Honolulu Advertiser Second Opinion column by Cliff Slater

Tuesday, December 4, 2000


















(1) Ehrlich, Paul R. The Population Bomb. Ballantine. 1968. p. 11. "We must have population control ... by compulsion if voluntary methods fail." p. 11.

(2)  The Cooling World. Newsweek. April 28, 1975.










(3)  David Hume, Of the Populousness of Ancient Nations in Essays: Moral, Political and Literary. Oxford University Press. 1963. p. 451. Originally published 1741-2.


Don’t try to predict the future

Truth be known, the only thing that we do know for sure about Hawaii’s future is that it is coming.

For example, the latest news is that the now grounded supersonic Concorde may never fly again. Who in Hawaii in 1969—the year we put astronauts on the moon and the Concorde first flew—would have thought that come the 21st Century we would have no supersonic airliners in service? Or, for that matter, we would still be puttering along at the same speeds as the Boeing 707 that was introduced in 1958.

In the 1968 movie, “Space Odyssey 2001” we imagined humans living in space in 2001 and at the mercy of HAL, a most intelligent, thinking computer. Well, 2001 is next year and we still cannot guarantee that a computer will beat a chess master—this for a board game that has only 64 squares on which to place just 32 pieces. So even when computers master chess, that is still a far cry from truly thinking.

Nor are humans even close to living in space. In fact, the only reason humans go into space at all is because that is the only way NASA can get their funding. They are not necessary for the work that is done; robotics does a far more cost-effective job.

To go back and study the forecasts made in the 1970’s is to astonish yourself. For example, the official U.S. government forecast for the 1994 price of oil was $170 a barrel—it actually turned out to be $20. And everyone believed we would soon after run out of oil. Yet today the world has greater proven oil reserves than it has ever had.

Unthinkable. Unpredictable. But that’s the future for you.

In those days, the doom and gloom merchants were even then forecasting disaster. The Club of Rome’s 1972 “Limits to Growth” discussed an imminent running out of resources and Stanford’s Paul Ehrlich, in his 1968 “Population Bomb,” warned “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970's and 1980's hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”(1)

And at the first Earth Day in 1970 the concern was about impending “Global Cooling” and the coming Ice Age.(2) Today, we are worrying about Global Warming. Of course, there is no consensus among climatologists that there is anything to Global Warming but, then again, back in the 1970s neither was there any scientific consensus about Global Cooling—but so what.

None of these scare tactics are about science, they are about political agendas for the ideologists and entertainment value for the media. As H. L. Mencken once put it, “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed—and hence clamorous to be led to safety—by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”

Now you might think that we learned a lesson from all these earlier forecasts; you would be wrong. The disaster merchants who wrote the “Limits to Growth” and the “Population Bomb” are still hard at it—and still continuously wrong.

As David Hume said over 200 years ago, “blaming the present, and admiring the past, is strongly rooted in human nature, and has an influence even on persons endued with the profoundest judgment and most extensive learning.”(3)

So how good are we at forecasting the future? I have just finished two 1993 books discussing the future. Neither one, including Peter Drucker’s “Post-Capitalist Society,” mentions the Internet. Think on it: Just seven years ago, people as knowledgeable and wise as Drucker could totally miss the impact of the Internet.

But then consider also the totally unexpected appearance of the personal computer in the late 1970s that also blind-sided everyone.

All of which is to demonstrate that planning for the distant future is futile. First, planners do not have enough knowledge to be able to predict the future but, worse, they are ignorant of their own ignorance.

The most we can do is prepare for many scenarios knowing that they will all most likely be wrong—and then be very nimble. And nimble is rarely an attribute associated with government. More, it is an attribute of the private sector.

Cliff Slater is a regular columnist whose footnoted columns are at www.lava.net/cslater.