Image credit: Carmen Lee
Futurist and Big History Institute Academic Member Dr Joseph Voros considers the past, the present and the future in a Q&A with Project Coordinator Kathryn Ford.
How did you become a futurist and can you describe the work you do?
I clearly remember the moment I decided to become a futurist. I had been laid off along with hundreds of others by the once-world-famous Silicon Valley company Netscape Communications during their major downsizing in January 1998, and received outplacement consulting as part of the severance package. The consultant asked me what I was interested in enough to want to leap out of bed in the morning, to which I immediately said "the future! That's it! I want to be a futurist".
Having been interested in thinking about the future since my youth, the consultant suggested that the audacious idea of trying to make a living doing it might actually be possible, with some effort. After quite a bit of work (and quite a lot of luck) making contacts and keeping my eye on the goal, I eventually ended up running my own small consulting company, and subsequently landed at Swinburne in 2000-initially as a foresight consultant on a small project, then as a strategic foresight analyst working in the strategic planning unit of the Chancellery, and ultimately becoming an academic futurist teaching in the Master of Strategic Foresight at the then Australian Foresight Institute.
These days I teach in both postgraduate and undergraduate Foresight courses, and this year (after many years of planning) I managed to introduce Big History to Swinburne, the first university in Victoria to have it (as far as I know). We teach students to think about the future in a systematic and disciplined way, treating different scenarios of and ideas about the future as hypotheses to be tested, and looking for evidence of these possible futures in the present. This is called 'futures scanning', and it is an uncontrollable compulsion among practising futurists.
How can we use Big History as a framework to consider the future of our world and humankind?
As part of my research over the years, I developed a framework model for doing foresight work. One aspect of this is a way to try to look more 'deeply' beneath the 'surface' trends that seem to be what many people think are the main game of the multi-discipline of Futures Studies. Good foresight work is based, in part, on a clear understanding of the dynamics of change that have led to the present situation. There are many layers to the model, but the deepest layer involves large-scale long-term historical change, on multiple possible scales and time-frames.
If we apply the Big History frame as the basis for our thinking about the future, we get a very different perspective than if we apply smaller frames, such as an industry sector, or a nation-state. Big History provides the ideal planetary-scale frame for thinking about the future-namely, the Earth as a whole system-while the related 'sibling' fields of Astrobiology, SETI, and Cosmic Evolution move beyond even the scale of the Earth as a focus for thinking, although they do share much in common with Big History, so there is considerable cross-fertilisation possible between all of them. Many themes emerge from each of these fields, and we can improve our thinking about the future through the careful and systematic examination of them. Two of the more important of these themes are: the range of conditions necessary for life to emerge and prosper; and the longevity of (intelligent) civilisations. Both of these are of quite direct practical benefit to thinking about the future of the Earth and humankind at this moment in our collective history.
What is the greatest lesson you think we can learn from Big History?
That "this, too, shall pass". Big History, through its macro-zoom-lens view of time, forces us to consider the temporary nature of all things; although 'temporary' can be a somewhat relative term sometimes. Nonetheless, even the Sun itself will eventually die (taking the Earth with it), so Big History helps us to notice and think about the sometimes fairly limited range of boundary conditions under which things can continue to exist. This realisation that nothing-but nothing-lasts, can be a useful antidote to some of the delusional thinking that permeates modern societies, such as some ideas about economics, or industrial processes. When we look to the confident beliefs in their own longevity of long-departed civilisations, we are reminded to be humble about the use of our powers and to pay attention to the conditions which allow us to exist at all here at this moment in time.
As David Attenborough has noted: "anyone who believes in unlimited growth on a finite planet is either delusional, or an economist". That's why the idea of an economics for the Anthropocene is such an important one-how do we ensure an equitable distribution of the necessities for living well without it leading to counter-productive and unjust concentrations of wealth or over-exploitation of resources, including natural and human. History is replete with examples of civilisations that undermined their own viability through ecological over-reach or social inequality. If we heed the lessons of their examples, then perhaps their suffering might not have been in vain.
What do you think is the greatest challenge we face today?
We are in danger of undermining the very conditions which have allowed us to flourish these last 10 millennia or so. Like the sight-gag found in some cartoons, we are sawing through the very branch of the tree upon which we are sitting. Instead of realising this and stopping, as sanity would suggest, we seem determined as a species to saw ever more quickly, and anyone who suggests that this might not be wise may be ridiculed or vilified by others who, essentially, claim that by the time the saw cuts right through we will have found a way to circumvent the law of gravity. This delusional 'magical' thinking-that if we don't like the answers that science reveals about reality, then we can just choose to ignore them or wish them away somehow-is alarming in its pervasiveness in modern global decision-making.
Our organisational and national policies assume an infinite capacity to extract resources from the Earth with scant if any regard for the consequences of doing so. Human history seen from the scale of Big History tells us what we might reasonably expect to follow from this astonishingly short-sighted attitude. It may have served us well back in the Palaeolithic, but it does not serve us well here in the Anthropocene, so we need to grow up as a species, and treat the future as though we are serious about it.
What is your biggest concern for the future?
The primary immediate dangers I see for human civilisation (barring the obvious, like nuclear war or asteroid/comet impact, and so on) are two-fold, but closely related. One, we are approaching a time-at least on a Big History timeframe or perspective-when easy access to the cheap, abundant fossil-fuel energy that has built our modern civilisation is becoming something we can no longer take as utterly for granted as we have done so up to now. The second is that we cannot even utilise the existing known reserves of fossil fuels without effectively cooking ourselves in the process. The metaphor of the boiled frog is apposite here. Thus, energy-the life-blood of the Big History narrative-not surprisingly emerges as the key concern for the future of human civilisation, as we contemplate the possible contours of the future, including the likely profile of any putative 'Threshold 9'. Too little, and the story of rising complexity might well go into reverse, while too much might also do the same. You cannot escape the laws of physics, despite what Star Trek might suggest. But perhaps it is the magical thinking that surrounds the energy question that is the most concerning. Delusion-whether it be excessive optimism or pessimism-is not the best way to confront reality. We near a clear-eyed and unflinching view of what may lie ahead.
And on the flip side of that, what possibility excites you the most when you consider the future of the Earth and us?
That our remarkable capacity for collective learning might be harnessed into our doing the necessary collective un-learning of some of the habits of mind we have acquired recently-habits that have served us fairly well for a time, but which may well now be counter-productive to the continued existence of our world as we know it, and possibly even our species itself.
If we do manage to grow out of what Carl Sagan famously called our 'technological adolescence' and on into an initial maturity as a planetary civilisation, then perhaps we may imagine and enact an even larger future-of possibly galactic or even cosmic significance. Perhaps we might become not just a planetary civilisation but a galactic one, bringing consciousness and awareness to the rest of the Galaxy; or perhaps we might meet up with other intelligent civilisations similarly involved in-or, more likely, long past-their own maturation as a post-planetary species.
What wonders lie yet undiscovered in this and other galaxies? What fellowships might we forge with other intelligences and civilisations? What manner of expanded collective learning might become possible once we cease to find ourselves alone in the great cosmic dark and become part of a galaxy-scale community of intelligent beings exploring the secrets of the Universe together? Who might we meet, and what might we learn in the futures that yet may come? And that thought is still one that helps me, albeit a little more slowly, to leap out of bed in the morning.
Read a biographical sketch here.