In This Review

Anticipating the Future: Twenty Millennia of Human Progress
Anticipating the Future: Twenty Millennia of Human Progress
By Barry Buzan and Gerald Segal
Simon & Schuster, 1998, 384 pp

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, there is, understandably, not much to say. Even speculation fails.

Their basic thesis holds that human progress, despite the many horrors of history, is real-measured not merely in material terms but by the fact that our species has survived and spread over the entire planet and gradually built a "single global space." The elimination of slavery and what they see as a diminished appetite for large-scale war are evidence that progress is moral as well as material.

And if their scenario of the next 50 years is realistic at all, that progress should continue, albeit with plenty of ups and downs. As they see it, the world will divide into wealthy and presumably democratic "open" societies, a group of "closed" societies (not terribly well defined by the authors), and a collection

of failed or enfeebled states that may even need to be taken over by the others and turned into trusteeships to mitigate the surging violence they contain. A regional war between Iran and Iraq will once more erupt and lead to redrawn borders from Turkey to Egypt. Russia and China will aid Iran. A powerful China will in turn bully its neighbors militarily, but combined pressure from the United States, Japan, and Europe will peacefully force China to play by the rules of the international community. Still, no war among the great powers is likely, least of all one that might threaten the entire planet with incineration. The authors are equally sanguine about our gradually improving ability to overcome environmental problems. Asian countries will not become culturally Westernized, but "Westernistic," meaning that whatever else these countries reject from the West, they will ultimately accept market economics and a degree of political liberalism. Better yet, the authors believe-and here they write with a passion absent elsewhere-the world will throw off the chains of "economism," their term for Thatcherite policies, and will gradually move toward a "social market." Governments will take as their primary role the protection of the 10 to 15 percent of their poorest citizens.


What troubles one throughout, however, is the relatively short shrift Buzan and Segal give to economics. While the great failure of many economists was and remains an underappreciation of the importance of culture, religion, power relationships, anthropology, and social psychology, the authors, if anything, seem to tilt in the other direction. Nor do they seem to grasp the depth of the economic and financial transformation still in its early phase.

Historians, like paleontologists, can be divided among "continuists" and "discontinuists." Advocates of "punctuated equilibrium" in evolution, for example, argue that new species do not emerge at an even rate but in bursts of speciation followed by periods of relative equilibrium. In the history of science, the assumptions of someone like Pierre Duhem, whose massive survey of ancient cosmology, The World System, written early in this century, was explicitly incrementalist, can be contrasted with, say, those of Thomas Kuhn, whose The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is a criticism of those who picture science as mere "development-by-accumulation." There are merits to both ways of interpreting history, but we live in a period of giant discontinuities. And on the evidence of Anticipating the Future, despite their frequent references to "transformations," Buzan and Segal are by and large continuists-a position that blinds them to some of the most important changes that lie ahead.

They recognize that the agricultural revolution was "epochal." It is hard to argue with that. It launched that First Wave of interrelated economic, military, social, cultural, and political changes that carried human beings beyond hunting, gathering, and herding. The authors also, at points, write about the Industrial Revolution, but they assign it a much smaller role in history than it deserves. For them the Industrial Revolution is merely one of several equally important changes that have produced modern society. But by dating the start of industrialism as far back as 1500 and stretching it over more than 500 years, they represent it as a more incremental process than it was. In so doing, they de-revolutionize such breakthroughs as the shift from animal to fossil fuel energy, the leap to technologies that enhance muscle power, and the ideas of Newton, Descartes, and Enlightenment intellectuals.

In fact, if the agricultural revolution was the First Wave, the Industrial Revolution was the Second Wave of human transformation. Each revolution brought with it a wave of interrelated changes-not merely a totally new form of economic organization and a new form of civilization, but a new division of power on the planet. Each also brought conflict. For example, wherever the process of industrialization began, it met resistance from agrarian elites. Benjamin Disraeli spent half a century fighting a rear-guard struggle on behalf of what were called the "landed interests." In the United States an early industrial North fought a slaveholding agrarian South.

We can, in fact, find elements of wave conflict-rural versus urban, agrarian versus industrial-even now in many parts of the world, all the way from Kabul, where the village-based Taliban seeks to impose its restrictive norms on an urban population, to Bosnia. One is reminded of the remark by Bogdan Bogdanovich, the former mayor of Belgrade, that the battle for Sarajevo "is a war of the mountains against the cities." If urban-rural or First Wave versus Second Wave conflict were more closely examined around the world, we might do a better job of anticipating hot spots before they blast their way into the headlines.

The authors' failure to position the Industrial Revolution properly in history also directs attention away from its enormous impact on international relations. Thus once modernizing industrial elites won political power over their rural rivals in England, France, Germany, the United States, and later Japan, wave conflict moved to the international level and colonial wars broke out all the way from the Congo to the Korean peninsula. The result for a century or more has been a world basically divided between Second Wave or industrial powers on top and First Wave or agrarian countries on the bottom. Power in the international system was essentially bisected.


Unfortunately, if Buzan and Segal underestimate the Industrial Revolution, they even more radically underestimate the revolutionary changes sweeping across our planet today. It is jangling to read in their discussion of the next half-century that there is not much "basic change now likely in the way we use capital. There will be far more of it . . . but the essentials of trade, investment and financial exchange look relatively stable." Nothing could be further from the truth. Capital itself is undergoing a historic transformation. Not only is the world financial system and money itself being radically restructured as we write, but capital is increasingly based on intangible factors-a profound change that economists are only starting to assess.

