Steve Hochstadt is a professor of history emeritus at Illinois College, who blogs for HNN and LAProgressive, and writes about Jewish refugees in Shanghai.
Every day we can read predictions of the future. Unending polls tell us who might win future elections. Dire predictions about the more distant future speculate about how climate change will alter life on earth. Everybody pays attention to weather forecasts and nobody believes them.
But we don’t know what the future holds. That is both exciting and scary.
It is easy to see that Trump will be impeached with no Republican votes in the House and that he’ll skate by in the Senate. What that means for the 2020 election or his place in history is impossible to say. There is no way to tell which Democrat will oppose him, or how that candidate’s personality and policies will play out in a general election campaign. In the meantime, it is clear from this past year that over the next 11 months Trump will surprise everyone, perhaps many times, with unprecedented statements and behaviors. It is doubtful that any of those shocks will be pleasant.
Over the long-term, basic trends shift or reverse themselves. For about 70 years since the end of World War II, international integration was the obvious course of global economics and politics. Obvious until a few years ago, when nationalist populist movements began to gather steam in Europe, Asia, and the US. Now the nations of the world are drifting apart: Trump’s go-it-alone foreign policy; Brexit; right-wing populism in Eastern Europe, India, Brazil, and many other places. Is this a temporary backlash or the wave of our future?
The unpredictability of the future is demonstrated by the innovations which now shape our lives. It was possible to imagine that one day people could talk on wireless phones and watch each other do it, but who could have known how much cell phones would change our whole lives? Certainly we’ll have driverless cars in a few years, but we don’t know what this will mean for commuting times, energy consumption, and traffic patterns. Maybe commuting itself will gradually disappear as everyone works remotely. The internet, which had little impact before the 1990s,has altered everything.
Every day is unpredictable. No matter how detailed a schedule is written into your day planner, each day will hold many surprises: chance meetings, people doing unexpected things, travel delays.
Sometimes we seek situations for which we don’t know the outcome: sports contests, Christmas presents, surprise parties. Other times we fervently hope that everything turns out as planned: meal preparation, business meetings, airplane travel. Parents try to guess what their babies’ coos and gurgles mean about language development and where they will go to college.
Change is nothing new. During my 70+ years, everything has changed. But most of those changes have been incremental and for the better. American standards of living have risen, technology has created more convenience and power, cars are safer, airplanes are faster, light bulbs last longer. Now we are often told that the future will be worse, that coming generations should expect lower living standards.
We are in the midst of unprecedented climate change, but have no idea how our lives will be changed. Will fires make much of the West uninhabitable? Will millions of people in our coastal cities have to retreat inland? How will American agriculture adapt to higher temperatures and new patterns of rainfall? The hardest consequences to foresee are the ways our daily lives will shift, adapt, conform to or resist these changes.
The unpredictability of the future means that both optimists and pessimists are right – things could go well or poorly. Will our politics be dominated by the willful ignorance of FOX viewers, the narrow-minded zealousness of evangelical preachers, and the hypocrisy of Republican politicians? Or by the idealism of youthful activists trying to save the planet from climate disaster and gun violence? Will misinformation and disinformation propagated by professional liars and foreign enemies swamp the logic and facts carefully assembled by professional journalists?
We can exert some control over the future by taking action to promote the best future. Here are many possible types of protest against the global warming delinquents. But we can’t make other people do the right thing, assuming that we are doing the right thing ourselves. In fact, the unpredictable behavior of people close to us are among the greatest stress producers.
Insurance companies cannot smooth out all the bumps the future will bring. I don’t recommend either optimism or pessimism, but rather openness to the unplanned, willingness to deal with the accidental, readiness to adapt or abandon well-formulated plans to new information.
We ourselves are unpredictable. Why should the world be any different?