Apocalypse? Now?

2009-03-29

A few weeks ago I wondered over the dearth of well-reasoned scenarios about the near future. By saying so I was referring specifically to the discipline of scenario planning. In their paper Plotting Your Scenarios, Jay Ogilvy and Peter Schwartz offer this definition:

Scenarios are narratives of alternative environments in which today’s decisions may be played out. They are not predictions. Nor are they strategies. Instead they are more like hypotheses of different futures specifically designed to highlight the risks and opportunities involved in specific strategic issues.

As the words "narrative" and "hypothesis" indicate, a scenario is a combination of art and science that explores possible futures that might transpire within an organization, an industry, a nation, or even the world in general. Although I am not deeply versed in scenario planning, I think it provides a much more rational approach to envisioning the future than the steady diet of millennialist gloom that we are fed by the press and the pundits. Sensationalistic predictions of "the end of the world as we know it" may sell advertisements and newsletters, but they are more religious (in the broad sense) than scientific. From Christian Reconstructionists like Gary North to deep ecologists like Arne Naess, it's fashionable to say that the end is nigh, that a new Dark Ages is right around the corner, and that humankind is doomed unless we radically change our sinning ways (where, depending on your viewpoint, sinning might consist of engaging in capitalism, accepting too much debt, using too much energy, falling away from the strict tenets of a particular religion, etc.).

Those who predict impending doom love to point to the disintegration of classical civilization, with a stern warning that modern civilization is next in line. I hate to break it to the gloomsters, but Rome didn't fall in a day. It took centuries for the Roman Empire to collapse, and from a much lower level of knowledge and physical infrastructure than we moderns enjoy. Having studied a great deal of history (especially the "meta-history" of civilizations), I strongly doubt that modern civilization will collapse next Thursday or next year. If indeed disintegration is on the way, it will take decades or centuries to occur.

This is not a Pollyana perspective, it is realism. I'm not saying that all will be well, that progress will be endless and uninterrupted, or that troubles will not occur. Hard times, too, are part of history. But let us not be misled into thinking that our times are uniquely difficult. Compared to the Dark Ages, the time of the Black Plague, the Hundred Years' War, or the uncountable centuries of misery before the dawn of historical reckoning, our current challenges are a mere blip on the radar screen.

To counteract the symbolism (I cannot even call it thinking) of "apocalypse now", we need, more than ever, a dedication to reason and a focus on the facts. And in part that means we need to work out what the driving forces of history are in our times, what the most likely scenarios are over the next 40 years or so based on demographics, technology, culture, politics, ethics, and economics, and what the leading indicators are of these scenarios. This is not magic, but it is hard work and needs to be done in a collaborative (dare I even say open-source?) fashion by people who have diverse expertise but who share some common assumptions. I think the common assumptions part is important: to my knowledge, most of the scenario planners who are actively envisioning possible futures buy too deeply into Malthusian myths about scarcity (they would do well to read Julian Simon's book The Ultimate Resource), do not understand the radically transformative effects of current information technologies (which I see as even more powerful than the introduction of the printing press), and are woefully ignorant of market economics (especially of the Austrian School). Perhaps it's time for a small group of people with a more historically-grounded, optimistic, libertarian, dynamist perspective to define an alternative set of possible futures. They would be doing the world, and the values they hold dear, a great service.


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal