Read an Excerpt
Like many fulfilling journeys, this book began not with answers but with a question. Eight years ago, when I was on the road, someone asked me: “What are the drivers of global change?” I listed several of the usual suspects and left it at that. Yet the next morning, on the long plane flight home, the question kept pulling me back, demanding that I answer it more precisely and accurately—-not by relying on preconceived dogma but by letting the emerging evidence about an emerging world take me where it would. The question, it turned out, had a future of its own. I started an outline on my computer and spent several hours listing headings and subheadings, then changing their rank order and relative magnitude, moving them from one category to another and filling in more and more details after each rereading.
As I spent the ensuing years raising awareness about climate change and pursuing a business career, I continued to revisit, revise, and sharpen the outline until finally, two years ago, I concluded that it would not leave me alone until I dug in and tried to thoroughly answer the question that had turned into something of an obsession.
What emerged was this book, a book about the six most important drivers of global change, how they are converging and interacting with one another, where they are taking us, and how we as human beings—-and as a global civilization—-can best affect the way these changes unfold. In order to reclaim control of our destiny and shape the future, we must think freshly and clearly about the crucial choices that confront us as a result of:
• The emergence of a deeply interconnected global economy that increasingly operates as a fully integrated holistic entity with a completely new and different relationship to capital flows, labor, consumer markets, and national governments than in the past;
• The emergence of a planet--wide electronic communications grid connecting the thoughts and feelings of billions of people and linking them to rapidly expanding volumes of data, to a fast growing web of sensors being embedded ubiquitously throughout the world, and to increasingly intelligent devices, robots, and thinking machines, the smartest of which already exceed the capabilities of humans in performing a growing list of discrete mental tasks and may soon surpass us in manifestations of intelligence we have always assumed would remain the unique province of our species;
• The emergence of a completely new balance of political, economic, and military power in the world that is radically different from the equilibrium that characterized the second half of the twentieth century, during which the United States of America provided global leadership and stability—-shifting influence and initiative from West to East, from wealthy countries to rapidly emerging centers of power throughout the world, from nation--states to private actors, and from political systems to markets;
• The emergence of rapid unsustainable growth—-in population; cities; resource consumption; depletion of topsoil, freshwater supplies, and living species; pollution flows; and economic output that is measured and guided by an absurd and distorted set of universally accepted metrics that blinds us to the destructive consequences of the self--deceiving choices we are routinely making;
• The emergence of a revolutionary new set of powerful biological, biochemical, genetic, and materials science technologies that are enabling us to reconstitute the molecular design of all solid matter, reweave the fabric of life itself, alter the physical form, traits, characteristics, and properties of plants, animals, and people, seize active control over evolution, cross the ancient lines dividing species, and invent entirely new ones never imagined in nature; and
• The emergence of a radically new relationship between the aggregate power of human civilization and the Earth’s ecological systems, including especially the most vulnerable—-the atmosphere and climate balance upon which the continued flourishing of humankind depends—-and the beginning of a massive global transformation of our energy, industrial, agricultural, and construction technologies in order to reestablish a healthy and balanced relationship between human civilization and the future.
This book is data--driven and is based on deep research and reporting—-not speculation, alarmism, naïve optimism, or blue--sky conjecture. It represents the culmination of a multiyear effort to investigate, decipher, and present the best available evidence and what the world’s leading experts tell us about the future we are now in the process of creating.
There is a clear consensus that the future now emerging will be extremely different from anything we have ever known in the past. It is a difference not of degree but of kind. There is no prior period of change that remotely resembles what humanity is about to experience. We have gone through revolutionary periods of change before, but none as powerful or as pregnant with the fraternal twins—-peril and opportunity—-as the ones that are beginning to unfold. Nor have we ever experienced so many revolutionary changes unfolding simultaneously and converging with one another.
This is not a book primarily about the climate crisis, though the climate crisis is one of the six emergent changes that are quickly reshaping our world, and its interaction with the other five drivers of change has revealed to me new ways to understand it. Nor is it primarily about the degradation of democracy in the United States and the dysfunctionality of governance in the world community—-though I continue to believe that these leadership crises must be resolved in order for humankind to reclaim control of our destiny. Indeed all six of these emergent revolutionary changes are threatening to overtake us at a moment in history when there is a dangerous vacuum of global leadership.
