The Soothsayers’ Guild

Lecturing on the history of the future this term has had me turning to other creative endeavours. This post’s title is from a piece of short fiction I’m drafting in my mind during my walks to and from campus. It’s a story about a still-vaguely-contoured medieval/early modern European past, maybe immediately prior to, or after, the Black Death—or in the midst of the Protestant Reformation.

When the future is uncertain, augury is in high demand, and the soothsayers’ guild exploits this niche in the market. I’m not sure about its origins, but these fortune tellers are well-organized across Europe. They convene to organize stories about the future to harmonize their message. Universal stories about the future shape trends across Europe and strengthen the soothsayers’ credibility and authority. With growing power and funds, the guild purchases/breeds some of the fastest horses in Europe and develops their own messenger system with stables all over the landscape, moving information—economic, political, cultural—faster than through traditional means. They realize that access to information is valuable, and so their prophecies blend elements of insider knowledge with their own fictional imaginings/preferences. These are shared in courts, taverns, and town squares (in audience-appropriate formats, of course) to whoever will pay to learn the mysteries of the future. Through stories, the guild indirectly moves armies and influences power throughout the continent, all while captivating the imagination of the masses at the same time.

It’s a clever scheme; and by scheme, I mean scam. And you can imagine the winks as soothsayers pass each other in the street, conducting the medieval equivalent of a subtle fist-bump from under their monkish tunics. Maybe the story follows the adventures of a young, soothsaying apprentice, or maybe it’s told by an older, now-disillusioned member of the guild. Perhaps it’s a swashbuckling adventure, but the plot could also proceed along a quieter, but more sinister, narrative of political intrigue. Maybe it’s hilarious.

Of course, I always ask my students what their paper is about, and then ask what it’s really about. In the background, the story examines the rise of knowledge economies and network societies, the politics of power, and how expertise—real and imagined—manifests itself. Maybe it also takes a satirical swipe at contemporary futurology, especially the pundits who make noisy predictions based on limited analysis or research. Or it could be more a thought-piece on the manner in which expertise can be abused and misconstrued. Or just the power of storytelling. Maybe it will never be written. Maybe it will be great.

Course Outline: History of the Future

My most enjoyable classroom experiences seem to come in Level 3 courses. Perhaps it has something to do with being able to move out of the survey and engage with some more nuanced and complicated material, all while sharing it with a diverse student group (McMaster’s History Department restricts entry into our Level 4 seminars to Honours History students). Also, the topics are fun. This semester, I have returned to my “History of the Future” class. I shared the last iteration of the syllabus here. This version is markedly different, and I may try to share some of the lectures here in due course.


The course examines how past societies imagined the future, working on the premise that historians can fruitfully be interested in what pasts didn’t happen. In principle, I try to stress the relationship between technology and historical imaginations of the future and the influential feedback loop between them. The class slowly works its way through utopian and dystopian visions of machines, cities, fiction, and the vocabulary of futurism, before turning its attention to environmental futures—and how modelling, predicting, and fearing environmental crisis has a rich and important history worth exploring.

On Scientific Literacy

Directly and indirectly, I spend a lot of time thinking about scientific literacy. My work on Barry Commoner, for example, treated this topic extensively, as Commoner sought to develop a method of communicating a vernacular science to the public so they could participate in pressing environmental debates. And, more recently, I’m revisiting similar themes when it comes to the relationship between science and policy and expertise and public interests while broaching the history of mercury pollution.

Not so long ago, while looking for something else, I stumbled across this really interesting talk by Alice Bell, which does an excellent job of summing up the nature of scientific literacy and the difference or tensions between an informed public and scientists as effective communicators. It’s well worth a listen, and you can link to it here.

My interest in the history of knowledge communication has a great deal to do with the contemporary problem of scientific literacy, especially as these relate to the environment. I’m reminded of the conclusion to Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air-Pump, where they write:

Our present-day problems of defining our knowledge, our society, and the relationships between them centre on … dichotomies between the public and the private, [and] between authority and expertise. … We regard our scientific knowledge as open and accessible in principle, but the public does not understand it.  Scientific journals are in our public libraries, but they are written in a language alien to the citizenry.  We say that our laboratories constitute some of our most open professional spaces, yet the public does not enter them.  Our society is said to be democratic, but the public cannot call to account what they cannot comprehend.  A form of knowledge that is the most open in principle has become the most closed in practice.

