Look back to embrace the future with confidence

January 8, 2016

Many of us may be facing the year with trepidation, what with whatever is worrying us personally and with the world seemingly in more uproar every day. But we can take heart and face what lies ahead with more confidence, if we look back in time first.

When I contemplate the future, I like to draw on my previous years, feelings and experiences. As the 18th-century Irish philosopher and politician Edmund Burke says in Reflections on the Revolution in France: “People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.”

Indeed, that is the premise of 19th-century American author Edward Bellamy’s book Looking Backward, 2000-1887, which was written in 1888. Bellamy accurately predicted skyscrapers and debit cards, basing his ideas and philosophies on the speed of Victorian society’s industrial development and shifting attitudes to money and independence.

Notable artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Andy Warhol also predicted elements of the future, using their creativity as the spur. Think of how da Vinci predicted air travel, parachutes, the use of mechanical diggers and even tanks in warfare in his drawings.

Meanwhile Warhol anticipated much of our behaviour around social media, such as his fascination for recording his life through daily Polaroids (like using Instagram today).

But is it enough to rely on the lessons of history and philosophy to acquire wisdom – or could science show us the way too?

The answer may lie in futurology – the scientific study of the future. Its proponents believe that we can predict the great threats to mankind with increasing precision, enabling us to act sooner and with more wisdom.

In the past, eminent thinkers such as Thomas Malthus, who predicted human population growth and the corresponding famines that would occur, and Stanley Jevons, who predicted the end of the Age of Coal in Great Britain, have used science with some success, and also some failure.

But we, in the 21st century, have far more information on which to base our studies.

Take, for example, the work of Professor Stephen Hawking who built up the theory of Arrows of Time, which helps to explain the expansion of the universe itself. These Arrows, looking at time from our perspective, from a cosmological viewpoint and considering that the universe generally moves towards disorder, are the engine of futurology work. Our understanding of history, art, literature, customs and lifecycles can provide the fuel.

Futurologist Michael Lee, author of Knowing Our Future, says: “Physics shows us that the world is rushing towards us at high speed,” but we don’t need to be daunted by that. If we draw on the past, while daring to embrace the science which describes our universe, perhaps we will become better at predicting the future itself. Then we can embrace it with confidence.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation