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Issue No. 8 (October 1999) -- Mark Satin, Editor

World Future Society:
Feast of the "insider" change agents

Our society consists largely of neurotics and psychotics, the California think tank lady was telling her standing-room-only crowd. But the emancipatory forces are becoming stronger . . . .

“Anyone interested in creating a better future” would agree we need “transformation, not reform,” the earnest fortysomething man who ran a small non-profit was telling his admiring audience. . . .

It was the World Future Society’s Ninth General Assembly, and if you wanted to spend five days blissfully contemplating your own superiority there were plenty of speakers for you. There always are at the WFS’s 1,000-person-or-more annual events.

But there was a second, parallel track at this year’s Assembly (which took place July 29 - August 1 at the comfortably appointed Hilton-and-Towers Hotel in Washington, D.C.), and for the first time in my memory it attracted more people and generated more electricity than the gooey track.

Call it the show-and-tell track, since it was populated by speakers who showed slides and told stories about the work they were doing in the dominant institutions of our society. Or call it the track of the “insider change agents,” since nearly all their slides and stories related to their efforts to change those institutions from within.

 Tough new world

I immediately gravitated to a panel put on by researchers from the U.S. Army War College, and so did a lot of other wizened seekers -- over 100 of us packed a too-small seminar room. Most of us looked about as much at ease as Dukakis in his tank.

There’s been a sea-change in the military, Doug Johnson began. The things we can talk about, and the things the brass will listen to now -- how to flatten hierarchies, for instance -- I mean it’s just. . . .

We’ve actually been encouraged to take a dissenting view!, said Dr. Steven Metz.

Bonnie Jezior talked about the new high-tech soldier, “an incredible force on the battlefield” by the year 2025 -- decked out in flexible lightweight body armor with a spray-on “second skin” for protection against chemical and biological weapons, munching on all-natural rations, brilliantly competent at complex high-tech weaponry. (Women may be the best high-tech soldiers, Johnson added. They’re more comfortable with chaos, and complexity. . . .)

The Army is pretty good at planning for orthodox war, Metz said. But we’re helping it get a handle on three other kinds of war -- “barbarian war,” “techwar,” and “netwar.”

Barbarian war could happen if cultural decay or epidemics led to the collapse of “weak states,” and hatreds and passions -- channeled by private armies -- exploded across the Third World. Terrorism would be “a means of leverage over regions of stability,” and our first task would be “to keep instability at bay.”

Techwar could be launched by smaller states. All they’d need is a few good robots (now no more than two generations away), or enough money to produce chemical or biological weapons.

Netwar would pit networks of political, ideological or religious groups against state actors. With no “head,” a networked enemy would be extraordinarily difficult to defeat -- especially if it chose to concentrate less on pitched battles and more on terrorism, including “cyberterrorism.”

Metz routinely calls on diplomats and other civilians to for God’s sake address the world’s underlying problems. But all three panelists were realists, and that encouraged the audience to think realistically, too. Nobody mistook the Pentagon for the enemy.

 A break from the action?

The military panel unnerved me, so I went off looking for a speaker to laugh at -- ideally, some old-fashioned futurist making weird predictions about the distant future.

I ambled into Graham T.T. Molitor’s talk on “The Next 1,000 Years” with great anticipation. But instead of guffawing, within two minutes I was completely hooked! This tall and courtly older man, who is (it turned out) co-editor of the Encyclopedia of the Future and legal counsel to the WFS, proved beyond a doubt that vanilla futurism (no alternative “scenarios,” no heavy focus on “consciousness”) can still give grounds for hope.

We may have experienced three waves of change so far, Molitor said (referring to Alvin Toffler’s famous agricultural-industrial-information-era schema). But over the next 1,000 years, we’re going to experience five more.

First there’s going to be the Leisure Time Era, when “free time” devoted to entertainment, travel, hobbies, etc. begins to dominate the economy (not to mention the bulk of our lives). Straw in the wind: Leisure-time-oriented businesses may account for 50% of U.S. GNP as early as 2015!

The Life Sciences Era will begin to dominate economic activity by 2100, thanks in part to today’s gene mapping. Genetic engineering -- appropriately regulated -- will eradicate genetic diseases, extend life expectancy (by at least 50 years), increase food production. . . .

Not enough raw materials to go around? By 2200 we’ll enter the Mega-Materials Era, which began to take off with the development of plastics. (Eat your heart out, Dustin Hoffman.) Thanks to nanotechnologies, we’ll be able to deconstruct and reconstruct all materials entirely to our specifications. Goodbye, ecological doomsayers.

And goodbye, energy doomsayers. We can get by on fossil fuels until 2200, at which point thermonuclear fusion -- based on hydrogen, an inexhaustible energy source -- will usher in the New Atomic Age.

Ultimately, Extra-Terrestrial Enterprise will become the main engine of economic activity. “We’ll be out of [here] by the time the sun begins to burn differently and destroy the atmosphere!”

Like most Baby Boomers, I grew up in an atmosphere of nuclear doom and ecological gloom, so for me Molitor’s perspective was a wonderful tonic. I even found his method inspiring. “I buy [up to] 1,000 books a year,” he said, “and read about 400 at a time -- cross-fertilization, you know.”

 New labor? New business?

I couldn’t believe Big Labor had a panel, so naturally I went. So did 15 other souls.

The small turnout was a shame, because not only did the pork-choppers show up with the requisite slides, they gave a good sense of what it means to be pro-union and pro-business.

