It is commonly argued that modern Western cultures have a bias towards short-termism and the present (rather than adequately considering the future). I was recently prompted to re-engage with Anthony Giddens analysis of how engagement with the future has evolved, which challenges some of these prevailing these views. Giddens is an influential British sociologist who for many years was Director of the London School of Economics and Political Science and has studied the politics of climate change (details here).
In particular, Giddens makes some useful and thought provoking distinctions between traditional cultures and modern societies (see this lecture). The latter is argued to be “a society bent on change, that wants to determine its own future rather than leaving it to religion, tradition, or the vagaries of nature”. Overall, it is argued, “fate has been ousted by an active engagement with the future”.
In contrast, “all previous cultures, including the great early civilisations of the world, such as Rome, or traditional China, have lived primarily in the past. They have used the ideas of fate, luck or the ‘will of the gods’ where we now tend to substitute risk.” This is very similar to arguments made by other sociologists e.g. Barbara Adams from Cardiff University. For instance, Adams’ research found that in pre-modern cultures the future was often seen as being “in the hands of god(s)”, i.e. not controlled by humans. Efforts to “know the future are more [consequently] likely to involve discovery, disclosure and interpretation of destiny, fate and fortune”. In contrast, if “the future is seen as ours for the taking and making then imagination may be employed for conjecture, creation, colonization and control.”
The rise of the concepts of risk and risk management in modern industrial civilisation are central to Giddens’ lecture, as is clear in this statement:
“Traditional cultures didn’t have a concept of risk because they didn’t need one. Risk isn’t the same as hazard or danger. Risk refers to hazards that are actively assessed in relation to future possibilities. It only comes into wide usage in a society that is future-oriented – which sees the future precisely as a territory to be conquered or colonised. Risk presumes a society that actively tries to break away from its past – the prime characteristic indeed of modern industrial civilisation. “
Apart from some marginal contexts, in the Middle Ages there was no concept of risk. Nor, so far as I have been able to find out, was there in most other traditional cultures. The idea of risk appears to have taken hold in the 16th and 17th centuries, and was first coined by Western explorers as they set off on their voyages across the world. The word ‘risk’ seems to have come into English through Spanish or Portuguese, where it was used to refer to sailing into uncharted waters. Originally, in other words, it had an orientation to space. Later, it became transferred to time, as used in banking and investment – to mean calculation of the probable consequences of investment decisions for borrowers and lenders. It subsequently came to refer to a wide range of other situations of uncertainty.
A further distinction is made between “external risk” and “manufactured risk”. External risk is “experienced as coming from the outside” (e.g. caused by nature, e.g. bad harvests, floods, famine); manufactured risks are created by the activities of humans and their consequences. At some recent point, “we started worrying less about what nature can do it us, and more about what we have done to nature”. (I.e. a transition from the predominance of external risk to that of manufactured risk).
Reconsidering futures thinking and evolving ways of considering the future
According to these sociological perspectives both futures thinking and forecasting are practices that epitomise many of the central animating dynamics of modern societies – including risk management (i.e. actively managing future hazards, rather than seeing these as the being “in the hands of gods”); the pursuit of change and all the uncertainties this entails; and seeing the future as open and not pre-given (i.e. viewing the future as open to human choice, and not determined by fate or destiny).
Barbara Adams research has similarly examined what she describes as “the gulf that separates contemporary western and traditional modes of extending into and telling the future”:
- Traditional methods (e.g. of diviners, shamans, prophets, astrologers) were efforts to gain foreknowledge of specific fates; which “share(d) an assumption that the future present is pre-given and that it requires specialist skills to unlock its mysteries”. The key is that future is understood as being “pre-given” (i.e. “pre-existing”) and able to be discovered by those with the required specialist knowledge. Traditional methods often focus(ed) on forecasting outcomes for individuals.
- Scientific prediction which is based on “a collection of past observations projected into the future. The past is the basis on which scientific laws are established and the ground on which it is possible to know the next eclipse of the moon or that water will always freeze at zero degrees centigrade”. Adams also notes that “the socio-historical and economic world clearly does not provide us with equivalent laws: the social past does not determine the social future”, thus making “prediction of social futures by scientific means is a far more precarious affair”. Adams argues that scientific prediction is mostly concerned with forecasting outcomes of collective actions/events.
- Contemporary practices of projection: projections are “pronouncements of promised futures which are planned to be produced and actualized”, i.e. intentions made public before the fact.
- Contemporary futurologists (that’s the term used by Adams) who “have abandoned all expectations about a pre-existing future, and assume instead an open future that is yet to be imagined, designed and produced”. The future “is a possible, present future, a future that is pictured, planned, projected, pursued, and performed in the present”. A related distinction is made between “knowledge of socially constituted open futures” and “scientific predictions of natural processes”.
The above description of futurology is consistent with Giddens assessment of modern society, and centrally seeks knowledge of the potential outcomes of future-creating actions. Adams critiques this approach as missing some of the wisdom contained in some traditional methods. She argues that the future is partly pre-figured, by “futures already set on the way whose effects extend into the very long term futures” (e.g. the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and future climate change), and knowledge of this is “a precondition to engaging responsibly with futures of our making”.
Adams also makes a further crucial observation: “the more novel the situation to be projected the less prediction will be appropriate as a tool for telling the probabilistic future”. Thus, attempts to forecast the future based on past observations is a fraught exercise, and we should be skeptical of analyses like recent assessment of civilisational collapse scenarios that principally draws on historical analysis.
It seems to me that futures thinking needs to move beyond the forms and practices that became central in modern societies. We can draw on the above modes, whilst abandoning practices with no value (e.g. astrology and related forms of divination), in engaging responsibly with the futures of our making.