So what is this all about, anyway?

Updated: Oct 4, 2021

Foretelling the future is the third oldest profession behind brewing beer. Why? Because fear of the world has been bred into our bones over the millennia and with good reason. I came to this realization later in life than I should have. I blame it on my upbringing.

I remember back in 1960 my parents invested in a brand new 20 volume set of World Book Encyclopedia. They had red faux leather covers and each volume was heavy, solid, and dense with information on everything from Aardvark to Zulu. I spent hours and hours on the living room floor going through them page by page, over and over. To my unquestioning mind they contained all the information there ever was—the apotheosis of knowledge. A comforting thought that, unlike previous generations who had blundered about in ignorance and fear, humanity now knew everything there was to know about everything. The world was certain, secure, and safe.

Over the years, even as my awareness grew of how little we actually knew and controlled, the instinctual yearning for certainty—captured within the covers of that 20-volume set of 1960 World Book Encyclopedia—remained. It took me years to wise up.

Although I became a lawyer, the law never really lit my candle. I had studied history in college and I stayed a historian at heart. I spent my formative career years as a minor Cold Warrior. What it did for me was slap me in the face with how unpredictable the world is. If I had stood up in my National War College class in 1987 and forecast that the Berlin Wall would come down in 1989 and the Soviet Union would implode in 1990—well, I would have been hurriedly ushered out of sight with a fair amount of wizened headshaking and tut-tutting.

Since then, I’ve spent over forty years trying to get government officials, corporate officers, and graduate students to confront the future. The problem is the old saw that managers do things right, while leaders do the right things.[1] Hoping that the future will look like the past is a safe easy way to avoid thinking about an uncertain future. Because the unknown is scary. Better not to think about it, put your head down, keep doing what you are doing, and hope for the best.

This isn’t a new problem. 2,600 years ago, Aesop’s ant was warning Greek grasshoppers about the need to plan for tomorrow. Long-term planning has always been unsettling. It requires thinking about scary stuff. In my professional experience the only time people think—really think—about the future is when they are desperate. Which is when it is usually too late.

The rate and degree of change are increasing. In 1935 the average lifespan of a Fortune 500 company was 90 years. In 2016 it was 18. Between 1970 and 2015 the average lifespan of all publicly traded companies nearly halved. Half of all countries are shrinking and their citizens are aging. All of the things that have stood the test of time are trembling in the tempest. And yet, scratch the surface and underneath we are still hunters with spears stalking a mammoth.

What a bizarre juxtaposition. Do we have the capacity to cope with what is coming? When speaking about the dangers of genetic manipulation, Spencer Wells sounded a cautionary note, expressing concern that the debate required a “scientifically literate public.”

When it comes to the future of the human race, I don’t think we need a cautionary note. I think we need a cautionary claxon. Preferably a really big one. Maybe off of a battleship. And that is what this story is about. In my own small, imperfect way I hope to provoke, for my grandchildrens’ sake, some arguments about where we should go from here.

Because the times, they are a-changin’.

What do you think?

[1] Doing things right is simply the competency to take some action. Doing the right things is the wisdom to know whether or not that action should be taken. Merely because one can, does not automatically translate into whether one should.

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