The role of history in future-gazing

Doug Cocks

[Talk to Independent Scholars Association of Australia Sept 16 1999. The reason for a non-historian chancing his arm with a title like this is nothing more than my wish to find a topic of interest to an audience well-sprinkled with historians. Think kindly of me as a bower-bird finding shiny little gems in the jewel-box of history to adorn my future-structures.]



This paper explores the uncontroversial assertion that a certain knowledge of history is of value in several ways to those trying to say something sensible and useful about the future of Australia and Australian society over coming decades.

Historical studies suggests factors behind the evolution, survival and demise of past societies, and hence, perhaps, of future societies. They alert the historicist within to the possibilities of strong past trends (eg population growth, technology accumulation) and cycles (economic, social) continuing into the future. They can sometimes identify karmic structures from the past (eg transport systems, political systems) that will constrain the rate at which future change can be achieved. They recall how unique random occurrences (eg horseshoe nails) can channel events.

History further tells us what social problems were once considered important enough to address collectively and how measures to solve those problems succeeded or failed. While such knowledge does not identify sufficient measures to solve today's problems, it may assist in the identification of necessary conditions for their solution. What history cannot tell us about is the newly emergent, that which has had no time to imprint itself on the historical record. Nor is it always willing to reveal the generic processes behind phenomenologically unique historical stories.

Most macrohistorians see societies developing to a plateau of organisational complexity and then declining, taking their place in a process of serial replacement. For only some is such cycling superimposed on a progressive trend towards greater enlightenment and civilisation, an 'unfolding of reason'. Amongst the processes that have operated to rudely thwart the development strategies of societies through history, two stand out---parasitism and resource degradation.

For local future-gaziers, the question is one of which, if any, of the generic patterns and generalised processes revealed by historical study are candidate possibilities for a post-millennial Australia. Or, post 'golden age', has our society tumbled into a domain where those generic processes will be heavily disguised or even transmogrified?

If it is concluded that some historical process (eg thesis, antithesis, synthesis) might well repeat itself locally, the follow-up questions, outside the historian's ambit, are, firstly, whether that would be surprising or unsurprising and, secondly, how, explicitly, might that process be expressed in an Australian context?

Introduction: What is future-gazing?

Future-gazing is the process of looking for answers to the question ' What might the future be like for such-and-such an entity?' In my own studies, the entity of interest is ordinary-people's quality of life in Australia in 2050 CE and beyond.

What I have concluded, after spending the last few years learning how to be a future-gazier, is that, nearly always, the answer to the future-gazier's question can only be expressed as one or more hypothesised or conjectural possibilities---scenarios as they are known in the trade: 'This could happen; or this; or that. I don't know which'. One virtue of answering the future-gazing question by identifying such multiple possibiltiies is that it squashes any temptation to presume that the future is, in some sense, thereby being predicted. It is only rarely, and then often trivially (the sun will rise tomorrow) that we feel certain about future events occurring or not occurring, and hence able to predict them in the sense of saying 'This, unconditionally, will happen.'. The operational test for an objective certainty is that most people would be prepared to bet London to a brick on it. The operational test for a subjective certainty is that you would be prepared to bet London to a brick on it.

We can also have probabilistic knowledge of the future. Such knowledge can be objective, meaning, again, that most people would agree; the objective probability of drawing a club from a shuffled pack of cards is one quarter. But more complex events that do not have a repetitious history, can only be assigned a subjective probability, meaning a probability estimate that has no basis in history. In a rapidly changing world, fewer and fewer future events can be assigned an objective probabiity. Rainfall probabilities are a good example of this receding objectivity.

Given that any set of probabilities has to add to one, it is not meaningful to assign even subjective probabilities to members of an open-ended set of scenarios (A, B, C....). What I believe is quite useful though when deciding whether or not to prepare for the occurrence of some nominated member of an open-ended set of scenarios is to ask how surprised it would be if that scenario eventuated. If the scenario implies a significant threat or opportunity, and you would be totally unsurprised if it occurred, then it would seem sensible to act as though it were definitely going to occur.

For example, within relatively recent geological time, the central New South Wales coast has experienced some large tsunamis. It would be unsurprising for this scenario to re-occur at any time. Given the scale of disaster foreseeable under such a scenario, it would seem prudent to make some preparations.

Three sources of ideas for scenarios

Enough of future-gazing per se. Let me turn now to a consideration of where future-gaziers find ideas for scenarios. I intend to concentrate on recent human history as a source of hypotheses about Australia's long-term future but will start by mentioning two other useful sources which still owe much to history, but to natural history rather than recorded human history; namely systems thinking and scientific knowlwedge of natural processes.

Systems theory

The developing theory of complex systems, Australian society being a good example of such, provides future-gaziers with all sorts of interesting ideas about how such systems evolve over time under specified conditions. Hence, identifying that a society is in some state well-recognised by systems theory---not necessarily easy--- immediately suggests scenarios for that society's future behaviour.