Neither is this a manifesto intended to lay the groundwork for some future political campaign. I have run for political office often enough in the past. The joke I often use to deflect questions about whether I have finally surrendered any intention to do so again is actually as close to the truth as any words I can summon in describing my attitude toward politics: I am a recovering politician and the chances of a relapse have been diminishing for long enough to increase my confidence that I will not succumb to that temptation again. In the Conclusion, however, you will find a recommended agenda for action that is based on the analysis in this book.
A NEW LAW OF NATURE
As a young freshman member of the U.S. House of Representatives elected in 1976, I joined a new bipartisan group of congressmen and senators known as the Congressional Clearinghouse on the Future, founded by the late Charlie Rose of North Carolina. In my second term, Rose asked me to succeed him as chair of the group. We organized workshops on the implications of new technologies and scientific discoveries and met with leaders in business and science. Among our other initiatives, we persuaded all 200 subcommittees in the Congress to publish a list of the most important issues they expected to emerge over the following twenty years and published it as “The Future Agenda.” Most of all, we studied emerging trends and met regularly with the leading thinkers about the future: Daniel Bell, Margaret Mead, Buckminster Fuller, Carl Sagan, Alvin Toffler, John Naisbitt, Arno Penzias, and hundreds of others.
The visiting scholar who made perhaps the biggest impression on me was a short and balding scientist born in Russia a few months before the 1917 Revolution but educated in Belgium: Ilya Prigogine, who had just won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery of a major corollary to the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
Entropy, according to the Second Law, causes all isolated physical systems to break down over time and is responsible for irreversibility in nature. For a simple example of entropy, consider a smoke ring: it begins as a coherent donut with clearly defined boundaries. But as the molecules separate from one another and dissipate energy into the air, the ring falls apart and disappears. All so--called closed systems are subject to the same basic process of dissolution; in some, entropy operates quickly, while in others the process takes more time.
Prigogine’s discovery was that an open system—-that is, a system that imports flows of energy from outside the system into it, through it, and out again—-not only breaks down, but as the flow of energy continues, the system then reorganizes itself at a higher level of complexity. In a sense, the phenomenon described by Prigogine is the opposite of entropy. Self--organization, as a law of nature and as a process of change, is truly astonishing. What it means is that complex new forms can emerge spontaneously through self--organization.
Consider the increased flows of information throughout the world following the introduction of the Internet and the World Wide Web. Elements of the old information pattern began to break down. Many newspapers went bankrupt, readership sharply declined in most others, bookstores consolidated and closed. Many business models became obsolete. But the new emergent pattern led to the self--organization of thousands of new business models, and volumes of online communication dwarfing those that characterized the world of the printing press.
The Earth itself, when viewed as a whole, is also an open system. It imports energy from the sun that flows into and through the elaborate patterns of energy transfer that make up the Earth system, including the oceans, the atmosphere, the various geochemical processes—-and life itself. The energy then flows from the Earth back into the universe surrounding it as heat energy in the form of infrared radiation.
The essence of the emergent crisis of global warming is that we are importing enormous amounts of energy from the crust of the Earth and exporting entropy (that is, progressive disorder) into the previously stable, though dynamic, ecological systems upon which the continued flourishing of civilization depends. These new flows of energy, originally imported to the Earth from the sun ages ago, have been stabilized underground for millions of years as inert deposits of carbon.
By mobilizing them and injecting the waste products from their combustion into the atmosphere, we are breaking down the stable climate pattern that has persisted since not long after the end of the last Ice Age ten millennia ago. This was not long before the first cities and the beginning of the Agricultural Revolution, which began to spread in the valleys of the Nile, Tigris, Euphrates, Indus, and Yellow rivers 8,000 years ago after Stone Age women and men patiently picked and selectively bred the plant varieties on which our modern diet still depends. In the process, we are forcing the emergence of a new climate pattern very different from the one to which our entire civilization is tightly configured and within which we have thrived.
