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October 25, 2012

Guest blog: The ten greatest predictions of all time

Michael Lee, Founder of the Institute of Futurology and the World Future Society of Southern Africa, is soon to publish his book, 'Knowing our Future - the startling case for futurology'. Here he outlines what makes a truly great prediction.

By Cbr Rolling Blog

It is mid-September in Germany in 1930. Significant electoral gains have seen the Nazi Party become the country’s second biggest party in terms of number of seats in Parliament. Hitler believes his moment has come, proclaiming boldly that the Nazis would win the next election and that their rise to the pinnacle of power was now inevitable and unstoppable.

Fast forward 18 years to 14 May 1948. Outside Tel Aviv Museum in Palestine, the Jewish People’s Council approves a proclamation declaring the establishment of the new State of Israel. Meanwhile, Hitler’s "Thousand-Year" Reich has come crashing down a full 985 years too early after orchestrating the worst crime in human history.

It is during this cataclysmic period of modern history between 1930 and 1948 that we encounter two of the best predictions of all time. The first is Winston Churchill’s warning to the British parliament in 1933 that a second major European war would take place in the foreseeable future as a result of German rearmament and deep-seated grievances. The second is the fulfilment of an ancient prophecy about the founding of a homeland for the Jews after centuries of exile and statelessness.

Both forecasts will be analysed in this study, along with eight other stunning examples of social foresight, but first we need to decide how to measure the degree of success of a prediction. This will enable us to rank these ten predictions in order of merit. It is proposed that prescience, defined generally as knowing about something before it happens, is produced by far-sightedness, the ability to look ahead in time, combined with a sense of the scale, magnitude or importance of the subject-matter to society.

In addition, the logic or method informing the prediction should be sound. By these three criteria, predictions which look far ahead, give insight into momentous, world-changing events and employ strong theoretical logic, could be considered great.

In April 1933, Churchill uttered these prescient words in parliament: "…as surely as Germany acquires full military equality with her neighbours while her own grievances are still unaddressed and while she is in the temper which we have unhappily seen, so surely shall we see ourselves within a measurable distance of the renewal of general European war."

Six years later, on 1 September 1939, Germany invaded Poland. It is thought some 60 million people died in the war that followed. Although Churchill’s prediction was not far-sighted time-wise, it was certainly momentous on a historical scale. His logic was that Germany’s humiliation in the first war provided a deep-seated motive for its resurgence and eventual aggression.

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While in exile in ancient Babylon, the major Hebrew prophet Ezekiel, in his public career from 593-571 BC, described detailed visions of the future national restoration of the then stateless Israelites.

Some of these visions can apply to the establishment of a modern state of Israel in 1948, 1,878 years after the destruction by Romans of the second temple in Jerusalem in AD 70.

We know that the founding of modern Israel occurred only a few short years after the harrowing event of the Holocaust. Significantly, Ezekiel referred to the founding of a new country of Israel after an "outpouring of wrath/fury" (20:34). The Hebrew word for "fury" used in this particular verse is chêmâh, which connoted fever resulting from being poisoned. The word could have signified poisonous rage, an apt description of the murderous racial hatred which motivated Hitler’s so-called Final Solution.

If we join together various verses from Ezekiel’s prophecies of national restoration, one gets a sense of how he foresaw this event happening in a way which locates the fulfilment of the historical vision in modern Israel, not in ancient Palestine at the time of the second temple: "I will bring you from the nations and gather you from the countries where you have been scattered – with a mighty hand and an outstretched hand and with outpoured wrath [20:44]….You will live in the land I gave your forefathers [36:28]… This is where I will live among the Israelites forever [43:7]."

The word "forever" in the last verse denotes permanence which is why it cannot refer to Israel’s second temple which lasted from 516 BC to AD 70. The time period from the start of Ezekiel’s prophetic ministry in 593 to the founding of Israel in1948 is simply enormous: just under two and half millennia.

Although on a smaller time scale, another remarkable far-sighted prediction was made by an Enlightenment thinker at the time of the French Revolution about the future rise of equal political rights for women, just under a century before this came to pass in the real world. We are talking about a man who deserves to be seen as the grandfather of a modern study of the future.

