ISSS Presidential Speech: The Systems Sciences in the Year 3000

World Congress of the Systems Sciences and  44th Annual Meeting of the International Society of the Systems Sciences
July 16-22, 2000 – Toronto, Canada

(1950) “Progress ios our most important product.”  — G.E. Advertisement

(1960) “The future lies ahead.”  — Mort Sahl (Comedian)

(1970) “The future is not what it used to be.”  —Kenneth Watt (Ecologist)

(1980) “The future will arrive sooner than we expect.”  —Lynton Caldwell (Political Scientist)

(1999) “The future may be cancelled.”  —Eugene Lindon (Author),  The Future in Plain Sight

The title of my talk, “The Systems Sciences in the Year 3000,” is hyperbole, of course — an exaggeration for effect. Who knows what the world will be like even 100 years from now, much less in 1,000 years? For instance, who can predict the ultimate limit to human population growth, world-wide? Certainly not the demographers, who regularly adjust their forecasts and never seem to agree among themselves.

Or who — even as recently as ten years ago — could have predicted the Internet revolution. Not Bill Gates of Microsoft, who found himself having to scramble to catch the train. Even today, who can predict the long-term impact of the Internet and broadband communications, say in 10 or 20 or 50 years? And who would dare to predict what the stock market averages (the Dow Jones or the S&P 500) will be like even one year from now? Once upon a time it was commonplace to make ten-year stock market forecasts, but these have become a joke in recent years. Back in 1990 when the Dow was at 2900, the “consensus forecast” among market analysts for the year 2000 was a lofty 6,000. In fact, it passed through 11,000 earlier this year.

Some of the many wrong-headed technological predictions over the years are legendary and regularly circulate in e-mail messages these days:

  • After evaluating the new “telephone” in 1876, Western Union concluded that “the device is inherently of no value to us.”
  • Lord Kelvin, the chemist and President of the Royal Society in 1895 declared that “heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.”
  • French Marshall Ferdinand Foch (just before World War One) concluded that “airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value.”
  • Radio pioneer David Sarnoff was told by potential investors in the 1920s that “the wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value.”
  • Or remember the skeptical Jack Warner, President of Warner Brothers movie studio in 1927, asking “who the hell wants to hear actors talk?”
  • Then there was Thomas J. Watson, Chairman of IBM, in 1943: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
  • And Bill Gates in 1981: “640K [of memory] ought to be enough for anybody.”

Far more significant, though, are the widely varying predictions relating to our global future — the ultimate fate of humankind. At this conference alone, we were offered two very different visions of the future. On the one hand, a multi-media plenary presentation warned us of a potential Armageddon — a war to end all wars in a very different sense from what the American President Woodrow Wilson promised after World War One — if we don’t radically change our course. In another conference presentation, however, we were told that human societies are being propelled by an energy-driven pulse — a steep parabola of fossil-fueled growth and inevitable, unavoidable decline — yet a “prosperous” downsizing rather than a great crash is quite feasible.

In sharp contrast, a blithely optimistic vision is being touted these days by the best-selling author Robert Wright in a new book with a portentous title that was borrowed from game theory, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny. Wright assures us that the current era is only the “storm before the calm.” A magnificent new structure of global prosperity and world government is being erected before our eyes, he says.

Predicting the future — the ultimate balm against the uncertainties of life — is a very ancient pastime. The Old Testament is full of inspired prophesies. In Western social thought, the philosopher Aristotle was perhaps the first to propose that human societies had an inherent direction or destiny, what he called an “entelechy”. Later on, Aristotle’s vision was appropriated and re-packaged by various Christian theologians, though with a different end in view.

Much later still, during the European Enlightenment era, “progress” (with a capital “P”) became the “consensus forecast” (so to speak). For example, the Marquis de Condorcet, one of the so-called Philosophes, turned the ideal of human progress into a sequence of ten developmental “epochs”. Condorcet also had a grand vision — later adopted by Karl Marx — of a future utopia in which material inequalities, class differences and immorality would be eliminated. “The time will come,” Condorcet wrote, “when the sun will shine only upon a world of free men who recognize no master except their reason, when tyrants and slaves, priests and their stupid or hypocritical tools, will no longer exist except in history or on the stage.”

In a similar vein, the 19th century English polymath Herbert Spencer formulated a “Universal Law of Evolution” that encompassed physics, biology, psychology, sociology and ethics. In effect, Spencer deduced society from energy by positing a sort of cosmic progression from energy (which he characterized as an external and universal “force”) to matter, life, mind, society and, finally, complex civilizations. Spencer also envisioned a future in which industrial progress would lead to an end of wars and a withering away of the state.

Though the dream of being able to predict the course of the human career retained its seductive appeal in the 20th century, it has often seemed as if Cassandra and Pollyanna were at war with each other. On the one hand, we had prophets of doom like the biologist Paul Ehrlich, whose book The Population Bomb was a best-seller in the 1970s. Even more disturbing were the gloomy predictions generated by the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth models, which produced an impassioned controversy.

