A load of old crystal balls
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