Four-Dimensional Futures Forecasting: New Axioms in Response to the National Intelligence Council’s 2020 Report

This report was delivered at a conference held at the US Army War College in Carlisle, PA, in October 2008. Taking the National Intelligence Council’s 2020 Report as its starting point, it critiques traditional methods of scenario building and forecasting and suggests ways of countering the often misleading assumptions that guide such efforts, however skilled the original forecast may be. This article offers six corrective principles for scenario building and, based on these “six Axioms”, constructs six scenarios for the global future are constructed which, despite the several years that have passed, are still relevant to today’s world.

Barton Kunstler, Ph.D.
October, 2008

The National Intelligence Council’s (NIC) 2020 report is a balanced, thorough, imaginative, and useful example of scenario-based futurist planning. No such document, however, can ever be comprehensive because no single project can encompass all the variables of the human condition. The book, so to speak, would have to be the event itself. Therefore, I propose to complement the NIC report by providing several perspectives absent from it and a more general corrective template for reducing the “blind spots” inherent in even the best forecasting exercises.
This paper defines six forecasting domains that can make the NIC 2020 forecasts more complete and thus more useful in obviating risks and cultivating desired outcomes, which is the primary objective of forecasting exercises. It is not the intent of this paper to argue with NIC’s specific forecasts regarding the future position of a given region or issue, but to suggest additional ways a forecast can capture the complexity of today’s environment.
Note: At the time of this paper’s presentation, the NIC 2025 report was released but the critique herein of the 2020 framework applies, with appropriate adjustment, to the 2025 report. The points made regarding forecasting and scenarios for the world’s regions are the key aspects of this paper and are unaffected by the 2025 scenario.
The NIC 2020 Framework
The NIC report presents four forecasts regarding the state of the world in 2020. Each forecast is illuminated by a “script” or scenario in the fictional words of an informed observer in 2020. The forecasts focus on eleven major world regions, although all eleven do not appear in every forecast. As a different situation is posited for the regions that appear in each forecast, each of the four resulting alignments generates the four forecasts and their accompanying scenarios. The eleven regions are: 1) the United States; 2) Western Europe; 3) China; 4) India; 5) Japan; 6) Central Asia; 7) “rising regionals” such as Brazil, Indonesia, South Korea, and South Africa; 8) Russia; 9) Latin America (including Brazil); 10) Sub-Saharan Africa; and 11) the Middle East (or more broadly, the Islamic world). North Africa, Canada, and Australia do not appear and one might assume they are viewed as adjuncts to Islam, the U.S., and Western Europe, respectively. Southeast Asia is barely noted except in one of the forecasts where it is presumably included in a brief contrast between northern and southern Asia.
The report’s most important, explicitly stated assumption is that globalization will continue to be the driver of the future, bringing with it a rapid and dramatic increase in the wealth of nations. China, India, and rising regionals will play expanded roles in 2020, while the United States and Western Europe remain the system’s wealthiest members, although with downscaled expectations and authority. Other regions fare better or worse but for the most part, do not have an impact on the configuration of the entire system. Thus, in the ”Rising Powers” forecast, Sub-Saharan Africa muddles along insignificantly, while in “Pervasive Insecurity” it might potentially benefit from foreign investment and trade; in none does it play the role of change agent, the assumption being that it hasn’t the “juice” to affect the momentum of global trends.
NIC 2020 does an excellent job considering the factors that can interfere with this baseline trend. The complexity of China and India’s economic outlooks, the ambiguity of Japan and Russia’s futures, the role of aging populations and AIDs, potential obstructions to globalization, and a host of other perspectives and issues enrich the report, which is by no means simplistic or one-dimensional. A report, however, should not only illuminate a landscape, but deepen the opacity of its shadowlands, in which unanticipated forces and trends already are taking shape.
Opacity and The Frame of Expectation
These areas of opacity represent domains of activity that can both complement the NIC forecasts and scenarios and, in some instances, significantly modify them. The need for this is not a function of any failing on the part of the NIC’s approach, but rather is intrinsic to consensus-based forecasts and the scenarios constructed to both support and guide them.
Many of the forecasts in the NIC report could have been provided by an expert within a few minutes of being asked to supply them. The thoroughness of the process serves to validate the insights, but most do not range beyond a “frame of expectation”, that is, the expected consensus view of the experts. Ironically, there is in this something akin to the “random walk” of probability theory in which the final destination of random movement within a specified time-frame can be calculated with a degree of certainty if one knows the starting point, a case of extrapolating from a very short-term trend. The consensus estimates in the NIC documents are similar to random walks undertaken after a push in the last direction in which a given region was observed to be headed. The highly detailed, data-driven trend based on “at-hand” information produces a result close to that of a random walk.
This is, of course, a simplification. It is also not intended as a dismissal of the NIC report. It is rather an acknowledgement of what happens with virtually every forecast and, to an even greater degree, to the scenarios so often attached to forecasts. The “frame of expectation” is almost certain to govern the forecasts because NIC—to use the case we are considering—is aiming for reasonable accuracy by addressing high probability outcomes. How can one object to that?
In reflecting the informed consensus, however, a forecast may not fully live up to its mandate. Does it:
• help us prepare for higher risk possibilities?
• tell us anything outside the “informed” view?
• uncover unexpected opportunities?
• take into account humanity’s subjective, qualitative, irrational character?
• apply self-critiquing procedures to the reports’ assumptions, conclusions, and methods?
The purpose of a forecast and scenario is to uncover risks and opportunities that the usual policy and planning meetings probably would miss, to point in directions that would otherwise be overlooked. Again ironically, the less likely forecasts, those with the highest risk of being wrong, promise the greatest return in terms of avoiding unforeseen disasters or identifying unsuspected opportunities. As in business, greater risk means greater chance of failure but also greater potential return. The understandable, even inevitable. drive to frame an incisive, compelling narrative leaves some of the greatest threats and dynamic opportunities in the shadows. Governed by the frame of expectation, the forecast offers a realistic view of the future but not necessarily the most informing one.
There’s Something About Scenarios
The role of scenarios is also problematic. Scenarios take the forecasts and put them on the line, so to speak. While forecasts present static canvasses depicting future conditions, scenarios provide the character-driven drama played out on the world stage. They illustrate the consequences and implications of the data and projections presented in the forecasts. Scenarios tend to be constructed less rigorously than forecasts, as their fictional quality might suggest, which undercuts their expected accuracy. It is difficult to predict actual events; it is one thing to forecast water shortages but quite another to predict who exactly will go to war over them.