While Prigogine’s discovery of this new law of nature may seem arcane, its implications for the way we should think about the future are profound. The modern meaning of the word “emergence,” and the entire field of knowledge known as complexity theory, are both derived from Prigogine’s work. The motivation for his exploration of emergence was his passion for understanding how the future becomes irreversibly different from the past. He wrote that, “given my interest in the concept of time, it was only natural that my attention was focused on . . . the study of irreversible phenomena, which made so manifest the ‘arrow of time.’ ”
THE HISTORY OF THE FUTURE
The way we think about the future has a past. Throughout the history of human civilization, every culture has had its own idea of the future. In the words of an Australian futurist, Ivana Milojevi´c, “Although the conception of time and the future exist universally, they are understood in different ways in different societies.” Some have assumed that time is circular and that past, present, and future are all part of the same recurring cycle. Others have believed that the only future that matters is in the afterlife.
The crushing disappointments that are so often part of the human condition have sometimes led to crises of confidence in the future, replacing hope with despair. But most have learned from their life experiences and the stories told by their elders that what we do in the present, when informed by knowledge of the past, can shape the future in objectively better ways.
Anthropologists tell us of evidence dating back almost 50,000 years of humans trying to divine the future with the help of oracles or mediums. Some attempted to see into the future by reading clues to the unfolding patterns of life in the entrails of animals sacrificed to the gods, by studying the movements of fish, by interpreting marks on the Earth, or in any of a hundred other ways. Some still read the patterns of palms or Tarot cards for the same purpose. The implicit assumption in such searches is that all reality is of one fabric encompassing past, present, and future, according to a design whose meaning can be divined from particular portions of the whole and applied to other parts of the fabric in order to interpret the unfolding future.
Doctors and scientists now divine clues about the future of individuals from the pattern of DNA that is found in every cell. Mathematicians discern the nature of fractal equations—-and the geometric forms derived from them—-by observing the “self--sameness” of the patterns they manifest at every level of resolution. Holographic images are contained in their entirety in each molecule of the gaseous cylinders onto which the emergent larger image is projected.
According to historians, astrologers of ancient Babylon used a double clock—-one for measuring the timescale of human affairs, and another for tracking the celestial movements they believed had an influence on earthly events. In divining our own future, we too must now pay due attention to a double clock. There is the one that measures our hours and days, and the other that measures the centuries and millennia over which our disruptions of the Earth’s natural systems will continue to occur.
Even as teams of scientists race against the clock to compete with other teams in making new genetic discoveries that may cure diseases and lay the foundation for multibillion--dollar products, we must consult another clock that measures the timescales over which evolution operates—-because the emergent capabilities bursting forth from the revolutionary advances in the life sciences are about to make us the principal agent of evolution.
Because of the new power that seven billion of us collectively wield with our new technologies, voracious consumption, and outsized economic dynamism, some of the ecological changes that we are setting in motion are going to unfold, the scientists tell us, in geologic time, measured by a planetary clock that tracks timespans that strain the limits of human imagination. Roughly a quarter of the 90 million tons of global warming pollution we put into the atmosphere each day will still linger there—-still trapping heat—-more than 10,000 years from now.
Consequently, in reconciling the difference between what “is” and what “ought to be,” we are faced with an existential conundrum. Though we have great difficulty conceiving of geologic time, we have nevertheless become a geologic force; though we cannot imagine evolutionary timescales, we are nevertheless becoming the chief force behind evolution.
The idea that human history is characterized by progress from one era to the next is not, as some have long thought, an invention of the Enlightenment. The explosion of philosophy in ancient Greece marked the beginning of recorded contemplations about the future of humankind. In the fourth century bce, Plato wrote about progress as “a continuous process, which improves the human condition from its original state of nature to higher and higher levels of culture, economic organization and political structure towards an ideal state. Progress flows from the growing complexity of society and the need to enlarge knowledge, through the development of sciences and arts.”
