COLUMN: Thinking today about the histories of tomorrow

From columnist Robert Malcolmson

By Robert Malcolmson

People have always wanted to know something about the future. Practices of divination and foretelling have been pretty much universal. To enjoy good luck and avoid bad luck — these are still the main purpose of many shrines in East Asia. Fortune-telling was, until recently, widely practiced in Western cultures, and people thought to have special powers (often women) were paid for their services.

A major reason for the erosion of these beliefs and practices is the spectacular decline in premature deaths. Several generations ago, life was, as the 17-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes put it, “nasty, brutish, and short.” In most places only half of the babies born made it to adulthood. Everybody’s future was precarious, and commonly painful. Thus, in part, the widespread belief in a sunnier afterlife.

In recent generations average life expectancy has risen dramatically. While in many respects each of us has a future full of uncertainties, early death has become uncommon (even at this time of pandemic). Once to be, say, 55 was to be old; now to be old is closer to 90. And these changes have occurred, historically speaking, over a mere moment of time — so much so that the world’s population is now around seven times larger than it was two centuries ago.

What about the future of societies and nations? Are there any forecasts that can be confidently set forth? Lots of people have tried and are still trying, though their track record is nothing special.

In looking backwards, one is struck by how many major developments were unanticpated. Yes, World War I was preceded by conflicts in Europe, but such conflicts were standard fare. Had it not been for the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914 in Sarajevo, war would not have happened, at least not in the circumstances that it did and no doubt with different (and perhaps less bad) outcomes.

A revival of German nationalism after 1918 was virtually inevitable, but not the takeover of power by the Nazis. This only happened in January/February 1933 because of the decisions of a handful of scheming right-wing politicians, who let Hitler become chancellor (they planned to control him), and despite declining support for his party.

Very few people in the 1980s predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union. This actually happened partly because, unexpectedly, the USSR got a leader in the form of Mikhail Gorbachev who recognized the suffocating backwardness of his country.

Such memories lead one to be cautious in imagining the future. The future, of course, is an open book, yet to be written. Much of it is sure to record what few of us now expect. Still, can anything useful be said?

First, it is almost certain that human impacts on the natural environment will increase and become more threatening. Since there are so many of us living in ways that disrupt natural processes and are unsustainable, societies will have no choice but to act — or, yes, act negligently. The details of these actions or inactions are unknown, though we already have glimpses as to what is possible, in a positive sense, and how vested interests will mount their defences.

A second forecast concerns international power. At the end of World War II the United States had about as much industrial capacity as the rest of the world put together. It was a giant-sized player on the world stage and would remain so for decades, despite many mistakes, and partly because the Soviet Union offered such an unappealing model for social life.

Now the world is looking very different, especially with the rise of a dynamic and much richer Asia. American world influence has inevitably declined. However, mainstream American opinion has not been prepared to adjust to this decline and make the best of it. American politicians know they have little to gain from acknowledging “decline” as a fact of life, and thus continue to act as if their five per cent of the world’s population can play the preponderant role in the global future. This assumption underpinned the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It is a belief that remains alive and well, though now partnered with the fantasy of isolationism.

And what about Canada’s future (and past)? This is a topic that I hope to ponder in a few weeks’ time.

Robert Malcolmson is professor emeritus of history at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. He now lives in Nelson.

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