Well read-head: predicting the future a recipe for stress
Are you scared about the world’s future? Worried that so many things could go wrong? One of the smartest people I know says let’s keep it in perspective:
The future is not to be seen as something preordained, something already existing and impatiently waiting in the wings for its turn on the stage of history. The future does not exist; it is not something there to be discovered, like an island or a mountain. It is something which has still to be made. And how it is made, and what it will become, will depend on people like you, here and throughout the world.
The speaker was my friend Owen Harries. The occasion was a function at Sydney University where he received the highest honour possible, the Doctor of Letters. It recognised his contribution to the intellectual life of Australia and the US over more than fifty years.
If you’ve not heard of Owen, the best way I can describe him is to say that he is to foreign policy circles what Cate Blanchett is to acting circles. If you asked influential American foreign policy figures such as Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Francis Fukuyama or Fareed Zakaria to name the greatest Australian brain in the field, I suspect they would say Owen Harries (although to be a pedant, he was born in Wales).
In fact, in April 1997, Kissinger wrote Owen this note: “Dear Owen, I have read your article [on US-China policy] in the current National Review, and can’t remember when I have agreed with every word of an article. My only regret is that I did not write it myself, but I will plagiarise it liberally. Yours, Henry.”
Owen was the founder and editor of The National Interest, a Washington-based foreign policy quarterly which became one of America’s most influential political publications.
According to the now defunct Bulletin magazine, during Owen’s editorship from 1985 to 2001, he was “probably the most famous Australian in Washington.”
Before that he served the Australian government in several posts, including as a senior advisor to Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock and as Australian Ambassador to UNESCO.
Owen recently turned 80 and at the Sydney University function, he shared some reflections with a group of graduating students about sixty years his junior.
Owen’s theme was that it is wise to avoid being a prisoner to the ‘parochialism of the present’.
He listed some of the daunting challenges of our age – terrorism, man made global warming, nuclear proliferation, capitalism’s recent troubles - and noted that for young people, it is easy to be excessively anxious about the future.
“It seems to me that in the circumstances, you can do with a bit of cheering up,” he said.
Owen then explained that he’d seen many dire predictions come and go during his eighty years – some of them made by famous minds – and many of them had never been borne out.
In the 1940s, many leading British intellectuals, including George Orwell, believed that capitalism was a failed system that ‘manifestly had no future’.
Instead, what followed was not collapse or despair, but capitalism’s most successful era. Output in Western countries rapidly doubled and redoubled and ordinary people enjoyed a new level of affluence – cars, white goods, home ownership and much else.
During most of the Cold War, many figures including Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell insisted that the world was poised on the knife edge of nuclear disaster unless there was prompt disarmament.
Of course, nothing happened – there was neither war nor disarmament. As far as the superpowers were concerned, the Cold War was a remarkably stable state of affairs.
In the 1970s, some prominent thinkers began to question the viability of liberal democracy, including Harvard Professor and future US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
But by the end of the twentieth century, the number of democracies in the world had increased threefold.
Owen noted that: “This does not, of course, point to the conclusion that all predictions of disaster may be false. As the old fable taught us, however many times the cry ‘Wolf’ has been uttered misleadingly, one day the beast may really come. But what these examples do surely justify is the rather reassuring conclusion that, in human affairs, prediction is far from being an exact science even when it is engaged in by the most eminent minds.”
The fact that some predictions never come to pass doesn’t mean we shouldn’t plan prudently or that we should ignore what current evidence tells us about possible future scenarios in areas such as climate change, terrorism and nuclear weapons.
Rather, as Owen Harries puts it, the future is yet to be made and the actions we take now can help ensure the years ahead are something to look forward to, not to fear.
Here are this week’s ten things to read, watch or listen to:
Owen also delivered the 2003 Boyer Lectures for the ABC, looking at America’s dominance in the twentieth century and whether it was benign or imperial.
2. Tony Martin gives a master class in observational reportage with his piece about the reaction in a Melbourne blood bank to Carl Williams’ death.
3. Shane Dolan went to the Ethiopia twenty years ago not only to build wells, but to teach locals how to build wells for themselves. He arrived home in 1992, depressed and miserable, feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem in Ethiopia and the belief that he’d not made a difference.
But he recently went back to Ethiopia and had a wonderful surprise, as PM Presenter Mark Colvin writes.
4. Keep your eyes on the tiger dancing in the background and to the left of screen. What was going here? Was it a live resignation from the ballet company? (via @nadine_lee on twitter)
5. Tim Blair writes beautifully about his much loved aunt Jill and her mental illness.
6. The Washington Post on US Presidents who are readers and how that affects their policy decisions.
7. Is colour grading in films tending too much towards blue and orange? Take a look at this fascinating blog on the subject.
8. ABC1’s Artscape program recently had a fascinating profile of the Australian artist Ben Quilty, including his rather unexpected friendship with Germaine Greer. Quilty is unapologetically “blokey” and his friends are entertaining. His art is magnificent. The video of the entire program is still available on the website at the time of writing.
9. General David Petraeus insists he’s not running for US President in 2012 but the rumours persist. An excellent profile in Vanity Fair. Would you have guessed his childhood nickname was ‘Peaches’?
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