Thus in one of the NIC 2020 scenarios Islam unites to resurrect the Caliphate. The value of such scenarios is not simply in covering one’s bets in case things take an unexpected turn; after all, there are endless variations on these themes and no set of scenarios could cover even a modest percentage of them. This particular scenario provides the most complete overview of the impact of a Caliphate on the various world regions, and goes farthest in depicting a global system under intense stress. But its greater value (and true of scenarios in general) lies in revealing unsuspected forces at work in the world today. Thus, in “The Caliphate” scenario, the NIC invites a deeper look into the political and religious dynamics of present-day Islam and asks, implicitly, Even if a new Caliphate does not arise—and it is unlikely that it will—what forces in the next 15 years could unify the Islamic world? What forces would obstruct that unity? What would be the consequences of even a partial movement in the direction of Islamic unity? The answers to those questions require deeper analysis of conditions than an extrapolation governed by recent trends. Thus if a forecast predicts widespread water shortages, a near-certainty, the scenario will describe possible actions that the shortages will engender: war between Turkey and Syria, civil unrest in southern China, etc., all of which is far more speculative. Forecasts are more likely to be accurate than scenarios because the former depict future conditions as functions of present-day trends. The scenario really is situated in the future and seeks to predict human reactions to the forecasted trends. Too often, the scenario is treated like frosting on the cake of the forecast rather than developed thoroughly, which undercuts its effectiveness as an analytic tool.
The NIC 2020 Meta-Narrative
Despite the number of regions addressed in the report, NIC 2020’s forecasts are defined by two countries, the United States and China. The latter’s rise as an economic and military power is the most significant change agent on the global scene. In this, it is closely shadowed by India and the rising regionals. The United States retains its premier role as a basically benevolent, pro-democracy, internationalist presence in world affairs. Like China, the U.S. also has its shadow, Western Europe. The United States and China represent, respectively, pervasive stability and upward mobility reinforced by their shadow regions. That dynamic defines the “meta-narrative” from which spring all four forecasts and scenarios.
There is a “wild card” region and that, as we might expect, is the Middle East, whose role from forecast to forecast is by far the most volatile. In “New Challenges to Governance/Caliphate”, dramatic unification of much of Islam propels the Middle East into the forefront of world events, largely as a force that challenges, but does not overturn, the U.S.-Chinese-Indian-European hegemony. Similarly, in “Pervasive Insecurity”, the rise in militant Islamic terrorism is one of the key factors (the other being crime) in making the world a more unpleasant place, although the report does not describe the precise implications for each of the eleven regions. The fates of the other five regions pretty much fit into the configuration anchored by the United States and China, with the greatest variations occurring from whatever disruptive surprises Islamic militants contrive.
If the forecasts can be schematized to this degree, clearly alternatives have been left out. If the alternatives are of remote likelihood or dependent upon a single wild-card event, then their exclusion is reasonable. If, however, the catalysts were simply deemed less likely to happen than the causes included in the forecast, and their exclusion buries significant risks or opportunities, then the forecasts do need to be complemented or adjusted. This is especially true if general tendencies in the forecasting process itself tend to favor certain types of scenarios. This paper adopts the view that the latter is indeed the case, as has been noted.
Humankind has been blind-sided by most of history’s earth-shaking events, that “blind side” happening to be the future. By May, 1940, most Europeans dismissed the idea of a German attack to the west, assuming that the “false war” would just peter out. Even in the early 1930s, most Germans never thought Hitler would come to power and even for a year or so after his appointment as Chancellor, many Germans could not imagine his administration surviving. The strength of Russian resistance in World War II, the Holocaust, the Soviet Union’s disintegration, the stock market crashes and burst bubbles—none were foreseen by most analysts. Add to this the limited information on which even the most informed observer or agent operates, and it becomes ever more certain that even the best forecasting efforts operate on, relatively speaking, fragmented input. Idiosyncratic individual perspectives tend to be smoothed into, and thus obscured by, the consensus view in such exercises, yet these often contain the most “brilliant” (in the sense of crystalline clarity and multi-faceted logic) insights. The interpretation of data and detail contributing to the final narratives are subject to the need to impose a coherent vision on the forecasts, and the implications of this information may well go unnoted.
The Six Axioms
NIC 2020 not only illuminates a landscape, but, as does any well-constructed forecast, exposes by heightened contrast those areas still in shadow and within whose cover powerful forces and trends take shape (whether purposefully or not). Those shadows define the shape of the forecasters’ own operating assumptions which all coherent narratives contain. If unexamined, they narrow or distort the forecast’s vision. To help correct for this effect, this paper proposes six Axioms, each of which opens up an analytic domain that can complement the NIC forecasts. Each Axiom is illustrated by a mini-scenario that demonstrates how a shift in perspective can generate conclusions very different from those of NIC 2020, and reveal possibilities excluded by the report’s governing assumptions.
The Six Axioms and their associated scenarios are:
Axiom Scenario
1. The Certainty Reversal: The Muscovy Retrenchment
2. The Qualitative Imperative: Acid Reflux
3. The Tolstoy Convention: The Big Cookie Crumbles
4. The Ideational Supremacy: Nano-Global Surfers
5. The Next Ultimatum: The End of Euro-America
6. The Universal Presumption: Scorpion King Unbound
Axiom 1—The Certainty Reversal: The Axiom holds that given a set of anticipated trends copmrised by a single forecast, at least one will turn out pretty much contrary to expectation, which then influences the anticipated curve of the other trends as well. This Axiom, however, is best applied only after a given forecast or scenario nears completion to assure that the outcomes reversed in the exercise are as substantive and “certain” as the forecasters’ resources and skills allow. At that point, the forecasters run “reversal” scenarios that fly in the face of their own logic. Human affairs simply are not governed by a reasonably limited number of variables. The Certainty Reversal provides a corrective to the limits of human intelligence. It does not, however, advocate an arbitrary, scatter-shot approach that injects unlikely or random events into a forecast. For instance, contact with extra-terrestrials may be worth its own planning exercise, but it is so unlikely that it does not have a place in a document dealing with the processes and systems of daily life. The elements that inform the Certainty Reversal are not wild cards, singular events that no one expects, party crashers, so to speak. Instead, Axiom 1 is guided by the same variables that produced the forecast, but it encourages forecasters to plan for contrarian potentials, one of which is certain to mainfests given the limitations of human precognition and planning.
Scenario 1—The Muscovy Retrenchment Scenario: As conditions worsen in Russia, and the ultra-nationalist, white supremacist movement expands, fueled by anger at immigrant workers, terrible living conditions, and resentment over Russia’s reduced position in the world, Russia’s leadership, out of desperation to ward off the fanatical right, adopts a more subtle posture towards its neighbors. The result is a trade partnership and loose alliance with former Soviet republics of Central Asia and the Ukraine, which strengthens Russia’s role as energy exporter and trade partner. The gangsterism that marked Russia’s version of instant capitalism is brought under some control; at least more Russians receive a living wage. A WPA style program sets millions to work cleaning up Russia’s severely polluted rivers and cities, and shoring up infrastructure. Russia is still far from democratic and its growing confidence leads the Kremlin to reassert its super-power status globally. Relations among Russia, China, and the U.S. grow ever more complex as China continues to flourish, and much of the volatility of global politics is due to the three-way Great Game waged by the three giants.
