This article originally appeared on TomDispatch
Being a futurologist means never having to say you’re sorry. Our predictions always come true eventually–or, if they don’t, well, how quickly people forget. Look at Newsweek‘s George Will. He predicted that the Berlin Wall would endure, and in an article published on the very day in 1989 that the Germans were tearing it down. That should have been enough to revoke his futurology license and demote him to sports writing. But no, almost three decades later he’s still peering into his crystal ball.
Never apologize, never look back: that’s our motto.
But this time–think of it as the exception that proves the rule–I really screwed up. We all did.
If you look back at the predictions we made in 2008 about the United States and the world, you’ll see just how wrong we were. Today, in 2016, it’s time for a mea culpa on behalf of the profession. Both camps, you see, were wrong. The Chicken Littles who predicted dramatic catastrophe were just as far from the mark as the Panglossian utopians who predicted dramatic change for the better.
Of course, we have our excuses. Our minds were clouded by eight years of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy–if you can even call it that–which obscured our vision like a stinging sandstorm. In those days, it was natural to believe one of two things. Either the world was going to end with a bang (and soon), or a new administration would come into office in 2009, open up all Washington’s doors and windows, and give the place a good airing out.
No one anticipated what would really happen over the two terms of the Obama Administration, even though that’s the job of us futurologists–and I was one of the best paid in the profession.
Where did we go wrong? How could I have been so blind? That’s what I’m going to try my best to explain.
Hope v. the Abyss
Maybe you don’t even remember the summer of 2008 any more. The last period has not, politely put, been easy, so who can be blamed for a little memory loss? Aren’t we all suffering from a bit of PTSD?
Let me take you back to that summer when the Panglossians were saying: Sniff the air, change is just around the corner–and the Chicken Littles were replying: Sniff the air, you can smell the approaching flames.
Certainly, the pessimists had the weight of history on their side. The Bush Administration, they were arguing, had so transformed the United States and the world that it simply wasn’t possible to undo the damage. If not by water, they warned, then the fire next time would scorch the earth free of us. And that fire had the potential to come from almost any direction.
We had had only a narrow window of opportunity to deal with climate change, and the Bush team made sure to slam that window shut. We needed to go all out to find sustainable sources of energy, and instead the Administration was all about oil. If the Middle East was not exactly the Garden of Eden when George W. came into office, the President had unfortunately taken his inspiration from the Book of Revelations, not the Book of Genesis. The result was: Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Israel-Palestine, and let’s not forget Afghanistan.