Apocalypse Later: Looking Back at 2008 from the Future
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Being a futurologist means never having to say you're sorry. Our predictions always come true eventually -- or, if they don't, well, how quickly people forget. Look at Newsweek's George Will. He predicted that the Berlin Wall would endure, and in an article published on the very day in 1989 that the Germans were tearing it down. That should have been enough to revoke his futurology license and demote him to sports writing. But no, almost three decades later he's still peering into his crystal ball.
Never apologize, never look back: that's our motto.
But this time -- think of it as the exception that proves the rule -- I really screwed up. We all did.
If you look back at the predictions we made in 2008 about the United States and the world, you'll see just how wrong we were. Today, in 2016, it's time for a mea culpa on behalf of the profession. Both camps, you see, were wrong. The Chicken Littles who predicted dramatic catastrophe were just as far from the mark as the Panglossian utopians who predicted dramatic change for the better.
Of course we have our excuses. Our minds were clouded by eight years of the Bush administration's foreign policy -- if you can even call it that -- which obscured our vision like a stinging sandstorm. In those days, it was natural to believe one of two things. Either the world was going to end with a bang (and soon), or a new administration would come into office in 2009, open up all Washington's doors and windows, and give the place a good airing out.
No one anticipated what would really happen over the two terms of the Obama administration, even though that's the job of us futurologists -- and I was one of the best paid in the profession.
Where did we go wrong? How could I have been so blind? That's what I'm going to try my best to explain.
Hope v. the Abyss
Maybe you don't even remember the summer of 2008 any more. The last period has not, politely put, been easy, so who can be blamed for a little memory loss? Aren't we all suffering from a bit of PTSD?
Let me take you back to that summer when the Panglossians were saying: Sniff the air, change is just around the corner -- and the Chicken Littles were replying: Sniff the air, you can smell the approaching flames.
Certainly, the pessimists had the weight of history on their side. The Bush administration, they were arguing, had so transformed the United States and the world that it simply wasn't possible to undo the damage. If not by water, they warned, then the fire next time would scorch the earth free of us. And that fire had the potential to come from almost any direction.
We had had only a narrow window of opportunity to deal with climate change, and the Bush team made sure to slam that window shut. We needed to go all out to find sustainable sources of energy, and instead the administration was all about oil. If the Middle East was not exactly the Garden of Eden when George W. came into office, the president had unfortunately taken his inspiration from the Book of Revelations, not the Book of Genesis. The result was: Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Israel-Palestine, and let's not forget Afghanistan.
And then there were those budget deficits. In 2000, the United States recorded the largest budget surplus in its history: $230 billion. In 2002, even before the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration had already swung the country completely around and $159 billion into the red. By the summer of 2008, we were averting our eyes from the ugly truth that the year would end with the largest budget deficit in U.S. history: $425 billion. Some things are too big to fail, we are told. But what happens when the biggest of them all goes down in flames? No one could save the Zeppelin industry when, in 1937, the Hindenburg crashed and burned.
What could the Panglossian optimists offer in response? There was talk of hope. There was talk of change. A new administration would bring the United States back into the family of nations. The cowboys would go back to their ranch. The adults would be back in charge. There would be pseudo-Manhattan Projects and Marshall Plans and New Deals. It would be morning again in America, but this time we would be waking up to the voice of reason in the White House, not the voice of the Gipper.
And the optimists won. Against the odds, just like a Frank Capra movie, hope grabbed the White House in November 2008. Sure, there were some folks who were aghast at the election results. But the rest of us -- including me since, hey, even futurologists have feelings -- were euphoric.
At the height of all this euphoria, that's when I published my first foolish prediction of the future.
Not Exactly Kool-Aid
It's hard now to believe our collective giddiness back at the end of 2008. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the optimists had spiked our water supply with Ecstasy. The new crowd that came to Washington -- okay, it was actually mostly the old crowd from the Clinton years -- seemed to possess unlimited energy and good feeling. And it was as if we futurologists could see for miles and miles and miles into a sunlit future.
Some of you who are old enough or have prodigious powers of recall might remember back to 1992 when the Democrats ended 12 years of Republican rule. That moment, too, generated its share of vaulted expectations. I was a mere novice futurologist at a small Midwestern paper at that time, just learning the ropes. But who knows: if I'd only learned from my mistakes then, maybe I wouldn't have flubbed it so bad in 2008.