One fundamental observation here is that complex systems normally contain the seeds of their own dynamics---their own future history---within themselves (lagged feedback loops for example) and, consequently, may well evolve in highly surprising, counter-intuitive ways. Here are three examples of systems concepts which provide insight into the phenomenon of paradigm shifts in social organisation:

[As an aside, systems thinking has also reflected back into the conceptual frameworks of a number of eminent historians including Ferdnand Braudel, Emmanuel Wallerstein, KR Dark and Joseph Tainter].

Knowledge of macro-scale natural processes

While there are a number of macro-scale natural proceses which, if they continue into the future, will strongly constrain or guide the evolution of human societies, many of these are proceeding at a rate that makes them but marginally relevant to the present paper with its arbitrary time horizon of several generations. For example:

But, without a doubt, of all the macro-scale natural processe, it is biological evolution that has most to suggest about our immediate future. For example:

From a somewhat different perspective, a knowledge of bIological evolutIon (phylogenesis) provIdes us wIth a powerful metaphor for understanding cultural evolution (sociogenesis) in general, and hence, at least abstractly, the future of Australian society. Cultural evolution, under this view, is a process of social learning in which innovative behaviour emerges spontaneously like genetic mutations and is selectively passed on, if it is adaptive, eg solves problems. It can be argued that history's examples of adaptive behaviour support this emerging paradigm of viewing social evolution as a learning process. Conversely, we need history to help us further understand that process. That is, history both illustrates and illuminates cultural evolution as social learning. I stop short of suggesting social learning as a 'theory of history' (Dunn 1971).


Now we come to what I promised to concentrate on--history proper as a source of ideas for scenarios of Australia's future. I am talking about history as the interpretation of records of social change, not as chronology or as a repository of anecdote.

And, just to clear the decks, future-gaziers do not expect historians to predict the future for them. I am responding to Norman Davies' comment:

It is an irony that historians, who study the past, are invariably pressed to predict the future. It helps to have followed the drift of events, but not much (Davies 1997 p1133).

Springboard processes

Some of course are more willing to do so than Davies. Hobsbawm (1994), beyond the ‘crisis decades’ of his age of extremes, sees an ‘unknown and problematic but not necessarily apocalyptic future’---a period of destructuring rather than destruction. Problems he foresees include:

. a world in which there is no international system or structure;

. the privatisation of the means of destruction;

. global population rising above 10 billion, generating great migratory pressures along with regional differences in population;

. ecological consequences of ongoing economic growth which, while not making the world uninhabitable for humans, will change the environments in which people live and perhaps reduce the carrying capacity of the globe dramatically;

. a seemingly-irreversible widening of the gap between rich and poor countries;

. technology continuing to squeeze human labour out of the production of goods and services, without providing either enough work of the same kind for those jettisoned, or the guarantee of a rate of economic growth sufficient to absorb them.

These are precisely the sorts of scenarios of dynamic processes that the future-gazier wants to extract (amongst other things) from the study of history. They provide a starting point for more detailed scenario-building questions such as: What sort of environment would the continuing of processes such as these create for Australian society? In what different ways might Australian society respond to such an environment? Such questions are outside the scope of today's talk.

Hobsbawm's processes are springboard processes in the sense that they are projections of the present and near-past into the future, projections grounded in the belief that large systems are homeostatic under shock. In the same vein but more sweepingly, Foucault (1969) draws our attention to 'science' as the dominant prevailing discourse, the one which currently has the status of 'truth' and which settles how our era defines and conceives of the world. For the future-gazier the questions here are When will the paradigm shift and, before that, How will this paradigm continue to constrain or shape the future?

Heilbroner's (1995) springboard processes, and they reach back to about 1700, are the capitalist mode of production, technological change and the search for political emancipation. What has changed under the influence of these three great ongoing forces, from about the middle of our own century, has been the prevailing attitude towards the future. This, as Heilbroner sees it, has moved from a widespread belief in 'progress'---expecting the future to be better than the past---to a somewhat 'post-modern' apprehension.

Cyclical processes

Provided we can identify where we lie in the cycle, cyclical theories of history suggest interesting hypotheses about where we are headed. As reviewed by Galtung and Inayatullah (1997) most macrohistorians see societies developing in organisational complexity and then declining, one replacing the other. For (only) some, is such cycling superimposed on a progressive trend towards greater enlightenment and civilisation. At a finer scale, Strauss and Howe (1997) suggest that over the last five centuries, the national mood in Anglo-American society has swung every two decades or so in a way that can be described in terms of the oppositional waxing and waning of (a) individualism and (b) civil society. And every 80 or so years, sparked by a crisis, and driven by style-differences between the generations, the cycle starts again---rebirth (renewal), growth, maturation and decay (release). They suggest that about 2005 American (and hence Western) society is likely to begin experiencing a ‘decisive era of secular upheaval’ (rebirth) that, after several decades, will lead to an era of strengthening institutions and weakening individualism (growth).

