Bushfires are commonplace in Australia and have been for many years. But they’ve recently reached new levels of intensity. They started early this year and became widespread long before the official ‘fire season’ was supposed to arrive. This time, however, the impacts and implications are no longer confined to the bush. Only last week, after long periods of darkened skies, dozens of smoke alarms in Sydney’s CBD were triggered. Dense smoke from multiple nearby fires set off the very devices intended to keep people safe. But, in this instance, office workers and others were turfed out of their air-conditioned high-rise buildings into far more dangerous levels of toxic smoke outside. Further afield farmers have been struggling with drought for several years. Many are desperate and close to giving up a way of life that had lasted for generations. At the same time, many smaller country towns have run, or are running, out of water. Some are fortunate enough to have supplies brought in via tankers, albeit at enormous cost. Others are simply being evacuated. The levels of suffering and dislocation from drought, fire and record-breaking temperatures are incalculable. Meanwhile the PM who thinks that the ‘firies’ (volunteer fire fighters) are doing just fine, takes his family overseas for a short, pre-Christmas, holiday. What is going on? Read more…
Have you ever felt that at some level you’re ‘out of sync’ with the mainstream? By that I mean you’re aware of the aridity of the political scene, the shrinking of the public sphere to entertainment, consumption and sport, the never-ending din from commercial interests and the way that the central issues facing humankind are constantly evaded and denied. If so then you may also have felt some degree of perplexity about why so many people and organisations, so much money and talent remain devoted to denying the reality of the global emergency, the huge question mark over humanity’s entire future. In that case, and should you feel the need for nourishment and inspiration, you may like to consider Richard Powers’ novel The Overstory. I’d read some positive reviews and yet when I first saw the 600+ page small print paperback I nearly walked away. Two weeks and 600 pages later I’m glad I didn’t. Read more…
I’ve recently been clearing out old files and discarding redundant material. Our recycling bin has seldom been so full of old paper. Yet I’ve also rediscovered valuable items that had fallen out of sight. They include letters from old colleagues and friends, short items I’d written for now-forgotten publications and the occasional gem of an article. Among the latter was a piece written by Ted Trainer in 2007. I’d never met him but was aware that he and I were distant colleagues working toward broadly similar ends. Like myself, he’d found what one interviewer called ‘a home of sorts’ in academia. One thing I believe we both understood was that underlying the deceptively smooth surface of everyday life was a chasm of uncertainty and hazard that was routinely ignored by most people, media and mainstream institutions. Continue reading…
Of all the ideas put forward by Karl Marx one that has always resonated with me is his view that people are ‘authors’ of their society yet have forgotten their authorship. In one sense this is unexceptional. Not everyone has the time, opportunity or breadth of mind to appreciate the social construction of reality, the uses of legitimation and the many ways that powerful interests favour themselves above others. On the other hand there’s something increasingly bizarre about the way that entire populations in the rich West have been sold a notion of ‘the good life’ based on a 20th century invention known as affluent consumerism. For if one thing has become clear it’s the undeniable fact that this way of life has been on a collision course with planetary systems for some time. As Sam Alexander puts it:
Capitalism wants or needs what it cannot have: that is, limitless growth on a finite planet. This ecological predicament is the defining contradiction of capitalism in the 21st century, insofar as growth is now causing the problems that growth was supposed to be solving (Alexander, 2018).
While browsing recently in a small bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland, I came across a Penguin paperback of Vance Packard’s book The Hidden Persuaders, first published in 1956. It’s perhaps 50 years since I first read it but it left a strong impression. It’s almost certainly one of the underlying reasons I’ve never accepted full-on commercial advertising as anything other than what Donella Meadows called ‘an unwanted tax on humanity’. (She also said that ‘you only have to spend millions on promoting something if its worth is in doubt.’)