In the Middle East, terrorists damage refineries, peak oil is on the downslope, the Saudi royal family falls, and nations disintegrate. Amidst the shambles, the great powers, including the leading economies of Europe, decide to come to some accommodation over the remaining oil. A sub-Saharan West African confederacy under Nigerian leadership emerges and Nigerian oil, combined with the decline of the Middle East, raises the profile of Africa in world affairs. The Sub-Saharan standard of living in general improves dramatically, with especially close ties with Asia due to China’s already substantial military presence, and Sino-Indian investment.
The United States and European Union, both under strong internal economic pressure and concerned that they cannot sustain quality of life, merge currencies and the Eurodollar is born at a 1:1 ratio between the two currencies, the gap between dollar and Euro covered by substantial U.S. trade concessions. The currency merger is emblematic of a Western European identity crisis. While the United States economy rebounds, Europe finds that China, India, Latin America, and Russia are muscling the E.U. economies aside. Latin America booms economically as a global exporter with a rapidly expanding manufacturing base. India, guarded by the Himalayas and the Indian Ocean, tends its own garden with economic forays into East Africa, but is mainly content to keep Pakistan’s troubles from spilling through the Hindu Kush.
Implications of Axiom 1 for NIC 2020: The Muscovy Retrenchment reverses several trends of the NIC 2020 meta-narrative by positing: Russia’s powerful re-assertion of its place in the global system; Western Europe’s gradual but marked decline; the Middle East’s fatal instability; Africa’s moderate but important success; the merging of the Euro and the dollar; and China’s emergence into a world of three superpowers (rather than two). It is unimportant whether the scenario as a whole seems unlikely. It is useful because one of these major regions is going to move in a direction completely unanticipated by today’s forecasts, whether at NIC or elsewhere. Take away the assumption of Western European stability, African marginality, or Russian stagnation, and NIC’s meta-narrative takes off in completely new directions. A completed forecast is very much like an ideal efficient market: any narrative is the sum total of the participants’ opinions at the moment of completion. By 2020, however (or any future date), countless additional factors have entered the system. Forecasts do not illustrate the future. Rather, they reveal the present moment as a projection onto a future constructed as a function of our understanding of today’s forces, trends, resources, and motives. Events that take place after the forecast is done are determined far less securely to our understanding of the present moment – or the future – than we like to imagine. One can say that in the transmission of data from the present to some future moment, sufficient noise enters the channel to garble the message. The likelihood that an anticipated trend will be reversed is so high as to be almost certain. Therefore, the reversals incorporated into a forecast and scenario can be well-grounded in contrarian logic.
Axiom 2—The Qualitative Imperative: Both the 2015 and 2020 NIC reports focus on the destiny of nations and related areas such as economics, alliances and enmities, the environment, energy sources and policy, demographics, and important cultural determinants such as religion, women’s status, crime, etc. Megatrends affecting these factors will undoubtedly shape the world in the coming decades.
The Qualitative Imperative adopts a different perspective, a street level view of trends in art, style, communications, and pop culture that provide clues to the future that politically and economically driven scenarios ignore. These trends tend to be volatile and surprising by nature, and heavily influenced by generational attitudes. Upcoming generations either overthrow previous orders (revolution), develop them in a temperate way (evolution), submit to them (“volution”), or degenerate along with them (devolution). Such processes are immensely powerful and follow Kuhn’s theory of change by percolating for a time before sufficient pressure shifts the system, often without clear warning. Once a new system is secure, a new cycle begins although much of the older residual material stays in place. It is the ephemera—attitudes, fashion, ideas—that are most sensitive to change and that often forecast the big shifts, although they can be the most misinterpreted of signs as well.
Certainly today’s pervasive media inject trends into society more quickly and efficiently than ever before and through far more diverse channels; as a result, trends can prove highly ephemeral. We take this so for granted it is easy to forget that trends once moved more gradually, relying for momentum on the social processes of real communities rather than the electronic quicksilver of today’s media. Today’s is a “trend society” in which the behavior of trends is as important as any single trend’s content, largely because a hugely profitable “trend industry” manufactures and markets trends and then provides endless commentary as they flog them through their cycle. Promising trends are nurtured to maximize profit or are recycled after a few years as hot “retro” trends. This has established a social legacy system alternative to the traditional “organic” social legacy transmitted through parents and other elders, social customs, interactive norms, and culture and geography. The trend society is a universal calculator of human entropy and represents a truly global meta-cultural phenomenon. The regional framework of NIC’s meta-narrative does not take account of this truly global culture that is separate from regional cultures or cultures of belief. Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” has been too readily adopted as a framework for policy and one critique of it is based on the existence of a global Qualitative Imperative.
The following list of selected qualitative causes that led to the 1960s social revolutions in the United States illustrate how world-changing cultural trends can operate beneath the radar of more institutionally and quantitatively-oriented, forecasts. The list also underscores the power of qualitative trends and the difficulty of predicting their impact:
1. Moral authority and success of civil rights movement
2. John F. Kennedy’s election
3. JFK’s, MLK’s, and RFK’s assassinations
4. Rock and Roll
5. Arrival of Beatles
6. Distribution of LSD
7. Children of a progressive, anti-fascist generation
8. Reaction against McCarthyism
9. Strong sense of security during Eisenhower years
10. Insecurity engendered by the Bomb
11. Rising prosperity and optimism about social progress
12. Disposable income of young people
13. Post-war stylish Europeanism among Americans
14. The first TV-generation and TV-created childhood consumer class
15. Influence of California (pre-Sun Belt, post Northeast)
16. Strong public education in 1950s
17. High-profile social analyses by C. Wright Mills, Galbraith, Paul Goodman, Herbert Marcuse, etc.
18. Revival of discourse of protest: folk songs, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger
19. Vietnam War and associated moral questions
20. Birth control pill

Unlike science, logic, and math, human behavior does not follow the mandate of Occam’s Razor, the 14th century statement that the best explanation for a given effect is the one that admits of the most efficient solution, i.e. superfluous causes need not apply. The startling successes of science, technology, and mathematics in the past several centuries has led to an adoption of their methods as models for other disciplines. However, this does a disservice to attempts to understand the unfolding of human events. Whether the origins of a war or the reasons for selecting pancakes over waffles, events are subject to any number of causes and may well be over-determined, as the 20 proposed causes for the 1960s’ upheavals indicate. The 60s may have happened without six or seven or even half of these causes. Qualitative Imperatives do not follow the straight cut of William of Occam’s razor, but are instead messy and unpredictable.
