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Issue No. 77 (October 15, 2005) -- Mark Satin, Editor

What the U.S. needs now: Futuring!!!

. . . but not top-down planning

This century, our two biggest blunders by far have not been failures of generosity. They’ve been failures of planning.

It was common knowledge that the levees in New Orleans could not withstand the effects of a major hurricane. The Army Corps of Engineers had been issuing warnings for years. Even Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer, Radical Middle Newsletter’s “most visionary member of Congress” for 2003-04, sounded the alarm last January.

As for Iraq, the title of Warren Strobel and John Walcott’s much-discussed article in the Washington Post for October 18, 2004 says it all: “Post-War Planning Non-Existent.” As the article made clear, many pre-war intelligence reports warned that American troops could face significant resistance, and many generals were calling for a post-war plan. But it “never arrived.”

Paralysis in D.C.

Unfortunately (if not surprisingly), these failures have not inspired much reflection in our nation's capital. The old conceptions of planning still prevail.

The left is still calling for top-down planning (e.g., Senator Kennedy’s and William Greider’s recent calls for a “new T.V.A.” in the Gulf Region). Those calls have fallen on deaf ears, and for good reason -- few of us want the national government to play such a dominant role.

Meanwhile, the right’s traditional aversion to planning ensures that little creative thinking about planning is getting done at the key conservative think tanks, let alone in the federal bureaucracy.


In the Washington suburb of Bethesda, MD, though, sits the headquarters of World Future Society. It is a curious hybrid -- part think tank, part professional association, and part grassroots non-profit. Over the last 30 years, it’s grown from a gleam in the eye of its founder, Edward Cornish, into an organization of over 20,000 academics, activists, and consultants of every sort.

Cornish himself has served as an adviser to three U.S. presidents, and the Society’s directors, advisors, and conference regulars now include nearly all the significant “futures thinkers” of our time.

In other words, the group is perfectly positioned to articulate an approach to planning that can can take us beyond the unattractive command-and-control model of the left and the paralyzing libertarian dogmas of the right.

It would be an inclusive approach, you might guess (if you’ve participated in some of the Society’s conferences, as I have) -- an approach that would offer a menu of methodologies while tapping the views and galvanizing the imaginations of a great many citizens.

That approach has just been presented to us. It is the heart and soul of Edward Cornish’s first book in 28 years, Futuring: The Exploration of the Future.

The book is a virtual manifesto of the World Future Society. Not only was it painstakingly monitored by over 100 WFS members before publication, but it takes care to include the best thoughts of virtually every faction of the futurist community.

As a result, it may be the most significant hands-on political book since David Osborne and Ted Gaebler’s Reinventing Government (1992). If we want to figure out how to successfully assess and steer the phenomenally complex high-tech world we’ve created, no book may be better worth our while.

Five easy parts

The book is carefully put together, just as you’d expect from a book by futurist planners.

An introductory chapter says you can take two lessons from the lives of the great explorers: “Lack of preparation invites disaster,” and “Anticipate future needs.” Anyone who doesn’t think of Katrina and Iraq while reading this chapter is simply reading without thinking.

Fifteen chapters follow, which you can think of as consisting of five parts.

Part One (Chapters 2-3) focuses on the accelerating pace of change, what Cornish and many other futurists call “The Great Transformation.”  (This Part is typical of Cornish’s gentle, diplomatic style. Rather than castigating left and right for poor political decisions, he calls on both to cast their eyes upward and outward -- to rapid-fire changes that are unsettling us all.)

How to get a handle on these changes? Part Two (Chapters 3-4) argues that we live in “a world of interlaced systems, where everything is connected to everything else.”

Some patterns of change are “continuous,” others “discontinuous” (i.e., based on chance or chaos), but if you refuse to notice the patterns and interconnections, or refuse to take them seriously, you’ll get exactly what we have in American politics today, a culture of short-term and ad hoc thinking that cannot possibly serve to steer us constructively forward.

