Toward the year 1000, western Europe was filled with foreboding. People noted shooting stars, failed crops and the birth of deformed calves with dread: The Millenium is at hand! Repent and he saved! That such mille -narian anxiety is back was amply demonstrated at last week’s First Global Conference on the Future as the world slouched on to 2000 AD. For five heady days, two of Toronto’s glossiest hotels nervously vibrated with the visions and fears of academics, consultants, civil servants, free-lance prophets, sci-fi hobbyists, mystics and mountebanks. Many were members of the organizations sponsoring the conference, the World Future Society and the Canadian Association for Futures Studies. Few participants were yellow, red or black, although an eleventh-hour grant from the Canadian International Development Agency helped ship in 320 from the Third World to enhance the “global” promise of the conference’s title. And few in attendance were genuinely representative citizens of the planet, since the registration fee of $160 plus travel costs barred that vast majority, the poor.
For the 5,500 folks who made it, the conference was a mass confessional, a chance to make a clean breast of it before Judgment Day. Participants con-
fessed to “linear thinking,” outmoded management techniques, political incompetence, squandering Earth’s renewable resources and the exploitation of their Third World brothers and sisters. This cannot go on, warned Aurelio Peccei, co-founder of the Club of Rome, whose moral imperative was seconded by Governor-General Ed Schreyer. Convert and be saved, urged the solarpower salesmen from their display booths (renting for $250 to $500) and the holistic medicine men. Stand fast and be saved, countered Herman Kahn, a rotund buddha of big business and head of the U.S. think tank, the Hudson Institute. Still other participants seemed to feel things were too far gone for salvation. Among the darker predictions to come out of the 400-odd workshops and seminars were that computer technology would put 2.5 million Canadians out of work by 1990; that a California earthquake would send Hollywood to the bottom of the sea in March, 1982; and that one million of earth’s five million plant and animal species would be extinct by the next millenium. Say goodbye to all five million, if one believes the rumors of war uttered by Professor Robert Jungk of the Technical University of Berlin.
Condemnations aside, the First Global Conference on the Future was tremendous fun owing in large part to its chaos. Leisure suits, T-shirts and nuns’ habits clustered around message boards crammed with blood-chilling starvation predictions overlaid with FUTURIST JOGGERS UNITE! Telephone numbers and professional cards were swapped like joints at a rock concert—a contact high that futurists, among others, call “networking.” The esprit of forward-looking intellectual playfulness was summed up by none other than Timothy Leary, psychedelic pioneer: “We are lucky to have been ovulated in this era.” Above all there was the pleasant feeling of being where it’s at: the future, by now everybody’s preoccupation, is a growing business, as attested by brisk sales of future-studies newsletters, magazines, consulting services and textbooks for all those new future-studies programs at universities.
Yet many professional futurists, particularly those trying to wrest money from conservative universities and corporations, are hungry for still more respect; and that, ultimately, explains this conference’s sold-out success. Professor Charles Little, econometrician at St. John’s University, Jamaica, N.Y., said simply, “I’m here for my own professional advancement. It’s publish or perish.” He was enjoying a chance to rub shoulders with the famous and bask in the attention of the politically powerful, and he was not disappointed. After all, the conference was fathered when
the famous met the powerful, specifically, when Aurelio Peccei was invited to meet Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau back in 1978. The man who brought them together was a Privy Council staff analyst named Fred Thompson who that year was serving as president of the then two-year-old Canadian Association for Futures Studies. One product of the issues those men discussed was the decision to hold the Toronto event, at which Trudeau’s welcoming telegram was joined by messages of goodwill from Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and former West German chancellor Willi Brandt.
The corporate world was lured into
the festivities through the magic of names such as the conference’s honorary chairman, Maurice Strong. A former head of CIDA and of the United Nations’ Environment Program, Strong has also served as chairman of PetroCanada and chief executive officer of the Power Corporation; Petrocan plus a Power subsidiary are listed among the corporate sponsors.
It was inevitable that the conference would become a media event, but the attentions of German and Italian television and The New York Times were utterly eclipsed by the full-page spreads in Toronto’s two largest newspapers. If that play seemed disproportionate to the event’s newsworthiness, Torstar Corporation, publisher of the Toronto Star, was corporate sponsor, while The Globe and Mail’s ad agency developed the publicity, ran a special supplement a week in advance—and was selling Info Globe, its on-line computer news service, at one of the display booths.
It wasn’t a large conference by Toronto standards; earlier last month the city’s convention services had been blessed by 20,000 Baptists. But despite the conference’s $500,000 cost, the Canadian Association for Futures Studies has come out in the black and has more than doubled its membership, with entertainment, apparently, aiding suc-
cess. World Future Society President Ed Cornish shamelessly welcomed his guests to “a circus, an intellectual Greatest Show on Earth.” If the hoopla and sideshows that followed produced the horrifying, the silly and the inspiring all mixed up, well, that’s only a reflection of current thinking about the future: haphazard, creative, indulgent. And only as an afterthought do the wretched of the earth tag along like the last circus elephant in the line.^
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