Although he cannot be described as a futurist, Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat (1743-1794), better known as Marquis de Condorcet, was certainly a prognostic thinker.

He anticipated the increase of political equality in a new era in which scientific knowledge, allied to liberty, was destined to play a decisive role in society. A French mathematician, philosopher and political scientist, De Condorcet concluded his study of the history of humanity’s intellectual and moral development with a chapter on the future progress of mankind as he foresaw it.

In this penetrating look into the far future, he wrote, with unconcealed passion: "Among those causes of human improvement that are of the most importance to the general welfare, must be included, the total annihilation of the prejudices which have established between the sexes an inequality of rights, fatal to even to the party which it favours…And here we may observe, how much the abolition of the usages authorised by this prejudice, and of the laws it has dictated, would tend to augment the happiness of families…"

British suffragette Mary Wollstonecraft published Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792, but the first country to grant women suffrage in national elections was New Zealand in 1893, just under a century after the posthumous publication of De Condorcet’s treatise on progress.

In addition to predicting the rise of women’s rights several decades before it happened, De Condorcet also foresaw the coming of an extensive economic globalisation process: "the moment knowledge shall have arrived at a certain pitch in a great number of nations at once, the moment it shall have penetrated the whole mass of a great people, [a] whole language shall have become universal, and the whole commercial intercourse shall embrace the whole extent of the globe."

Again, these words, perhaps history’s first definition of globalisation, are deeply foresightful. I have allocated this French thinker 1st and 3rd positions on the table, found at the end of the article, of great predictions.

Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), a clergyman and economist, wrote An Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798 just a few years after De Condorcet had died in prison under suspicious circumstances following his arrest as a perceived ideological threat to the revolutionary French government.

Malthus argued that population growth in the long-run tended to outrun a country’s means of subsistence, especially its food production rate.

He predicted that the modern era would experience huge famines due to over-population. It has proved true that starvation and malnutrition have haunted the modern era amidst all the wonderful signs of progress, including the Great Irish Famine of 1846-1851, the Ethiopian famine of 1888-1891, the Soviet famine of 1931-1933, the Great Chinese Famine of 1959-1961, as well as famines in Biafra in the late 1960s, Ethiopia in 1984-5 and North Korea in the 1990s, to mention only a few.

The nineteenth century witnessed further attempts at long-range social forecasts. The most prognostic was The Coal Question by British economist and logician W. Stanley Jevons.

This 1865 treatise forecast the depletion of the country’s coal mines during the ensuing one hundred years. Jevons correctly identified the crucial role of industrial energy in determining a nation’s socio-economic future. This book is one of the best works of factual foresight ever written.

Jevons was concerned about two things: namely, the loss of Britain’s economic supremacy due to the shrinking of its coal resources, and the long-term social decline this would cause.

Just over 90 years after the publication of The Coal Question, US geophysicist M. King Hubbert confirmed that the production pattern for world coal production had, as anticipated by Jevons, peaked, leading to sharp declines in the post-peak period. Hubbert illustrated the steep decline in production of coal after 1925, confirming the general accuracy of Jevons’s main thesis regarding Britain’s anticipated "peak coal".

Hubbert himself produced, in my view, the twentieth century’s greatest predictions. In a paper entitled "Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels" presented to the American Petroleum Institute in San Antonio, Texas, in March 1956, Hubbert, then employed by Shell, correctly predicted that US oil production would peak within twenty years by the early 1970s.

In the paper, he also forecast that global oil production would peak at the turn of the century. Due to the accuracy of his prognostications, he has become known as the father of the theory of Peak Oil. This phenomenon has far-reaching worldwide implications for our own times. It could become the biggest change in industrial history, a turning-point in the evolution of human society.

But Hubbert was a geophysicist, not a futurist. The greatest pioneer of the systematic study of the future was H.G. Wells, the science fiction writer and world’s first real futurist.

In 1901 Wells wrote Anticipations, the earliest attempt at a scientific study of the long-range social future. The book’s stated aim was to outline "…a rough sketch of the coming time… [an] anticipatory balance-sheet." Wells set out to construct a "picture of a human community somewhere towards the year 2000." Anticipations presented a one hundred year vision of society as the twentieth century was beginning.

The point of departure for Wells’s vision of the future was that transportation systems constitute the most critical catalyst for broad social development: "Upon transport, upon locomotion, may also hang the most momentous issues of politics and war."