How to achieve this steering without falling into the trap of top-down command-and-control planning? Here we come to the heart of the book and the heart of the contemporary futurist project.  Part Three (Chapters 5-11) lays out 10 key “futuring methods,” 10 ways contemporary futurists working in governments, corporations, or other entities are increasingly able to anticipate, assess, and help policymakers (and publics!) make decisions about future events:

  1. polling
  2. gaming
  3. modeling
  4. visioning
  5. trend identification and monitoring
  6. trend analysis and projection
  7. scenarios for forecasting
  8. scenarios for “backcasting”
  9. brainstorming
  10. historical analysis

The book contains rich descriptions of all these methods, but the one most relevant to political planning is clearly scenario-building.  (It is already being used in a variety of corporations and nonprofits.)

Imagine a world in which politicians might have felt duty-bound to discuss with the American people the pros and cons of three different scenarios for the invasion of Iraq -- one with 100,000 troops, one with 300,000 troops, and one with 300,000 troops plus the advance cooperation of every major faction of the Iraqi opposition. What a richer and more responsible dialogue our democracy might have! (And what a happier world we might have!)

Here is how Cornish describes scenario-building for forecasting. It’s a good example of the systemic yet provocative nature of his writing style:

Scenarios [are] conjectures about what might happen in the future. . . .

A technique that can be applied to many situations is to create not one, but three alternative scenarios. The first assumes that current trends will continue without much change. This can be called the Surprise-Free or Continuation Scenario. A second scenario can be based on an assumption that things will get better in the future than in the past: Call it the Optimistic Scenario. A third scenario could envision things getting worse: Call it the Pessimistic Scenario.

Developing these two additional scenarios forces us to think about the future in terms of alternative possibilities rather than as a single pre-set future.

Scenarios as forecasts are exciting enough. But scenarios as “backcasts” could put all our important issues (immigration control, oil independence, etc.) permanently on the political front burner:

To backcast, we first postulate a future goal, event, or circumstance and then try to develop a sequence of steps or stages to explain how the imagined future goal or event came to pass. Backcasting can be used both to decide what is likely to happen in the future and to determine how to achieve one’s chosen goal.

A great example of scenario “backcasting” is in Robert Olson and David Rejeski’s new book, Environmentalism and the Technologies of Tomorrow. First they delineate two likely environmental scenarios, “Old Ways” and “Catch-Up,” both of them as depressing as they sound (and both of them a mix of traditional left- and right-wing thinking). Then they posit a “far better future -- a New World scenario,” and tell us how to get there.

So the experts propose scenarios, and the people decide among them, debating all the costs and benefits in the process. (Or various publics use the "visioning" method to design their own preferred scenarios, and the general public decides among them.)  Is that 21st century democracy or what?

Part Four of Cornish’s book (Chapters 12-14) is a history of futuring and a real page-turner, partly just because of all the beguiling half-forgotten historical figures. People like the Marquis de Condorcet, Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells emerge as colorful and genuine heroes, more relevant to the 21st century than Marx or Mao.

The French resistance (to Hitler’s invasion) and French existentialism brought futuring into the contemporary era. While political radicals were shutting down universities and rediscovering the “joys” of socialist planning, Europeans like Bertrand de Jouvenal and Robert Jungk and Americans like Hap Arnold and Ted Gordon were paving the way for an approach to futuring that was scenario-oriented and participatory.

Part Five of the book (Chapters 15-16) teases out some of the moral and philosophical implications of futuring. For example, most futurists believe we have an unbreakable moral duty to future generations.

A path less shaken

If I had to fault this book, it would be that it soft-pedals its political implications. There are no references to Iraq, none to the disaster of command-and-control planning. Instead you get the occasional gentle assertion -- e.g., “to choose our futures we need to understand the possibilities of the future.”

It isn’t until the second-to-last chapter that we are even told that the “primary goal of futuring -- the active exploration of future possibilities -- is to develop foresight . . . the ability to make decisions that are judged to be good not just in the present moment but in the long run.”

Dear Mr. Cornish, how much time do you think this nation has left? You must be working from a scenario very different from mine.


The World Future Society is at 7910 Woodmont Ave., Ste. 450, Bethesda, Md. 20814, 301-656-8274. Its excellent monthly magazine, The Futurist, is partially online.

Other major U.S. futurist organizations include Arlington Institute, Association of Professional Futurists, Global Business Network, Institute for Alternative Futures (where Robert Olson, above, is a senior fellow), and the Woodrow Wilson Center's Foresight and Governance Project (where David Rejeski, above, is director).


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