14 Race & Class 51(3)
There was a time when the future was considered a subject for prophecy and science fiction rather than empirical analysis. From Jules Verne and H. G. Wells onwards, science writers have combined fantasy with a serious examination of what the future might contain. But it was not until the last decades of the twentieth century that futuristic speculation began to transcend the category of entertainment, with the emergence of the discipline variously known as futurology, futuristics or future studies. Defined by the Encarta Dictionary as ‘the study and forecasting of the future, with predictions based on the likely outcomes of current trends’, futurology first emerged as a popular non-fiction genre in the early 1970s, with Alvin Toffler’s best-selling Future Shock and the Club of Rome’s environmental wake-up call Limits to Growth. In 1972, the University of Houston established the first graduate programme in futurism and today a plethora of university departments, thinktanks and research centres across the world are dedicated to ‘foresight’ and the study of ‘probable and preferable futures’, such as the Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies, the UK Horizon Scanning Centre, Foresight International and the World Future Society.
The military has also shown a keen interest in the study of the ‘possible future’ in the early twenty-first century, particularly in the United States. In 1997, the US National Intelligence Council (NIC) published Global Trends 2010, the first of three reports in its ambitious 2020 Project that aims to predict the ‘forces that will shape our world’ over a two-decade period. In 2001, the prestigious US Air Force thinktank, the RAND Corporation, established the Frederick S. Pardee Center for Longer Range Global Policy and the Future Human Condition. Since 2000, the US Joint Forces Command has published two studies of the international military and security environment over the next two decades and its implications for the military. Military and national security research institutions such as the US Army’s Strategic Studies Institute (SSI) regularly stage conferences and symposia on ‘Long Range Planning and Forecasting’, ‘Scenario Planning’ and ‘Projecting Future Battlespaces and Scenarios’.
These studies are not limited to purely military concerns. Military futurists also devote considerable attention to more mainstream futurological subjects, such as social and economic transformation, demographics, urbanism, cultural trends and climate change. What explains the military’s interest in the future and what does this fascination tell us about the present? Military futurism is not a historical novelty in itself. Armies have routinely engaged in contingency planning ever since the German armed forces pioneered ‘long range planning’ in the late nineteenth century. Military futurism really came into its own during the cold war, when the RAND Corporation began conducting regular war games and simulations to predict the likely outcomes of nuclear and conventional military confrontations with the Soviet Union. In the 1950s and 1960s, RAND luminaries such as Herman Kahn, Leo Roster and Albert Wohlstetter built illustrious careers around ‘scenario planning’ and ‘systems thinking’, which attempted to provide US policymakers with the conceptual tools to anticipate ‘alternate’ or ‘surprising’ military futures by ‘thinking the unthinkable’.