On the other hand, “futurists” like Herman Kahn of the Hudson Institute were quite sanguine about having a world population of 15 billion or more, while the well-known anthropologist Raoul Narroll analyzed the historical trend toward ever larger political aggregates and concluded that the probabilities for achieving a world state ranged from the year 2125 (with a 40 percent probability) to 2750 (a 95 percent probability). Anthropologist Robert Carneiro came to a similar conclusion but used a different methodology. He projected forward the historical trend toward a decreasing number of independent political units and declared that, provided nuclear annihilation can be avoided, “a world state cannot be far off.” It is a matter of centuries or even decades, not millennia, he declared.

Even the founding father of Sociobiology, distinguished biologist Edward O. Wilson, joined the futurist parade in a 1970s book coauthored by Charles Lumsden titled Genes, Mind and Culture, where he advanced what he called an “autocatalytic” theory of cultural evolution. “The ultimate triumph of both human sociobiology and the traditional social sciences would be to correctly explain and predict trends in cultural evolution on the basis of their own axioms….Will the social sciences…be able to explain history more fully and perhaps even predict with moderate accuracy? We believe the answer is yes, at least on a limited scale….The prediction of history is a worthwhile venture.”

All the evidence suggests the contrary. Forecasting the future is a very hazardous business, at least if you care at all about being correct. Some of these hazards were addressed at our conference, in one of our World Congress symposium panels. The bottom-line was that forecasting is useful, but we must always be prepared for the unexpected and the unpredictable. This symposium panel reminded me of one of the more memorable statements by the American President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, based on his experience as a wartime leader in World War Two. “Plans are useless,” he said, “but planning is indispensable.”

The problem with forecasting the future is that living systems are not exemplars of ideal types or slaves to linear forces but are messy, historical phenomena. The “caprices” of history are not simply quirks, anomalies or blips; they are not temporary road-blocks that can be got around. They are major causal variables, an integral part of the causal dynamics. In other words, historical processes require a science of history — a science that encompasses and integrates contingent, historical influences. Deterministic, law-driven theories of evolution — or of human history — are destined to fail.

Let me give you one illustration: The computer scientist/psychologist John H. Holland in his latest book, Emergence: From Chaos to Order (1998) asks: “How do living systems emerge from the laws of physics and chemistry? Can we explain consciousness as an emergent property of certain kinds of physical systems?” Holland, who is one of the leading figures at the Santa Fe Institute, concedes that emergence can be defined in various ways, and that many aspects remain “enigmatic”. He confines his attention only to the sub-set of systems that are “rule-governed” — like chess, he says — systems in which “a small number of rules or laws can generate surprising complexity.” Of course, laws don’t “generate” anything or “govern” anything. They identify regularities in relationships, and in the patterns of causation in dynamic processes; we characterize these formulations as “laws” because they allow us to generalize and make predictions.

But that aside, Holland’s example serves to illustrate the basic problem with a deterministic approach to explaining evolution, and especially complexity. Even in chess (to use Holland’s metaphor), you cannot utilize the rules to predict history — that is, the course of any given chess game. Indeed, you cannot even reliably predict the next move in a chess game. Why? Because the “system” involves more than the rules of the game. It also involves the players and their unfolding, moment-by-moment decisions among a very large number of available options at each choice point. The game of chess is inescapably historical, even though it is also constrained and shaped by a set of rules, not to mention the laws of physics. In other words, human knowledge, human creativity, and human folly are integral parts of the historical process, for better or worse.

Nevertheless, there is much to be gained by taking a long view and considering thoughtfully the problem of sustainability for future generations. If we cannot make unequivocal predictions, we can make many useful “if-then” predictions based on specific contingencies. This, I believe, will be the primary challenge for the new millennium, and for the systems sciences. To use Alan Lightman’s image, we are like a speeding train without an engineer. It is time to climb aboard and seize the throttle.

One useful starting point for peering into the future is the concept of synergy. Each of us has an array of basic needs that must, by and large, be satisfied continuously. We cannot, for instance, do for very long without fresh water, or waste elimination, or sleep. Accordingly, each of us — individually and collectively — requires a synergistic “package” of resources and suitable environmental conditions. A society that can reliably provide this package will thrive and possibly grow larger. But if even one of these needs is not satisfied — if any part of the package is deficient — the entire enterprise is likely to be threatened.

Over the course of the past 10,000 years, since the rise of civilization, many new technologies have been developed that enhance our ability to provide for our basic needs (and much more besides). But the Faustian bargain is that we have also become the captives of these technologies. I call it the paradox of dependency. The more valuable a resource or a technology is, the more dependent we become and the greater the cost of losing it. Thus, many of our technologies also amount to “basic needs” that are also vital to our survival. For instance, the very idea of a modern industrial society without electrical power, high-speed transportation and long-range communications is unthinkable.

