History of the Future Redux

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[Michael Egan first posted this on his new environmental history blog.]

Since graduate school, I’ve been fascinated with the history of the future. Not so much as historians having some special felicity with predicting the future (nope), but how the future is a wildly understudied facet of the human past. We’re constantly thinking about the future (even historians), from checking the weather, to making grocery lists for the week, to looking forward to vacations or travel or time off, etc. It would be very interesting to develop a larger historical project on these kinds of mundane features of the future, but my focus has tended toward the history of technology and its relationship to the environment. More significantly, planning—political, economic, environmental—is a much-neglected historical perspective. There’s a compelling element in the human drama to examine not just what people did, but what they thought they were doing. And what they thought they might achieve: how were they forward-looking. One aspect of this analysis might consider how effectively/accurately different people and societies planned for the future and in what kinds of capacity have past societies been most successful in so doing.

There are a lot of interesting entry points into this investigation. I think my own was prompted by the simple question: why have we been so relatively poor at anticipating the future? This was spurred by the litany of environmental disasters that were derived from unanticipated consequences, but the question can be expanded to ask where our private jetpacks and sky cities, etc. are. I think the short answer has to do with the social and cultural influences of technological systems and the manner in which system-entrenching technologies become so ingrained that it becomes difficult to imagine how technologies alien to the existing system might work. But that’s only part of a simplistic, macro-explanation that deserves further examination.

Sverker Sörlin, Libby Robin, and Paul Warde have been doing some exciting work on environmental prediction, which is starting to concentrate on the 1940s and 1950s. And I know of a few historians who have taken an interest in futurism (which only interests me as an historical project, not as an expression of historians’ expertise with time—that we should be able to look forward as easily as we look backward). Recently, Paul Warde pointed me towards these sessions at the European Social Science History conference, which meets next month (scroll down to sessions Y-9 and Y-10). His paper abstract reads:

Expertise for the Future: the Emergence of ‘Relevant Knowledge’ in Environmental Predictions and Global Change, c.1920-1970.

What characterizes an expert in the field of ‘environmental futures’? This paper considers why certain scientific methods have been favored historically, and especially in the breakthrough moment for the modern concept of ‘environment’ in the post-war years. One important point of departure for the paper is the idea that the emergence of the environment implied new demarcations for what counted as expertise, often transcending traditional disciplinary boundaries, and closely related to the practice and expectation of prediction. Another is point of departure is the increasing extent to which expertise relied on quantification, numeric assessments and iterative methods which had previously been developed as parts of various sciences but reemerge with new institutional and political implications when attached to environmental futures. The predictions that concern us here have clear similarities with the (self-)proclaimed expertise used in projecting futures in financial, economic, demographic and other areas, and their legitimization. Relevant knowledge, especially of integrative techniques such as mathematical modeling is often construed as transcending these, thus establishing new specific realms of expertise which in recent decades have coalesced into phenomena such as ‘global change’ and ‘environmental issues’. This paper will focus a number of issues in surveying the emergence of global change thinking: climate, energy, population, and biodiversity.

Similarly, his co-panelist Jenny Andersson’s (Sciences Po) paper looks very interesting:

The Political Life of Prediction. The Future as a Space of Scientific World Governance in the Cold War Era

This contribution explores the role of the future as a space of scientific exchange and dialogue in the Cold War period. We argue that problems of future governance were, East and West, conceptualized in similar ways as problems that challenged notions of politics and expertise but also led to the development of new forms of scientific governance which sought explicitly to depoliticize the future and turn it into a new transnational domain of technocratic politics. The paper thus focuses on the exchange between American and Soviet futurologists and on important forms of scientific cooperation primarily around the creation of the IIASA, but it inserts this case into a larger discussion of the future as a technoscientific space beyond political dispute – and embryo of new forms of global future governance.

I wish I could be there. But this is a rich and fruitful entry into an important and understudied avenue of historical inquiry. My own timeframe interests are more consistent with the papers in the second panel. After having done some work on The Limits to Growth and The Population Bomb, I’m especially interested in the techniques used during the 1960s and 1970s (especially the early iterations of computer modeling). The second panel includes papers that overlap with my timeline rather nicely, but the central theme seems to be forecasting doom, which is an important element of the period, but ground I covered indirectly while writing about Commoner (chapter 4 examined the role of the environmental jeremiad in American environmentalism and focused on the Commoner-Ehrlich debate over population and pollution). I’d be more interested to explore the practical aspects of future-planning and its relationship with science and policy. Here are a couple of paper abstracts from that second session. First, Elke Seefried (Augsburg University):

Futures Studies of the 1960s and early 1970s: From Creating Futures to Predicting Doom?

