Courtesy Reuters

The Discontinuous Future: A Bold but Overoptimistic Forecast

In This Review

Anticipating the Future: Twenty Millennia of Human Progress

By Barry Buzan and Gerald Segal
Simon & Schuster, 1998
384 pp. $32.50

In a world sardine-stuffed with ever- narrower monographs, at a time when grand theory is scorned, the notion of progress is regarded as naive, and quantification rules the intellectual universe, it is refreshing to come upon Barry Buzan and Gerald Segal. Throwing caution to the wind, they set out to map 20,000 years of human history. Trekking across disciplinary boundaries, they bring back the message that progress, after all, is alive and well.

It requires courage, especially for academics and researchers, to risk being labeled "futurologists"-a word unfairly freighted in Britain and the United States with connotations of selling snake oil. Because their book is also readable by a broad, nonspecialist public, they run the additional hazard of being labeled popular or trendy-among academia's worst terms of opprobrium.

It takes still more courage to stretch the time horizon as far as they do. Starting with prehistory and the Ice Age and sweeping 5,000 years hence, Anticipating the Future is a welcome attack on temporal provincialism. Unfortunately, the book is mistitled. In 1975, with the global economy reeling in the wake of the oil shock, we wrote an article in Esquire entitled

"Beyond Depression." When we asked a friend and futurist, the late John McHale, for comment, he replied, "Too much depression, not enough beyond." One feels the same way about Anticipating the Future. Most of the book is actually a revealing survey of history. One is still anticipating the arrival of tomorrow at page 189. Even the concluding chapters, ostensibly devoted to the future, turn out to be largely about the present as seen by fictional historians living in the future. There is too much anticipation, not enough future.


When Buzan, a research professor of international studies at the University of Westminster, and Segal, director of studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, do get down to business, they sketch the next 50 years, leave you wanting more, and then turn, even more briefly, to the 500 years beyond that. At 5,000 years out,

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