Now for the Long Term: The Report of the Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations

This is a verysophisticated and important report—a model of multi-disciplinary integration—that covers a lot of ground, with “future generations” as just one of several important themes. Unfortunately, the three parts should have had better labels. Part A on “Possible Futures” is more appropriately seen as “Megatrends and Needed Actions.” The excellent Part B on “Responsible Futures” would be better described as “Previous Successes and Barriers to Change.” Part C entitled “Practical Futures” should have stressed the sub-title re-formed as “Principles and Proposals for a Sustainable World.”

The stark contrast with Global Trends 2030from America’s National Intelligence Council is illuminating (see GFB Book of the Month, Feb 2013; also a unique Special Issue of the World Future Society’s World Future Review, 5:4, Winter 2013, entitled “The NIC’s Global Trends 2030 Report: Comments and Critiques,”featuring 13 varied responses by experienced general futurists).

Whereas Oxford Martin and GT-2030 both start out with a set of “megatrends” that are largely similar, the reports diverge sharply after that: the former is strongly prescriptive, while the latter is strictly descriptive. The GT-2030 report does include a discussion of problem areas trendily mislabeled as “game-changers,” an overly brief discussion of wild cards (trendily labeled as “Black Swans”) and four “Alternative Worlds” scenarios with little or no relation to the Oxford Martin proposals for a better and more sustainable world (the NIC makes no mention of “sustainability,” and egregiously downgrades the risks of climate change). The important lesson here is that scenarios are not necessarily helpful, and can too easily be an amusing but fanciful distraction from articulating what is really needed and how to get there. As a government agency concerned with security, NIC is in no position to make strongly prescriptive comments. But the Oxford Martin proposals could be embodied in a future NIC scenario, if NIC is up for it and truly serious about security and well-being.

It is heartening that the Commission seeks to “take our recommendations forward” and the Oxford Martin School has the extensive financial and intellectual resources to do so. Perhaps this effort, in contrast to many smaller and poorly-funded efforts in recent decades to promote foresight and futures-thinking, can spark greater interest in broad and long-term perspectives for the public good, at a time when they are needed more than ever. If an update to the Commission report is to be made, however, greater attention should be paid to the print and electronic media (which favors sensation, entertainment, “nowness,” and political personalities over policy) and to higher education (still characterized by too much specialized trivia and fragmentation). Together, these two sectors may prove to be the most important barrier to a “common global vision” and enhancing “our capacity to work together.”

For the historical record, an earlier effort (not among the 551 footnotes of the Oxford Martin Commission) should be noted: Why Future Generations Now?(1994, 159p in English and Japanese), from the Institute for the Integrated Study of Future Generations, with theoretical and moral arguments by Sakae Shimizu (Chairman, Kyoto Forum), Katsuhiko Yazaki (Chairman, Future Generations Alliance Foundation), Kim Tae-Chang (President, IISFG), Wendell Bell (Yale University), Emmanuel Agius (University of Malta; editor, Future Generations Journal), Allen Tough (OISE, University of Toronto), and Rick Slaughter (Futures Study Centre, Melbourne).

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