Outline of a Plan for an Approach to a Book Proposal

New year. Among my resolutions is to write more. The blog counts, but I can feel the backlog of writing projects starting to pile up on my psyche. This is compounded by the discovery of ever new projects that pique my curiosity. The following is one of them. This is more half-baked, but it is inspired by an interest in the economists who engaged with the question of sustainable development after the Stockholm conference (I’ve written briefly about that here and here). But I think there’s a fascinating and overlooked human-interest story in the “gurus” whose activities coalesced in UNEP, the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, and the International Foundation for Another Development. These “usual suspects” played a critical and under appreciated role in the development of contemporary environment thought and policy.

Before Sustainable Development

Forged as a compromise between Northern environmental interests and Southern development needs, sustainable development persists as a universal buzzword charged with bringing international parties with competing priorities to the same table. But as a praxis for reducing global environmental deterioration while encouraging economic growth, sustainable development has failed.  As environmental pollution and resource scarcity issues intensify and global poverty expands, modeling global survival around sustainability seems a hard sell. There remains, however, a kernel of value in sustainable development’s inception that warrants careful historical attention.

This project explores the intellectual and economic thought—and, more directly, the network behind it—that fostered the global environmental governance trend towards sustainable development. On the eve of the seminal 1972 United Nations Conference on Humans and the Environment, which met in Stockholm, Conference director Maurice Strong gathered together a diverse and international group of development economists in an informal meeting outside of Geneva. Their task was to rationalize the traditional tensions between environmental protection and economic growth, especially as it pertained to the developing world. Strong called this network of experts his gurus; in addition to Strong, and his co-organizers Barbara Ward, Mahbub ul Haq, and Gamani Corea, the list of attendees included Ignacy Sachs, Samir Amin, Enrique Iglesias, Felipe Herrera, William Kapp, Miguel Ozorio de Almeida, Pitambar Pant, Jan Tinbergen, and Shigeto Tsuru. The group’s composition covered the economic and political spectrum, ranging from liberal to communist sensibilities. But all actors—coming from all over the planet—shared a genuine and apolitical commitment to the search for non-partisan solutions to the global environmental crisis while also looking forward to an environmentally and economically robust future. The subsequent Founex Report called for the integration of environment and development strategies and stressed that while concern over the state of the environment was galvanized by production and consumption patterns in the industrialized world, the global environmental crisis was just as much a result of underdevelopment and poverty. This last-minute report was an important factor in persuading many developing countries to attend the Stockholm Conference, but it also served to highlight the conference’s global emphasis.

A second Founex meeting was held in 1974 under the auspices of the newly created United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and concentrated on problems relating to shelter, nutrition, education, health, and integrated rural development. To the members of the meeting, these were environmental issues and international attention to them as environmental concerns was critical. At the second meeting, participants also deliberated on coining a new term for the reconciliation between environmental and economic imperatives. Their term, “eco-development,” articulated the need to harmonize economic and ecological factors while also assuring local sovereignty, all of which disappeared under the evolution of sustainable development (which came later) from concept to globalizing practice.

This network’s influence stretched well beyond UNEP and these two Founex meetings. The same usual suspects were instrumental in guiding the Third World Forum’s development initiatives at the same time, and most were centrally involved in later projects with the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation and the International Foundation for Another Development. Indeed, tracing the history and interactions within this network is an exercise in unraveling the economic and intellectual politics of 1970s development praxis, dominant currents of which persist.

I mean to investigate the historical impulse, interaction, and idealism behind the network’s concept of eco-development, while situating its actors and ideas in proper global historical context. As defined by those who coined it, eco-development was never practiced but its premise is not lost to history. Neither, too, is the altruistic sentiment that motivated the specialists who worked to realize a global green future.

Sustainable development has become a praxis whose definition has shifted over time and place. Its history indicates that its goals are increasingly obscured by short-term political compromising, international economic pressures, and diffusion. While the vagaries of the idea are appealing insofar as they can bring wildly disparate parties together and breed a superficial consensus, the fact that sustainability means different things to different people has resulted in little substantive change in terms of lasting efforts and successes in curbing the global environmental crisis. To make matters worse, just as sustainability and sustainable development have crashed into the popular imagination, they have continued to evolve without a clear notion of what the goal of global environmental politics should be.

