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Give hope a chance

Turn in your 'Blade Runner' sulk for some 'Flash Gordon' energy.

June 11, 2008|Peter Schwartz | Peter Schwartz is the chairman of a global consulting firm and chairman of the Sci Fi Channel's advisory board, which will soon release the report "Daring to Dream: Visions of Tomorrow."

Today in the United States and most of Western Europe, a majority of people say they believe their children's lives will be worse than theirs. According to the 2007 Pew Global Attitudes Project survey, this stunning lack of optimism ranges from 80% in France to about 70% in Italy and Germany to 60% in the U.S. and Britain. We are the first generation in more than a century that does not share a vision of hope and progress, despite the fact that more people are better educated and enjoying longer, healthier lives at higher economic standards. At the same time, our knowledge-enabling technologies continue to accelerate, empowering the individual and driving tremendous new value and opportunities.

By any measure, we Americans in particular are vastly better off than our 19th century predecessors. So why do we doubt the march of progress and our capacity to overcome the challenges of today and tomorrow?

To understand the roots of this pessimism, we need to consider our sources of optimism. We in the West have long shared a belief in the continued, combined momentum of science and technology, the wisdom of democratic governments and individual citizens, and the fairness of free-market economies to create opportunities and improve our lives. In the U.S. especially, this virtuous cycle of change, growth and progress was the dominant ethos of the 1950s and early '60s. Such optimism -- and sense of unlimited possibility -- was exemplified by the space program and science fiction, which together inspired a generation. But now too many of us see change without progress and a world coming apart -- more the dark dystopias of "Blade Runner" and "Mad Max" than the energy and adventure of "Flash Gordon" and "Star Trek."

During the last 40 years, we lost faith first in science and technology, then in politics and finally in the economic engine of progress. Now science and technology seem poised to cause, not solve, problems -- "silent spring," smog and Chernobyl. Government is viewed as out of touch if not corrupt and incompetent -- Vietnam, Watergate, hanging chads and Katrina. Business, according to many, is rigged to reward an undeserving few while diminishing prospects for the rest -- oil crises, stagflation, a dot-com boom turned bust and Enron.

Is it inevitable that the future will be worse than the past?

The answer is no. The challenges we face are no more daunting than those encountered by earlier generations. The 20th century was afflicted by two world wars, the Depression and the threat of nuclear destruction. Today's challenges are certainly huge, but to address them we must believe again in the future and the people and institutions that can build it with us: the scientists who will launch the next-generation Apollo projects and breakthrough inventions; the entrepreneurial executives whose companies will provide good jobs, robust incomes and high-value, low-carbon products and services; the emerging Jeffersons, Lincolns, Roosevelts or Kennedys who will provide visionary political leadership. Above all, we must believe in our power as individuals to make a real and lasting difference.

Already there are signs that we may be turning the corner from pessimism to optimism. But to firmly restore our faith in the future requires credible results and powerful stories. For starters, science and technology must deliver on clean, cheap energy and more affordable, high-quality healthcare for all. Businesses must embrace authentic social responsibility. And the innovation and energy that we see in state and local governments must infuse the moribund Beltway. The 2008 elections are an opportunity for us to demand that the candidates articulate and commit to their visions with concrete proposals.

Likewise, if each of us vows to make one new contribution -- recycling, volunteering, funding a worthy cause -- the multiplier effect on our civilization will be profound.

The media can also play a catalytic role by showing imaginative, inspiring visions of where science and dreams can take us. And science fiction again can be used to inspire a new generation to discover, explore and innovate, individually and together. Imagination -- with a healthy dose of hope -- is the resource we most need to make the future great again.

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