H. G. Wells and “The Prophetic Habit”

26 Aug

I’m presently developing a course on using historical methods to engage in futures thinking. So that got me thinking about the history of future studies. Obviously, there’s an important connection to science fiction. Asimov’s Foundation series is probably the best known example of that.

So it’s no surprise that H.G Wells originated the field of future studies.  We think of Wells today as one of the first science fiction writers, but he was also a historian and futurist. Perhaps the very first futurist. The late Warren Wagar, historian and futurist at SUNY Binghmanton, was the first to make this connection.

In 1901 Wells published  Anticipations of the Reactions of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought, possibly the first attempt to assess the effects of technological change upon society.  In a book from 1906 called The Future in America, Wells called for readers to develop “the prophetic habit.” In this book, he investigated the question: “What is going to happen to the United States of America in the next thirty years or so?” Obviously Wells could not anticipate the world wars or Great Depression–we will leave the distinction between prediction and forecasting for another post–but these books are probably the first systematic efforts at forecasting.

Wells thought it was important to develop the “the prophetic habit” so as not to be blindsided by disruptive change. In a 1932 radio interview, he used the example of the automobile and how it had reshaped English life over the past few decades. He pointed out that “we have thousands and thousands of professors and hundreds of thousands of students of history,” but “there isn’t a single professor of foresight in the world. Well, why shouldn’t there be? Isn’t foresight as important as history?”

At around the same time, Wells called for a “liberal fascism” to counterweigh Italy’s reactionary fascism and to bring about his preferred utopia. Wells was a Fabian socialist and it’s hard to imagine that he favored tyranny and oppression like what was occurring in Italy, Germany, and the Soviet Union. I think what he meant is that collective action is often necessary to effect desirable social change, and that fascism offered a new model of collective action. He certainly rejected Mussolini’s methods, even as he ambivalently admired some of his results.

As I’ve alluded to in a couple posts, we are facing what many futurists are calling a Global MegaCrisis, the convergence of climate change and peak resources. Will this require some kind of heavy-handed response?

Put differently: Does futuring tend toward central planning of some sort? And does central planning inevitably result in repression?

My snap answers are no. I prefer that we all develop Wells’s “prophetic habit” as a central part of democratic deliberation, without falling into his ambivalent embrace of fascist methods.


One Response to “H. G. Wells and “The Prophetic Habit””

  1. Transition Albany August 26, 2012 at 22:49 #

    Here’s a transcript of Wells’s 1932 radio interview.

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