One reason why we seem to have difficulty in facing up to the future is because we are confused about the relationship between humanity and the making of history. When the Twentieth Century began we regarded the future with optimism and enthusiasm. Most social scientists believed that human progress would ensure that the world would be a better place at the end of the century than at its beginning. This consensus had as its premise the belief that purposeful human activity could change or improve people’s lives for the better. This perspective acted as a general guide for evaluating many of the social and moral problems facing the world. Today we are far less certain about the ideal of human progress and as a result we are hesitant about engaging with uncertainty. Consequently we tend to be trapped in the present and frequently regard the future as a dangerous territory that we would rather not enter.
There is no simple formula for confronting our confusions about the relationship of society to its future. However, one line of approach for tackling this problem is to engage in a grown up dialogue about what it is that we would like to achieve in the 21st century. Having an ideal of where we want to go can at least stimulate a debate about what can be done to influence developments in the future in a positive direction. The key to tackling this question is to succeed in developing a more positive account of human achievement so far.
The main issue that we need to tackle is the powerful mood of misanthropy that afflicts cultural and political life. Society needs to come to terms with its history and develop a more powerful capacity for affirming positive achievement – past and present. Although we pay lip service to knowledge and creativity – there are powerful cultural influences that call into question the status of science, civilisation and humanity’s capacity to do good. These influences encourage us to be cautious, conservative and risk averse – attitudes that lower expectations rather than help us to make the most of opportunities in the future.
Frank Furedi is a contributor to Debating Humanism (buy this book from Amazon (UK)). See his website.