Scenario 2—Acid Reflux: A set of unanticipated social and cultural developments similar to those we listed for the 1960s could in some combination have a powerful impact on the world of 2020 with results very different from what NIC 2020 anticipates.
1. A cure for AIDS, as did the birth control pill, triggers a world-wide health and sexual revolution that liberates the political and economic energies of women in the developing world.
2. The Chinese continue their romance with romance and much as the idea of love spread from Andalusia throughout western Europe in the 12th century, it makes inroads in the Muslim world, reinforcing the trend that began with the cure for AIDS.
3. Just as younger generations of Cubans in Florida do not automatically buy into the fervid anti-Castroism-at-any-cost of the 1959 generation, so too will younger Muslims react against the jingoism and stern demands of their fundamentalist elders.
4. In a related development, many Muslims tire of jihad and resentment politics, reinforcing a moderating trend.
5. The fantasy-land of Dubai influences young Arabs to consider new social and economic models.
6. Job opportunities expand for unemployed Muslim youths as infrastructure and economic investment increase in the Middle East.
7. One successful secular regime in the Middle East or Central Asia can kick-start a movement. If the Iranians cast off the ayatollahs in favor of a more democratic system, the global impact will be electric.
8. The global cyber-culture is emerging as a non-denominational, tolerant, expansive culture that not only transcends national and cultural boundaries, but diminishes their role in fomenting conflict.
9. Chinese youth create a powerful counter-culture whose high-tech, idealistic life-style has a global impact similar in influence to the 1960s’ hippie movement.
10. Tibet becomes a hip cause for young Chinese. The old Silk Road becomes a new backpacking drug and tourism route, while young Asian and European techies enchanted with Central Asia’s exoticism, beauty, opportunity, and political reform, turn it into the new hot location for high-tech centers.
11. China’s increasing influence in Africa not only raises Africa economically, but adds to the multi-cultural mentality of Chinese youth, which is truly revolutionary for Chinese history.
12. California and the west coast in general become the cultural vanguard once again for the U.S. and Western Europe, with nano-technology playing the role LSD once had half a century earlier. The result is a distinctive, hip lifestyle copied worldwide, that fuses with the Chinese movement, promoting strong cultural and economic bonds between the U.S. and China.
13. The spirit of change proves less political than in the 1960s and more entrepreneurial and consumer-driven.
14. Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia benefit from new technologies, raising the standard of living worldwide.
15. The Palestinian situation is resolved via a three-state solution, with a young people’s dual-citizen kibbutz-like buffer zone.
Implications of Axiom 2 for NIC 2020: Cultural trends world-wide tend to reinforce one another due to the instantaneous communication engendered by TV, online gaming, virtual worlds, YouTube, texting, instant messaging, blogs, chats, and the now almost stodgy e-mail. Unlike Axiom 1’s Certainty Reversal, Axiom 2 does not address the forecasters’ assertions, but rather mines a completely different vein of inputs that build on the power of “softer” cultural trends to shift world events.
In terms of scenario-building and forecasting, The Qualitative Imperative contains another implicit lesson: the scenario-building process itself influences the tone and themes of the product. An exercise designed strictly by military personnel will focus on what they know best and care about most; one designed by policy experts immersed in macro-economic trends and national interests will also have its biases. It is easy to overlook the powerful currents that flow beneath the surface of public events and to consign the vagaries of style and youth culture to a secondary place in world affairs. However, doing so ignores the forces that most keenly reflect desires and demands that will affect future economics and politics as surely as international trade and military alliances.
Acid Reflux foresees a rise in the importance of Central Asia, a loosening of the forces binding together the leviathan of the Chinese state, dramatic cultural liberalization in the Middle East and China, ascendancy of a global culture of tolerance and style, and a dramatic improvement of quality of life in the developing world, all alternatives to the NIC meta-narrative. As in NIC 2020, the relative stability of the U.S. and Western Europe is assumed, and Russia is not a major change agent. Acid Reflux demonstrates the galvanic global effects of new cultural trends, especially in an era where trends immediately become the subject of commentary and deconstruction in the world-wide media. The purpose of a scenario is not to be “right” per se, as that is unrealistic. It can direct attention to paths that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. For example, a cure for AIDs raises the broader issue of how major medical advances can change our view of the world in 2020. Point #10, somewhat romantic and whimsical, will likely not occur as it does in the scenario, but it could trigger planners’ consideration of pilot programs in previously unsuspected but receptive regions and recalls Mackinder’s 1904/1943 formulation that includes Central Asia as part of the globe’s strategic “heartland”. Viewed another way, Acid Reflux raises a critical question about the future: at what point in China, India, and among the rising regionals does economic growth and expansion encourage cultural change, and when does that change achieve a critical mass and produce completely unforeseen results? And what will those unforeseen results look like?
Axiom 3—The Tolstoy Convention: The great Russian writer and seer believed that history is shaped from the bottom on up. The NIC report employs the top-down variety: nations that prosper versus those that don’t, the impact of leadership, etc. In contrast, Tolstoy believed in the power of abiding cultural forces that take their impetus from the “folk”. Oswald Spengler’s differentiation between culture and civilization reflects this view, although Spengler was less sentimental than Tolstoy about the “lower” classes.
The Tolstoy Convention refers to one of the themes of War and Peace, namely, that the inner strength of the Russian people ultimately defeated Napoleon. More generally, it states that the land itself in tandem with the “folk” who inhabit it, is the most powerful governing force in determining historical events. Tolstoy depicts General Suvarov, commander of the Russian armies, as a man of the people whose genius is an extension of their soul, while the Czar is effective only insofar as he taps into the innate love of Russians for their land. The Russian winter that devastated Napoleon’s forces is also inseparable from the character of the Russian people. History moves from the bottom up because the “folk” are rooted in the land itself and thus represent the most massive, stable element in the hierarchy of civilization. Axiom 3 differs from the Qualitative Imperative because it is about the reassertion of traditional legacy content that people rely on to weather a crisis rather than a host of lighter, more ephemeral cultural trends.
Scenario 3—The Big Cookie Crumbles: Environmental degradation is the overwhelming crisis of our time. Humanity is finally realizing that poisoning and depleting land, water, and air; populating the Earth in a completely unplanned and runaway fashion; ignoring major public health crises; and eradicating key elements of the food chain, are not viable long-term survival strategies. Ecocide has profound political consequences and engaging this crisis will be the most powerful engine of change in the coming decades. The NIC report sees environmentalism as favoring the market economy, but the report does not close the second half of the loop, i.e., it is the growth of that very same market and consumer economy that damages the environment. And while we have the technology to generate environmental renewal, it is not being implemented nearly fast enough.
The Big Cookie starts crumbling with a Tolstoyan movement to restore the land. “Land and food reform” becomes a global rallying cry. With Latin America moving out of the U.S. orbit, land reform movements there that have been periodically squelched gain momentum, with pitched battles between feudal forces trying to control latifundia and ancestral communal land versus peasants and their supporters, who reject the disparities of extreme privilege. Farmers develop an approach to agriculture that combines local, environmentally friendly, centuries-old cultivation methods with technology, and they make significant inroads against agribusiness. In India, peasants rebel against the imposition of genetically modified seeds which currently requires them to annually purchase their modified seed stocks from corporate conglomerates. Meanwhile, Asia’s mega-cities reach the limits of growth and border on becoming unviable and unlivable. In response, people start reorganizing into neighborhood associations that take responsibility for a reliable supply of food and water. Chinese and Indian cities in particular suffer, with wide-spread rioting, starvation, and pandemics. The governments of both nations lose their hold on remote or rebellious districts, which devolve into semi-autonomous principalities ruled by ambitious warlords trafficking in drugs, humans, weapons, and pharmaceuticals.
The resulting vacuum spurs the United States and European Union into action, but their wobbly economies create unrest there as well, and they have to retreat from globalism as they struggle to maintain social cohesion. Countries with large farming populations adapt most successfully, avoiding many of the problems that beset the “big cookies” with their massive and vulnerable infrastructures. The universal primary social objective is to maintain food sources close at hand, and allegiance lies with whoever and whatever can guarantee a supply. Throughout the world, it is usually the “folk” who prevail, and those countries with a readily accessible folk-mythology are most successful at sustaining some state identity.
The NIC report acknowledges a modest displacement of the US and Western Europe in global affairs by 2020, but does not explore “tipping points”, i.e., those threshold moments when a society makes a quantum leap or fall into definitively new conditions, in this case of increased fragmentation. The Big Cookie Crumbles scenario foresees centrifugal movement because, as The Tolstoy Convention asserts, primary cultural strata are activated by crisis. As Thucydides describes the Athenian plague of 430 B.C.E. and the civil strife in Corcyra, civilization’s veneer is spread thin and tends to crack and peel and even burn when subject to severe stress, and the same may be said of national consciousness and consensus. A world in the throes of environmental crisis may well abandon civilization’s constructs and contracts for the basics of life, i.e., food and protection. The Russia of 1812 described by Tolstoy was more cohesive than the great nation-states of today. The return to basics, such a popular tag line for so many consumer products, may very well descend upon the world with a vengeance when environmental degradation calls the reliable supply of those basics into question.
Implications of Axiom 3 for NIC 2020: Those close to power tend to assume that policy and history revolve around the hub of the obvious power centers, such as the D.C. Beltway or Wall Street. Of course the great capitols and urban centers play central roles in determining social conditions and events, but they do attract more than their fair share of attention in forecasting exercises. As Tolstoy recognized, however, if the power center is the inner hub that turns the axle of state, the oxen pulling the wagon—or in less rural, Tolstoyan terms, the rumbling engine that determines speed, distance, and direction of change—is the mass of “folk”, the fundamental stratum that determines the character of any society. The Tolstoy Convention directs our attention to this oft-ignored critical mass. Many scenarios do refer to how “people” will live and their behavior in given circumstances, and most address demographics, but generally in these scenarios the “people” stands as one more element. like technology or trade. to be calculated into the forecast. Axiom 3, however, sees the people as the prime mover of events, a force to be calculated into any forecast.
The NIC report does not address the specter of major power decline on a scale indicated by The Tolstoy Convention, which places the crisis in the context of that most fundamental relationships that between humanity and the earth. And while hopefully The Big Cookie Crumbles will not come to pass, the scenario does encourage policy-makers to focus on the masses, the sleeping giant in any political calculation. Decision makers often assume that people will follow along in the direction indicated by more readily analyzable mega-trends such as those pertaining to politics, economics, technology, and demography. Tolstoyan upsurges in which the folk seize control of events do occur only sporadically, but when they do, they carry momentous impact. Continued degradation of the environment will release the momentous power of a displaced global populace willing to do anything to survive, and events of this scale naturally must acknowledge the power latent in our massive world population.
Axiom 4—The Ideational Supremacy: The currency of mind is Ideas—big ones, little ones, visual ones, auditory ones, logical ones and those fueled by emotion, those that tell us when a board needs a nail and those that produce visions of cosmic wholeness, delusions, illusions, and confusions, science and logic and art. All great events—wars, depressions, technological innovations, the rise and fall of leaders and empires, periods of great prosperity and depression—are ultimately driven by a matrix of powerful ideas, by some galvanic ideational force, even if that force is the suppression of ideas, as in Myanmar and North Korea, or the paranoia of a Stalin. Sometimes the ideas are explicit, as with communism, fascism, the market economy, the Declaration of Independence, etc., and may be expressed in manifestos and other proclamations. But most often they are articulated most fully by artists and thinkers, or given embodiment by scientists and inventors, while those we think of as decision-makers only draw upon selectively chosen shards of those ideas.
The theory of relativity, for instance, was presaged by Impressionist painters’ departure from realism for the shimmering, relative effects of light. Soon after, the early abstract painters, such as Kandinsky—whose trailblazing abstract works seem to depict sub-atomic particles slashing through a spatial vacuum—were not only inspired by the new physics, but anticipated its impact on human thought and perception. This synergy of science and art forecast the 20th century’s relativism in regard to values, standards, governance, rights, etc. that played out historiclly in a far more disordered, haphazard manner than in the work of early modernism’s artists and physicists.
Axiom 4, then, directs us to core ideas not, as in The Tolstoy Convention, in regard to primary cultural strata nor, as in the Qualitative Imperative, the realm of aesthetics and style, but in terms of the powerful Idea that arises seemingly out of nowhere and sweeps like wildfire across populations. T.E. Lawrence, writing of the countless prophets produced by the Levantine/Arabian desert, alludes to this process: “The common base of all the Semitic creeds, winners or losers, was the ever present idea (emphasis current author’s) of world-worthlessness” (Lawrence, p. 39). Hitler, in Mein Kampf, wrote “The power which has always started the greatest religious and political avalanches in history rolling has from time immemorial been the magic power of the spoken word, and that alone” (in Shirer, 131), and the persuasive word, of course, requires an idea, however debased it may be. Both The Communist Manifesto and The Declaration of Independence begin with a statement of a central idea. Such ideas tend to burst forth explosively in violation of models of idea dispersal that emphasize rational social processes. The novels of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin demonstrate how one individual’s words can unleash the potential of a momentous Idea.