The economic historian Kondratieff’s (1926) model of long economic cycles since the industrial revolution began is of particular interest to the future-gazier looking for a graspable paradigm that summarises how and why late 20th century industrial capitalism is changing and hence how it might further change. His empirical observation was that many innovations and processes diffuse through society over time in a way which can be described by an S-shaped (sigmoid) curve, ie slow growth at the beginning, followed by accelerating and then decelerating growth culminating in saturation or a full niche, eg mainframe computers ‘saturated’ around 1995.

Periods of global growth and expansion in economic activities last about 55 years under this model and are punctuated with phases of fundamental change in the structure of the economy, the technological base and many social institutions and relations. Towards the end of a growth phase in the economy, many markets saturate and growth slows. The search for revitalised profits induces a cluster of new technologies which slowly at first, and then more rapidly, penetrate markets (Grubler and Nakicenovic 1991).

Marchetti (1987) nominates 1940 and 1995 as the ends of such Kondratieff growth cycles. The data supporting such a precise cyclical view of socio-techno-economic history is quite impressive but cannot ‘prove’ that the world economy is indeed entering a new growth phase that will only begin slowing towards 2050. Nonetheless, there is a cluster of new technologies currently beginning to generate products for growing world markets. These centre around computer and communication technologies and, to a lesser extent, biotechnologies, new energy technologies and new transport technologies.

Marchetti (1988) further argues, on the basis of empirical evidence, that many aspects of behaviour in society run in 55 year cycles matching economic cycles, eg suicide, homicide. Utilising data on war severity, Goldstein (1988) demonstrates that there is a corresponding 50 to 60 year cycle in the number of battle deaths per year for the period 1495-1975. Beyond merely showing that the Kondratieff cycle and the war cycle are linked in a systematic fashion, Goldstein's research suggests that severe ‘core’ wars are much more likely to occur late in the upswing phase of the Kondratieff cycle. This finding is interpreted as showing that, while states always desire to go to war, they can afford to do so only when economic growth is providing them with sufficient resources! Watt’s (1992) modelling of social systems suggests that the cyclic occurrence of wars and depressions are the alternate consequences of ineffective feedback controls, eg on the rate of repatriation of war debt; on post-war birth rates.

For what it is worth, both the Kondratieff and Strauss-Howe models suggest that the mid-21st century, the medium-term time horizon of this paper, could be a time of economic and social well-being, at least in the western world.

Recurrent processes

Historians have also perceived important generic processes which, whilst not deterministically cyclical, have re-occurred frequently enough to warrant their recognition into the future as ever-present contingencies.

The work of the the Australian economic historian Graeme Snooks (1996) is an ideotypical example. After concluding that 'we have no consistent explanation of the rise and fall of civilisations', Snooks presents his own innovative interpretation of the dynamics of human society over the past 2 million years. He suggests that individuals in a competitive environment generate community growth by investing in the four dynamic strategies of family multiplication, conquest, commerce, and technological change. He argues that the rise and fall of societies is an outcome of the opportunistic development and exhaustion of these strategies. He uses his dynamic-strategy model to discuss future outcomes for human society, arguing that far from leading to ecological destruction, growth-inducing technological change is both necessary and liberating.

Less sanguinely, CD Darlington (1969) says that the big lesson from history is that humans destroy the resource base on which they depend. It is a lesson reinforced for our part of the world in Tim Flannery's (1994) The Future Eaters---a book which is about the past, not the future, of course.

Diamond (1992) notes three situations in which human populations tend to wreak great damage on their environments:

1. When people suddenly colonise an unfamiliar environment, eg Maoris in New Zealand

2. When people advance along a new frontier (like the first Indians to reach America) and can move on when they have damaged the region behind.

3. When people acquire a new technology whose destructive power they have not had time to appreciate, eg New Guinea pigeon hunters with shotguns.

Diamond says it has always been hard for people to know the rate at which they can safely harvest biological resources indefinitely, without depleting them. Decline may be difficult to distinguish from normal year-to-year fluctuations. By the time the signs are clear enough it may be too late. We of course have no such excuse; we know what has happened and we know how to model sustainable harvesting and the importance of precautionary behaviour. Up till now, as one particular pattern of human exploitation of the environment began to encounter difficulties, thanks to exhaustion of one or another key resource, human ingenuity has always found new ways to live, tapping new resources, and thereby expanding our dominion over animate and inanimate nature, time and again (McNeill 1979).

Immigrant species of all types---people, plants, animals and microbes---have always boded ill for resident societies and ecosystems. Crosby (1986), for example, shows how the Europeans were able to take over temperate lands because of the rapid and almost automatic triumph of the plants, animals and germs they brought with them.

