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At the dawn of 2012: future imperfect

Predictions are tough, said Yogi Berra, especially about the future. So when you finish reading all the forecasts for the new year, step back and remember: The world's not going to end.

By Editor / January 3, 2012

A Mayan statue stands in Playa Del Carmen, on the Caribbean Coast.

Irael Leal/AP

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We can laugh about it now, but in 1999 many serious people were concerned about the Y2K computer bug the bringing modern world to its knees. Combined with the millennial turn of the calendar, Y2K prompted all sorts of predictions about what the new year would bring. Some were optimistic. Some were ominous. 

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 Jan. 1, 2000, dawned. Nothing bad happened. Perhaps all the worry caused responsible people to fix their computers. Or maybe it was just hype to begin with. The main point is that no one got the future right. 

 We seldom do. In his 2011 book, "Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions are Next to Worthless, and You Can Do Better," Dan Gardner explores famous forecasts and why they failed. There are many reasons we get the future wrong, he says. For one thing, we predict based on the present, so the future is an extrapolation, a pumped-up version of today. That's why in the 1930s prognosticators saw flying cars but not the Internet, enormous battle tanks but not stealth drones. 

 We also generally stay with conventional wisdom. If everybody in the late 1980s says the Japanese economy is unstoppable, no one breaks from the pack to predict the lost decades of the '90s and '00s. What does that say about China now? "Take a coin from your pocket," Mr. Gardner writes. "Flip it. You'll have a 50 percent chance of being right, which is as good as that of the experts."

 That wisdom can be applied to the stock market, to politics, technology, consumer tastes, and most complex events. So why bother predicting? Because we have no choice. We try to make sense of the unfolding future as we travel toward it. Gardner's best advice: Bring a large suitcase of humility on your journey. "Stride confidently forward in the dark and you're likely to feel quite pleased with yourself right up until the moment you walk into a wall."

At the turn of the year, Monitor correspondents took stock of the big stories of 2011: post-occupation Iraq, Afghanistan, the Arab uprisings, Europe's financial crisis, affluent China's newfound soul-searching, the economic rise of Latin America, Africa's surprising self-help boom. Each article stretches forward as far as possible. But by mid-January, we admit, the world may look different in ways we can't predict. 

We know a few things for sure about 2012: Madonna is set to perform at the halftime of the Super Bowl; the Summer Olympics kick off in London in July; NASA's "Curiosity" rover is due to land on Mars in August; the US presidential election takes place on Nov. 6.  Oh, and pencil in the end of the world for December. 

 Not really. I'm only mentioning the end-of-world because in 2012 you are going to hear a fair amount of buzz about it. Remember how the Gregorian-calendar millennium occasioned all sorts of anxiety? A similar subcultural stir surrounds 2012 and the Mayan calendar.

 Now, the Mayans had a fascinating civilization and left behind stunning ruins in the jungles of central America. They were pretty good astronomers. But most civilizations have had pretty good astronomers, the better to predict when to plant and harvest. Even if the Mayan calendar is due to click over in 2012, there's no evidence they saw the world ending, despite what faddists say. And there's no evidence they were any better at predicting the future than we are. 

 Jan 1, 2013, will dawn. Life will go on.

 Why be so confident? Because a strong argument for life going on can be found in the lives and aspirations of people who are building the future. See, for instance, this report (click here and here and here) profiling 30 remarkable people under 30 years old. Each in her or his own way is casting a line into the mid-21st century -- in agriculture, social media, green transportation, the arts, human rights, information technology, politics. 

 If you must extrapolate about the future, you couldn't do much better than to start with the clever, hopeful, humanity-embracing ideas that these 30 under 30 -- and millions like them -- are pursuing.

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