“Sustainable development” was introduced in the 1987 Brundtland Commission’s report, Our Common Future; its definition—”sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”—stands as the pivotal interpretation of how 21st-century economists, politicians, and citizens have come to think about the relationship between sustainability and development. Our Common Future is a remarkable document and one that requires special consideration, especially for its emphasis on social equity and its relationship to ecological prudence. Historians tend to overlook the text’s significance and, indeed, the discussion therein. In short, the report has been synthesized and reduced to the definition above, which overlooks the text’s critical reading of globalizing economic growth, which has nevertheless come to typify “sustainable development.”

My research aims to complicate our understanding of sustainable development’s intentions by looking for its origins in the global environmental diplomacy of the early 1970s. In so doing, I explore four broader themes that will help to inform my analysis and contribute to communicating its resonance to a number of academic disciplines.

  • Examine and communicate the complex and altruistic intentions behind the ideas that ultimately manifested themselves as sustainable development. I am especially interested in historicizing the term “eco-development,” which serves as an important precedent to the global language of sustainability.
  • Trace the fascinating network of development actors who shaped the rhetoric and mentality of the global movement toward sustainable development. I am as intrigued with the human story within this network as I am with their successes and failures in dictating global praxis.
  • Explore the historical relationships between radical and liberal environmental paradigms as they manifested themselves in global discourse.
  • The years between 1968 and 1978 constitute the most receptive period to global environmental concern and awareness; I seek to explain this phenomenon by situating its actors within a broader historical analysis.
  • Consider the heretofore under-examined relationship between environmental history and development studies.

Much of my recent work on the science of understanding global environmental pollutants has engaged environmental policy and UN environmental initiatives. This project investigates parallel elements of that work, drawing on the interests of social scientists and their contributions to arresting environmental decline. Histories of the environmental crisis have typically maintained regional or national points of focus, but it seems that an international or global lens allows for a richer avenue of inquiry into efforts to curb environmental problems. That global perspective invites a multiplicity of new and different voices into the environmental discourse.

Inspired by loose ends in my earlier project on the history of sustainability, this project is very much in its incipient stages. I do, however, think there is a book project here—and, more importantly, research materials and oral histories with key actors that can be conducted while I also pursue my interests in the toxic century. I anticipate that I will be able to complete an outline for the project and have a clean draft of a manuscript by the end of the seven-year period (this in addition to shorter publications).

Visions of the Future

I’m working towards teaching a renewed version of my History of the Future course. The new iteration in January will be a significant departure from the last time I taught it (2009 syllabus here). Once I have finalized the syllabus, I’ll be sure to share it.

In the meantime, however, I spent a lazy afternoon reading around the internet. In the space of a couple of hours, I stumbled across two rather competing ideas about the future and how society should prepare for them. Sort of. Let me back up: A new part of the day-to-day life of teaching in the humanities has been the perpetual siege mentality associated with the “decline of the humanities,” as students worry about jobs and migrate towards the sciences and engineering. I have some strong feelings about this and why the Humanities are more important now than ever, and why students should be migrating towards History, Philosophy, Languages, etc., but I should spare that rant for another day. But back to my Saturday afternoon (which also included some bike-wrenching, house-tidying, and Uno-playing). The first of two excerpts from pop icons when it comes to imagining the Humanities and the future:

Michio Kaku in the New York Times.

Kaku, a theoretical physicist and veritable celebrity futurist (find me a documentary or clip on futurism or physics that doesn’t include an interview with him), offers up some interesting ideas of what the future might look like. Very little is offered by means of suggesting how we will get there. Some seems plausible and some seems dubious. Kaku also makes an impassioned case for greater science training as necessary for the future. His conclusion:

How will we reach such a future? The key is to grasp the importance of science and science education. Science is the engine of prosperity.

Leaders in China and India realize that science and technology lead to success and wealth. But many countries in the West graduate students into the unemployment line by teaching skills that were necessary to live in 1950.

Years ago, pundits worried about a “digital divide.” It never happened, because access to computers became cheaper and cheaper. The real problem, however, is not access; it is jobs. Plenty of jobs are begging to be filled today, but those jobs require workers with a technical and scientific education.