Identifying such ideas is crucial to forecasting. Like water or fire, they move fluidly through the cracks of a civilization. Two possible Ideas that may erupt from between the cracks of the NIC meta-narrative:
Individualism: This refers to the distinction of one’s personal self and aspirations apart from community or national goals; it places great value on self-expression and human rights. China is already experiencing this as something of a trend. Within Islam’s (admittedly small) heavy metal and hip-hop cultures, new sex roles are already germinating (LeVine, pp. 45-48, 201, 256, 209; Neistat, 2008): “Some scholars, such as…Thaddeus Russel, argue that a personal, sexualized politics is ultimately as powerful a force for social change as the more overt politics of their [Islamic women’s] male counter-parts. As he [Russell] put it…’in the Middle East, Beyoncé is a freedom fighter.’” (LeVine, 48). LeVine draws a more general conclusion: “The mullahs celebrate violence, the metalheads critique it”, establishing “a ‘community of life’…against the community of death and martyrdom propagated by the Iranian government.” (185)
Conciliation: People simply grow sick of violence, as happened in Northern Ireland and the inner cities of the United States in the late 1990s. Violence will always be a tool of choice for governments and criminals, but the notion of conciliation may take hold as a reaction against the countless brushfire wars (whose body counts belie the term) and pathological violence of gangs, paramilitaries, terrorists, insurgents, and local police.
Scenario 4—The Nano-Global Surfers: Conciliation may well prove one such potent Idea. The global entrepreneur who espouses a modicum of social values becomes the epitome of cool, while the overtly nationalistic or terrorist-oriented hothead is considered at best passé, at worst a sociopath. A developing spirit of Conciliation between Palestinian and Israeli youths radiates throughout the Middle East and results in cooling tensions and disenchantment with violent solutions. European nations, caught up in the spirit of this newly energized Idea which seems to bring with it economic growth, implement citizen-based urban and rural Councils charged with local, non-criminal dispute resolution. This eventually extends to attempts at resolving tensions surrounding the growth of recent immigrant populations. In the United States, too, the new ethic is warmly embraced by the “Millennial Generation (Strauss and Howe, 1996), and more and more companies view their growth as an opportunity to partner with micro-businesses throughout the world as a way of resolving global inequities. A sophisticated knowledge economy spawns countless opportunities for positive social initiatives and jobs. India and China ride the wave of cutting edge technologies into a high-flying consumer culture with a middle class increasingly concerned about protecting what they have, i.e., not having it torn apart by violence or crashing down due to environmental catastrophe. On the one hand, this produces conciliatory governmental policies towards restive regional groups, but in China’s case, a more aggressive military and economic policy overseas, especially in Africa. Overall, though, at least temporarily, violence declines throughout the world. A spike in regional, national, and individual energies produces a significant “peace dividend” based on a successful transition to new industries such as alternative energy, nanotechnology, materials development, and the consumer products they inspire. In this fast, sleek culture, the “global surfer” who follows the deals becomes the archetype of innovator and leader. This scenario differs from Acid Reflux because it is focused on a concentrated idea that operates through institutional change as a political, economic, religious, or social movement rather than as a dispersed, lifestyle trend that is vanguard of a new cultural temper. Unlike the Tolstoy Convention, it does not isnpire a mass movement in response to a crisis, but rather is a product of higher-level abstract thought that speaks to people’s dissatisfaction with general social conditions.
Implications of Axiom 4 for NIC 2020: A new global culture is coalescing across national borders. It is based on the shared experience of young people whose world is defined by global perspectives, the pervasiveness of technology, and deep-seated anxieties about war, the environment, and their futures. Because this culture is so new and untried, it contains a vacuum highly receptive to the influx of new ideas which can “go viral” if they strike the right chord. Conciliation is a creative, constructive path but other ideas may prove destructive. Considering the impact of such ideas within a forecast, and creating models for engaging them, can be as critical a part of future planning as the political, economic, and social issues whose relevance is, at first glance, far more apparent.
Axiom 5: The Next Ultimatum: This Axiom embodies history’s overriding message: “You’re next.” Whether a given society or community’s head is literally next on history’s chopping block or not, the reminder, like the sword of Damocles, should ever be heeded by forecasters. There is, of course, a general human antipathy to this notion, which in turn distorts the best forecasting efforts because few forecasts depict the decline and fall of the forecast’s sponsors. It simply runs contrary to human nature; unconsciously, we may feel that if we’re no longer to be major players in the game, why bother with forecasts anyway. It is easier to imagine a singular catastrophe than to anticipate future irrelevance, superfluity, or humiliation.
Scenario 5: The End of Euro-America: Three major environmental disasters within six months—a Category 5 hurricane, the eruption of Mount Rainier, and a California earthquake—deal a combination of blows to the United States that sends the U.S. economy, still reeling from high energy costs, deficits, and a weak dollar, into a tailspin. Survivalist militias and urban gangs grow more powerful. Almost daily the news reports a new rampage, with armed groups seizing funds, weapons, goods, and even people. Then one busy Saturday, dozens of terrorist explosions wreak havoc on malls and hospitals across the United States, undermining faith in government and shattering citizen confidence. Banks fail and rioting ensues, while people seek protection from militias and gangs. The government declares martial law and prominent dissenting leftists are rounded up by the right-wing administration. Blackwater, DynCorp, and a host of start-ups in the “security” industry, ranks swollen by soldiers returned home from the recently ended Middle Eastern wars, take over responsibility for securing government and corporate assets, while several western states declare their sovereignty and reject the offer of federal troops.
As order dissipates, militias grow into full-scale private armies. The middle class, traumatized by a “Rome-is-burning” mentality, disintegrates morally and organizationally. Meanwhile, Western Europe’s environmental clock runs out as the methane clouds from melting Siberian permafrost circle the northern latitudes and poison the most prosperous nations on earth just as the Gulf Stream is pushed far enough south to produce severe, violent, and extended European winters. The U.S. and Europe no longer have viable economies. Canada is overwhelmed by floods of U.S. refugees. Fighting breaks out along the Mexican border in which the well-organized drug cartels and people-trafficking gangs contend like medieval feudal baronies, preying on what’s left of San Diego, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Tucson, and Phoenix. Juarez/El Paso becomes the new regional capital, a wild west town whose face-offs are conducted with missile launchers instead of Colt .45s. Volatile alliances between militias and leftists, Blackwater splinter groups and military reservists, and black urban gangs and Aryan brotherhood thugs, become commonplace along with a rise in anti-federal terrorism. Nuclear power plants, dams, and the rest of the infrastructure decay along with the American economy, and the ranks of the angry and dispossessed are swelled by the disintegration of the prison system and mass escapes.
China and Japan provide what little global order exists, and the western United States staggers along as an economic vassal of Asia; soon, its population labors as virtual wage slaves as China’s need for lebensraum comes to fruition from Seattle to San Diego. Latin America, no longer overshadowed by the ancient doctrine of America’s fifth president, becomes oriented westward to China, Japan, South Korea, and India, and eastward as purveyors of modified economic colonialism in Africa. Africa also benefits from Asian and Latin American investment. China invades Taiwan, Pakistan disintegrates as part of the Central Asian decline which benefits China, and Russia is by now a rotting ecocidal hulk whose cargo of natural resources alone keeps it afloat.
