A load of old crys­tal balls

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Rear View -

ONE of the para­doxes of the hu­man con­di­tion is that the best way to an­tic­i­pate the fu­ture is to ex­am­ine the past. In fact, if we’re wise we tend to re­mem­ber the fu­ture and imag­ine the past. This means we can only think of the fu­ture in terms of the re­cent past. And when we think of the dis­tant past, we can only imag­ine hu­man be­ings such as our­selves liv­ing through the dif­fer­ent con­di­tions of then.

Per­haps in this imag­in­ing we are not too far off the mark. G. K. Ch­ester­ton un­der­stood this. Ch­ester­ton was a writer I revered as a young­ster. I’ve be­come very scep­ti­cal of his pol­i­tics as the years have gone by, but his hu­man the­ol­ogy has be­come ever more ap­peal­ing.

In his mas­ter­piece, the mag­is­te­rial and beau­ti­ful The Ev­er­last­ing Man, Ch­ester­ton makes the point that we don’t re­ally know much about an­cient man. But we do have some of his cave paint­ings. And what do they tell us? That an­cient man was an artist, and that he liked to have art on his liv­ing room walls.

In other words, he was not that dif­fer­ent from us. I have al­ways thought his­tory and lit­er­a­ture the two es­sen­tial and best el­e­ments of a de­cent ed­u­ca­tion, be­cause in th­ese fields you study hu­man be­ings di­rectly in their splen­did di­ver­sity and com­plex­ity.

One wholly fraud­u­lent area of study, which surely in time will be­come fash­ion­able and see whole uni­ver­sity de­part­ments en­dowed in its favour, is fu­tur­ol­ogy. Al­most all fu­tur­ol­ogy is the most fan­tas­tic moon­shine. Pre­dic­tions of the fu­ture more than a cou­ple of years out are com­pletely worth­less.

But they en­joy the good for­tune that no one much re­mem­bers them. Who re­calls that raft of books in the 1980s al­leg­ing that the US was fin­ished and that its place as the world’s top eco­nomic power would be taken by Ja­pan?

Catholics of a cer­tain age may re­mem­ber the ob­scure and bizarre writ­ings of the once im­mensely chic Pierre Teil­hard de Chardin. He sub­scribed to a kind of evo­lu­tion­ary, pan­the­is­tic mys­ti­cism. It had me en­thralled for a while but I re­mem­ber the mo­ment I re­alised for sure it was all com­plete tosh. It was when Teil­hard ar­gued that the divi­sion of the world into com­mu­nist and cap­i­tal­ist poles re­flected some evo­lu­tion­ary prin­ci­ple of bi­fur­ca­tion, some Marx­oid su­per non­sense of the­sis and an­tithe­sis.

Now I’ve al­ways been a bit of a scep­tic about evo­lu­tion. I’m not scep­ti­cal that some evo­lu­tion has occurred, but I am scep­ti­cal of it as a the­ory ex­plain­ing the whole emer­gence of hu­man per­son­al­ity. But it was not that scep­ti­cism which led me to con­clude Teil­hard was as use­ful as a Mel­bourne Con­nex train timetable. Rather it was know­ing how ut­terly con­tin­gent and freak­ish, and thus non-evo­lu­tion­ary, were the events that led to the Bol­she­vik tri­umph in St Peters­burg in 1917.

The whole of Marx­ism was a gi­ant fu­tur­ol­o­gist fraud. The idea that there were in­eluctable forces of his­tory push­ing hu­man­ity to­wards a pre­de­ter­mined po­lit­i­cal des­ti­na­tion was as silly as a two bob watch.

Now there are new cons, just as silly, but en­joy­ing an even shorter shelf life than Marx­ism. Re­mem­ber a few years ago the fad around Fran­cis Fukuyama’s The End of His­tory ? Fukuyama’s bright idea was that democ­racy had achieved near uni­ver­sal ac­cep­tance. A few so­ci­eties — mainly Arabs — were trapped in his­tory, but they too would soon be free. The fu­ture would in­volve cu­rat­ing the cul­tural achieve­ments of our past and a few tech­no­cratic ar­gu­ments about how best to man­age things. The prob­lem is the Arabs are still trapped in his­tory. The Chi­nese didn’t sign on, nor the Viet­namese, nor the North Kore­ans, nor the Rus­sians ( about whom Fukuyama had a lot to say).

Merely get­ting your fu­ture wrong doesn’t get you dis­cred­ited as a fu­tur­ol­o­gist. It’s a bit like Hol­ly­wood. The big­ger the bud­get of your hope­lessly failed block­buster, the more money you get for your next movie.

Fu­tur­ol­ogy has other odd con­se­quences. The kind of fu­ture we an­tic­i­pate af­fects what we ac­cept as con­ven­tional wis­dom. It seems only the flick of a tele­vi­sion switch ago that nu­mer­ous pol­icy wonks were lament­ing that we are only forced to put 9 per cent of our salaries into su­per­an­nu­a­tion, in­stead of the 15 per cent the Keat­ing gov­ern­ment had planned.

The same think­ing lay be­hind Ge­orge W. Bush’s plans in the US to pri­va­tise so­cial se­cu­rity. The Aus­tralian su­per spruik­ers, like Bush in the US, wanted us all to be able to in­vest in the stock mar­ket and get rich ( there be­ing no other place for the ma­jor­ity of su­per funds to go).

But the stock mar­ket turns out to have been a gi­ant Ponzi scheme. You’d have been bet­ter off, lit­er­ally, hid­ing your money un­der the mat­tress. Con­ven­tional wis­dom has a habit of turn­ing up­side down. A few decades ago cigarettes had a healthy im­age be­cause they helped keep the weight off.

Green groups are creative mar­keters of their own fu­tur­olo­gies, and en­thu­si­as­tic en­forcers of con­ven­tional wis­dom to back them up. They have the supreme qual­ity of all long-term suc­cess­ful fu­tur­ol­o­gists: the abil­ity to junk one fu­ture and adopt an­other at light­ning speed with no slack­en­ing of in­ten­sity. Global cool­ing be­comes global warm­ing in the twin­kling of an eye.

Lots of green con­ven­tional wis­dom was shown to be not only waste, but toxic waste, in the re­cent Vic­to­rian bush­fires. The ABC, in a mo­ment of rare het­ero­doxy, told the story of a man fined $ 50,000 by his lo­cal coun­cil for clear­ing the trees around his house. The fine was worth it, for his was the only house in the area that sur­vived.

Lo­cal coun­cils are the Tal­iban of green con­ven­tional wis­dom. One in­sane green or­di­nance pre­vented peo­ple from pick­ing up fallen branches and trees at the road­side for use as fire­wood. As a re­sult, when the bush­fires came the most in­tense fires were at road­sides, which was no good for cars with peo­ple in them.

Even af­ter the fires, I saw one coun­cil spokesman say­ing that while there would be some changes to al­low­able back burn­ing and veg­e­ta­tion clear­ance prac­tices, it wouldn’t be open slather. An ear­lier Aus­tralian con­ven­tional wis­dom had been that you should clear the area around your house. A still ear­lier con­ven­tional wis­dom was that you could do mostly what­ever you like with the scrub on your land.

But th­ese old nos­trums are con­ven­tional wis­dom no longer. Per­haps some­times it’s wise to be un­con­ven­tion­ally fool­ish. The fu­tur­ol­o­gists can’t tell you. In any event, the fu­ture is not what it used to be.

re­view@ theaus­tralian. com. au

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jon Kudelka

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