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14 Race & Class 51(3)
There was a time when the future was considered a subject for prophecy and science fiction rather than empirical analysis. From Jules Verne and H. G. Wells onwards, science writers have combined fantasy with a serious examination of what the future might contain. But it was not until the last decades of the twentieth century that futuristic speculation began to transcend the category of entertainment, with the emergence of the discipline variously known as futurology, futuristics or future studies. Defined by the Encarta Dictionary as ‘the study and forecasting of the future, with predictions based on the likely outcomes of current trends’, futurology first emerged as a popular non-fiction genre in the early 1970s, with Alvin Toffler’s best-selling Future Shock and the Club of Rome’s environmental wake-up call Limits to Growth. In 1972, the University of Houston established the first graduate programme in futurism and today a plethora of university departments, thinktanks and research centres across the world are dedicated to ‘foresight’ and the study of ‘probable and preferable futures’, such as the Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies, the UK Horizon Scanning Centre, Foresight International and the World Future Society.
The military has also shown a keen interest in the study of the ‘possible future’ in the early twenty-first century, particularly in the United States. In 1997, the US National Intelligence Council (NIC) published Global Trends 2010, the first of three reports in its ambitious 2020 Project that aims to predict the ‘forces that will shape our world’ over a two-decade period. In 2001, the prestigious US Air Force thinktank, the RAND Corporation, established the Frederick S. Pardee Center for Longer Range Global Policy and the Future Human Condition. Since 2000, the US Joint Forces Command has published two studies of the international military and security environment over the next two decades and its implications for the military. Military and national security research institutions such as the US Army’s Strategic Studies Institute (SSI) regularly stage conferences and symposia on ‘Long Range Planning and Forecasting’, ‘Scenario Planning’ and ‘Projecting Future Battlespaces and Scenarios’.
These studies are not limited to purely military concerns. Military futurists also devote considerable attention to more mainstream futurological subjects, such as social and economic transformation, demographics, urbanism, cultural trends and climate change. What explains the military’s interest in the future and what does this fascination tell us about the present? Military futurism is not a historical novelty in itself. Armies have routinely engaged in contingency planning ever since the German armed forces pioneered ‘long range planning’ in the late nineteenth century. Military futurism really came into its own during the cold war, when the RAND Corporation began conducting regular war games and simulations to predict the likely outcomes of nuclear and conventional military confrontations with the Soviet Union. In the 1950s and 1960s, RAND luminaries such as Herman Kahn, Leo Roster and Albert Wohlstetter built illustrious careers around ‘scenario planning’ and ‘systems thinking’, which attempted to provide US policymakers with the conceptual tools to anticipate ‘alternate’ or ‘surprising’ military futures by ‘thinking the unthinkable’. Matt Carr: Slouching towards dystopia: the new military futurism 15
By the 1980s, forecasting, war-gaming and scenario planning had become routinely integrated into US military practice. While studies such as Innovation Task Force 2025 (1988) and AirLand Battle 2000 (1982) considered the transformation of the armed forces or rehearsed NATO war plans against the Warsaw Pact, others continued to explore the outer limits of the unthinkable future. One report published by the Department of Defense in the early years of the Reagan presidency imagined a nuclear war in which the White House, the Pentagon and much of civilisation were destroyed, but computers continued in the aftermath ‘to run a war no human mind can control’, directing space satellites, nuclear weapons and armies of robots ‘that can gallop like horses and walk like men, carrying out computerised orders as they roam the radioactive battlefield’.2
Cold war military futurism also spilled over into the private sector. In 1961, Herman Kahn founded the Hudson Institute, a conservative thinktank and research centre which aspires to provide ‘global leaders in government and business’ with the tools to ‘manage strategic transitions to the future’.3 In the 1970s, Royal Dutch Shell pioneered the corporate use of scenario planning in the oil industry in response to what was perceived as a new climate of uncertainty and unpredictability following the OPEC oil embargo.
This overlapping nexus between the military and corporate futurism has continued ever since. Not only do the US military and the private sector share the same concern with geopolitical and international developments pertaining to US national security and the future of the capitalist world economy, but private companies and institutions specialising in scenario planning and risk management also work closely with the military in developing futuristic analyses. The Hudson Institute’s Center for Political-Military Analysis produces regular studies for the military on the ‘critical variables’ and ‘nonlinear forces’ affecting international politics.4 Both the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security have also commissioned futuristic studies from scenario planning specialists such as the Global Business Network (GBN) and the giant management consultancy firm Booz Allen Hamilton.
In 2006, Booz Allen won a $32 million contract to provide the Pentagon’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) with war-gaming materials and simulations, whose aim, according to the company spokesman, was to ‘write the history of the future’ and provide the Pentagon with a ‘picture of the world between 2001 and 2025’.5 All this is in keeping with the tradition developed by Kahn and his RAND colleagues but the new military futurism is also strikingly different from its predecessors. Where the cold war futurists were primarily concerned with the Soviet Union and scenario planning for nuclear war, twentyfirst century futurists are concerned with very different ‘threats’ and ‘challenges’. One of the most prolific producers of futurological studies is the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment (ONA), an obscure but influential thinktank run by the veteran RAND intellectual and military futurist Andrew Marshall.
Each year, the ONA commissions dozens of studies from academics and thinktanks like the Hudson Institute and private consulting companies. Most of these reports are classified but the talkingpointsmemo.com website recently used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain an index of ONA publications. These