In the fourth century ce, St. Augustine, who frequently quoted Plato, wrote, “The education of the human race, represented by the people of God, has advanced, like that of an individual, through certain epochs, or, as it were, ages, so that it might gradually rise from earthly to heavenly things, and from the visible to the invisible.”
Nor is progress exclusively a Western invention. Many interpret the Tao of ancient China as a guide for those who wish to progress as they make their way forward in the world—-though its conception of progress is very different from what emerged in the West. The eleventh--century Islamic philosopher Muhammad al--Ghazali wrote that Islam teaches that “Sincere accomplished work towards progress and development is, therefore, an act of religious worship and is rewarded as such. The end result will be a serious, scrupulous and perfect work, true scientific progress and hence actual achievement of balanced and comprehensive development.”
At the beginning of the Renaissance, the rediscovery of the Aristotelian branch of ancient Greek philosophy—-which had been preserved in Alexandria in Arabic and reintroduced to Europe in Al--Andalus—-contributed to a fascination with the physical as well as the philosophical legacies of both Athens and Rome. The legacies of that recovered past nourished dreams that would find fruition in the Enlightenment, when a strong consensus emerged that secular progress is the dominant pattern in human history.
The discoveries of Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes, Newton, and the others who launched the Scientific Revolution helped to ignite a belief that, whatever God’s role or plan, the growth of knowledge made progress in human societies inevitable. Francis Bacon, who more than any other emphasized the word “progress” in describing humanity’s journey into the future, was also among the first to write about human progress with a special emphasis on subduing, dominating, and controlling nature—as if we were as separate from nature as Descartes believed the mind was separate from the body.
Centuries later, this philosophical mistake is still in need of correction. By tacitly assuming our own separateness from the ecological system of the planet, we are frequently surprised by phenomena that emerge from our inextricable connections to it. And as the power of our civilization grows exponentially, these surprises are becoming increasingly unpleasant.
The cultural legacy that still influences the scientific method is reductionist—-that is, by dividing and endlessly subdividing the objects of our research and analysis, we separate interconnected phenomena and processes to develop specialized expertise. But the focusing of attention on ever narrower slices of the whole often comes at the expense of attention to the whole, which can cause us to miss the significance of emergent phenomena that spring unpredictably from the interconnections and interactions among multiple processes and networks. That is one reason why linear projections of the future are so often wrong.
A NEW VISION OF THE PAST AND THE FUTURE
The invention of powerful new tools and the development of potent new insights—-and the discovery of rich new continents—-led to exciting new ways of seeing the world and expansive optimism about the future. In the seventeenth century, the father of microbiology, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, fashioned new lenses for the microscope (which itself had been invented in Holland less than a century earlier), and by looking through them discovered cells and bacteria. Simultaneously, his close friend in Delft, Johannes Vermeer, revolutionized portraiture with the use (most art historians agree) of the camera obscura, made possible by the new understanding of optics.
As the Scientific Revolution accelerated and the Industrial Revolution began, the idea of progress shaped prevailing conceptions of the future. In the years before his death, Thomas Jefferson wrote about the progress he had witnessed in his life and noted, “And where this progress will stop no one can say. Barbarism has, in the meantime, been receding before the steady step of amelioration, and will in time, I trust, disappear from the earth.”
Four years after Jefferson’s death, the publication by Charles Lyell of his masterwork, Principles of Geology, in 1830, profoundly disrupted the long prevailing view of humanity’s relationship to time. In the Judeo--Christian world especially, most had assumed that the Earth was only a few thousand years old, and that humans were created not long after the planet itself, but Lyell amply proved that the Earth was not thousands, but at the very least millions of years old (4.5 billion, we now know). In reshaping the past, he also reshaped the idea of the future. And he provided the temporal context for the discovery by Charles Darwin of the principles of evolution. Indeed, as a young man Darwin took Lyell’s books with him during his voyage on the Beagle.
The previously unimaginable longevity of the past revealed by Lyell inspired symmetrical dreams of distant futures in which the progress of man might reach limitless heights. In the generation that followed Lyell, Jules Verne conjured a future with rockets landing on the moon, a submarine traversing the oceans’ depths, and men traveling to the center of the Earth.
