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Thinking About the Future

One would have to assume that many readers continue to look at the calendar and marvel at the date. While this seems curious, consider that many of us have lived five or more decades and have never thought much about 1) growing old 2) how long we will live, or 3) the enormous changes that would take place during our lives. As we struggle to grasp that it is almost 2013, we are faced with the twin dilemmas of considering our legacies (what we are leaving behind) and what challenges and opportunities the future will bring. It would also seem important to consider what role we’ll play in building a tenable future, especially if we care at all about leaving something worthwhile for succeeding generations.

Then, there is the specter of circumstances and scenarios we cannot change…those inevitable transitions currently underway that will alter societies, global cultures, economic balance and the planetary environment. In retrospect, it is now clear that we have bungled a lot. We have spent, burned, harvested, polluted, melted, mined and cut our way past several tipping points. Others are nearing inevitability but may still be reversible, while many are far enough out for current Earth-bound residents to change predicted outcomes.

For most of us, the most important considerations pertain to foresight and caring. However, it may be even more essential to recognize that facts are facts and we will indeed reap what we have sown. As we work through this year and toward mid-decade, it is essential that we recognize that a lot of water has passed under the proverbial bridge and things are rapidly evolving. A commitment to ‘futuring’ requires that we recognize established fact, understand cause and effect, are able to sensibly extrapolate what might occur IF, and have the courage to alter course no matter how difficult.

The planet has already warmed by over 2.5Õ F in the past century and has virtually 100 percent chance of growing by 4.5Õ to 5Õ F by the end of this century, which will guarantee enormous loss of sea and glacial ice (the most recent data indicate temperatures increase by over 4Õ F within three decades). If you are interested, read The Fate of Greenland: Lessons from Abrupt Climate Change (MIT Press, 2011), which explains how and why Greenland holds clues to the fate of the entire planet. Current data (just hard fact without all the hooey) indicates that melt rates are now so high that the Greenland ice sheet could melt in a few decades, raising sea levels by approximately 24 feet worldwide. This is not bunk…melt rates are measurable and tracked quarterly. This is simple math…not complex physics or weird astrology.

Similar questions arise when considering essential resources. What about oil, arable land, forests, minerals, rare elements, and water? As I have said before, just review the data then decide what you want to believe.

As futures thinkers, there are questions we need to ask, such as:

  1. How much global warming lies ahead and what will it do to economic vitality, health, population migration, international relations, levels of conflict, environmental sustainability, etc.? 
  2. What role will CO2 and methane play in planetary warming and is there anything we can do about either? (You can Google information about the amount of methane being released by melting permafrost; it is enormous and cannot be stopped unless temperatures moderate.)
  3. As the population grows, will there be adequate resources? What about potable water?
  4. When will oil reserves dip below the threshold needed to fuel modern society? What will that do to industry, society, economics and, ultimately, potential opportunities in our communities?
  5. Will there be enough water, where is it and who will control it? How precious will it become and what are we doing to preserve/ protect it?
  6. Is there truly enough enterprise on Earth to employ all who seek work? What can we predict for younger generations relative to opportunity, careers, and pursuit of vocational dreams?
  7. Will the trend toward plutocracy continue the evolution away from democracy and equality? This is a major global (and U.S.) trend line that shows a significant shift in power to the wealthiest and elite who seek to govern and retain power.

As future thinkers, we must embrace the fact that times are changing. It is a human tendency to live in the moment, to focus on the day-to-day operational aspects of work and life. However, there are absolutely enormous questions about sustainability, preparation, positioning, and preservation that must be addressed by more than a few scientists and global thinkers. As noted before in this Blog, the plot always turns and is turning in ways many choose to ignore.

Am I concerned about future opportunity and the ability to thrive within the context of the challenges suggested above? Certainly. However, the human spirit provides boundless options that are available to those willing to embrace change, evolve, and consider new possibilities. Give some thought to the future you prefer for your family, business and community. What course needs to be pursued? What changes must be made? Are you, your managers, decision makers and community leaders planning strategically and with foresight? And, will you and they choose to step forward and lead during these challenging times?

With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal government long-range thinking and planning. John is the author of Operations Planning: A Guide for Public Officials and Managers in Troubled Times, and The Strategic Planning Guide, both published by the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA). His 2010 book, Planning the Future – A Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning for Elected Officials, Public Administrators and Community Leaders, is being hailed as the best book for public managers and community leaders who are committed to building a sustainable future.  An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges (public futures at http://www.futurescorp.com).

