Re-reading Slaughter and de Jouvenel

The last few days I’ve been re-reading some classic and important recent futures texts. In particular, aspects of Bertrand de Jouvenel’s The Art of Conjecture (TAC) and Richard Slaughter’s Futures Beyond Dystopia (FBD) stand out.

de Jouvenel: change and foreseeability (a rationale for foresight work)

de Jouvenel’s TAC makes the case that investments in foresight are necessitated by change.  He asserts that “exertion of foresight must increase in a society in movement” (p.10). The reason for this is that whilst established ‘routines’ “save us the effort at foresight” (p.9) rapid or disruptive change is likely to problematise these routines.

In this regard Slaughter and de Jouvenel are in agreement. They both believe the professions of Futures Studies and Applied Foresight developed because of human and social needs during rapid change.

More importantly (I think), he points to being tied to such existing recipes/routines and the foreseeability provided to people if they can expect others to conform to customs. de Jouvenel comments: “it is hardly surprising that the maintenance of a familiar social order has always been regarded as a Common Good whose preservation was essential” (p.9). He points to “the power of that which has already been seen, tried, and experienced” and contrasts this with “the spirit of our times” (p.10). I.e. those seeking to change the present state of affairs – such as environmentalists – are imposing a foresight cost/imperative on societies. This is because – as de Jouvenel writes – “as foreseeability is less and less granted to us and guaranteed by an unchanging social system”.

Slaughter: An inevitable dialectic between foresight and experience?

The conclusion of Slaughter’s FBD is titled ‘The dialectic of foresight and experience’ (no question mark). He writes that it:

appears that there is an indissoluble relationship between foresight and experience. In case after case individuals, organisations, and societies require the latter, it seems, before the former will be seriously engaged. The ability to clearly read the signs around us that point to a dangerous and diminished future, to interpret them correctly and take effective action remains uncommon (pp.250-251).

Slaughter goes on to review material looking for an explanation and to question this assessment. He cites the biologist Edward Wilson who argues that evolution has hard-wired humans to be short-termist. The great psychologist Daniel Kahneman makes a similar argument that humans have an inherent short-term bias. Looking for a way out, Slaughter makes the following suggestions: 1) short-termism may be grounded in cultural habits and worldview habits; and 2) foreknowledge of possible dystopian futures will motivate changes that prevent these futures from occurring stating “this foreknowledge sets up what system modellers call a ‘feedback loop’ from that future that reaches back into the present and provides a rationale to change the way we operate in the here-and-now” (p.251). He also reiterates twin motives for futures of ‘fear/prudence ‘ – illustrated by a short, alarmist, discussion of nanotechnology – and ‘vision/design’, by discussing his preferred future of a post-materialist ‘wise culture’.

I find myself feeling both more pessimistic and optimistic than Slaughter. I have less faith in the politics and power of fear to motivate change. However, I see emerging developments such as the sustainability movement as addressing this ‘dialectic’. I’m optimistic that more can be done in this regard.

As I consider futures work through the lens of sustainability science and interventions, I’m seeing futures work in new ways and also reconsidering important aspects of sustainability practices…

One Comment

  1. […] Some speakers sat on the fence. For example, Bob Brown argued fear is inevitable and a rational response to a threat, but also suggested that what matters most is the response to this fear. He shared his personal story of initially being overwhelmed by pessimism, leading to depression, and then to making the choice to adopt a more optimistic, empowering outlook. What also stood out to me was Bob’s other story about seeking new gun control measures. The Greens failed to achieve this reform but after the Port Arthur massacre new laws were quickly passed. This seems to be another example of the ‘dialectic of foresight and experience’ discussed by Richard Slaughter in Futures Beyond Dystopia (see earlier post). […]

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