Apocalypse Later

A Futurologist Looks Back at 2008

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.

And then there were those budget deficits. In 2000, the United States
recorded the largest budget surplus in its history: $230 billion. In
2002, even before the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration had
already swung the country completely around and $159 billion into the
red. By the summer of 2008, we were averting our eyes from the ugly
truth that the year would end with the largest budget deficit in U.S.
history: $425 billion. Some things are too big to fail, we are told.
But what happens when the biggest of them all goes down in flames? No
one could save the Zeppelin industry when, in 1937, the Hindenburg
crashed and burned.

What could the Panglossian optimists offer in response? There was talk
of hope. There was talk of change. A new administration would bring the
United States back into the family of nations. The cowboys would go
back to their ranch. The adults would be back in charge. There would be
pseudo-Manhattan Projects and Marshall Plans and New Deals. It would be
morning again in America, but this time we would be waking up to the
voice of reason in the White House, not the voice of the Gipper.

And the optimists won. Against the odds, just like a Frank Capra
movie, hope grabbed the White House in November 2008. Sure, there were
some folks who were aghast at the election results. But the rest of us
-- including me since, hey, even futurologists have feelings -- were
euphoric.

At the height of all this euphoria, that's when I published my first foolish prediction of the future.

Not Exactly Kool-Aid

It's hard now to believe our collective giddiness back at the end of
2008. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the optimists had spiked
our water supply with Ecstasy. The new crowd that came to Washington --
okay, it was actually mostly the old crowd from the Clinton years --
seemed to possess unlimited energy and good feeling. And it was as if
we futurologists could see for miles and miles and miles into a sunlit
future.

Some of you who are old enough or have prodigious powers of recall
might remember back to 1992 when the Democrats ended 12 years of
Republican rule. That moment, too, generated its share of vaulted
expectations. I was a mere novice futurologist at a small Midwestern
paper at that time, just learning the ropes. But who knows: if I'd only
learned from my mistakes then, maybe I wouldn't have flubbed it so bad
in 2008.

In any case, right after the 2008 elections, I sat down and wrote my
first report on the new world to come. And you can tell, in retrospect
-- more than a few bloggers said so at the time, but who was paying
attention? -- that I'd drunk deep from those drug-laced waters.

The new team in Washington, I wrote, would move quickly to clean up
the worst messes created by the Bush administration. They would close
down Guantanamo and reverse the U.S. position on torture. They would
begin the long process of withdrawing troops from Iraq. They would
initiate dialogue with Iran and continue engagement with North Korea.
They would sit down with Chavez and Castro and even Hamas and
Hezbollah. They would sign Kyoto. They would defeat the Taliban and
finally capture bin Laden. They would repeal the tax cuts for the
wealthy and renegotiate the free trade agreements, and launch an
Apollo-style program to develop alternative energies.

Disputatious bloggers aside, the article was well-received. I read
positive assessments from inside and outside the Beltway, from both
sides of the aisle. Of course, my pessimistic brethren in the
profession countered with their own "end is nigh" predictions. The new
team wouldn't be able to fulfill any of their promises. It was too
late. We stood one minute before midnight on the Doomsday clock, and
when that moment passed we wouldn't be at noon, and there would be no
Hollywood endings.

As it turned out, we were all wrong.

The Goldilocks Apocalypse

My predictions of what the new team would do in their first 100 days
was pretty much spot on. They didn't end up talking with everybody or
withdrawing troops quite so rapidly or renegotiating all the free trade
agreements, and the energy program was more fireworks than heading for
the moon. But they came close enough.

So, if my predictions were reasonably accurate, why am I beating myself
over the head eight years later? Because I let personal euphoria turn
me into a professional optimist. Somehow I really did convince myself
that the new team could turn back the hands on that Doomsday clock. In
fact, I thought they could recalibrate calendars as well, and bring us
back if not to September 10, 2001, then at least to September 12th --
and that the world would give us another chance to respond, this time
with grace under pressure.

But that should be the first, and most obvious, rule of futurology.
You can't change the past. The Greeks were right: we walk into the
future backwards, our eyes fixed on an unchanging past. When we
futurologists turn our heads, Linda Blair-style, to make our
predictions, we sin against nature. And sometimes we forget that what
lies behind us is indeed immutable.

The new administration did make a lot of changes in its first 100
days. The sheer number and the sheer pace fooled everyone into thinking
that change had indeed come to Washington. I thought that the country's
trajectory had actually been altered, that a new direction had been set
in U.S. policy.

It turns out, though, that apocalypse comes in many different forms.
There are the dramatic effects of sword and fire and famine. And then
there's the apocalypse of muddling through. That's what happens when
you just carry on with the same old, same old and before you know it,
poof, end of the world. It's an apocalypse that's neither too cold nor
too hot, neither too hard nor too soft. It's the apocalypse of the
middle, the Goldilocks apocalypse.

The Politics of Muddling Through

You remember when we finally signed the Kyoto agreement. The new
administration made a big deal about it. The president gave the pen to
Al Gore, who said that it meant more to him than the Nobel Prize and
the Oscar combined.