Converging Ideology

As America rounds the turn and heads into the annual fall home stretch, there are many competing and converging ideologies serving as platforms for debate, idle discourse and debacle. As with any social evolution, the conceptual lattice that frames most fundamental arguments tends to erode or morph as curious and committed thinkers seek middle ground.

Over the next several months, we will see competing arguments for more austerity, quantitative easing, increased government investment, greater isolation, economic expansion, Syrian intervention and every conceivable tax reform. For the casual observer, it will be a period of ideological confusion fueled by elusive facts and ill-defined goals. For those inclined toward rigorous study and enlightened review, the last four months of 2012 will be one of the most frustrating, challenging and kinetic periods in recent history.

The austerity movement has lost its appeal as economists and business leaders re-learned the fact that chronic deficits have multiple causes. As government retrenched and cut spending, it reduced demand and lowered confidence. The inadvertent message has been stark: the future is unclear, proceed with caution, take no chances and wait and see. And, the big message seems to be that no one really has any idea what to do.  Rather than taking the lead, for the most part governments have created a darker global vision that is energized by political disharmony, nationalistic idealism, greed and fear. The message has certainly not been optimistic or visionary, and there is little evidence of wisdom, foresight or commitment to a sensible alternative future.

As noted in the August 2 Public Futures blog, the return to Keynesian discourse has been interesting, due to its advocacy for positive government intervention. Understanding that too much frugality promotes recessionary attitudes, Keynes advocated a balance between saving and spending; the more we save and reduce private and public spending, the slower the economy grows, so balance is critical. And, of course, a downward spiral ensues when governments, business and families assume an ‘every man for himself’ posture that inhibits balance among the essential elements of planning, sharing, investing, spending, and saving.

There is empirical evidence that the following do not work: 1) reducing budget deficits by cutting spending, especially spending for social services; 2) reducing taxes for the top earners; and 3) deregulating business so ‘wealth generators’ have more incentive to invest. All recent economic crises saw some variation of this theme beginning with the global debt crises in 1982, and continuing with the 1994 Mexican crisis, 1997 Asian crisis, the Brazilian and Russian crises in 1998 and the Argentine crisis in 2002. In every case, the IMF and other institutions forced these countries to cut spending and build budget surpluses. Historic data clearly shows that recessions in those economies grew much worse. Therefore, since 1980, tax cuts, permissive loopholes, and deregulation have not led to economic growth, and in many cases, economies actually grew weaker.

As with most of my commentaries, I encourage readers to seek factual historic data and not rely on current media, political or biased institutional reporting. The ultimate question is, ‘What are current leaders reading and thinking?’ At a time when the infrastructure is eroding, America’s educational system is proving less robust than those in other countries, drought is ravaging two-thirds of the nation, fires are destroying millions of acres, and senseless war continues to take the lives of young men and women, why is there no national consensus on what seem to be clear priorities?

America is positioned to assume the greatest global leadership role in its history. This will not be through military strength or humanitarian aid, but through its ability to demonstrate unity, clarity, direction, and will. Most citizens are hunkered down, trying to weather the storm and hoping for better days. Inertia has dampened the American spirit at a time when the population is growing, new markets are emerging, and U.S. enterprises are positioned to expand. Rather than seeing and seizing opportunity, far too many are waiting for someone else to take the lead.

It is time to re-think our politics; it is time to follow prudent, long-term economic policies; it is time to reconsider what America stands for; and, it is time for citizens to define the preferred future. Our future is not associated with a political party, nor is it associated with a single ideology. It will be founded on an understanding of what it means to lead, care for others, be accountable, and constantly progress. We celebrate the recent Olympic competition that is driven by pride, spirit, and enormous will, regardless of national stature, religion, culture, or ideologies represented by the athletes.  We must now find that same unique willingness to accept, collaborate, compete and celebrate if we are to build this nation and lead through several more difficult years.

America is being challenged. It is time to distill the best solutions from multiple ideologies and forge a clear path to the future. There is not one path forward, but many. Finding those converging paths will require our best thinking and best thinkers…in an atmosphere based on mutuality, common vision, commitment, and trust. When will we fully embrace that process?

With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal government long-range thinking and planning. John is the author of Operations Planning: A Guide for Public Officials and Managers in Troubled Times, and The Strategic Planning Guide, both published by the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA). His 2010 book, Planning the Future – A Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning for Elected Officials, Public Administrators and Community Leaders, is being hailed as the best book for public managers and community leaders who are committed to building a sustainable future.  An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges (public futures at http://www.futurescorp.com).