Most people will recall having one of those brief moments from time to time when an unexpected insight suddenly appears and the world changes. It happened recently when I read an obituary for Joy Lofthouse who’d passed away in the UK at age 94. Back in 1943, when she was working as a 20-year-old bank cashier, she’d responded to an advertisement in the Aeroplane magazine. The Royal Air Force (RAF) was looking for women to train for the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). Despite fierce competition her application was successful and she went on to become one of 164 female pilots during the Second World War who undertook the vital task of ferrying military planes around the UK from one air base to another. Here’s a direct quote from the piece:
Many people seem to think that tackling the big issues of the IT revolution is a demanding occupation requiring considerable expertise. While there’s some truth in this view, it does not mean that individuals are helpless – far from it. Throughout history oppressive systems of any kind survived only because large numbers of people provided passive assent. In the case of the current Internet the vast majority may well continue to hand over their rights – and subject themselves to pervasive surveillance – in return for what they perceive as ‘free’ services for some time. The counter meme that ‘if something is free you are the product’ has yet to achieve broad acknowledgement, but this could change. It’s worth remembering that the use of ‘suboptimal’ Internet enabled services was never presented as a truly free choice in the first place. It came bundled with skilfully hidden costs and penalties some of which are only now becoming clear.
Here are two books that I’ve found helpful in understanding why the Internet has, in so many ways, become an instrument of oppression; a domain for what Zuboff calls ‘surveillance capitalism’ where, despite many positive uses, millions of people are disadvantaged and exploited. There follows a short article that draws on these and related sources to assess some emerging risks attending this and other aspects of the IT revolution.
Scanning the macro environment for signals of change can be a daunting experience. But when links that imply a particular pattern keep getting stronger, or more frequently expressed, you know that something is happening that may require closer attention. Over the last few years, for example, evidence that the digital revolution has been compromised has been turning up with increasing frequency. It’s not merely wandered off-course, so to speak, but been actively hijacked by a handful of companies. They are not using it for the betterment of humankind – they are using it in pursuit of historically unprecedented levels of wealth and power. A PDF of a longer version of my ‘Time to Disrupt to Disruptors’ piece is available here.
An item entitled Drift Towards Disaster in a recent issue of the Weekend Australian Review deserves wider attention (Allen, 2017). What makes it different from so many other treatments of ‘growth,’ ‘the environment’ and ‘human impacts’ is that it refers to an installation from the Fondation Cartier in Paris and currently at the Art Gallery of UNSW. An introductory video by Paul Virilio deals with recent population upheavals (said to be 36 million in 2008 alone). This is followed by ‘a curved diorama on which changing projections convey some idea of the reasons for these vast population displacements.’ Further sections cover environmental changes such as global warming and sea level rise. The whole installation brings together a vast amount of information in visual form and, in so doing, provides a way of coming to grips with, and powerful critique of, our collective addiction to endless growth and development.
In late November some 150 people turned up at the Kelvin Club in Melbourne for a private function to celebrate the success and mark the imminent closure of the MSF program at Swinburne University. The original program was set up in 1999 at the invitation of the then VC, Iain Wallace, as the Australian Foresight Institute (AFI). With Barry Jones as its patron and an experienced and capable board, it soon acquired a distinctive national and international profile. As is well known I was appointed as Foundation Professor of Foresight and ran the AFI until 2004. At that time a new VC was appointed who pursued a very different agenda which, for reasons best known to himself, included closing all the university’s institutes. The foresight program was then absorbed into the Business School. Peter Hayward took over the directorship and ran the re-named MSF for the next decade. The program will close in 2017 after 17 years.
2016 marks the 20th anniversary of the Knowledge Base of Futures Studies (KBFS). It first appeared as a special issue of Futures in March 1993. Besides the editorial it contained 7 original papers, 10 ‘divergent perspectives’ (from as many different countries) and no fewer than 5 bibliographies. The first book edition was a three-volume set presented in a sturdy slipcase. The first volume covered Foundations, the second Organisations, Practices and Products and the third Directions and Outlooks. It was officially launched at a World Future Society Conference (WFS) in Washington DC during July 1996. Hughes de Jouvenel, Wendell Bell and Hazel Henderson assisted with the launch. Two further hard copy editions followed. Then in 1999 and 2000 my son Rohan and I converted the original files into html documents and assembled the first CD-ROM. It was followed in 2005 by an expanded 5 volume professional edition that was subsequently adopted for university courses around the world. A succinct account of how and why the KBFS was developed, along with some of the feedback it received, can be found on the FI site here. Also see here under Futures Archive.