Human evolution, as in all species on Earth, is driven by stress - as all are challenged by continually changing conditions and environments. Like all species, we humans become habituated to our current situations and cultural norms. Our reactions to change range from outright denial to reluctant acceptance and attempts at adaptation. We expect changes to come slowly, yet as biologists know in their view of “punctuated equilibrium”: many changes happen rapidly even suddenly, as with earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Adaptation is required to avoid threats to our life-support and even possible extinction.
Today, humans are facing such a time of multiple changes at all levels on our life-supporting planet. Many are caused by our own behavior in this new Anthropocene Age, including mutating viruses, and catastrophic floods, droughts, and superstorms along with sea-level rise which will continue for centuries even if we stop emitting CO2 tomorrow. The planet is now teaching us directly, testing our future fitness, even as media focus on wealthy men staging escapades in space. We humans don’t yet know if we are fit to be an interplanetary species, only our performance on Earth will tell.
Traditional human knowledge evolves slowly with each generation building on its forbears, but in separate cultures, traditions, academic disciplines, courses, separated in silos, structures, and organizations. Ancient wisdom traditions have relied on direct experience and creative intuition, imagination, and visions to guide their lives. Human populations grew through cooperation and communication from small roving bands of nomad hunter-gatherers to settled agriculture, villages, towns to today’s mega-cities, global corporations, international treaties, and agreements - to the European Union (EU) and the United Nations (UN).
We learned to address the risks of conflicts, wars, weapons, and the need to steer our burgeoning technological skills, using the earliest codes of mutual aid, respect, and shared experience and interdependence: The Golden Rule Do As You Would Be Done By. This rule has been honored and coded in every society, religion, and philosophy for thousands of years, documented in Wikipedia’s voluminous record. The Magna Carta was adopted in the year 1215 in England, with its Writ of Habeas Corpus codifying our right to personal ownership of our own bodies - on which many laws are still based worldwide. Some religious traditions and male-dominated societies still deny the rights of Habeas Corpus to women. The UN Declaration of Human Rights was ratified in 1948 by all member nations and was followed in 2000 by the Earth Charter’s 16 Principles of Human Responsibilities.
As human history speeded up in the Industrial Revolution, our communications skills led to today’s Information Age. Our knowledge base needed revising ever faster - often leaving many groups behind in “rust belts” in “flyover country” in many societies. Technological globalization advanced under the narrow view of profit in markets which ignored the broader communities and traditional values based on The Golden Rule. Politicians, decision-makers, academics, and media found themselves backing into the future looking through rearview mirrors.
Futures studies emerged in the 1950s as the Russian Sputnik began orbiting the Earth. The space race and globalization accelerated changes beyond human imagining and response abilities. Alvin and Heidi Toffler wrote the best-seller “Future Shock” in 1970 and it became a perennial best-seller. Leaders in many countries read it in many languages and the Toffler’s were invited to consult with politicians, including in China. Due to their recommendation, I was also invited to China in 1986. On the 50th anniversary of Future Shock, it was revived by many current futurists in After Shock ( 2020) edited by John Schroeter.
Futurists’ most successful method is that of scenario-building, which is now widely adopted by decision-makers - leaving economists’ forecasting methods in the dust. Scenarios are based on human abilities for imagination, creativity, and intuition, often discounted in Cartesian models. These rely on separate examination of multiple domains, but rarely integrate their findings into coherent, whole systemic views of social issues or technological choices. An innovative government think tank was founded in the USA in 1974, the US Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) to monitor new technologies from private companies with profit motives ahead of broader social concerns. OTA garnered thousands of top scientists and researchers from all over the USA, with the task of assessing the likely consequences of deploying these new technologies: on the environment and all those groups in society who would be impacted without prior knowledge or input.
OTA used scenarios to help make these likely consequences more visible ahead of time, for futuristic policy monitoring. OTA’s studies triggered opposition from most incumbent industries and their friends in the US Congress and this futuristic innovation was shut down in 1996. Luckily, all its ground-breaking reports are still available and Ethical Markets re-published with the University of Florida its An Assessment of Technology for Local Development (1981) in 2014. Under the Biden administration, it is likely that OTA will be re-launched since it has never been more needed than today. Societies must monitor all the un-assessed challenges from social media, cybercrime, cryptocurrencies, and continuing threats of nuclear power, in addition to methods for addressing pandemics and the climate crises.
