Une brève histoire de l'avenir (A Brief History of the Future)

Jacques Richardson (Member of foresight's Editorial Board)


ISSN: 1463-6689

Article publication date: 24 July 2007



Richardson, J. (2007), "Une brève histoire de l'avenir (A Brief History of the Future)", Foresight, Vol. 9 No. 4, pp. 63-64. https://doi.org/10.1108/14636680710773849



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2007, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Economist, essayist, historian, corporate strategist, cultural critic – and co‐founder of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development – Jacques Attali has produced a powerful analysis of what the world could really be 2035, 2050 and even later. The promise proves intriguing, albeit somewhat variable round the world.

In the first third of the volume, Attali gives us an admirable lesson in how centers of world trade and innovation arose and thrived and provided lessons for the future. These foci shifted geographically ever westwards: first Bruges and Venice, then Antwerp, Genoa, Amsterdam; and then London, followed by Boston, New York and now Los Angeles. He calls these cities “forms” of “market democracy”. The implication is that soon these market “hearts” will cross to the Pacific's Asian shores. All the while, it has become patent that a spreading mercantile world (or capitalism) needs a democracy‐like freedom in order to flourish – and vice‐versa.

But now to the future, what Attali's book is all about.

An ageing demography: life expectancy in developed countries should exceed a 90‐year average by 2025. Over‐85s in the USA will surpass 10 millions that same year. Over‐65s will have risen from 4 percent in 1900 to 33 percent by 2025; over‐65s in Japan will be 45 percent of the population, in China 22 percent. In France those 85+ years will double between 2008 and 2018. The birth of 5.1 children per South Korean mother in 1950 fell to 1.5 in 2000. We can expect net losses in total population, however, among Russians and Germans. An after‐effect of these changes will be further liberation of the woman from “masculine domination” (p. 195).

China in 2025: by then the world's “second economic power” (p. 171), China's GDP should overtake Japan's by 2015 (and that of the USA by 2040). With 4.5 percent of world GDP today, the figure should glide past 7 percent in 2015 and approximate 15 percent by 2025. In the same year China will have an annual, per capita income of $6,000, reflecting a middle class of hundreds of millions. The country will still enjoy an excess in balance of payments. But much needs to be done by then to overcome today's 90 percent of the population lacking retirement or health‐insurance coverage.

Natural resources

By 2035, the virtual doubling of urban populations will also double the demand for raw materials – although most of these resources will still be available to some degree by the end of the twenty‐first century. Attali foresees, to give an example, two more centuries' worth of gold and silver. Recycling, as a substitute, should provide at least what we derive today (in percentage) from lead (47), aluminium (40), copper (38), and perhaps more. The 22 percent of household plastics now recycled should, alas for the environment, increase. Once the land's supplies of metals have gone, Attali estimates that we shall seek iron, titanium and other minerals beneath the oceans and on the Moon.

Because of Homo sapiens's devoted relationship with market forces, our species will want more and more protection from the randomness of the fortunes of business as well as coverage of the risks germane to financial trading. The risk/insurance industries are likely to become, with their profits, the leading commercial sector. This projection includes, of course, micro‐insurance initiatives. To such assurances will be added expanded social‐security regimes. The USA, with a population of some 420 million by the year 2040, is likely to remain this economic field's leader.

Contradiction vs consistency

It is here that author Attali seems to contradict an otherwise directly prognostic approach: a USA strong and primary on the one hand, but, on the other, an America doomed to the lesser status of earlier empires or other leading nations. Which might it be? It is also at this point in his futurist account that Attali envisages world‐ level national outcomes that he labels “hyperempire” (Orwell's 1984, but with a vengeance), “hyperconflict” (wars without end and even real purpose), and “hyperdemocracy” (a future too providential to be pragmatic). He calls these potential developments “waves of the future”, but none of the three configurations – extremes of governance that simply will not fit – appears, the author admits, to be humankind's panacea.

Throughout his book Attali remains irrevocably confident about one theme: “merchant growth … ” (i.e. market democracy), which “essentially in China and the Muslim world … will create roundabout 2035 a middle class that will eliminate dictatorship and install parliamentary democracy” in corresponding regions (p. 243). It is from this anticipated benchmark – and the author puts his readers on guard thereby – that the three hypers just mentioned could emerge. As one result, “Islam, Hinduism and Confucianism [would] no longer oppose democracy; each of these ancient wisdoms will even claim paternity to democracy” (p. 244).

Attali remains firmly pessimistic (his message is clear on this point) about contentment in the Africa of tomorrow.

The author finishes his long glimpse at a future world with some acerbic views regarding his own country. He damns France for never having spawned a sufficiently “creative class” of navigators, engineers, scientists, merchants and entrepreneurs, or even financiers and industrialists. Instead there has been a plethora of theoreticians, patronage artists and administrators unwilling to take risks that a progressive society should have the courage to foster (pp. 396‐397). Given France's achievements since the Middle Ages, the criticism seems harsh.

The author has mastered his statistics admirably (the book is full of figures, albeit undocumented ones), and the fact that more than a dozen foreign‐language editions of the volume are being published speaks for itself. (As of this writing the English version is still being negotiated.)

I do not recall coming across the author's use of the term scenario, and yet A Brief History of the Future is a multicultural, complex and persuasive megascenario, with some subtly contrasting subscenarios built‐in. It is presented intelligently in historical context, too, by an admirably well‐informed and perceptive author.

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