These bedrock needs frame the nature of the problem we confront, and they allow us to make a great many contingent, “if-then” forecasts. But that is all we can legitimately do. We cannot make unqualified predictions about the future because we do not, and cannot, know in advance all of the variables that will affect its course, including our actions, or inactions.

For example, we can safely predict that there will someday soon be an upper limit to human population growth. As the economist Herbert Stein has observed: “If something can’t go on forever, it won’t.” However, we can only guess what that ceiling will be, much less when and how it will be reached. If by some miracle we were able to institute rigorous world-wide population control measures, our ability to predict global population size would measurably improve.

Nevertheless, we still might not be able to anticipate the negative effects on population growth of such looming threats as global warming, pandemic diseases, monster earthquakes or climate-altering volcano eruptions. (When Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupted in 1816, its enormous dust cloud affected weather conditions — and crops — as far away as New England for many months afterward. The locals referred to it as “the year without a summer.”)

We can also observe many potentially serious future survival threats. If major steps are not taken to address these challenges, then the ultimate consequences are predictable. I will provide just one example — fresh water. As the New York Times noted in a recent editorial, “the most precious fluid on earth is not oil, but water.” With or without global warming , the world stock of fresh water is being depleted at a rate that will soon threaten our food supply; a major share of the world’s agriculture depends upon artificial irrigation. Drinking water and water for sanitation and industrial uses are also threatened. Even now, some 1.3 billion people (20 percent of the global population) do not have safe drinking water, and at least four million people die each year from water-borne diseases. Within the next 50 years, expected population growth is likely to impose a demand for a 50-100 percent increase in fresh water supplies, a staggering challenge. Yet we are currently depleting many of the lakes, rivers and aquifers that serve existing populations. For instance, the great Ogallala Aquifer, a huge underground river in the American southwest — once the size of Lake Huron — that many people in that region depend upon, will go dry in 20-30 years.

To make matters worse, so-called “megadroughts” are a thing of the future, regardless of global warming. We now know that, over the past 10,000 years alone, global climate changes have often led to prolonged droughts that far surpassed anything we have seen in recent centuries. Indeed, the collapse of many ancient civilizations may well have been caused by these severe, decades-long climate disruptions. Yet we are totally unprepared for a recurrence of this likely event.

Consider this: the state of California, with its rich soil, salubrious climate and the longest growing season in the world, produces 90% of the apricots, 87% of the grapes and avocados, 86% of the peaches, 83% of the lemons and strawberries, 80% of the artichokes and lettuce, 73% of the broccoli and 53% of the cauliflower grown in the United States, along with about one-third of the cherries and pears and a significant percentage of the nation’s oranges, wheat, rice and other crops. California also currently has a population of about 33 million people that is projected to grow to 49 million by 2025. Unfortunately, California is one of the areas that has been susceptible to severe megadroughts in the past. And, in a food economy that is increasingly global in scope, many other countries besides the U.S. could be hit with shortages and soaring food prices if another such megadrought were to occur in this state.

One solution might be for Californians to move to Canada. (I am being facetious, I hope.) But a more viable option might be to undertake a long-range development program that could “falsify” this prediction (to use the scientific jargon). Solar power is becoming increasingly competitive, and so are windmills. In the 1980s, when there was a burst of experimentation with new energy technologies, the most advanced windmills could produce energy for about 38 cents per kilowatt-hour. Now the cost is down to 3.5-5.0 cents per kilowatt-hour, and wind farms have been cropping up in such unexpected places as the Iowa corn belt. Within the next decade wind farming may become a major industry. Similar improvements have been occurring in solar technology.

So, if we let our imagination range freely, we can foresee a day in the not too distant future when vast arrays of environmentally-friendly solar and wind-powered energy generators could be coupled to improved water desalinization and purification systems. What now seems like a major threat — namely, a growing shortage of fresh water and future megadroughts — could in time evaporate (excuse the pun). But this outcome is not foreordained. The choice is up to us.

The biologist Garrett Hardin — who is famous for his classic article on “The Tragedy of the Commons” — many years ago penned what remains a profoundly important truth about the human condition:

We cannot predict history but we can make it; and we can make evolution. More: we cannot avoid making evolution. Every reform deliberately instituted in the structure of society changes both history and the selective forces that affect evolution — though evolutionary change may be the farthest thing from our minds as reformers. We are not free to avoid producing evolution: we are only free to close our eyes to what we are doing.

As the philosopher John Locke truly observed more than two centuries ago: “Hell is the truth seen too late.” I cannot predict that there will be another millennial World Congress of the Systems Sciences 1000 years from now, but I am an optimist. So I would like to invite your descendants to attend the 1044th annual meeting of the International Society for the Systems Sciences, a mere 50 generations from now.

However, the main point of my speech is that we need to begin planning for that event now. Our challenges are immense. But so are the opportunities, if we can seize them before it is too late.


Category: Publications