In an earlier post I talked about prediction vs. preparation as different ways of approaching the future. Also foresight, which is the systematic study of trends and possibilities for the near future. When you do foresight, you quickly begin to realize that our ideas about the future are highly distorted, both by optimism and pessimism, as well as propaganda, ideology, and all the various things that various people and groups are trying to sell us. How do you cut through all of that to get some sense--any sense--of where we're really going?
One annual effort to do just that is the Millennium Project's State of the Future. This annual study of trends and drivers is grounded in research by hundreds of people in dozens of countries around the world. The full report comes with a CD or DVD containing 7000 pages of data, analysis, and background on the 15 years' worth of methodological refinement and legwork that have gone into the project. The pdf version of the executive summary is free to download here, and if you do look at it you may be shocked to discover something:
The 2011 State of the Future report is optimistic.
Cautiously so, and with caveats, but optimistic. The executive summary starts by saying, "The world is getting richer, healthier, better educated, more peaceful, and better connected and people are living longer, yet half the world is potentially unstable." The overall message is that from where we stand right now, we could build a poverty-free, sustainable world of free citizens. Or, we might pooch the whole thing.
Remember when I said in our last post that our problems are no longer technological? What I meant was that developing the technologies we need to save our collective asses is no longer the big issue; it's coordinating and cooperating to implement the solutions we already know will work, that's our difficult task now. The State of the Future report agrees:
There is no question that the world can be far better than it is--IF we make the right decisions. When you consider the many wrong decisions and good decisions not taken--day after day and year after year around the world--it is amazing that we are still making as much progress as we are. Hence, if we can improve our decisionmaking as individuals, groups, nations, and institutions, then the world could be surprisingly better than it is today.
By almost every measure, our world is getting better. Literacy, crime rates, education, access to fresh water--you name it, it's vastly improved over the past decade, and on a global scale. There remain several significant issues that could derail everything, however--so under the "Where we are Losing" heading the report lists the following:
- Carbon dioxide emissions (kt)
- Global surface temperature anomalies
- People voting in elections (percent of population)
- Levels of corruption (15 largest countries)
- People killed or injured in terrorist attacks (number)
- Number of refugees (per 100,000 total population)
This is consistent with previous years' reports. Corruption, international organized crime, climate change and related sustainability issues, and the prospect of a global mass extinction that may or may not include us... it's serious stuff. But the number of things that are going right, and that may synergize to mitigate or reverse these bad trends, is greater still.
J.R.R. Tolkien invented a literary device he said was necessary to balance the Greek idea of the catastrophe, that moment in a tragedy when everything falls apart. Tolkien called his idea the eucatastrophe--the moment when suddenly, everything goes right. In The Lord of the Rings, the eucatastrophe is the moment when Gollum falls into Mount Doom with the ring. Exactly that force for evil that threatened to destroy everything, saves everything instead. In light of my last post on this blog, you might say that eucatastrophe is the exact opposite of a wicked problem: it's the unstoppable twining of myriad threads of fate to create an unexpected, but in hindsight inevitable, positive transformation of the world. And it's as likely for the complex systems we inhabit to do right by us as wrong.
So I want to think about what our world's eucatastrophe could be. Once you read the State of the Future reports, you will see that everything is aligned for one to happen; the question is when, where and how?
What if everything goes right? And what if we help make it happen?