But the time was already long gone when abiding by Kyoto limits
would have been sufficient. Cutting carbon emissions by about 5% of
1990 levels by 2012 -- well, that wasn't a bad target when Kyoto was
first negotiated, but that was
the 1990s. As we all know today, it turned out not to be nearly good
enough in 2009. The new administration should have twisted every arm it
could to get a new international consensus on reducing carbon emissions
30% by 2020. It didn't. We celebrated Kyoto, as we celebrated so much
else, and then, of course, the waters began to rise appreciably, as did
temperatures, as did food and energy prices. And yet it was all
reasonably gradual and so everybody just complained. If the numbers had
shot up dramatically, all together, all at once, well, perhaps we might
have reacted dramatically. Instead, we put off the painful adjustments.
We attempted to muddle through.

There was similar rejoicing around the first troop units withdrawn from
Iraq. After some local tickertape parades and a couple months of R and
R, of course, the soldiers were back in action -- in Afghanistan. We
didn't officially invade any other countries. We didn't start any new
wars. We simply increased our "commitments" in "existing theaters of
operation." We didn't notice that our permanent war economy was humming
along at the same rate regardless of troop levels in Iraq.

After all, even though the president made a big deal about canceling
a few Cold War weapons systems, he never touched the trillion dollar
military budget. Whatever was cut from fighting the Iraq War and
eliminating the expensive and unsafe V-22 Osprey helicopter was simply
pasted into another part of that budget. The Army was increased by
65,000 soldiers and the Marines by 27,000. Our 800-plus military bases
received an expensive make-over, our Special Forces received lots of
new high-tech goodies, and we bulked up NATO. And because the president
discovered that he couldn't touch the military budget, he was never
able to find the funds for the domestic programs that had created so
much hope in the electorate: no universal health care, no
transformation of the educational system, no boost for working people.
Of course, the euro overtaking the dollar as the world currency
certainly didn't help matters for the United States.

The resumption of arms control negotiations with the Russians was
admittedly a positive sign, but we were really beyond a moment where
"signs" were enough. We did eventually retire a few more nukes from our
respective arsenals, but the president never took advantage of the new
political opening to negotiate significant nuclear reductions. As a
result, the countries that had recently acquired nuclear weapons,
including North Korea, but going back to India, Pakistan, and Israel,
refused to give up their programs. And countries on the threshold of
the nuclear club quietly but resolutely continued to develop their
capacities. As you know, no one dropped any nukes, nor, despite the
dire predictions of the Panglossians, did terrorists use any dirty
bombs. But with the death of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, it
can happen at any point.

We all thought that closing Guantanamo, ending renditions, and
renouncing torture would be enough to salvage America's reputation in
the world. And, for a brief time, the polls showed an uptick in global
feelings toward the United States. But the president never challenged
the deeper framework of the Global War on Terror. He simply promised to
prosecute it more effectively. Fearful of being labeled weak on
terrorism -- much as he was worried about a similar label applied to
his military policy -- the president continued to emphasize military
means. As a result, "collateral damage" continued in U.S. attacks in
Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere. These civilian casualties -- as
well as the assassination rather than apprehension of suspected
terrorists -- caused America's reputation to decline once again. More
importantly, we continued to create two terrorists for every one that
we took out in a war without end. We continued to sow our own fields
with dragon's teeth.

And while we were still trying to find Osama bin Laden, who has proven
as long-lived as he is elusive, we ignored other mounting threats that
were not in the official military Red Alert zone. The worst-case
scenarios never developed. We thought we'd averted apocalypse. Instead,
by tinkering on the edges while basically maintaining the status quo, a
different kind of apocalypse, the slow-motion kind, is now upon us.

The Future of Futurology

Here's the latest joke making the rounds on Futurology listservs:
Hint for the young -- there's no future in futurology. That's us,
always with the gallows humor.

Seriously, though, I haven't forecast the future in two, maybe three
years. I was so wrong in 2008 that now I just can't muster the energy.
My colleagues are still grinding out predictions. The Chicken Littles
are having a field day, of course. The fact that the sky hasn't yet
fallen isn't cramping their style. After all, when it comes to the sky,
it's always just a matter of time.

I still don't buy the argument of the Chicken Littles, by the way. I
was wrong that the administration would change history in 2008, but
they are still wrong that the end will come with a bang, not a whimper.
In the long run, as the economists say, we're all dead anyway.

We Panglossians have, of course, experienced a natural thinning of
the ranks. With the blackouts and the queues at the gas stations, it's
hard to be an optimist these days. It's difficult to keep a smile on
your face when yet another country conducts a nuclear test and yet
another island disappears underneath the rising waves.

As you all know, we're in the middle of another election season now.
So there is more talk of hope and change. I've read some of the
Panglossian predictions. It's just more of the same - fiddling around
at the margins while the world burns. I've tried to warn them. But who
listens to me anymore?

My friends sometimes ask what would I have done differently if I could do it all again. That's the biggest if of all. The conditional that never arrives.

Still, here goes: In 2008, I should have dispensed with the optimism,
stopped playing the inside-the-Beltway pundit game of influence, and
talked straight. I should have written that, unless the new
administration fundamentally changed U.S policy -- reducing the nuclear
arsenals, cutting the military budget, launching a full-speed effort to
halve carbon emissions, abandoning the nonsensical "war on terror" --
we would run the risk of Goldilocks.

I should have said: we seek out the comfortable middle at our own
peril. Not too hot and not too cold, not too hard and not too soft,
it's a strategy guaranteed to lull anyone into a dangerous complacency.
After all, once you've made your bed, however comfortable it may be,
you have to lie in it. And it's then, after a few brief moments of
self-satisfied sleep, that you're bound to hear the scratching at the
door.

The bears are home. And they're hungry.

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