Trying to see a positive future amidst present worries.

by Jennifer Fitzgerald

While the future was once the place of dreams and possibilities, it has been increasingly colonized as a place of realities and probabilities, of predictions rather than dreams. Just as the Western, linear mind has sought to colonize geographically, so too has it colonized time and the future is more and more being claimed by those who control the present. We are conceiving of the future according to our view of the present, which is rooted in a mechanistic concept of progress as material/scientific/technological progress.

Within this 'techno-futures' vision of the future, there is little scope for a more multi-dimensional future which sees progress in terms of weaving a social fabric and improving the quality of our social relationships. And it is often surprising how intensive the resistance is when we try to broaden the debate beyond narrow confines of technological progress. Those who want to broaden the debate are contesting the accepted ‘wisdom’ of materialism and colonization, in which 'the future' has been enlisted to convince us that materialism is progressive because it is linked with technology. To construct ethical futures is the domain of Luddites.

The challenge within an ethical discourse of the future is to create visions for the future which incorporate not only technologically good futures, but demonstrate technological development within a good society. Indian philosopher, P.R. Sarkar, was a firm proponent of scientific advancement, but he argued that science should never be given a higher place in society than civilization. For Sarkar, the civilized society is not the technologically civilized society. Civilization is rooted in the sense of the development of discriminative judgment - a qualitative, rather than quantitative, measure of successful society.

John Ralston Saul sees civilization in a similar way, though with different terminology; he refers to western society as an unconscious, as opposed to a conscious, civilization. He argues that although we have become a knowledgeable society, we have not become a conscious society. Rather, he sees that we have become, worse than an immoral society, an amoral society. So, while the western world might proclaim itself 'civilized' and thereby monopolized the meaning of the word, Sarkar and Ralston would redefine the notion of civilization.

Our future has become constrained by our amorality, by our lack of capacity for discriminative judgment. We have become victims of what ethicist Thomas Murray terms "unilateral moral disarmament". We live in a society in which those things which are actually the essence of a civilized society have been denigrated to the status of liability. As Saul writes, " . . . [G]rowth as we currently understand it, classifies education as a cost, thus a liability. A golf ball, on the other hand, is an asset and the sale of it a measurable factor of growth. A face lift is an element of economic activity while a heart bypass is a liability which the economy must finance.
“ Holidays are among the pearls of the service industry, while child care is a cost.”

Similarly, the debate on what is ethical has been narrowed to the material world. There seems to be an almost universal commitment to what is ‘value free,’ which limits our efforts to develop 'good' futures. This, by default, commits us to techno-futures which are validated without serious questioning of the values that lie within the technology.

In this way, the future has simply been co-opted to support the dominant paradigm of the present - materialism and utilitarianism. The result: more of the same, but dressed up as new. So, while 'good futures' may not make headlines in the same way as 'techno-futures', a renaissance of the future becomes part of the creation of a true civilization. To reclaim the future is an important first step in social transformation; for by reclaiming the future, we are reclaiming the right to dream and the right to hope.

The future has the potential to be a repository of hope for the whole society - a place in which the good and the better are possible. When we inhabit the future, we free ourselves from the usual constraints of the present, which censor creative thought and solutions. Stepping into the future can help us envision what we would want and hope for.

It also allows us to contest the uncontestable in the present. The future then becomes a safe place for critical reflection on the present.

Thus to study the future becomes a process, rather than an end in itself. It matters little whether our vision of the future actually becomes a predictable reality; the process of envisioning the future becomes a tool of liberation from power structures which define and confine our thoughts and actions. In the space between the present and the future we find a powerful force for individual and social transformation: optimism. This can shape the way in which we view and respond to the present. Thus the future brings meaning to the present.

The future then becomes not simply a place of dreams, a place to escape an unpleasant present and make us 'feel good', but rather it becomes a place of retreat for the (re)generation of optimism and inspiration, a temporal version of the yogi's retreat to the Himalayas. And what is generated in that place in fact becomes an extremely powerful tool of personal and social transformation - a mantra for the whole society.

Yoga psychologist, Ananda Mitra, cites research which draws a correlation between hope and recovery in cancer patients. She analyses the results of this research within Eastern Tantric philosophy which recognizes the powerful impact of the cakras, psychic energy centers in the body, upon our expression and sense of physical and mental well-being. Ananda Mitra argues that hope, the propensity of mind associated with the anahata (heart) cakra, is integral to our personal, and by extension, our social balance. Hope brings with it a sense of expansion of mind and of creativity which, when present, evokes powerful and resourceful personal and social responses; responses which differ markedly from those we would find in a social climate where intuition and mystery are suppressed by an over-developed sense of realism, which itself stifles creative responses and creates a fear of challenging the status quo.

In working for constructive social change, hope is essential. In its absence, any social reform becomes a fatalistic form of damage control. This can only ever result in a 'more of the same, but a little better' vision and reality for the future. This outlook may be a sensible way to avoid disappointment in the short-term. In the long-term this fatalism creates such a dampening of the spirit that any social change it brings about is bound to be mere reform rather than revolution. Without the subtle energy which optimism brings to social action, the courage to contest that which has been made uncontestable remains elusive. Attempts at social change then become colonized, disempowered and, once disarmed, become tolerated as merely token pockets of dissent.

Thus visiting the future becomes important, not only in a solitary sense of creating a positive internal space, but also in a community sense. Future studies can be seen as a collective view of alternative possibilities, providing a sense of solidarity in the present, the sense of belonging to a broader movement which affirms alternative ways of knowing.
This sense of belonging to something larger is important to us all, for it somehow invisibly ties us together and becomes a force, a voice, behind the words which each of us speaks individually and somehow echoes our words so that their sound is amplified.

Placing 'the good' back on the social agenda is the first step in contesting the materialist's paradigm in which wisdom and the spirit are given a back seat to all that we can see and touch. And, for myself, that reclaiming of wisdom must be supported by the vision and force of optimism derived from a positive belief in the future.


Avadhutika Ananda Mitra, "Yoga Psychology", Paper Presented at the World future Studies Federation 15th World Conference, Brisbane, Australia, September 28 - October 3, 1997.
Prabhat Rainjan Sarkar, "Civilization, Science and Spiritual Progress", in Prabhat Rainjan Sarkar, A Few Problems Solved: Part 6. Calcutta, Ananda Marga Publications, 1987,
John Ralston Saul, The Unconscious Civilization. Ringwood, Penguin, 1997.
Thomas Murray, The Worth of a Child. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1996