of life forms. Some have even suggested that in the long term, men of the species will become redundant. Science might also be able to make possible therapy for global warming or travel at Star Trek-like warp speed. Science might make it possible to fend off a comet strike, or minimise its effects. Might we make terraforming a reality and make possible human existence on other planets? And then there is the possibility of discovering life on distant planets. Obviously we are in no position to predict the reality of such hopes or fears, but in our look back from the future, we will have views on the subject.

It is not our main purpose in this book either to predict or to prescribe, though we will unavoidably do some of both. In Part III, the process of anticipation commits us to some prediction. Especially in the look back from 2050 we have allowed ourselves the entertainment of a fairly detailed scenario for the next thirty years based on how we see the themes identified in Parts I and II unfolding. But except implicitly, the art of anticipation does not lend itself to prescription. Prescription is about the realm of choice in human affairs, whereas anticipation puts the emphasis on the momentum of events. One of our anticipations is that choice plays a big role in humanity’s future.