‘Future’ became a central political and scientific category in western industrialized countries during the 1960s. As a result of dynamic changes in science and technology and an increasing orientation towards planning, the so-called futures studies (or futurology) boomed. These were scientific approaches to forecast, plan and think about the future. In a process of circulation of knowledge, transnational networks of experts were established as well as national institutions of futures studies in Western industrialized countries during the 1960s. In this paper, I would like to focus on futures studies in West Germany and Britain, arguing that considerable parts of futures studies particularly in West Germany underwent a change around 1970, and this led to profound political consequences. In the 1960s, futures studies were shaped by a perception that the future was open and feasible, based on a belief in modernization and technical progress within the framework of the industrial society. Around 1970, parts of the field were permeated by a polyvalent, especially ecologically tinged criticism of growth and apocalyptic scenarios whereas the belief in planning strategies persisted. The debate on The Limits to Growth and other ‘prophecies of doom’ gave rise to the concepts of ‘quality of life’ and qualitative growth, later to become sustainability. This is particularly true for West Germany where futures studies had a considerable impact on politics by anticipating and constructing the ‘crisis’ of the 1970s and by reconceptualizing the notions of growth and progress towards qualitative and ecological aspects. In contrast, British futures studies and politics were much more bound up with paradigms of industrial society.

And, second, Elodie Vieille Blanchard (Centre Alexandre Koyré):

Technoscientific Cornucopian Futures versus Doomsday Futures: Forecasting and Modelling in the Debate over the Limits to Growth

This paper focuses on the emergence of the “limits to growth” paradigm concerning demography and industry in the developed world during the period 1945-1970. This was a context of generalized material affluence and confidence about the future. Indeed technology was supposed to allow the diffusion of the Western way of life to the whole world, and to solve all social and environmental problems this affluence could bring. The paper also shows the specificity of the Club of Rome project, under contrasted influences of cornucopian futures studies -focused on technology- and of the doomsday theories of environmentalists. It explains how these specific views about future led to the elaboration of a particular model, utilised in the publication of the Limits to Growth in 1972. Finally, the paper brings out how, in the debate over the “limits to growth” in the 1970s, particular visions of technology, environment and social priorities led to different modelling enterprises, which brought about radically divergent conclusions concerning the future of demography and industry. In the broader perspective, my contribution aims to show how the initial controversy over growth gave way to discussions about the specific characteristics of sustainable growth, while the criticism of industrial growth, and the urge to cease it, became the prerogative of very few scientists and activists.

The second paper, especially, is something I’d like to read, especially since I found myself so wrapped up in The Limits to Growth and the work that Jay Wright Forrester pioneered in system dynamics.

The history of the future has also been a teaching interest of mine. I’ve taught “The History of the Future” twice at McMaster over the past few years as a third-year course, and after removing the course from our calendar to make way for teaching the history of sustainability, I reintroduced it this past year, and hope to teach it again soon. Here’s a copy of the syllabus from the last time I taught it: 3UU3_Syllabus_2009. I had a really good group of students who bought in and made this a really fun class. I had roughly 100 students in the room, but the culture of the class made it feel more like a seminar with lots of good questions during and after each session. I’ll write more about the course concepts in the future; this was an interesting and effective way to talk about technological systems.

The next time I teach “The History of the Future,” I will likely revise the courseware materials and the course direction, in order to try to organize the course around the future writing project. I suspect the next iteration of the course will be organized around “Thinkers,” “Planners,” and “Makers.” Loosely, the first involves an intellectual history of the future (and touches on futurism, sci fi, etc.); the second considers planning, design, and prediction; and the final section is still fairly poorly conceived, but I want a place to investigate the Jay Wright Forresters and Buckminster Fullers of the world. Or at least that’s the current plan.

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Michael Egan

Michael Egan is an associate professor and University Teaching Fellow in the History Department at McMaster University. His current teaching and (SSHRC-funded) research revolves around the history of the future and the construction of “modern arks” as a means of insulating against future catastrophes.

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