In any case, right after the 2008 elections, I sat down and wrote my first report on the new world to come. And you can tell, in retrospect -- more than a few bloggers said so at the time, but who was paying attention? -- that I'd drunk deep from those drug-laced waters.
The new team in Washington, I wrote, would move quickly to clean up the worst messes created by the Bush administration. They would close down Guantanamo and reverse the U.S. position on torture. They would begin the long process of withdrawing troops from Iraq. They would initiate dialogue with Iran and continue engagement with North Korea. They would sit down with Chavez and Castro and even Hamas and Hezbollah. They would sign Kyoto. They would defeat the Taliban and finally capture bin Laden. They would repeal the tax cuts for the wealthy and renegotiate the free trade agreements, and launch an Apollo-style program to develop alternative energies.
Disputatious bloggers aside, the article was well-received. I read positive assessments from inside and outside the Beltway, from both sides of the aisle. Of course, my pessimistic brethren in the profession countered with their own "end is nigh" predictions. The new team wouldn't be able to fulfill any of their promises. It was too late. We stood one minute before midnight on the Doomsday clock, and when that moment passed we wouldn't be at noon, and there would be no Hollywood endings.
As it turned out, we were all wrong.
The Goldilocks Apocalypse
My predictions of what the new team would do in their first 100 days was pretty much spot on. They didn't end up talking with everybody or withdrawing troops quite so rapidly or renegotiating all the free trade agreements, and the energy program was more fireworks than heading for the moon. But they came close enough.
So, if my predictions were reasonably accurate, why am I beating myself over the head eight years later? Because I let personal euphoria turn me into a professional optimist. Somehow I really did convince myself that the new team could turn back the hands on that Doomsday clock. In fact, I thought they could recalibrate calendars as well, and bring us back if not to September 10, 2001, then at least to September 12th -- and that the world would give us another chance to respond, this time with grace under pressure.
But that should be the first, and most obvious, rule of futurology. You can't change the past. The Greeks were right: we walk into the future backwards, our eyes fixed on an unchanging past. When we futurologists turn our heads, Linda Blair-style, to make our predictions, we sin against nature. And sometimes we forget that what lies behind us is indeed immutable.
The new administration did make a lot of changes in its first 100 days. The sheer number and the sheer pace fooled everyone into thinking that change had indeed come to Washington. I thought that the country's trajectory had actually been altered, that a new direction had been set in U.S. policy.
It turns out, though, that apocalypse comes in many different forms. There are the dramatic effects of sword and fire and famine. And then there's the apocalypse of muddling through. That's what happens when you just carry on with the same old, same old and before you know it, poof, end of the world. It's an apocalypse that's neither too cold nor too hot, neither too hard nor too soft. It's the apocalypse of the middle, the Goldilocks apocalypse.
The Politics of Muddling Through
You remember when we finally signed the Kyoto agreement. The new administration made a big deal about it. The president gave the pen to Al Gore, who said that it meant more to him than the Nobel Prize and the Oscar combined.
But the time was already long gone when abiding by Kyoto limits would have been sufficient. Cutting carbon emissions by about 5% of 1990 levels by 2012 -- well, that wasn't a bad target when Kyoto was first negotiated, but that was the 1990s. As we all know today, it turned out not to be nearly good enough in 2009. The new administration should have twisted every arm it could to get a new international consensus on reducing carbon emissions 30% by 2020. It didn't. We celebrated Kyoto, as we celebrated so much else, and then, of course, the waters began to rise appreciably, as did temperatures, as did food and energy prices. And yet it was all reasonably gradual and so everybody just complained. If the numbers had shot up dramatically, all together, all at once, well, perhaps we might have reacted dramatically. Instead, we put off the painful adjustments. We attempted to muddle through.
There was similar rejoicing around the first troop units withdrawn from Iraq. After some local tickertape parades and a couple months of R and R, of course, the soldiers were back in action -- in Afghanistan. We didn't officially invade any other countries. We didn't start any new wars. We simply increased our "commitments" in "existing theaters of operation." We didn't notice that our permanent war economy was humming along at the same rate regardless of troop levels in Iraq.
