By coincidence, the same week in late July that the government released "The Global 2000 Report to the President," some 4,000 futurists were meeting in Toronto for what they called "the first global conference of the future."
For a moment, the world was free to get out its bincoculars and peer beyond the crises and failures of the present. But this grace period, in which the authors of the 2000 Report sought to get us ready for the 21st century and the futurists in Toronto were thinking as far ahead as five or ten centuries, offered only temporary comfort. The view throught he field glasses was of a future that is staggeringly unrosy.
In 20 years, the 2000 Report stated, the earth will be "more crowded, more polluted, less stable economically and more vulnerable to disruption." Specifics overflowed. About 500,000 species of plants and animals will have become extinct. Desert areas are expected to increase by 20 percent. The population will rise above six billion people, with five billion in the poorer countries. The supply of wood is expected to decrease by almost 50 percent worldwide.
Enough. The pressing question in all this is whether we should pay attention to people and groups who think about the future. The answer is yes, once we clear away the underbrush of quackery.
There is the lunacy of the body storage cult, for example, in which the freeze-dried dead of today await the Great Thaw of a distant tomorrow. The young, exposed to "Star Wars," are led to equate the future with fantasy. Addied dreamers abound. One of the more prominent, Ray Bradbury, a science fiction writer, looks to the colonization of the universe. He told an interviewer recently that "we don't have to talk about heaven. We can inhabit it."
If the field of futuristics is crowded with the unconstrained holding forth on the uncertain, it has nevertheless attracted a large grouping of scholars who insist that we can do better than be lulled by visions of green tomorrows, at one extreme, or be wiped out by resignation to catasirophe at the other.
These range from the better-known seers such as Buckminster Fuller to such obscure professors as Victor Ferkiss of Georgetown University, whose book "The Future of Technological Civilization" is sound scholarship. A futurist like Ferkiss differs from the mere forecasters in that he sees a relationship between what lies ahead and what are the decision-making policies of today.
Edward Cornish, the president of the World Future Society, argues that "the whole point of studying future possibilities is to improve the quality of decisions that are being made right now. It's true that we must survive the problems of today, but this survival shouldn't be so shortsighted that we fail to set aside some energy to think about the future, because that's where we can be productive."
Politicians are wary of futurism. If one occasionally gets ahead of his times, it's usually be no more than 45 minutes. The daring will propose "five-year plans" to solve one crisis or another. That is usually enough to convince the public that they are respectable visionaries. But should a mayor or governor talk of his 50-or 100-year plan, he would be seen as spacey. Jerry Brown learned that the hard way. His references to the global neighborhood of the 21st century had poeple calling him Governor Moonbeam.
It is much safer to react as Jimmy Carter did to the 2000 Report. He said the study team that wrote it would go forward as a task force. Thus, when the task force comes back in a few years with its recommendations to meet the next crisis, he or whoever is president can call for a White House conference. And the conference can call for a new study team.
Sen. John Culver of Iowa calls this recycling "government by crisis." That's a much milder phrase than what some of the futurists are offering. They look at the current calamities and talk of extinction, annihilation and post-human civilization.
They are more catastrophists than futurists. Unless we pause and seriously regard the more sensible futurists among us, like Edward Cronish, the future may be about to pass us by.