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Blog: Humanist Voices

futureday"A community or society without a clear image of what it wants to get is hardly likely to end up wanting what it does get."[1]

Your future is being designed for you. Is it the future you want? Numerous social, technological, economic, environmental, political, and values trends continually push us into the future. Tipping points are crossed, new equilibriums are reached and familiar stabilities are broken. The ground seems to shift beneath us, often catching us unprepared. Past decisions create constraints, yet our tendency is to think we walk paths of our own choosing. Past developments also open new possibilities, but we're so often clinging to and reifying the familiar that we fail to see the freedom of movement that surrounds us. All of these forces and factors, trends and potentials beg for a perspective, a method or tools to reduce uncertainty and complexity. What can we use to decrease the tragic frequency of humanity blundering yet again into problems it could have anticipated and dealt with more intelligently? One such perspective and set of tools can be found in futures studies.

Futures studies, futuring, forecasting, foresight, and futures thinking are all terms that point to the same field of inquiry. What is futures studies and what does it matter?

Wendell Bell, a prominent futurist, writes,

"The most general purpose of futures studies is to maintain or improve the freedom and welfare of humankind, and some futurists would add the welfare of all living beings, plants, and the Earth's biosphere for their own sakes even beyond what is required for human well-being."

"The purposes of futures studies are to discover or invent, examine and evaluate, and propose possible, probable and preferable futures."[2]

Bell notes the aims of futures studies:

1. The Study of Possible Futures
2. The Study of Probably Futures
3. The Study of Images of the Future
4. The Study of the Knowledge Foundations of Futures Studies
5. The Study of the Ethical Foundations of Futures Studies
6. Interpreting the Past and Orienting the Present
7. Increasing Democratic Participation in Imaging the Designing the Future
8. Communicating the Advocating a Particular Image of the Future[3]

So, what's the point of futures studies for humanism? That depends on one's conception of humanism. If one's idea of humanism is a basket of ideas mostly limited to religious criticism, church/state separation, atheism/agnosticism, science advocacy and scientific ways of knowing, and a particular discourse of reason and skepticism, then futures studies may or may not hold great relevance.

This conception of humanism, a largely reactive and deconstructive posture, has great value and significance. But humanism has traditionally developed little capacity, curiosity about or interest in a mode of inquiry and practice that is more action-oriented, constructive, creative, design-oriented and future-oriented. A humanism in the mode of mass social change for human and environmental well-being, a humanism focused upon the progressive evolution of society, calls upon different values, different capacities and skills, and new types of social inquiry. This form of humanism, simply put, is one that believes the future is a choice we make, not something that largely happens to us. This form of humanism would greatly benefit, in my view, from greater foresight literacy.

Futures studies can help inform and guide such a humanism in multiple ways.

Humanist education could benefit from the futures perspective. Humanist and secular parents and educators might find worthwhile ideas and tools in the following resources (in no particular order): 

Evolution of education: From weak signals to imaginaries of educational futures, by Jennifer Gidley, Futures (44) (2012) 46-54
Futures of Education for Rapid Global-Societal Change, Jennifer Gidley
Creating the School You Want: Learning @ Tomorrow's Edge, Ed. by Arthur Shostak, 2010
Advancing Futures: Futures Studies in Higher Education, James Dator, 2002
Anticipate the World You Want: Learning for Alternative Futures, Marsha Lynne Rhea, 2005
In Search of the Next Enlightenment?: The Challenge for Education in Uncertain Times, Maureen O'Hara, Journal of Transformative Education 2006 4: 105-117

Humanist organizational leaders may benefit from familiarity with futures studies in myriad ways: By expanding knowledge of social and world systems; through the use of various research methodologies; by acquiring new ideas and frameworks of understanding; and through developing greater decision-making competence. The following resources may be of benefit: 

A list of journals, academic and otherwise, can be found here.  

Wendell Bell's 2 volume Foundations of Futures Studies is an invaluable guide. 

The 2012 State of the Future project is impressive in scope and offers invaluable insight into global issues. 

An excellent history of the field can be found here

Two Future Day events stand out. First is the Transhuman Visions 2.0 conference. Another is a 24-hour global conversation about the world's "potential futures, challenges, and opportunities," starting at 12:00 in whatever time zone you are in. 

A full list of Future Day events can be found here.

Quo Vadis? 

[1] Textor, R.B., Bhansoon, L. and Sidthinat, P. (1984). Alternative sociocultural futures for Thailand: A pilot inquiry among academics. Chiang Mai, Thailand: Faculty of the Social Sciences, Chiang Mai University
[2] Bell, Wendell. (1997). Foundations of Futures Studies: Human Science for a New Era, Vol 1. History, Purposes, and Knowledge. Transaction Publishers. New Brunswick, NJ. p. 73
[3] Ibid, p. 111

-Eric Snyder

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