November 11, 1997
by Konrad M. Kressley
This is the first installment in a series of articles on the emerging study of the future. This week begins on a retrospective note -- how past generations thought about the future. Later installments will focus on contemporary forecasting techniques and what may be in store for the world and our personal lives.
Last Summer I had the opportunity to attend a meeting of local university scientists with a representative of NASA. Was the University of South Alabama finally getting into rocket science and space travel? Not really. The space agency representative was here to solicit collaboration for its "Mission to Planet Earth." Unknown to most folks, NASA is not only concerned with far-away heavenly bodies, but uses satellites to study our home planet. What began with crude photos in the 1960s has turned into a highly developed science of "remote sensing," using a vast array of instruments to measure variables such as temperature, moisture, pollution and chemical composition of the earth's surface.
Almost everyone knows about satellites and weather forecasts. But did you know that expanded technologies can also chart trends in rainfall and temperatures that result in climate change? Leaving aside the controversies swirling around "Global Warming," there are indeed constant climate changes caused by a variety of factors. Take urbanization: NASA scientists are studying the Atlanta metropolitan area, where high energy use creates "heat islands" that subtly alter the surrounding climate. This phenomenon is even more pronounced in third-world mega-cities. Natural forces, such as volcanic eruptions, also alter weather patterns. Whatever the causes, the effects for humankind can be far-reaching and dramatic.
This is where future studies and forecasting come in. Even a minute climate change, such as a small increase or decrease in rainfall, can affect a region's agricultural capacity. In the long run, water supply also affects industry and the general economic status. The rise and fall of average temperature can have equally dramatic effects. Cooler temperatures restrict the type of crops that can be grown. But rising temperatures may also have unwelcome consequences. Right now, international health authorities are worried that mosquito-borne diseases will spread as regions outside the equatorial belt become more hospitable to these insects. Archaeologists and historians have long wondered why civilizations rise and fall, and climate change is emerging as one of the plausible explanations. Our current civilization, with its robust population growth and economic activity, will likely be affected as well. There is a growing consensus among scientists that human activity is now a factor in the ecological equation. Now for the good news: Our generation is unique; it is gaining the capacity to understand some of these processes and to forecast and possibly steer future developments. We'll want to explore this further in later installments.
Prehistoric people apparently had no conception of the future. Life was a brief struggle for existence, with no discernible patterns beyond those of nature's cycles. The first serious concerns with the future coincided with the development of the great ancient civilizations, whose rulers consciously planned survival, expansion, and dynastic succession. Authority figures typically consulted priests or mystics who had special access to the supernatural world. The methods varied: Some relied upon dream interpretation, others slaughtered sacrificial animals and studied their entrails, while others used the motion of heavenly bodies to render forecasts. You could say there is an unbroken tradition linking them to modern-day astrologers, palm readers and psychics.
The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans relied heavily on oracles to provide guidance. Usually this involved putting someone into a trance that would allow the individual to communicate with omniscient spirits. While there were many famous oracles, the "seances" conducted at Delphi in ancient Greece are among the most memorable. Modern scholars realize that the priests who operated Delphi ran a profitable business, if not a racket. Rulers or their messengers would come laden with treasures as offerings, which were gladly accepted. Then questions could be posed to the oracle. The actual function was performed by consecrated women, virgins past the age of fifty we are told, who were made to sit on a three-legged stool above a crack in the earth from which volcanic vapors rose. Once in a trance, they would utter gibberish, which only the attendant priest could understand and interpret. As a final twist, the supplicant never got a clear answer, but a coded reply cloaked in double meanings. One king is said to have asked whether he should risk attacking a powerful neighbor. The oracle told him that a great kingdom would be destroyed in the process. Little did he know that it was to be his own!
Astrology is one ancient forecasting tool that is still very popular. The rise of scientific astronomy in the Renaissance even boosted its credibility and popularity. Like the oracles of antiquity, astrology has a mixed record, with some well-publicized successes and many more quiet failures. It is widely known that Jeanne Dixon predicted the JFK assassination, for example, but few people realize how seldom her forecasts were correct. Perhaps the most famous astrologer of all times was Nostradamus, a French physician who first became known for treating plague victims in 16th-century Europe. Later in life he turned to astrology and metaphysics, producing Centuries, a book completed in 1555 with 966 predictions covering the next seven hundred years. Unfortunately, Nostradamus used few dates and most of the predictions are vague, enigmatic verses which have frustrated generations of scholars who have struggled to decipher them.