The exuberant optimism of the nineteenth century was dampened for many by the excesses of the Second Industrial Revolution, but was revivified during the first decade of the twentieth century with the birth of a political movement based on the belief that progress required governmental policy interventions and social changes in order to ameliorate the problems accompanying industrialization and consolidate its obvious benefits. As the scientific and technological revolution brought some of the visions conjured by Verne and his successors into reality, optimism about the future gained further momentum.
But the balance of the twentieth century brought two world wars and the murder of millions by totalitarian dictators of the left and right to serve their own twisted conceptions of progress—-and our view of the future began to change. The malignant nightmare of the Thousand Year Reich, the Holocaust, and the cruelties of Stalin and Mao came to be emblematic of the potential for emergent evil emanating from the use of any means, however horrific, in an effort to impose grand designs for the future of humanity that conformed to the visions of twisted men with too much power.
In the aftermath of World War II, the lingering dismay at the way totalitarian governments had used the wondrous new communications technologies of radio and film to persuade millions to suppress their better instincts and conform their lives to an evil design—-coupled with the deep emotional and spiritual impact of the atomic sword of Damocles that the emergence of the nuclear arms race left hanging over civilization—-reawakened concerns that new inventions might be double--edged. The uneasiness in the popular mind that powerful technologies—-whatever their benefits—-might also magnify the innate human vulnerability to hubris deepened for many the loss of their confidence that progress was a reliable guiding star.
The prophecies of Jules Verne were replaced by those of Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, and H. G. Wells, and popular movies about destructive monsters from the ancient past—awakened by nuclear testing or dangerous creatures modified by genetic engineering gone awry—and malevolent robots from the distant future or distant planets, all seemingly bent on ravaging humanity’s future.
And now many wonder: who are we? Aristotle wrote that the end of a thing defines its essential nature. If we are forced to contemplate the possibility that we might become the architects of our own demise as a civilization, then there are necessarily implications for how we answer the question: what is our essential nature as a species? As a scientist once reframed the question: is the combination of an opposable thumb and a neocortex viable as a sustainable form of life on Earth?
Our natural and healthy preference for optimism about the future is difficult to reconcile with the gnawing concerns expressed by many that all is not well, and that left to its own devices the future may be unfolding in ways that threaten some of the human values we most cherish. The future, in other words, now casts a shadow upon the present. It may be comforting, but of little practical use, to say, “I am an optimist!” Optimism is a form of prayer. Prayer does, in my personal view, have genuine spiritual power. But I also believe, in the words of the old African saying, “When you pray, move your feet.” Prayer without action, like optimism without engagement, is passive aggression toward the future.
Even those who understand the different dangers we are facing and are committed to taking action often feel stymied by a sense of powerlessness. On the issue of climate, for example, they change their own behaviors and habits, reduce their impact on the environment, speak out and vote, but still feel they are having precious little impact, because the powerful momentum of the global machine we have built to give us progress seems almost independent of human control. Where are the levers to pull, the buttons to push? Is there a steering mechanism? Do our hands have enough strength to operate the controls?
More than a decade before writing Faust, Goethe wrote his well--known poem “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” about a young trainee who, left to his own devices, dared to use one of his master’s magic spells in order to bring to life the broom he was supposed to be using to clean the workshop. But once animated, the broom could not be stopped. Growing desperate to halt the broom’s increasing frenzy of activity, the apprentice split the broom with an axe—-which caused it to self--replicate, with each half growing into another new animated broom. Only when the master returned was the process brought back under control.
DEMOCRATIC CAPITALISM AND ITS DISCONTENTS
The idea of making truly meaningful collective decisions in democracy that are aimed at steering the global machinery we have set in motion is naïve, even silly, according to those who have long since placed their faith in the future not in human hands, but in the invisible hand of the marketplace. As more of the power to make decisions about the future flows from political systems to markets, and as ever more powerful technologies magnify the strength of the invisible hand, the muscles of self--governance have atrophied.
