Visioning and Future Studies

Elise Boulding

Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Dartmouth College and Former Secretary General of the International Peace Research Association

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Q: What are future studies?

A: There is a whole array of future studies. I got into it through Fred Polak from the Netherlands, who won a Council of Europe Award back in the '50s for his book on the "image of the future."


His thesis was that societies that have positive images of the future are empowered by their own images to act creatively in the present. Societies that have negative images will just wither away. Of course, there are many cases in between. This was such a wonderful opening that it made a difference in how people think about the future.


I'm interested in how people picture the possibilities in their society and in the world. In the peace movement, after World War II ended, I remember going to a conference in Sweden and asking the disarmament experts, "If we really had disarmament, how would the world function?" Not a single person on that panel had anything that they could say. I realized that the peace movement was working on peace without knowing what a peaceful world would look like. They didn't know what they were working for. It would just be a world with no weapons and no war. But what kind of society would it be? What kind of institutions?

So I began these imaging workshops: stepping people 30 years into the future, giving them help with how their imaginations worked, and asking them to imagine a world in which there were no longer any weapons. Once they have done the imagining and sharing in groups, they have a picture of what this world could look like. Next, they construct a history of the time-line backward to the present. Then, participants have to decide what they will do, starting now, to help this process along. So everyone sits and meditates for a while, and then writes and speaks aloud their commitments.

A student of mine did research on the effect of being a participant in an imaging workshop. It turned out to be her masters thesis. She went to a number of workshops I was doing, passed out a questionnaire before the workshop, and then another at the end, with the same questions. She went back three months later and administered the same questionnaire to get the answers. Then I think she did it again about five years later. Even five years later, the answers were different than they were in the pre-workshop. So it really made an impression on how people thought about the future.


My husband, Kenneth Boulding, always used to say, "What exists is possible." Now that is a very profound statement. What it means is that any peaceful segment or any group that has dealt with and gotten through really difficult conflicts and done it successfully, like a family or a community or a country — if it happened, then it is possible. In a way, it is a basic statement of fact. People are always startled when I say it, although some people are getting use to me saying it now. To remember that what exists is possible, I would say for any peacemaker, that the best example that you can think of is possible, is important. I would advise people to spend some time doing some imagining about what kind of world they are working for. Doing their own personal imaging. Knowing what you are working for affects your choices and what you do now. If you are reaching a difficult decision point in your own life, then think about that image of what you are working for and which way to go in relation to that. This would not necessarily answer it, but it would help.


A favorite concept of mine is the 200-year present, a way of thinking about change. The 200-year present began 100 years ago, with the year of birth of the people who reach their hundredth birthday today. The other boundary of the 200-year present, 100 years from now, is the hundredth birthday of the babies born today. If you take that span, you and I have contact with a lot of people from different parts of that span.