All great religions have sacred scriptures through which God speaks to believers. If God is all-knowing, eternal and has a plan for the world, these texts are likely to contain accurate revelations of what lies ahead. Some religions claim that this is open to any reader, while others believe that the truth is hidden and can only be deciphered by a chosen few. For instance, some sects in Judaism look for hidden messages in the Torah by assigning numerical values to the Hebrew letters and then reassembling the text according to the order of the alphabet. As you can imagine, when the text is long enough, some surprising words or phrases will pop out. One enterprising scholar recently put a computer to the task and produced a best seller full of "hidden" divine messages. Meanwhile, many Christians look to the Book of Revelations for guidance about the future. Mainstream theologians read the text as allegorical literature, but a fervent minority take it literally. Most typically, contemporary world events are interpreted by the literalists as fulfillment of the scriptures, signaling the arrival of the Anti-Christ, Armageddon and a final judgment. In fact, the identical set of scriptures have been used to produce a constant stream of near- term apocalyptic predictions over the centuries. Some relied on round numbers, such as a millennium; others focused on astronomical events such as the reappearance of comets; while others took historical events such as the founding of modern Israel as signals of the world's end. Some religious denominations, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, constructed elaborate timetables that aligned biblical prophecy with contemporary world events. What do they all have in common? Up to now, all of them have proven wrong .
If you are looking for a prophet, you don't need to go very far. In July 1995 the religion editor of the Mobile Register reported on the Institute of Divine Metaphysical Research, which preached impending apocalypse from its local center on Holcombe Avenue. According to their reading of the Bible, the world would end before 1996. Or consider the work of M.G. "Dan " Daniels, a local religious figure and radio talk- show host. In November 1989 Daniels wrote a letter to the local newspaper claiming that the fall of the Berlin Wall was a divine signal of fateful impending events. "There will be an illusory peace and prosperity especially during a three and one-half year period," wrote the home-spun prophet. "Then there will follow three and one-half years of pure hell on earth." Perhaps Daniels really foretold the first Clinton administration.
Whereas prophecy usually involved forecasts of specific events, various schools of history have sought to forecast the future more in terms of recognizable cycles and patterns. To begin with, historians disagree about the ultimate meaning of history. Some contend that human events are random phenomena, and that history, according to one cynic, "is just one damn thing after another." Others claim to have observed patterns of progress, decline and even repetitive cycles over the years. The secular science of history can be traced to the ancient Greeks who started charting the rise and decline of civilizations. Since then, many other historians have built their careers on defining regular cycles and patterns.
A few samples from the vast body of contemporary scholarship are instructive. Pitirim A. Sorokin, a Russian sociologist, sought to classify cultures and define a pattern of change in societies. His work Social and Cultural Dynamics (1937-41) was a highly abstract piece of analysis. Basically, Sorokin suggested that all societies progress through periods dominated successively by faith, reason and hedonism. I'll let you guess where America is thought to be right now. Another scholar, Crane Brinton, traced regular patterns of revolutions in world history. In his book The Anatomy of a Revolution, Brinton documents how radicals inevitably become the status-quo establishment. Or consider the work of Paul Kennedy, the Yale historian who penned The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers in 1987. Tracing the development of empires from the 16th century until the present, the historian mapped out common features of aggrandizement that ultimately also destined great powers to decline.
So, can you learn about the future by exploring the past? The world appears to be in a state of flux, while basic human motivations have proven more or less constant. The problem with cyclical theory is that it often provides 20/20 hindsight of the past but is a less than perfect forecasting tool. Everyone likes to repeat George Santayana's maxim that those who do not learn from the past are destined to repeat it, but this notion is difficult to put into practice. When it comes to "lessons of history," U.S. military strategists looked to Britain's handling of the Mau Mau insurrection in Kenya for guidance on how to proceed in Viet Nam. By the same token, the Viet Nam experience of the sixties and seventies was held up as a learning tool for U.S. response to leftist insurrections in Nicaragua and other parts of Latin America during the eighties. In retrospect, each situation was unique.
Is the world getting better or worse? That depends on whom you speak to. People's perception of the past is deeply colored by their ideological predisposition. Many of the ancient Greek thinkers compared the world to a biological organism that goes through stages of youth, maturity, and decline. Contemporary conservatives idealize the past and tend to bemoan the present as a time of technological triumphs overshadowed by moral decadence and decline. Their solution is to restore the past. On the other hand, Western Civilization also has a strong tradition of Progress, suggesting that civilization is on an ascending path. This idea of Progress is generally traced to the Renaissance and Enlightenment epochs in Western Europe. We'll return to this debate in a later installment. For now, please mark your calendar for July, 1999. That's when, according to Nostradamus, a cataclysm from the sky will cause all hell to break loose on earth.
The next installment will examine the techniques and findings of contemporary forecasting enterprises.
Konrad M. Kressley teaches Political Science and Public Administration at the University of South Alabama. He is a member of the World Future Society and has published future-oriented research in The Futurist, Technology in Society and other journals. He is working on a self-help book featuring forecasts of life in the next century.