Continuism similarly leads the authors to underestimate today's technological upheaval. Thus, in describing the world of 1989 to 2038, they write, "The wave of transforming technological development that had first become apparent around 1850 continued relentlessly." But technological development has not "continued," relentlessly or otherwise. Starting shortly after World War II, it leaped into hyper-drive and changed its fundamental character. The key technologies of the two centuries before and the century after 1850 were muscle- enhancing. Those since then have been, so to speak, mind-enhancing. That is not a continuation but a revolutionary discontinuity.

There are now more than a quarter of a billion personal computers on the planet-257 million, or one for every 22 human beings alive. In the United States, computers are approaching the 100 million mark-almost one for every 2.5 people-and more U.S. workers have jobs making computer equipment and writing software than making cars. Nearly 40 percent of homes have computers, and the vast majority of workers are no longer engaged in industrial-era muscle work. Indeed, the shift from a factory-based to a post-factory economy is accelerating. It is reflected not merely in the huge growth of services and the rise of small business, but in the remarkable fact that nearly 40 million American workers now do some or all of their work at home.

These are only the most obvious indications that the way we manufacture, distribute, finance, market, manage, and trade-in short, the entire economy-is undergoing a revolutionary change. We are experiencing a transformation at least as profound as the Industrial Revolution but compressed into a much shorter span of history. It is, in fact, the Third Wave of historic change.

Third Wave development, most advanced in the United States, is also occurring in Japan, Europe, Singapore, and China, with additional pockets found in Brazil and elsewhere around the world. As this occurs, not only can we see urban-rural political conflict, the clashing interests of First and Second Wave elites, but before long we can expect the first evidence of divergent Second Wave and Third Wave political interests as well. In the United States these are already apparent. In the battle over the North American Free Trade Agreement, for example, the trade unions, key defenders of the Second Wave factory-based economy, led the charge. Conflicts are heating up over issues like globalism versus nationalism (a political product of the Industrial Revolution), taxation and regulation, technology and the environment, family policy, labor legislation, and devolution to states, cities, and regions, all of which divide defenders of the old smokestack economy from Third Wave elites associated with the new economy now just beginning to become politicized.

If these admittedly broad generalizations are even roughly correct, we should expect important shifts of economic and political power within many countries, along with a massive redistribution of power on a global scale. That process has already begun, and we are moving beyond the two-level power system of the industrial era. The structure of global power is already trisected, with First Wave agrarian economies at the bottom, Second Wave mass manufacturing economies-the cheap labor suppliers-in the middle, and the emergent Third Wave, knowledge-based economies on top. This global trisection may be the most important power shift since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and it is unlikely to come without turbulence.

That is why Buzan and Segal's view of the next 50 years may be too sanguine. Their belief that the fundamentals of capital and economics are likely to continue without much change, or that big wars are a thing of the past, may prove overoptimistic. They underestimate not just the depth and complexity of today's revolutionary changes but, even more important, their acceleration-a factor that will produce changes of its own.


These reservations duly noted, the pages of Anticipating the Future are rich in ideas and insights. The authors bring wide erudition to their task and synthesize a vast amount of information from different disciplines, in itself an important contribution to scholarship. Ironically, they are at their best, and least continuist, in their all-too-short discussion of the role of genetics and space in the future. They rightly note that the period ahead will be marked by "the development of machine intelligence . . . the resumption of human physical evolution . . . the first-level integration of human and machine worlds . . . the capability to manipulate the planetary environment . . . the first stages of the venture into space."

They foresee the coming redesign of the human organism itself, as a consequence of the completion of the human genome project. (Battles over whether and how this is done will make today's battles over abortion seem like a badminton match.) Early applications of genetic engineering, they suggest, will be limited to slowing the aging process. But even by the fourth decade of the new century, their fictional historian of the future, looking back, tells us that "society at large was not ready for attempts to improve the organism in other than curative ways. Notions of human equality were too recently established after the age of imperialism, and the racist ideologies that accompanied it, to allow any consensus on taking up the opportunity of eugenics," which was thus delayed for another two centuries.

Buzan and Segal correctly foresee "major anxieties about how to prevent military applications of genetic technique"-an issue raised as early as 1969, when, with a chilling lack of anxiety, a top official at the Institute of Development Biology at the Soviet Academy of Sciences predicted the equivalent of a genetic arms race and urged his nation to get a head start. In addition, they envision the linkup of machine-generated images with human perception to create "telekinetic devices" that fuse humans and machines "into a single behavioral unit whose two parts could be separated by substantial distances." They note that the ability of a computer chip to pass information directly into the human nervous system has opened the path to the creation of cyborgs, but here again, they contend that our belief in human equality will delay that step "for a long time."

New knowledge about the environment, Buzan and Segal say, will eventually give us the ability not merely to control the human impact on ecology, but to modify major natural effects as well, leading to a global geo-engineering project under a Planetary Management Corporation. Finally, sometime in the centuries to come, the biological revolution will, they believe, make possible changes in the human organism which would prepare at least some of us for the colonization of space-the point at which, in our terminology, the Fourth Wave of human transformation would truly have begun.

About a book so rich in detail and sweeping in ambition, much more could, and ought to, be said. If Barry Buzan and Gerald Segal have returned from their ambitious expedition with less than one hoped, they risked much and brought back more than most. If there were a Victoria Cross for conspicuous scholarly bravery, Buzan and Segal would surely deserve it, and we would happily attend the ceremony.

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  • Alvin Toffler's books include The Third Wave and Powershift: Knowledge, Wealth, and Violence at the Edge of the 21st Century. He and Heidi Toffler are coauthors of War and Anti-War: Survival at the Dawn of the 21st Century. Their most recent book is Creating a New Civilization: The Politics of the Third Wave.
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