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Conclusion: Reflecting on the Past, Thinking about the Future

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Historians spend a lot of time thinking about the past. Should they also ponder the future? World History for Us All explores the past at some very large scales. By doing so, it shows the existence of some very large trends. Some trends are so large that they will surely persist far into the future. This makes it tempting to try to peek into the future as well as the past, for we know that these trends will not change overnight. What might happen to humanity and its earthly environment in Big Era Ten or beyond? The very large trends should give us some clues.

But how do you think about the future? Here are some basic principles of futurology.

Werner Heisenberg, 1901-76.
In 1925 he formulated the “uncertainty principle” in quantum physics.

Wikimedia Commons
German Federal Archive
Werner Heisenberg

First principle: The future really is unpredictable. It is not just that we do not know enough. In the nineteenth century, many physicists, for example, Pierre-Simon, the Marquis de Laplace (1749-1827), believed that if we knew enough about the motion and energy of every particle in the universe, we could predict the future with perfect accuracy. In the twentieth century, quantum physics has shown that this is not true. It is impossible, even in theory, to determine with perfect accuracy the position and motion of subatomic particles. This means that there is always a bit of wiggle room in the way physical processes work. That is, there is always an element of what quantum physicists call “indeterminacy.” The future is not completely predictable.

Does this mean there is no point in thinking about the future? No. There are important factors that increase the chances of some of our predictions about the future being right. We can and indeed must try to make predictions, even though we know they can never be perfect.

Second principle: We can make some reasonably accurate predictions. Some processes and events are indeed unpredictable, because they are caused by sudden, unexpected changes. On June 28 1914, Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb, assassinated the Archduke Francis Ferdinand, the heir to the Austrian throne. This event triggered World War I, but it was completely unpredictable. Princip might have failed to get close enough to his target; his gunshot might have missed; he might have gotten cold feet at the last minute. Many things could have changed the course of events that day.

Some processes, however, reflect large trends that are not so unpredictable. They can be detected by historians and may have enough momentum to persist some way into the future. For example, historians have argued that the alliance system created in the years before World War I made a war extremely likely, even if no one could predict the event that would precipitate it. Another example is population growth. It is impossible to predict each birth or death. But it is possible to determine average birth and death rates with great accuracy. And, using these statistics, specialists in population growth can predict with considerable confidence how large populations will be in the future. So, if you want to predict, the first thing to do is to be clear about the type of process you are discussing, and how predictable it is. Specialists in prediction—and you can find them at race tracks and on stock exchanges aiming to make money—begin by trying to be clear about the degree of predictability of the processes they are studying. They calculate the odds and study the form.

Third principle: All prediction is a percentage game. Because of our first rule, specialists in prediction also know that, however good their information, they are playing a percentage game. They can never guarantee the accuracy of any particular prediction. The best that can be hoped for is to raise the percentage of correct predictions they make by carefully studying the main trends. Predictions that have failed are a reminder of the pitfalls of forecasting. Failed predictions include one in 1966 claiming that within a few decades both communicable diseases and heart disease would be wiped out. Another prediction that same year asserted that within a few decades only 10 percent of the world’s population would work while the rest would be paid to be idle. Nevertheless, professional forecasters know that if you take enough care, you can increase the number of correct predictions you make. And they know that you can make money just be improving the percentage of correct prognostications. So predicting is a serious business.

Fourth principle: Despite the limits of prediction, we cannot avoid it. In fact, prediction is something we have to do all the time. All living creatures have to predict. Every time you cross a busy road you make a prediction about the speed of cars moving towards you. And you had better get this prediction right. If you get it wrong, the results could be unpleasant. Similarly, gazelles have to predict where they are likely to encounter lions or tigers. In fact, those gazelles that are bad at predicting danger are unlikely to live long. They will therefore have fewer offspring. This means that, over time, the skills of prediction get built into the DNA of all gazelles. Prediction is an essential feature of life in general.

Why should historians refuse to attempt prediction? Is it not rather important to have some idea of whether the world economy is going to keep growing? Or how climate change might affect our neighborhood or country? How, then, can we apply the basic principles of futurology to the future of our world?