After all, even though the president made a big deal about canceling a few Cold War weapons systems, he never touched the trillion dollar military budget. Whatever was cut from fighting the Iraq War and eliminating the expensive and unsafe V-22 Osprey helicopter was simply pasted into another part of that budget. The Army was increased by 65,000 soldiers and the Marines by 27,000. Our 800-plus military bases received an expensive make-over, our Special Forces received lots of new high-tech goodies, and we bulked up NATO. And because the president discovered that he couldn't touch the military budget, he was never able to find the funds for the domestic programs that had created so much hope in the electorate: no universal health care, no transformation of the educational system, no boost for working people. Of course, the euro overtaking the dollar as the world currency certainly didn't help matters for the United States.
The resumption of arms control negotiations with the Russians was admittedly a positive sign, but we were really beyond a moment where "signs" were enough. We did eventually retire a few more nukes from our respective arsenals, but the president never took advantage of the new political opening to negotiate significant nuclear reductions. As a result, the countries that had recently acquired nuclear weapons, including North Korea, but going back to India, Pakistan, and Israel, refused to give up their programs. And countries on the threshold of the nuclear club quietly but resolutely continued to develop their capacities. As you know, no one dropped any nukes, nor, despite the dire predictions of the Panglossians, did terrorists use any dirty bombs. But with the death of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, it can happen at any point.
We all thought that closing Guantanamo, ending renditions, and renouncing torture would be enough to salvage America's reputation in the world. And, for a brief time, the polls showed an uptick in global feelings toward the United States. But the president never challenged the deeper framework of the Global War on Terror. He simply promised to prosecute it more effectively. Fearful of being labeled weak on terrorism -- much as he was worried about a similar label applied to his military policy -- the president continued to emphasize military means. As a result, "collateral damage" continued in U.S. attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere. These civilian casualties -- as well as the assassination rather than apprehension of suspected terrorists -- caused America's reputation to decline once again. More importantly, we continued to create two terrorists for every one that we took out in a war without end. We continued to sow our own fields with dragon's teeth.
And while we were still trying to find Osama bin Laden, who has proven as long-lived as he is elusive, we ignored other mounting threats that were not in the official military Red Alert zone. The worst-case scenarios never developed. We thought we'd averted apocalypse. Instead, by tinkering on the edges while basically maintaining the status quo, a different kind of apocalypse, the slow-motion kind, is now upon us.
The Future of Futurology
Here's the latest joke making the rounds on Futurology listservs: Hint for the young -- there's no future in futurology. That's us, always with the gallows humor.
Seriously, though, I haven't forecast the future in two, maybe three years. I was so wrong in 2008 that now I just can't muster the energy. My colleagues are still grinding out predictions. The Chicken Littles are having a field day, of course. The fact that the sky hasn't yet fallen isn't cramping their style. After all, when it comes to the sky, it's always just a matter of time.
I still don't buy the argument of the Chicken Littles, by the way. I was wrong that the administration would change history in 2008, but they are still wrong that the end will come with a bang, not a whimper. In the long run, as the economists say, we're all dead anyway.
We Panglossians have, of course, experienced a natural thinning of the ranks. With the blackouts and the queues at the gas stations, it's hard to be an optimist these days. It's difficult to keep a smile on your face when yet another country conducts a nuclear test and yet another island disappears underneath the rising waves.
As you all know, we're in the middle of another election season now. So there is more talk of hope and change. I've read some of the Panglossian predictions. It's just more of the same - fiddling around at the margins while the world burns. I've tried to warn them. But who listens to me anymore?
My friends sometimes ask what would I have done differently if I could do it all again. That's the biggest if of all. The conditional that never arrives.
Still, here goes: In 2008, I should have dispensed with the optimism, stopped playing the inside-the-Beltway pundit game of influence, and talked straight. I should have written that, unless the new administration fundamentally changed U.S policy -- reducing the nuclear arsenals, cutting the military budget, launching a full-speed effort to halve carbon emissions, abandoning the nonsensical "war on terror" -- we would run the risk of Goldilocks.
I should have said: we seek out the comfortable middle at our own peril. Not too hot and not too cold, not too hard and not too soft, it's a strategy guaranteed to lull anyone into a dangerous complacency. After all, once you've made your bed, however comfortable it may be, you have to lie in it. And it's then, after a few brief moments of self-satisfied sleep, that you're bound to hear the scratching at the door.
The bears are home. And they're hungry.