The question is how to picture what the future holds in store for the human race, what the prospective world economy and society is likely to be like. We cannot foresee the future, but many present decisions are, and have to be, based on our expectations of the future. Sometimes decisions are based upon fears with respect to that future, sometimes they may be based on wishful thinking about it. But it has been said that if hopes may be dupes, fears may be liars.

It is highly unlikely that the future will be just like the present, for the present is unlike the past in innumerable ways, and we see changes taking place all the time. If we get statistical data on the changes in things that interest us, analysis of the data may reveal trends, cycles, seasonal movements and other changes we lump together as irregular changes (some small, some large, with the large ones sometimes being relatively easy to explain). To project the future of any variable, it is necessary to have some reason to think that the forces that explain the past behavior will continue into the future. There may be some things that are subject to cyclical movements, so we will project cycles. For more of the things that concern us about the future, it would likely be better to base our expectations on projections of present trends. There may still be a problem of choosing the period over which to fit the trend that is to be projected, for different trends may be apparent from different choices as to period.

Many of the things that are important in determining the future do not lend themselves to simple statistical measures, so statistical trend fitting and projection may not be possible. Yet we talk of trends that we think are apparent in respect to some such things also. But the world is extremely complex, so that there sometimes appear to be conflicting forces at work, and that makes it difficult to decide what trends to project as likely to become dominant. As the factors underlying any trend may change unexpectedly, as they have sometimes in the past, prediction, based on trend projection, is often hazardous. Indeed, how people react to predictions or expectations, however formed, is an independent factor in shaping the future. Predictions may become self-fulfilling prophesies. Or if what is expected is the kind of world that people don't want, they may act in ways that prevent the predictions of it from coming true. So even predictions based on trend projection are not to be trusted completely.

It is desirable to assign various degrees of probability to different predictions. Where we are dealing with a large number of cases, it may be possible to do this on the basis of past statistics, as actuaries do in making up life expectancy tables. There are few if any important things we want to know about the future where predictions can be based on statistical probabilities. What we are dealing with is uncertainty, not statistical probability. Yet we can and do properly use the term probability with respect to predictions, giving it a different basis. If we have no reason to expect a trend to be reversed, a prediction that it will be is improbable, and a prediction based on trend projection is highly probable. Probability statements referring to predictions are evidence of the degree of confidence we place in the predictions. It has already been suggested that we should not be completely confident of predictions even if based on empirical trend projection. But the degree of confidence we have in a prediction should be related to empirical evidence, whether reducible to statistics or not, and to a theoretical basis which explains past and present and lays a basis for reasonable expectations of the future. In the final analysis, it is our understanding of what explains and determines the trends, not the trends themselves, that provides the grounds for thinking something probable or improbable. Of course, the unforeseeable, the inexplicable, the highly improbable sometimes happens, as our understanding is limited and not all change fits our theories. How much confidence we have that our theories are adequate and will hold cannot usually be expressed in terms that assign a percentage probability figure to a prediction, but can be stated in looser terms of relatively probable or highly probable etc. Or one may have to say on the basis of insufficient knowledge that, so far as one can tell, one prediction is as likely to be true as some other one; though usually one is not in a position of having to say that any prediction made has an equal likelihood of being true. We should place more confidence in an informed guess than in an uninformed guess as to the future.


What sort of future are we headed for? Where would present trends carry us? What trends do we project into the future to see? Let us consider some economic trends and then some social trends for the U.S. and then for the world as a whole. We can project for a near future, for a very distant future, and for an intermediate period.

It should be easy to project a growing real GNP for the U.S. and for the world. The trend is clearly upward, though growth rates differ for different sections of the world. What inflation rates seem likely on the basis of recent experience in different countries and what do we guess as to the future political constellations? What can and what cannot be projected in the way of technological changes? What population growth rates would recent and present trends project, what reasons are there for thinking the absolute growth may stop at some level, and what level seems likely? What per capital real income is implied by the GNP and population projections?

What rates of pollution of various types are implied, and what depletion rates for various exhaustible resources are implied by GNP growth and present practices? What changes in these rates are likely, and on what are such estimates based? What are the prospects for sustainable yields from our life-support systems?

What is the future of human health, of famines, of AIDS and other serious diseases, of drug cultures?

What is the likely future of the family farm, latifundia elsewhere, the economic role of government, labor unionism, profit-sharing, junk bonds, international trade, international capital movements, international migration, technology transfer, multi-national corporations, protectionism, big business and small business generally?

What are the futures of various injustices, intolerance, violence, race relations, ethnicity, religious fanaticisms, class relations, various nationalisms, internationalism and international institutions, present international conflicts, war, theocracies or other authoritarian governments, democratic structures and democratic political processes, human rights, the status of women, etc.?

How far will a common world culture develop, what will be its likely character, and what will characterize various national cultures? What ideologies seem likely to dominate the future?

On what do the various possibilities in each case seem to rest?

What sorts of combinations does all that add up to? What appears to be the best potential? What might be the worst? What in between seems most likely, and why? Where are we doing well or badly now? What are the action options if some prospects are unwanted and better outcomes desired?

In 1990, the United Nations published a book that reviewed trends for several decades and made some projections under the title GLOBAL OUTLOOK 2000: An Economic, Social and Environmental Perspective.

In 1998, Allen Hammond, senior research scientist at the World Resources Institute, wrote a book entitled “WHICH WORLD? Scenarios for the 21st Century, Global destinies, Regional choices”. In it he envisions three alternative possibilities for the world as a whole and for each of seven regions. It is not clear which trends might develop further to create which of the three possible future worlds, region by region or for the whole world. He envisions as three possibilities: what he calls (1) a market world, (2) a fortress world, and (3) a transformed world. Consider each.
(1) Some expect globalization to bring prosperity and peace to all nations.
(2) Unregulated markets might exploit the poor, destroy our ecological base, & lead to a militarized world. (3) Enlightened policies might create a viable stable peaceful regulated market world in which all gain.

His fortress world scares me. Given modern military technology, atomic or biological war could destroy life on the planet. Terrorism’s spread could lead to theocracies & religious wars. I regard (1) as naive wishful thinking. Only (3) offers any realistic hope for a better world.