Implications of Axiom 5 for NIC 2020: Every forecasting exercise should correct for the natural human aversion to contemplating too unpleasant an outcome for oneself or one’s clients. “You’re next” is a difficult proposition to accept. Of course Vesuvius will not erupt with so many people living in its shadow, nor will a city as vital as Seattle be threatened by the primeval violence of Mount Rainier which, until recently, was thought to be a burnt out case. We can put off repairing the levees; New Orleans can never be inundated. The Biblical prophets who railed against Babylon are not the model of this type of thinking, which so many people discount as “apocalyptic” or “doomsday”; they are a dramatic sub-set of the awareness that no society is immune from natural forces whose power dwarfs anything we humans have at hand. If nothing else, this Scenario signals the need to prepare for real disaster relief, not just to succor the afflicted, but to establish a firm foundation for survival. The ongoing fumbling response to Katrina cannot be viewed simply as an organizational glitch that can be “fixed” the next time around, but as a stimulus to develop more coherent strategies. Recent reports that repair of the New Orleans levees are repeating the errors that led to the Katrina flooding (USA Today, 2008), or that FEMA gave away supplies intended for Katrina victims because none of the latter “asked for them” (Boudreau and Zamost, 2008), only bear out the need to use catastrophic scenarios for critical planning purposes (Fisher, 2006). Conversely, the effectiveness of the Hurricane Gustave evacuation demonstrates that things can be done right. While planning for the worst is inherently distasteful to politicians and bureaucrats, The Next Ultimatum points out the fragility of even the most elaborate human systems, and implicitly urges planners to shore up defenses against high-risk scenarios.
The best defense in these scenarios is a good offense. What steps taken along the Mexican-American border would provide the greatest stability for the region and reduce the odds that it will devolve into a wild west, gang-ridden, warlord-governed hinterland. Such an approach would generate a rational assessment of all types of terrorist attacks, measuring likelihood against potential damage. The military has scenarios for dealing with widespread social disorder, but they tend to focus on suppression rather than the social conditions that may trigger disorder. In fact, it is simply wrong to separate the idea of disorder from the events and conditions likely to spawn it because that overrides prevention and negates the important differences in intent among those participating in the disorder. All incidences of unrest are not created equal.
These are the issues that The Next Ultimatum calls to attention. The extreme nature of The End of Euro-America Scenario embraces a range of disasters. Such worst-case scenarios encourage prophylactic planning and remind us that “next time” we may not have the luxury of coping with one disaster at a time.
The End of Euro-America Scenario replaces the main driver of NIC 2020’s meta-narrative, the rise of China and India, with a destructive vision based on the convergence of several events each of which has some likelihood of happening. It is one thing to prepare for a future whose graph follows relatively gentle slopes, be they trending up or down. But it is crucial to prepare for futures in which the curve is discontinuous with a sudden drop off a steep cliff. The Next Ultimatum is not simply a melodramatic gloss on more realistic scenarios, it is a corrective to the complacency into which every successful community falls.
Axiom 6—The Universal Presumption: Most forecasts incorporate an unstated, almost universal presumption that “Our interventions are conducted on behalf of the Good”. In government, many talented and committed lower- and middle-level professionals dedicate themselves to achieving just and productive outcomes, but the most thorough, well-intended, and coherent strategy may be tossed aside once it enters the harsher environment of executive leadership, national policy, budgets, and international affairs. There, agendas are never as clear as they were from individual, departmental, or even divisional perspectives, and the high stakes, inherent cynicism, and hidden agendas of high-level players often run rough-shod over the plans of those whose tasks are defined by organizational directives.
The NIC 2020 report is a perfect example of this, even more so for its high quality. The report presumes that the United States plays a benign role in international affairs as the champion of free markets, democracy, and a steadily expanding global economy, wanting only a peaceful environment in which each region can optimize its economic and political potential. This is The Universal Presumption and it automatically rules out a host of possible futures. That US policy has often fallen short in this regard must be acknowledged, although the extent of that shortfall, for our purposes, can be left for others to thrash out. In any case, our country is afflicted with a double dose of The Universal Presumption because, aside from the normal tendency of nations to justify their own actions and policies, the very essence of the United States, its governing Idea, is its claim to the moral exceptionalism of its founding principles and thus in its behavior as a nation. In turn, this makes us seem doubly at fault when our policies are not reasonably equitable.
As a forecasting exercise, a scenario in which one’s own country or sponsor assumes the villain’s role is invaluable. Acknowledging hidden and forbidden intentions leads to more realistic scenarios, encourages consideration of options that might otherwise remain unexplored, and brings a mature consideration of ethical matters into the discussion.
Scenario 6—The Scorpion King Unbound: The United States is the chief change agent in the world. Pursuing a strategy of encircling China as it once did the USSR, it builds up bases in Central Asia and Iraq, subjecting local populations through military might and bribery. It provokes a war with Venezuela using Columbia as a proxy and engineers assassinations to remove prominent Latin American opponents of a renewed Monroe doctrine. It turns the Mexican side of the border into a devastated barbed-wire landscape complete with minefields and violent clashes. Occasionally the United States hires drug cartels to get rid of uncooperative politicians or generate funding for covert operations. It also backs uprisings that destabilize regimes that stand in the way of corporate profits.
Our closest ties are with Russia, England, Israel, and Taiwan. Our biggest concern, which inspires Cold War levels of hysteria, is China, where tensions over Taiwan threaten war. Japan’s balancing act is hindered by its dependence on foreign trade for oil and food, which China has the greatest ability to disrupt. Americans are divided into two camps: one more bellicose than ever and the other distraught at their country’s military expenditures, foreign policy, and lack of economic policy. Flag waving and an ever more aggressive religiosity seem to have finally savaged the old republican (small “r”) values, and security fears have pretty much trampled all but the structural shell of the Constitution. The Presidential election is stolen in favor of a demagogic governor who runs with the backing of the extreme religious right. American public discourse and culture are virtually dead except for islands of civil life in a sea of ignorance, fear, and non-stop coverage of celebrities. The world is on edge. Europe hates us but doesn’t know where to turn. The Euro is worth $2.20 now and the American working and middle classes, much less the poor, are sinking into economic torpor, if not stupor. Yet politicians and the mainstream media never cease reminding us that we are the most powerful country on Earth and the greatest, most benevolent global force for peace and prosperity.
