Why have the futurists gone upbeat?

By , Harlan Cleveland, political scientist and public executive, has just become director of the new Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.

The future has arrived. It touched down in Toronto the last week of July. There more than 5,000 people assembled for the First Global Conference on the Future, a vast intellectual and moral smorgasbord organized by the Canadian Futures Society and the Washington-based World Futures Society.

The most striking thing about this gathering of forecasters, professors, politicians, bureaucrats, clergypeople, journalists, healers, bankers, demographers, consultants, evangelists, venture capitalists, and other professional dreamers was that most of them seemed to be looking forwardm to the future.

Seven or eight years ago, such a conclave would have been a frightening experience. The conferees would have been told that we were running out of food , water, and energy; that the spread and use of nuclear weapons was inevitable; that environmental degradation was irreversible; that growth could not be sustained; that the curve of world population was exponential; that despite all the development aid more of the world's people each year were illiterate, malnourished, and poor; that women were still a neglected resource; and that the "me generation" didn't care.

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The few dozen futurists who might have bothered to come to such a meeting would not have felt they could do anything much but cry havoc, predict disaster, and sell books.

But in 1980, the people willing without a deprecating smile to call themselves futurists are numbered in the tens of thousands. And their mood is upbeat, affirmative, can-do. Maurice Strong, the creative Canadian entrepreneur who was the honorary chairman of the Toronto affair, summed it up: "The bad news ," he said, "is that the world is coming to an end. The good news is: not yet, and not necessarily."

It turns out that we are not running out of resources, just deficient in imagination about resources.

It turns out that security is not mostly a military problem, that nuclear weapons are too big and clumsy to use in real-world politics. Indeed, the big threat to the human race may not be a global cataclysm but a slower and more agonizing process, a rigidified incapacity to cope. The scariest image may no longer be the mushroom cloud but the disintegration of governance in a hundred Lebanons, Cambodias, or El Salvadors.

It turns out that the human environment has a constituency, that people make smog and water pollution and deserts and chlorofluorocarbons and carbon dioxide, and people can, if they will, control themselves. (One panelist in Toronto even presented it as good news that the biggest controversy between Canadians and Americans these days is no longer over trade policy or television or newsmagazines or even oil deliveries. It's over an environmental issue, acid rain.)

It turns out that a sustainable growth can be managed. But we will have to reject both supergrowth and no-growth nostrums and develop a new economics of human needs and human purposes.

It turns out that population growth is not exponential but is just another biological S-curve. Fertility rates are declining all over the world, the consequence of an unplanned symbiosis of chemicals, women's instincts, development, and hope.

It turns out that we can abolish poverty and hunger -- and that the job can be done by early in the next century if we get seriously to work on it now.

It turns out that women do make an enormous difference as they flood the work force with their energies and step gently but firmly into the back rooms where the boys have been making the policy. (It's evidently both an exhilarating and a sobering experience, this new opportunity for female leadership. One woman who chaired a panel in Toronto with charming decisiveness was congratulated afterwards. "Thanks," she said, "but I don't think I've quite got it yet. I can't yet achieve that female softness that the best male chairman seem to use.")

It turns out, finally, that the "me generation" does care. Gallup, the delegates in Toronto were told, finds that 87 percent of American teenagers pray or meditate, and two-thids of them believe their prayers have been answered.

The self-conscious study of the future is useful not for forecasting, but to derive from a comparison of alternative destinies a strategy for what to do starting tomorrow morning.

The community of futurists has its share of computerized Cassandras and one-issue messiahs. But the best of the futurists have been immensely influential in hastening this massive change of mind and mood, enhancing this emerging sense that we the people can govern after all -- and above all in reinforcing this growing conviction that, despite the complexity of it all, each of us can make a difference if we try.

The futurists' favorite cliche these days is "paradigm shift," and with good reason: Quite obviously, something very big has been happening these past seven or eight years. IT's been happening where it has to happen first, in the minds of people at large.

The trouble is that institutions -- governments and political parties and corporations and labor unions and universities and establishments of all kinds -- don't change as fast as people can change their minds. The so-called leaders always seem to have to be led by the so-called followers. But at least a good many followers are breaking free of the gloom of the seventies, and that has to be good news.

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