If I was buying what he was selling before the conclusion (I wasn’t: “perfect capitalism“??), he lost me. Phrased somewhat differently, though, I suspect he and I might find some common ground in lamenting the dissolution of science literacy. I wish more people were scientifically literate, so that real discussion and debate could take place around a variety of important issues, from climate change to genetically modified foods and beyond. A broader grasp of science and science understanding throughout the populace would be a healthy thing. But this is different from Kaku’s desire to see more people trained in science—while he basically dismisses the Humanities as archaic pastimes that only serve as a one-way ticket to unemployment.

I need to articulate my reading on the contemporary and continuing importance of the Humanities (coming soon), but for now this George Lucas quotation provides a rather nice rebuttal (via Brain Pickings):

The sciences are the “how,” and the humanities are the “why” — why are we here, why do we believe in the things we believe in. I don’t think you can have the “how” without the “why.

Lucas clearly values the sciences, but offers a rather intelligent reading of science literacy—and, really, literacy in general. I spend a lot of time thinking about the advances we make in science, technology, and the marketplace, and worrying that we are moving more quickly than contemporary society can evaluate. The toxic century is a product of science and technology and their supporters acting hubristically with the conceit of believing that nature can be remade with synthetic materials. The health hazards associated with radioactive fallout was investigated after aboveground nuclear weapons testing had spread strontium-90, iodine-131, et al. throughout the environment.

I have on my office door a cartoon of two cavemen, holding spears, surrounded by stone wheels, fire, and other stone age accoutrements. One says to the other: “Let’s concentrate on science and technology for two thousand years—then we can develop a value system.” The point is plain. Kaku would see us reinvent the wheel and possibly lose sight of the forest for the trees in the meantime…

Word Clouding History




A lazy start to the morning, and I found myself messing around with word clouds. The above is a sample drawn from my book, Barry Commoner and the Science of Survival: The Remaking of American Environmentalism (MIT Press, 2007). A word cloud reflects the frequency with which words are used in a given text. Not surprisingly, “Commoner,” “environmental,” “science,” “public,” and “information” feature prominently. It is also interesting to note trends or foibles in my own writing—words not necessarily specific to the work upon which I seem to lean fairly heavily.

This is all a bit of fun, and perhaps a new kind of “academic” vanity searching, if you like. But it occurs to me that there is some intriguing utility in this exercise, and one that might be worth investigating further in a more research-oriented context. It would be interesting follow word-choice trends in media reporting on environmental issues over time, or develop a word cloud of the language of the toxic century, noting, too, the point at which certain terms or toxins enter our lexicon and the success of their integration (yesterday, for example, I lectured on the development of the environmental endocrine hypothesis, and how prior to the 1990s environmental fears almost exclusively focused on cancer as the environmental disease). Compiling further data on sustainability and sustainable development in United Nations reports or academic journal literature or newspapers might also yield some interesting results. Some of this data collection might be more effectively cultivated and presented in more traditional charts and tables, but there is something visually stimulating about the word cloud.

Perhaps this is worth introducing into the undergraduate classroom as some kind of research and analytical tool or assignment…

Temporality & Sustainability

Here’s a short piece I wrote for a workshop last year at McMaster’s Institute for Globalization and the Human Condition. It sought to bring together a variety of different themes from across different projects in my work. I’m not sure this short writing venture worked, but it offers a quick look at the problematique of sustainability in its contemporary parlance, which is something I am currently revisiting. I’ve become  re-interested in the relationship between global environmentalism and development questions, especially as they relate to the rise of “sustainable development.” I wrote a bit about this here, and would like to explore the behind-the-scenes efforts of the Founex meetings in the 1970s and their efforts to articulate a definition for “eco-development.” More on that to follow.

Time, Globalization, and the Human Condition

Sustainability has gone mainstream. It now serves as the universally accepted cornerstone of political and ethical guidelines for dealing with the planet’s ecological and social crisis. Just as environmental issues are now entrenched within the popular media, sustainability and sustainable development have become global buzzwords that unite environmentalists, legislators, and industry the world over. As a result, the politics of sustainable development constitute a happy marriage of Northern environmental lobbies and Southern development interests, identifying and communicating their common concerns and building multilateral cooperation toward realizing a greener and more prosperous world.