He regarded the steam engine, for example, as the dominant transport technology of the nineteenth century in Britain. He explained that cities and towns had developed around key transport, or transit nodes, creating a "railway world".

Based on this logic, he predicted that new motorised vehicles, namely trucks carrying goods, motor omnibuses transporting people en masse and privately owned motor vehicles, would compete with the railways and create new transportation systems. There would be widespread development of roads specifically for motor vehicle use.

Time has proved his forecasts of a transport revolution to have been accurate. The twentieth century did turn out to be dominated by suburban and urban development built around motor vehicles and the road system which transported them.

We still live today in the motorised world predicted by Wells in Anticipations. That fact demonstrates how momentous his 1901 forecasts really were (although he also got a lot of forecasts wrong in the book due to faulty theorising).

Finally, I regard J. Richard Gott’s forecast about the fall of Berlin Wall as a breakthrough prediction because it was based on the precise use of mathematical probabilities. In 1969, Gott, an American astrophysicist, was visiting this wall, a menacingly militarised and bland concrete structure built by the East German communist government in 1961 to prevent a mass exodus of its people to the more prosperous West Germany. Gott peered curiously at the monstrosity and wondered how long it would stay up.

His scientific training told him that Copernicus had shown that earth did not occupy a special position in the solar system. It was logical to extend this argument, he thought, to the idea that no location anywhere in space or in time is ever special.

"If there was nothing special about the location of my visit in time, there was a 50% chance that I was observing the wall sometime during the middle two quarters of its existence…So standing at the wall in 1969, I predicted….that there was a 50% chance that the future longevity of the wall would be between 2 2/3 years and 24 years…When the wall came down in 1989, after 20 years, in agreement with my original prediction, I decided that I should write this up."

Gott’s principle is that we observe things at random, i.e. non-special, times so that there is always a 50% chance that we are doing so in the middle of their lifespan. You just have to find out their start date, as Gott did when he visited that oppressive symbol of the Cold War. He has developed a smart and unique way of estimating the future duration of entities we observe, from buildings to organisations, from species to societies.

In terms of social predictions, the honour of producing the best ever forecasts must go to the Frenchman Marquis de Condorcet for accurately foreseeing the rise of both equal women’s rights and the global economy, two world-changing developments he anticipated many decades ahead of their time. Another European forecast in the table of top ten predictions is the work of Club of Rome for understanding back in 1972 that environmental constraints would ultimately put the brakes on global economic growth and force the world to look more closely at the systems concept of sustainability.

My list features four world-class British forecasts, namely the ways motorisation would change the nature of society throughout the twentieth century (H.G. Wells in 1901), the long-range forecast of the loss of Britain’s economic supremacy due to decline in its coal reserves (Jevons in 1865), the rise of famines in the modern era caused by overpopulation (Malthus in 1798) and the coming of World War Two (Churchill in 1933).

Two American thinkers have made important contributions to the world’s heritage of great predictions. M. King Hubbert is the father of Peak Oil, one of the most important theories of our time. And the method J.Richard Gott used to predict the fall of the Berlin Wall twenty years before it happened holds much promise for developing knowledge of the future life-spans of a wide range of entities.

Together, these ten historical predictions decisively show the way forward for the human production of social foresight.

The top ten predictions:
1. Marquis De Condorcet, the rise of women’s rights, 1795
2. M. King Hubbert, peak oil for US and the world, 1956
3. Marquis De Condorcet, rise of economic globalisation, 1795
4. Club of Rome think-tank led by Dennis L. Meadows, Slowing down of global economic growth due to ecological and environmental constraints with an end to all high growth by 2022, 1972
5. H.G. Wells, Motorisation of society in twentieth century, 1901
6. W. Stanley Jevons, decline of British global supremacy due to depletion of coal resources, 1865
7. Ezekiel, national restoration of Israel after lengthy exile and following a time of "outpoured wrath", 593-571 BC
8. Thomas Malthus, rise of famine due to over-population in modern era, 1798
9. Winston Churchill, outbreak of Second World War due to German rearmament, 1933
10. J. Richard Gott, fall of the Berlin Wall, 1969.

By Michael Lee.

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