That is actually a welcome outcome for some who have found ways to accumulate great fortunes from the unrestrained operations of this global machinery. Indeed, many of them have used their wealth to reinforce the idea that self--governance is futile at best and, when it works at all, leads to dangerous meddling that interferes with both markets and technological determinism. The ideological condominium formed in the alliance between capitalism and representative democracy that has been so fruitful in expanding the potential for freedom, peace, and prosperity has been split asunder by the encroachment of concentrated wealth from the market sphere into the democracy sphere.
Though markets have no peer in collecting, processing, and utilizing massive flows of information to allocate resources and balance supply with demand, the information in markets is of a particularly granular variety. It is devoid of opinion, character, personality, feeling, love, or faith. It’s just numbers. Democracy, on the other hand, when it operates in a healthy pattern, produces from the interactions of people with different perspectives, predispositions, and life experiences emergent wisdom and creativity that is on a completely different plane. It carries dreams and hopes for the future. By tolerating the routine use of wealth to distort, degrade, and corrupt the process of democracy, we are depriving ourselves of the opportunity to use the “last best hope” to find a sustainable path for humanity through the most disruptive and chaotic changes civilization has ever confronted.
In the United States, many have cheered the withering of self--governance and have celebrated the notion that we should no longer even try to control our own destiny through democratic decision making. Some have recommended, only half in jest, that government should be diminished to the point where it can be “drowned in the bathtub.” They have enlisted politicians in the effort to paralyze the ability of government to serve any interests other than those of the global machine, recruited a fifth column in the Fourth Estate, and hired legions of lobbyists to block any collective decisions about the future that serve the public interest. They even seem to sincerely believe, as many have often written, that there is no such thing as “the public interest.”
The new self--organized pattern of the Congress serves the special interests that are providing most of the campaign money with which candidates—-incumbents and challengers alike—-purchase television commercials. It no longer responds to any but the most emotional concerns of the American people. Its members are still “representatives,” but the vast majority of them now represent the people and corporations who donate money, not the people who actually vote in their congressional districts.
The world’s need for intelligent, clear, values--based leadership from the United States is greater now than ever before—-and the absence of any suitable alternative is clearer now than ever before. Unfortunately, the decline of U.S. democracy has degraded its capacity for clear collective thinking, led to a series of remarkably poor policy decisions on crucially significant issues, and left the global community rudderless as it faces the necessity of responding intelligently and quickly to the implications of the six emergent changes described in this book. The restoration of U.S. democracy, or the emergence of leadership elsewhere in the world, is essential to understanding and responding to these changes in order to shape the future.
One of the six drivers of change described in this book—-the emergence of a digital network connecting the thoughts and feelings of most people in every country of the world—-offers the greatest source of hope that the healthy functioning of democratic deliberation and collective decision making can be restored in time to reclaim humanity’s capacity to reason together and chart a safe course into the future.
Capitalism—-if reformed and made sustainable—-can serve the world better than any other economic system in making the difficult but necessary changes to the relationship between the human enterprise and the ecological and biological systems of the Earth. Together, sustainable capitalism and healthy democratic decision making can empower us to save the future. So we have to think clearly about how both of these essential tools can be repaired and reformed.
The structure of these decision-making systems and the ways in which we measure progress—-or the lack thereof—-toward the goals we decide are important have a profound influence on the future we actually create. By making economic choices in favor of “growth,” it matters a lot which definition of growth we use. If the impact of pollution is systematically removed from the measurement of what we call “progress,” then we start to ignore it and should not be surprised when much of our progress is accompanied by lots of pollution.
If the systems we use for recognizing and measuring profit are based on a narrow definition—-for example, quarterly projections of earnings per share, or quarterly unemployment statistics that don’t include people who have given up looking for work, those who have been forced to take large pay cuts in order to continue working, or those who are flipping hamburgers instead of using higher--value skills hard won with education or prior experience—-then what we are seeing is an imperfect and partial representation of a much larger reality. When we become accustomed to making important choices about the future on the basis of distorted and misleading information, the results of those decisions are more likely to fall short of our expectations.
Psychologists and neuroscientists have studied a phenomenon called selective attention—-a tendency on the part of people who are so determined to focus intensely on particular images that they become oblivious to other images that are present in the field of vision.