McNeill’s (1979) revelatory book Plagues and People makes it abundantly clear that microparasitism (disease) and macroparasitism have played a large and often unrecognised part in the rise and fall of the world’s communities and civilisations. As regards microparasitism, the best known examples are the impacts of European diseases on the aboriginals of Australia and the Americas; but there are many others.

There are good reasons for believing that disease remains a major latent threat to modern societies. Given time and a reasonably stable world, diseases and populations tend to come into balance. However, increased urbanisation and increased interactions between peoples mean that the world community becomes one big disease pool. While this ‘global village’ means that there are no longer susceptible unexposed local populations waiting to be drastically reduced by diseases new to them, it also means that a virulent new disease could drastically reduce the world population (McNeill 1979). Or, less apocalyptically, pandemics of Cholera, Yellow Fever and Plague are all possible in coming decades. Loss of children and old people to disease can be tolerated in one sense but the loss of, say, 20% of the adult working population stands to threaten the stability of any society.

McNeill’s (1979) macroparasites include marauders and ruling classes and landlords who exact an unsustainable toll from the peasantry. Indeed Toynbee (1976) concluded that the factors common to the 21 collapsed civilisations he studied were a concentration of wealth in a few hands and inflexibility under stress. The possibility of macroparasitic greed destroying the productive base of societies or inciting destructive revolt remains a hazard in much of today’s world too. Historical generalisation about the conditions under which armed conflicts arise promises to be particularly useful. For example, is it really the case that democratic countries have never fought each other?

The special importance of Australian history

Australian history is obviously of particular interest to an Australian future-gazier. Not only can it be searched for our own examples of springboard, cyclical and recurrent processes, it contains numerous thought-provoking predictions which can be examined to see why they did or did not occur or, as the case may be, might or might not occur. Space precludes a survey here (cf. Cocks 1999) but one historical perception of our transition from the past into the future which I find too illuminating to not mention is Paul Kelly's (1992) development of the idea of the 'Australian settlement'.

According to Kelly, the Australian settlement, something like an Australian social contract or national bargain, drove the development of Australian society, with bipartisan support, for 70 years post-federation. It had five widely agreed principles for guiding society: white Australia, industry protection, wage arbitration, state paternalism (intervention for the common good) and imperial benevolence (the belief that Australian prosperity and security was underwritten by the Empire).

In the 1990s two of these principles, white Australia and imperial benevolence, have been replaced by new verities and the other three, without being dead, have lost much of their influence and are no longer ‘ideas in good currency’. Thus white Australia has been replaced by an acceptance of the idea that Australia is a multicultural society which, as such, is reasonably successful and can and should be kept that way. The idea of imperial---and American---benevolence has been largely replaced by the idea that Australia's defence is in our own hands. The challenge for the future-gazier is to speculate productively and plausibly on whether there might be a new Australian settlement emerging and, if so, what form it might take.

Concluding comments

As a counterpoint to the general enthusiasm of this paper, let me recall those who caution that history can be both a help and a hindrance in thinking about the future. Take Régis Debray (1967), theorist of revolution:

History advances in disguise; it appears on stage wearing the mask of the preceding scene, and we tend to lose the meaning of the play. ...We see the past superimposed on the present, even when the present is a revolution.

For example Coates et al (c1997) see environmentalism, which they call a 'new world orientation', driving change in the next century, along with information technology, biotechnology etc. Or there is Senge's (1999) observation that the biggest force for future change, the sleeping dragon, is the uneasy feeling that so many people have that we are managing the world badly, very badly. And just as history will be ignorant of new processes, it can be blind to old. A good example is the inability of historians, till recently, to see the importance of disease. Perhaps there is an area in which the flow of ideas can be reversed, with the future-gaziers providing the historians with new lenses through which to view the past.

After all this, a fair conclusion is that history suggests useful questions to ask about the future when attempting to get a feel for what it might be like. Could such-and-such happen again (or keep happening) in some form or other? Would the consequences of intervention come to resemble those of their historical counterparts? Provided one is looking for hypotheses and conjectures to apply to the future, not iron laws, history is of great value to the future-gazier.


How could I write a paper on the topic of history and the future without mentioning George Santayana's (1905) dictum, ' Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it' , ie to repeat it in the future? A contemporary example for those preaching and foreseeing more devolved societies is to ask why the Imperial Roman civil service, by early in the second century AD, had to, reluctantly, assume the administration of the city-states that were the cells of the imperial body politic (Toynbee 1976 p284).

Santayana's dictum was not a criticism of the modern world as the common interpretation would have it, but a very Euro-centric criticism of indigenous peoples. The preceding sentence ends ' ...when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual'. My revised version would be "Those who fail to understand the past will not benefit from it'.


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