Study the large, slow trends. We need to focus mainly on the large, slow-moving trends because these are the ones where the odds favor prediction. We can study these long trends over centuries, decades, or years and make some quite powerful forecasts. This is because large trends are a bit like the motion of an aircraft carrier. You cannot just slam on the brakes and expect an aircraft carrier to stop. It has such momentum that it will keep moving for a long time after the brakes have been applied. Here are some large trends which have a similar momentum. They allow, therefore, us to make some reasonably confident predictions:

  • Population Growth. Unlike prices on the stock exchange, rates of population growth do not change significantly from day to day. They depend on large-scale patterns of health, attitudes about the family, and reasonably stable cultural values. Demographers have noted the colossal population increases of recent centuries but also a significant slowing down of growth rates in recent decades. These large trends give demographers confidence that they can roughly predict what the global population will be fifty years from now. Current estimates suggest in about that time span the world’s population will reach between 9 and 12 billion and population growth will slow to zero. Such estimates are immensely important because they are used by governments and international agencies to plan their policies and investments.
  • Energy and Resource Consumption. One of the strongest predictions we can make about the coming fifty years is that consumption of energy and resources will increase. We know this because growth rates are high in developed countries such as the USA, and they are rapidly catching up in some less developed countries such as China and India. With populations much larger in those developing economies, these changes guarantee rapid increases in consumption of energy and resources. In some areas, such as fisheries and land use, we seem to be close to global limits in resource use. Consequently, predictions about future consumption have vast implications for the way that economies plan their future.
  • Scientific Innovation. Rates of scientific advance have increased for the best part of two centuries. Innovation rates are now increasing more rapidly than ever before, notably in big developing economies such as China and India. We cannot predict what innovations will pop up. But it is a good bet that the rate of innovation will remain swift over the next few decades. This is surely good news. It holds out the possibility that we will find technological fixes to old problems, including, perhaps, new ways of generating energy. But there might also be bad news. After all, scientists have developed nuclear weapons as well as antibiotics.

Do not overreach! We must avoid making confident predictions where we cannot find large, relatively stable trends. Any prediction about where human society will be more than 200 years into the future probably does not mean much. The number of possibilities multiply out of control. For example, will there be a nuclear war? Will there be a global disease pandemic? Even the most powerful trends will have faded by then.

Even some very remote trends can be predicted. Curiously, despite the difficulties of prediction, there are some large trends that allow us to make reasonable predictions about the very distant future: the future of the earth, for instance, or even the future of the universe.

  • The future of the earth’s surface. We can measure quite precisely the movement of tectonic plates, so geologists can be sure that in the next 50-100 million years the Atlantic will get wider, and the Pacific will get smaller, Australia will move closer to California, and Los Angeles will slide towards San Francisco.
  • The future of the earth. We know roughly how long stars of a given size will live, so we can predict with some confidence that our sun will die in about 4 billion years. Before that happens, it will swell up and incorporate the inner planets, including our earth. Everything on those inner planets will be fried!
  • The future of the universe. The key question here is whether or not the universe will keep expanding. Gravity tends to counteract the force of expansion, so if there is enough material in the universe, the expansion may be reined in completely. The universe may then start to shrink. Perhaps, eventually, it will shrink to nothingness, and the whole process will start over again! In the late 1990s, however, it was discovered that the rate of the universe’s expansion is actually increasing. This suggests that an eventual collapse is unlikely. On the contrary, at present it looks as if the universe will expand, faster and faster, for ever and ever. As it does so, matter and energy will be dissipated over such vast spaces that nothing much will happen. The universe will become more and more boring. Born as we are just 13.7 billion years after the Big Bang, that is, in the youth of our universe, it seems that we live in interesting times!

We have seen that prediction is difficult. So is it worth the effort? Yes! As we have seen, we have to predict because every action we take depends on predictions about potential results. In any case, predictions about the next few generations matter greatly because today’s forecasts will shape current policy. In that way, they will help determine the future, for better or worse! Predictions about the remote future have less immediate consequences for us, but they can help us think about our place within the universe. Historians, particularly world historians, should take futurology seriously.

The Angel of the North
The Angel of the North
This colossal steel sculpture stands sixty-five feet above a hill in Gateshead, England. Erected in 1998, it has become one of the most recognizable pieces of monumental public art in the world. According to Antony Gormley, its creator, it functions in part “to grasp hold of the future, expressing our transition from the industrial to the information age.”

Photo by Ross Dunn

Teaching Units for Reflecting on the Past, Thinking about the Future

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