We select the things to which we pay attention not only by curiosity, preference, and habit, but also through our selection of the observational tools, technologies, and systems we rely on in making choices. And these tools implicitly mark some things as significant and obscure others to the point that we completely ignore them. In other words, the tools we use can have their own selective attention distortions.
For example, the system of economic value measurement known as gross domestic product, or GDP, includes some values and arbitrarily excludes others. So when we use GDP as a lens through which to observe economic activity, we pay attention to that which is measured and tend to become oblivious to those things that are not measured at all. British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead called the obsession with measurements “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.”
Here is a metaphor to illustrate the point: the electromagnetic spectrum is often portrayed as a long thin horizontal rectangle divided into differently colored segments that represent the different wavelengths of electromagnetic energy—-usually ranging from very low frequency wavelengths like those used for radio on the left, extending through microwaves, infrared, ultraviolet, X--rays, and the like, to extreme high frequency gamma radiation at the right end of the rectangle.
Somewhere near the middle of this rectangle is a very thin section representing visible light—-which is, of course, the only part of the entire spectrum that can be seen with the human eye. But since the human eye is normally the only “instrument” with which most of us attempt to “see” the world around us, we are naturally oblivious to all of the information contained in the 99.9 percent of the spectrum that is invisible to us.
By supplementing our natural vision with instruments capable of “seeing” the rest of the spectrum, however, we are able to enhance our understanding of the world around us by collecting and interpreting much more information. During the eight years I worked in the White House, I started every day, six days a week, with a lengthy briefing from the intelligence community on all the issues affecting national security and vital U.S. interests, and it routinely contained information collected from almost all parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. It was, as a result, a much more complete and accurate picture of a very complex reality.
One of the current realities in the business world that has been most surprising to me is the near consensus that markets are “short on long and long on short”—-that is, there is an unhealthy focus on very short--term goals, to the exclusion of long--term goals. If the incentives routinely provided for business leaders—-and political leaders—-are focused on extremely short--term horizons, then no one should be surprised if the decisions they make in pursuit of the rewards to be gained are also focused on the short term—-at the expense of any consideration of the future. Compensation and incentive structures reinforce these biases and penalize most CEOs and businesses that dare to focus on more sustainable longer--term strategies. “Short--termism” has long since become a frequently used buzzword in business circles. In both business and politics, short--term decision making is dominant.
“Quarterly capitalism” is a phrase some use to describe the prevailing practice of managing businesses from one three--month period to the next, and focusing budgets and strategies on the constant effort to ensure that each quarter’s earnings per share report never fails to meet projections or the market’s expectations. When investors and CEOs focus on a definition of “growth” that excludes the health and well--being of the communities where businesses are located, the health of the employees who do most of the work, and the impact of the businesses’ operations on the environment, they are tacitly choosing to ignore material facts with the potential to make real growth unsustainable.
Similarly, the dominance of money in modern politics—-particularly in the United States—-has now led to what might be described as “quarterly democracy.” Every ninety days, incumbent officeholders running for reelection and challengers in political contests are required to publicly report their fundraising totals for the previous ninety days. At the end of each of these quarters, there is a flurry of fundraising events, email solicitations, and fundraising telephone calls to maximize the amount that can be reported—-much as a puffer fish increases its perceived size in the presence of another puffer fish encroaching on its territory.
Our evolutionary heritage has made us vulnerable to numerous stimuli that trigger short--term thinking. Though we also have the capacity for long--term thinking, of course, it requires effort, and neuroscientists tell us that distractions, stress, and fear easily disrupt the processes by which we focus on the longer term. When elected officials are under constant systemic stress to focus intently on short--term horizons, the future gets short shrift.
This is particularly dangerous during a period of rapid change. Some of the trends now under way are so well documented by observations in the past that projections of those same trends into the future can be made with a very high degree of confidence. The rate of advancement in computer chips, to pick a well--known example, is understood more than well enough to justify predictions that computer chips will continue to advance rapidly in the future.
