Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Future Percept

To tell you the truth, for me as an individual, it’s neither the constitution nor a federal republic that is so important. There are countries that don’t have these and they are doing great. It’s the quality of action, of results and of life that counts. The one thing I truly wish I could see before I die is Nepal achieving the status of a developed nation. But I probably won’t be around 50 years hence when my country might reach that stage, finally.

I am of the generation caught in the middle. It harks back to the beaten past, fuddles around with the discordant present and is apprehensive of the uncertain future. We have many nightmares and barely any dreams.

The distant past is the only steady reference, even a glorious one. It exudes a sense of familiarity. Around 300 years ago, history tells us, our great, great grandparents lived a life envied by others, particularly the resource-hungry Europeans. Asia, with India and China, accounted for more than half the world’s wealth and riches, for centuries before 1800. Since 1971, when the United Nations introduced the development indicators, we have been lumped together with some 50 so-called Least Developed Countries (LDCs).

The burden of history is such that we are perennially a past-oriented society. Nostalgia is in our air. Unfortunately or perhaps luckily, depending on how we look at it, public memory is short; that pleasant, distant past is often too far from our recall. What come flooding in our minds are internal conflicts, and political revolts from the last few decades, typically encapsulated in numbered Bikram Sambats: 2007, 2017, 2046, 2065, and so on. We scarcely relate to socio-cultural or economic milestones.

But there are definitely numbers for milestones in health and literacy, and environment, technology, business and sectoral issues like economy, transportation, energy, etc. For instance, in 1951, literacy was less than 1 percent; today it is over 65 percent. We are indeed making some strides. However, these are not matters of popular imagination like political events. We just don’t put these in the historical context as much.

Even rarer is thinking in future. What will happen, for instance, in 2020, 2030, 2040, 2050? Do we have any benchmarks for these years? The tragedy is, we cannot walk forward while at the same time facing backwards. We do share a common historical chorus, but not a common vision for the future.

Why can’t we consider the future, the road ahead, more seriously? When we decided that 2010 was for the new constitution, then it ought to have been exactly for that. Now, that year is more visible in the past as the tomb of a failed aspiration than as a dawning star. Once again, the new constitutional target is set for 2014, or is it?

Prediction, however, is an old profession, perhaps too old to prophesize about complex phenomena like collective or societal outcomes. This surely leads to remarks that our politicians do often consult astrologers of one kind or another to tell them their future so they could secure their personal fortunes.

I am not talking here about prophesies based on dubious astrological practices or gut feelings of the “emotional oracle” type. We have them aplenty, mostly dire and “end of the world” types, for example, that this nation, cursed by Sati, is doomed for eternity, or the Shah dynasty would fall with its tenth generation monarch. The latter did, but not exactly with the tenth king.

We come across other predictions, more frequently these days about sport results and weather patterns. A big earthquake will strike any time, the glaciers will melt in a few decades, India will continue to bully Nepal, if not swallow her altogether, etc. It’s all bleak; hardly any optimistic scenario (exception: We’ll sell our waters!). And sadly, it’s deeply rooted in the mass psyche.

Americans always talk about their dream, about equal opportunity helping them fulfill their aspirations and goals, and Nepalis always complain about their nightmare, opportunities lost or snatched away, and the gloom and doom. Perhaps we can start by deciding what to dream or to envision for ourselves. That is when predicting our future and tracking it becomes necessary, and real.

A rational, knowledge-based and logical approach is offered by futures-studies which focuses on what could happen rather than what will happen. Managers and policymakers in many governments and corporations already rely on futurist insights to make long-term decisions. In his provocative and intriguing book Knowing Our Future (2012), futurologist Michael Lee argues that the future can be known surprisingly accurately by analyzing space-time dimensions, patterns of evolution, and linkage between natural and human social systems. The future may not be here yet, but the causes and conditions that give rise to it are, he observes, and “science of the future” is attaining maturity now.

I wonder how much of this science seeps into the Thirteenth National Plan unveiled last August. The plan has the ambitious vision of transforming Nepal from a LDC into a developing country by 2022. It seeks to further lower the percentage of people living below poverty line (to 18 percent from the current 23.8 percent), increase annual average economic growth rate (to 6 percent from the current 3.56 percent), reduce population growth (to 1.35 percent) and raise life expectancy to 71 years.

I am also not sure if this is the roadmap to our collective dream of a developing Nepal, and eventually, the way to its developed status. Experts have said the plan was finalized haphazardly, and falls short of 7 percent growth target required, among others, to graduate Nepal to the developing nations club. The problem here is the year 2022, not the noble goals, however ambitious they might sound. Time is the essence.

Unfortunately, our sense of time remains primitive; and we are yet to become what Lee calls a “time-literate form of civilization”. What goes around comes around; we can spend today on “nothing important” for there is always tomorrow for “something”. If we can set deadlines, we can always extend them. We let the past and our imagined future pervade our present and lose sight of the task at hand. Now is always our Happy Hour, or “nothing important”, like talking, backbiting or simply sleeping. It’s not even eight o’clock in the night, and Kathmandu, our metropolis that wishes to compete with the 24/7 productivity of Kuala Lumpur, goes fast asleep.

Psychologists say time passes slowly for people in difficulties, pain or fear. This must be true of people with nightmares also. In other words, afflicted, we tend to believe we got plenty of time or tolerate it by denying its existence altogether. However, we can’t escape its demands for long.

These demands encourage us to envision future scenarios so that we can identify choices that affect our long-term aspirations, and prepare us for the coming changes. For example, where will our politics eventually lead us as a developed nation? Will we still be talking about federalism with the fervor we display now, or about a new form of tyranny? How will we manage to feed 45 million and meet their energy needs in 2050? How will exponential development of science and technology affect our health, workplace, education, entertainment and nature in Nepal?

These are the questions I shall explore in my next column.

Published in Republica, 12 February, 2014