Implications of Axiom 6 for NIC 2020: Some might consider The Scorpion King a description of the spirit of U.S. foreign policy over the past 60 years, which demonstrates the utility of The Universal Presumption. The largely benevolent role for the U.S. foreseen by the NIC scenarios may be realistic, but there is no guarantee that a particular administration will pursue such a course. Without Axiom 6’s perspective, we teeter on the edge of self-delusion. The scenario itself need not be wholly realistic, but it must reflect some measure of Realpolitik. A scenario depicting the sponsor’s unbridled pursuit of power provides a framework for assessing the self-aggrandizing policies that every organization is bound to adopt to one degree or another. Thus, for instance, while many accept that the United States government’s violation of its own espoused principles has damaged its national interest over the past decades, it can be difficult for a mainstream policy group to publicly express how that tendency is likely to play out in the future, as the NIC report demonstrates. The Universal Presumption is virtually universal, that is, virtually every individual and group over-credits its own intentions. Few of us are bullies, cowards, or double-dealers in our own projections of ourselves. And while it may seem political suicide or shameless to conduct planning from an overtly cynical perspective, it is done all the time, just not for public consumption. The NIC 2020 report would be more effective if it incorporated an American role in the world that does not live up to the benign character of its forecasts.
The Scorpion King Unbound depicts an aggressive United States as the main engine of global change in contrast to the NIC 2020 meta-narrative, although the former does preserve NIC’s view of an ascendant China. In fact, the driving question behind The Scorpion King can be seen as: “What happens if China ascends, as in NIC 2020, but the United States, instead of modulating its global position, acts aggressively to increase its global power?” Add to this an extension of recent trends, in which the U.S. economy weakens and squeezes the majority of the population, and the scenario poses challenges that NIC 2020 does not acknowledge. In the general case pertaining to forecasting, Axiom 6 encourages consideration of the often unutterable realities of public policy.
Conclusion: Every narrative leaves something out because coherence and meaning depend on selecting what to include and leave out. This paper adopts the position that the Six Axioms complement the NIC 2020 report. But how does one incorporate these elements into the NIC document without simply proliferating forecasts, or without doing violence to the elegance of the report’s four forecasts? Synthesizing forecasts into a new forecast is fruitless because it dulls the sharper edges of the originals and leads to an interminable sequence of successive syntheses.
The dilemma may be considered a matter of form. Perhaps the habits of forecast and scenario construction need to be updated to address the level of complexity the future has in store for us. NIC 2020’s structure is basically linear: it consists of introductory material that then breaks into four separate branches, i.e., the forecasts. This is fine for a world dominated by a few great players operating according to time-honored protocols, i.e., the world von Clausewitz analyzed, but speed, volatility, increased mass (more people, wealth, etc.), weaponry’s exponential levels of destructive power, and highly complex systems mean that the old maps and their “projections” are no longer adequate. They tend to simplify the implications of information.
One alternative might employ the following features:
1. Sub-forecasts, based on the Six Axioms or their ilk, that correct for the inevitable exclusions and inconsistencies built into the methodology. These function as gateways into domains that forecasters cannot afford to ignore. The goal is not to generate more and more forecasts, but to provide deeper analysis by illuminating the aforementioned forecasting “shadowlands”.
2. More consistency throughout the scenarios. For example, if the report addresses eleven major regions, the anticipated position of each region in the global system should be addressed in each scenario, i.e., how will the terrorist scenario at the end of “Pervasive Insecurity” affect Russia, Japan, etc? The forecasts often provide this type of apple-to-apple comparison, but more detail and thorough vetting of each player’s anticipated role would make the scenarios more useful.
3. More in-depth analysis of the scenarios in order to fully exploit the insights and ideas that went into devising them.
4. More detailed justification of the factors that cause forecasts to branch off from the initial conditions or meta-narrative. Given that they are based on the available data, why do the forecasts diverge in the way they do? It is not enough to say, “If X happens, on the other hand, China’s economy will stall.” Alternatives always exist; any assertion automatically implies the existence of its negative. The justification for each forecast should be presented at a level that uncovers the situation’s fundamental change factors.
5. Commentary on the relationship among the forecasts. If each one is sufficiently plausible to be included in the report, then how does each inform the other? Are they totally unrelated? Can two or more forecasts co-exist, and if so, to what extent?
6. Inclusion of the “smoothed spikes” submerged by the consensus forecast. Some can be described in sub-scenarios as long as compelling methodology and insight merit their inclusion. These often identify the greatest dangers and thus, while being most at risk for being wrong, provide the greatest potential return by protecting against damaging unforeseen events.
7. Interactive digital displays that stimulate analysis rather than simply present it. The format and structure of a report can affect how it is used and the level of the work it inspires. Desktop mapping software can demonstrate the dynamic relationship among forecasts, sub-forecasts, scenarios, and the informing data and theory that shaped them. A report, however well written and supported, is static, which is fine for most texts but runs contrary to the aims of a futures forecast. Whatever updates may be going on behind the scenes, i.e., by a group that continues to work on the issues, etc.— such reports are often only referenced as needed and are soon perceived as dated. If instead of a “report” the material is presented as a dynamic heuristic system in continual flux, it may maximize its exposure and application. Trends can be updated in real time and an open-source network provide a steady stream of commentary and data. Dynamic data management promotes continual improvement of methodology; for example, regression analysis based on a longitudinal record of all data points could be particularly informing about how forecasts are developed and used. The updates themselves provide material for substantial revision as needed.
Ultimately, the practice of forecasting, especially in regard to what appears to be an ever more dangerous and uncertain global future, can only become more vital to our well-being as inhabitants of Earth, citizens of a nation, and individuals with families and communities to nourish and protect. Our forecasts and scenarios need to reflect increased complexity and unpredictability. This paper’s suggestions represent one step in establishing a forecasting methodology that does not simply anticipate the future, but in its multi-faceted, multi-dimensional approach, belongs to it.

References
1. Boudreau, Abbie, and Zamost, Scott, “FEMA gives away $85 million of supplies for Katrina victims, CNN, 6/12/08” ; current as of 9/12/08.
2. Fisher, William, “Rearranging the Deck Chairs?”, truthout, 5/1/06 ; current as of 9/12/08.
3. Lawrence, T.E., Seven Pillars of Wisdom. NY: Dell Publishing, 1969 (1926).
4. LeVine, Mark, Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam. NY: Three Rivers Press, 2008.
5. Neistat, Aimee, “Jewish Arab musicians challenge the system”, in Israel 21c: A Focus Beyond, 4/6/08; current as of 9/12/08.
6. Sandberg, Britta, “Turning their Backs on Jihad”, in Der Spiegel, 7/14/08; current as of 9/12/08.
7. Shirer, William, The Nightmare Years: 1930-1940. NY: Bantam Books, 1984.
8. Strauss, William, and Howe, Neil, The Fourth Turning. NY: Broadway Books, 1996.
9. USA Today, “Leaky New Orleans levee alarms experts”, USA Today, 5/22/08; current as of 9/12/08.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.