Futures research employs innate human skills which foster realistic scenarios painting the widest range of possibilities to alert decision-makers and portray options and outcomes of current trends and assumptions. Economic forecasts have failed repeatedly, due to their theories and models still based on assumptions of equilibrium and over-reliance on the price-system for their indicators, such as GDP. Such macroeconomic indicators still used too widely, are too narrow, and always historic. Such metrics as GDP growth based on cash flows in societies are actually a function of human ignorance, since they explicitly exclude likely social and environmental costs. These rejected costs or benefits are termed by economists in a classic Freudian Slip as “Externalities” (see our Ending Externalities: Toward Full-Spectrum Accounting (2016).
Scenarios usually portray at least three possible futures:
- projecting the effects of continuing with “business as usual”;
- negative scenarios based on continued denial or resistance to changing conditions;
- positive scenarios of alternative futures based on recognition of change, cultural and technological adaptation, and social innovation.
Many of these scenarios end up as books, for example, William Irwin Thompson’s best-seller At The Edge of History (1971); E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful (1973) both of which saw the coming failures and the fragilities of big corporations and finance, as well as my Creating Alternative Futures (1978), now a free download and Earth Dance (2000) by biologist Elisabet Sahtouris.
Some futurists take brilliant leaps of imagination, analogizing from nature’s biological phenomena, such as the collective behavior of slime molds to move and avoid stressful environments, and the miraculous transformations of caterpillars. We all see them on leaves eating their way to bloated bodies, which then turn into chrysalises which grow protective cocoons. Magically, due to their innate “imaginal cells” which become activated to drive these changes within the organism, the cocoons split open, and gorgeous, multi-colored butterflies emerge and fly away. This visual from the cover of my radio lesson for Britain’s BBC Open University in 1981, portrays the caterpillar gorging on a leaf, and looking up at a butterfly far aloft. Our caption has the caterpillar saying, “You’ll Never Get Me Up in One of Those Things”! The Open University since the 1960s, has graduated millions of Brits who were shut-ins or prisoners, with academic diplomas.
One of the clearest collections of futurist scenarios, based on the biology of this Caterpillar to Butterfly transformation is the group of essays in Imaginal Cells, curated by futurist, innovator, and global citizen, Kim Polman, co-founder and leader of the think tank, Reboot the Future, based in Europe, with Stephen Vasconcellos-Sharpe. These “imaginal cells” are a group of world-famous change agents and visionary activist leaders, including former US vice-president: Al Gore; Bishop Desmond Tutu; Swedish scientist Johan Rockstrom; US environmentalist Tom Lovejoy; architect William McDonough; African business leader/philanthropist Mo Ibrahim; and Bangladeshi Nobelist Muhammed Yunus.
All these activists also state that their global view of more peaceful, harmonious futures for humanity are based on their adherence to The Golden Rule as their guiding principle. These futurists and millions of others imagining positive futures for the human family are invisible in most societies and mainstream media. They all accept the truth of our interdependence, now fully confirmed in countless studies of human DNA.
An imaginative scenario based on this more compassionate, empathetic future also spells out such new realities essential for our survival. This creative novel, the first of a trilogy, is authored by two well-known scientists, Anneloes Smitsman, Ph.D. and Jean Houston, Ph.D. as The Quest of Rose (2021).
The novel follows the unfolding awareness of a young woman in our 21st century, searching for wider meaning and purpose for her life. Rose, with her chosen mentors, tracks humanity’s history, earlier archetypes of human’s ways of being and behaving from early myths, creation stories, and scientific explorations. This novel is dedicated to “the children of a new time” and the scenarios draw from their vision of The Cosmic Keys of our Future Being.
The Quest of Rose uses the image of "The Cosmic Butterfly” and all our current transforming “imaginal cells”: those visionary humans everywhere today portraying our emerging stage of acceptance as one family, emerging globally into the more cooperative mutuality that will be essential for our survival. Five new future archetypes are seen as guiding this transformation and fostering our further self-actualization:
- the wholeness coder (caterpillar activating your future potentials through conscious choice);
- the future creative (chrysalis engaging your future possibilities through your imaginal powers);
- evolutionary catalyst (cocoon developing your future capacities and transitioning to the new systems);
- pattern weaver (cocoon opening embodying the future states and entering into emergence);
- new paradigm storyteller (the butterfly actualizing the future potentials by being the new realities).
I must say that I found The Quest of Rose thrilling and inspiring, seeing in myself many of these new archetypes in my own journey! I hope this book and its companion volumes are read widely, since they can help to trigger all our dormant, often unacknowledged, now vital skills of intuition, and creative imagining. Such visionary scenarios are often put down by the “realists", but since their models are failing, we can see that these visionaries may be the truer realists!