Dave Alexander from the AFL-CIO talked intelligently about “using the power of pension funds to make a difference,” and Art Shostak, from the George Meany Center for Labor Studies in Philadelphia, waxed enthusiastic about computer technology (top officers could be chosen via the Net! “win-win negotiations” would be more likely on the Net!). But Jim Reid, from the International Association of Machinists (IAM), stole the show when he described the IAM’s nascent approach to labor-management relations.

Basically, in return for workers’ commitment to “continuous learning and skill building,” Reid’s wing of the IAM will be asking for labor participation in most key management decisions -- who gets hired and fired, what gets subcontracted out, which technologies should be adopted. . . .

There’s a full commitment to this from the very top of the union!, Reid told a very skeptical audience. We’re training people in it now! Business leaders will like it, because it’s worked in Europe. . . .

A business panel met later, down the hall, and the panelists didn’t sully their hands with practical stuff like pension funds and labor-management relations. They did, however, draw swords over a genuinely important topic: Whether business can unite the world for the better.

Business is just people!, said John Renesch, editor of such anthologies as The Conscious Organization (1999) and The New Bottom Line: Bringing Heart and Soul to Business (1998). So as people are becoming more socially responsible, business will become more responsible. . . .

Enough of this stuff about corporate social responsibility!, replied Bill Halal, a management professor at George Washington U. The concept’s been around since I was a graduate student, and it’s never made much of a dent -- it’s seen as philanthropy -- it’ll always be marginalized! What we need is to create a new, democratic economic system that won’t just focus on making money, that’ll begin with the fact that the basis of economic activity is knowledge now -- PEOPLE -- not capital. . . .

We DON’T need to invent a new economic system! replied Barbara Grogan, former chair of the Denver-Kansas City Branch of the Federal Reserve. Capitalism can bring about world peace through globalization! One of the multi-billion-dollar corporate boards I sit on now has a software company in India -- so you better believe that board now cares about India’s welfare, cares about India getting a middle class. . . . No business leader now CAN’T care about such things. . . .

 Holistic health! Transnational ed!

What a feast this conference is turning out to be!, I thought. You’d get a great civic education just from sitting in on all the panels of the “insider” change agents.

In one seminar room, Clem Bezold, head of the Institute for Alternative Futures (the futurists for the American Cancer Society and numerous global corporations), was telling his rapt listeners why a much more holistic approach to health care is inevitable: “In 2010, we’ll be able to practice medicine from our homes far better than any doctor can care for us now. . . .” In another room, in a shy, halting voice, Jennifer Moll -- Assistant Director of the Global Alliance for Transnational Education (GATE) -- was unburdening herself of one of the most original presentations of the entire conference.

Transnational education has become a $27-billion-a-year industry, she said -- and hardly anyone’s noticed! Three powerful trends are driving it -- the new imperative of “lifelong learning,” the spread of the Internet, and the globalization of the economy -- and none of those trends appears likely to slow down anytime soon!

And it’s not just students coming here from abroad. It’s in-house corporate “universities” training local managers from all over the planet (40% of the Fortune 500 now have such universities); it’s over 100 “virtual,” on-line, credential-granting universities (with over one million registered learners!), up from seven only two years ago. . . .

 The soul of the futurists

At some panels, futurists engaged each other in soul-searching discussions on the future of futurism.

Andy Hines, formerly a freelance consultant, had recently become Global Trends Manager at Kellogg’s, and he spoke movingly of the frustrations of working in the corporate environment. Beware of the nodding head and the “I understand,” he said; usually they don’t. Or they’ll say the right things, but the “next quarter” still largely prevails. You might think you have a protector, but beware -- the person who hires the futurist is often seen as “the weirdo” within the corporation. . . .

Michael Marien, editor of the WFS’s invaluable literature review Future Survey, organized four panels of heavy-hitter futurists whose emotional range was separatist to despairing. Wendell Bell, from Yale, called for the creation of a futurist “canon” (draw up the bridges!), Alvin Toffler opined that the futurist movement may have run its course, and Marien -- after endlessly contrasting the electric Sixties to the privatized, info-glutted, trivia-obsessed Nineties

-- finally admitted that he’s “bored” by contemporary futurism. Wendell, Alvin, Michael, for crying out loud: Invite more people in! “We are all futurists now.”

At a small panel simultaneous to one of Marien’s, Robert Olson -- research director of the Institute for Alternative Futures -- offered ethical balm to futurist souls. Do not violate your values! Do not get trapped into thinking you’ve got to be totally objective -- just as good doctors have a “bias for health,” so good futurists seem to have a “bias for a future that works.”

 The genius of not knowing

The opening and closing plenary sessions were dominated by horrific snoremongers -- a real tragedy. But two of the final talks made up for it.

In one, political futurist Walter Truett Anderson cut to the heart of our time when he said, Globalization is much more complex than homogenization. What it’s really all about is interpenetration -- every tradition is in the public domain now, every religion, every human right. . . .

And in the very last talk, families futurist David Snyder with his red suspenders, white beard and dark blue shirt summed up the genius of American futurism (with its “scenarios” and quirkiness) when he said, In Europe everybody’s supposed to know what the answers are. But our Founding Fathers taught us that life is an experiment, that there are no pre-programmed outcomes, that it’s important to have an open, experiential approach to learning. And so we know that we don’t know what the answers finally are. . . .

Wizened though I am, I wanted to cheer. WFS: 7910 Woodmont Ave., #450, Bethesda MD 20814, www.wfs.org.


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