Here’s the rub: sustainability is a concept whose definition has shifted over time and place. Its history indicates that its goals are increasingly obscured by short-term political compromising and diffusion. While the vagaries of the idea are appealing insofar as they can bring wildly disparate parties together and breed a superficial consensus, the fact that sustainability means different things to different people has resulted in little substantive change in terms of lasting efforts and successes in curbing the global environmental crisis. To make matters worse, just as sustainability and sustainable development have crashed into the popular imagination, they have continued to evolve without a clear notion of what the goal of global environmental politics should be.

This is a problem that strikes at the very root of contemporary global environmental governance, and it is bound in sustainability’s complicated past. While sustainability’s political history can be traced through a series of Earth summits and studies—notably Our Common Future—and more focused international conventions that were initiated shortly after the creation of the United Nations, its intellectual history is far older and more nebulous. Both histories and their interactions are pivotal for a deeper understanding of the political climate that is steering our contemporary efforts to address the tenuous state of the global environment.

While a more detailed analysis of sustainability’s place in time might carefully consider its intellectual heritage—from, it seems, the German “Nachhaltigkeit,” which was coined in print by Hans Carl von Carlowitz in 1713 in a book titled Silvicultura Oeconomica—and link that to its place in global environmental governance, situating sustainability in a discussion of temporality raises some interesting questions about its applications. As an historian, I’m drawn to sustainability because of its implicit interaction with time. So many efforts to engage with the environment are static. They assume nature, societies, and civilization are immobile objects on a canvas that can be moved, altered, or bandaged. Insofar as sustainability plans for (or predicts) a greener future, it is conscious of the fact that time moves and so do people, ecologies, and hazards. Historicizing sustainability provides an important contextual lens for engaging with contemporary debates about our environmental future, but I think it also serves a further intellectual purpose insofar as history can help to illuminate one of the foundational obstacles associated with misunderstandings or miscommunications about applying sustainability in a global context. The evolution of sustainability as an idea has emerged out of older strains of environmental thinking that can be linked to stewardship, husbandry, management, conservation, and ecology. With these intellectual ancestors, sustainability shares an energetic capacity for planning for the future, but it is unique insofar as it gives little or no thought to the past. As an unfortunate result, sustainability implies a concerted effort to imagine a greener future, but this effort suggests as its goal an unrealistic end of crisis—or end of history.

And its future, too. The future is always just an idea, a proposal, a scenario, rather than an orchestrated series of events. One of the enduring challenges in realizing a more sustainable future consists of re-engaging with how we might plan for the future. Political and economic imperatives tend to put emphasis on a shorter timeframe that lacks pragmatic viability when the environmental stakes are so high. Rather, sustainability debates should be reaching for a much more sophisticated and expansive notion of time. Planning one year into the future, or two or twenty frequently lacks the kind of foresight and breadth of perspective that might help to plan for mitigating our environmental trespasses. Our contemporary notion of “the here and now”—in which our political and economic decisions are made—is frequently constrained to some variant of “this place and this week.” A more effective brand of sustainability demands a more ambitious interpretation of time, looking and planning much further into the future. Thinking sustainably involves ensuring clean air, soil, and water, an abundance of resources and amenities, and innovative planning, if not in perpetuity—how long is sustainability for?—for a very long time. Gambling on a future technological fix coming in the near future does not constitute sound planning (history says we have been very good at planning for these, and not very good at realizing them).

So: to globalization. One of the important developments in environmental history over the past number of years is that material nature’s motility does not adhere to the boundaries of the nation state. Resources, contaminants, people, and ideas are constantly on the move, making global connections that transform how we should think about environmental crises. Tropical rainforest destruction satiates Northern tastes for beef; mercury-based fungicides banned in the developed world found their way to developing nations; climate change—rising seas and desertification—has initiated an unprecedented form of human migration. To engage with greater sustainability—or, perhaps, more usefully, greater resilience—necessarily involves not just a re-envisioning of temporality, but also a broader geographical context.

Criticisms of the idea aside, sustainability possesses an energetic (and hopeful) capacity for inclusive planning for the future, which is a much-needed quality in contemporary environmental practice. And its meteoric rise in social, political, economic, and cultural circles warrants careful attention as a valuable lens or portal through which we can examine critical aspects of global politics and nature’s impact on the human condition across a multitude of places and through time, backwards and forwards.