Thursday, August 04, 2005

Utopia or Oblivion

But that brief era ended with Kennedy's assassination (just weeks before Gene Roddenberry completed his first Star Trek proposal), the widening Vietnam War, and the societal turmoil of the second half of the 1960s. The apparent irrationality of Vietnam, the oppressions and angry analyses of them made by and on behalf of racial minorities, Third World populations, students, women and others, plus the continuing nuclear arms race and the first burst of information and alarm concerning environmental issues (both current degradations and dire future prospects), fossil fuel depletion and overpopulation in the near future, all combined to short circuit Utopian optimism and replace it with apocalyptic despair.

Yet interest in the future continued and even accelerated throughout the decade, and well into the 1970s. There were doomsday warnings but also new possibilities for human potential---The '>Population Bomb jostling Castaneda's '>The Teachings of Don Juan on the best-seller list. But most particularly there were new approaches to synthesizing visions of a better future, and the explosive development of a new field of future studies.

The future was part of the public discourse. There were books in paperback like Arthur C. Clarke's'> Profiles of the Future (which Roddenberry read and admired), John McHale's '>The Future of the Future, Robert Theobald's '>Futures Conditional, culminating in the best-seller '>Future Shock by Alvin Toffler, plus works on ecology, media, geopolitics and so on, all with a futures orientation, by people like '>Marshall McLuhan, '>Margaret Mead, '>Gregory Bateson and '>Paul Shepard, among others.

But perhaps the quintessential figure of this period was the thinker who had been at it the longest: '>Buckminster Fuller, who had invented the geodesic dome, and was now in the 60s and 70s providing deep analysis and generative concepts that would remain important for decades, such as "spaceship earth" and his "anticipatory design science."

Fuller also raised the stakes for considering the future. In almost the first words of his Inaugural Address, President Kennedy had stated the central premise of the early 1960s futurists, that of the suddenly real possibilities of utopia or apocalypse: "The world is very different now," Kennedy said. " For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life."

But in a single phrase, Buckminster Fuller re-stated this as a stark either/or. Because of the speed and weight of destructive forces which could only be quelled by a comprehensive solution making the future better for everybody, Fuller concluded that the only choice humankind has for the future is "Utopia or Oblivion."

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