The speedy drop in the cost of sequencing DNA has occurred for reasons that are understood more than well enough to justify predictions that this trend too will continue to shape our future. The accumulation of greenhouse gases in the past and the rise in global temperatures they have caused is also understood more than well enough to justify predictions of what will happen to global temperatures if we continue to increase emissions at the same rate in the future—-and what the consequences of much higher global temperatures would be.
Other changes, however, burst upon the world seemingly fully formed: a brand--new pattern that represents a sudden shift from an older pattern that persisted for as far back in the past as humans can recall. In our own lives, we are accustomed to gradual, linear change. But sometimes the potential for change builds up without being visibly manifested until the inchoate pressure for change reaches a critical mass powerful enough to break through whatever systemic barriers have held the change back. Then suddenly one pattern gives way to another that is entirely new. This “emergence” of systemic change is often difficult to predict, but does occur frequently both in nature and in complex systems designed by human beings.
Many who were once fascinated and excited about the possibilities of the future are now focused solely on the implications of the future’s potential for the business, political, and security strategies of the present. As the Scientific Revolution accelerated in the last decades of the twentieth century, corporate planners and military strategists began to devote considerably more attention to the study of alternative futures, motivated by a concern that the potency of new scientific and technological discoveries could threaten the strategic interests—-or even survival—of business models and the balance of power among nations.
What is our present conception of the future? How does our image of the future affect the choices we are making in the present? Do we still believe that we have the power to shape our collective future on Earth and choose from among the alternative futures one that preserves our deepest values and makes life better than it is in the present? Or do we have our own crisis of confidence in humanity’s future?
If the spectrum of past, present, and future were displayed as a long thin rectangle similar to that used to portray the electromagnetic spectrum, the birth of Planet Earth 4.5 billion years ago would be at the far left end. Moving to the right, we would see the emergence of life 3.8 billion years ago, the appearance of multicellular life 2.8 billion years ago, the appearance of the first plant life on land 475 million years ago, the first vertebrates more than 400 million years ago, and the first primates 65 million years ago. Then, moving all the way to the right end of the rectangle, the death of the sun would appear 7.5 billion years from now.
The narrow slice of time to the left of the midpoint in this spectrum—the one that represents the history of the human species—is an even narrower slice of the spectrum of time than is visible light of the electromagnetic spectrum. The thoughts we devote to these vast stretches of time in the past and future are often fleeting at best.
There are ample reasons for optimism about the future. For the present, war seems to be declining. Global poverty is declining.
Some fearsome diseases have been conquered and others are being held at bay. Lifespans are lengthening. Standards of living and average incomes—-at least on a global basis—-are improving. Knowledge and literacy are spreading. The tools and technologies we are developing—-including Internet--based communication—-are growing in power and efficacy. Our general understanding of our world, indeed, our universe (or multiverse!) has been growing exponentially. There have been periods in the past when limits to our growth and success as a species appeared to threaten our future, only to be transcended by new advances—-the Green Revolution of the second half of the twentieth century, for example.
So the positive and negative sets of trends are occurring simultaneously. The fact that some are welcome and others are not has an effect on our perception of them. The unwelcome trends are sometimes ignored, at least in part because they are unpleasant to think about. Any uncertainty about them that can be conjured to justify inaction is often seized upon with enthusiasm, while new hard evidence establishing their reality is often resisted with even stronger denial of the reality the evidence supports.
Just as naïve optimism can amount to self--deception, so too can a predisposition to pessimism blind us to bases for legitimate hope that we can find a path that leads around and through the dangers that lie ahead. Indeed, I am an optimist—-though my optimism is predicated on the hope that we will find ways to see and think clearly about the obvious trends that are even now gaining momentum, that we will reason together and attend to the dangerous distortions in our present ways of describing and measuring the powerful changes that are now under way, that we will actively choose to preserve human values and protect them, not least against the mechanistic and destructive consequences of our baser instincts that are now magnified by technologies more powerful than any that those in previous generations, even Jules Verne, could have imagined. I have tried my best to describe what I believe the evidence shows is more likely than not to present us with important choices that we must consciously make together. I do so not out of fear, but because I believe in the future.