Take a deep breath and pause for a moment: Think about a future, any future. I hope, dear space-time traveler, it does not weigh heavily upon you. Perhaps you are filled with trepidation at the prospect of an utterly unknown yet apocalyptic forecast. On the other hand, you could feel energized, focused, and present enough to face whatever may come your way.
What you just experienced when you thought about a future, and why it sprang to mind, is the passion and profession of James Dator, who has made it his business and life’s work to study and explore how humans think about the future. “For most people, I believe, the apocalypse is much more frightening and terrible than I imagine,” Dator says. “I do think we are living in a period where one way of life is coming to a crashing halt and so a chance for new beginnings is arising.”
Throughout his life, Dator has contributed greatly to the theory and practice of a field called “futures studies.” That extra “s” at the end of futures signifies a belief in alternative futures—meaning that there is not one, but rather many possibilities that we can’t fully imagine. The future, and the apocalypse, were things Dator pondered even as a child, when Anglican theology, as well as the grand theories of history from the likes of St. Augustine, Joachim of Flora, St. Thomas, Oswald Spengler, Karl Marx, and Arnold Toynbee, held his attention. “They all tried to explain the purpose of life, which fascinated me,” he says.
Since arriving to Hawai‘i during the summer of love in 1969, with the purpose of teaching political science at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, Dator has been a sort of intellectual godfather for generations of young futurists, serving as director at the Hawai‘i Research Center for Futures Studies (HRCFS) since 1971. Before that, he taught on the subject in the College of Law and Politics at Rikkyo University in Tokyo, as well as introduced what is often considered the first undergraduate course on the future while at Virginia Tech.
He has cultivated a formidable global network that ranges from the Pentagon to off-grid anarchist communes. But nowadays, the octogenarian prefers to keep to his peaceful condo overlooking Waikīkī, imagining futures both ridiculous and reasoned, the most pressing of which include pondering the predicaments of energy, environment, economy, and governance. “The apocalypse is a sudden end to the world as we know it, either the ushering in of a new world or as providing an opportunity to create a new world,” he says.
Earth has already endured many apocalypses in the past billions of years. Dator points out that the only difference is the unprecedented influence that humans have on the planet. Scientists and theorists describe this as the Anthropocene Era, the time period when humanity, as a natural, geological force, has made a significant impact on the Earth.
So what of the end of the world as we know it? “For the last 200 years, people and organizations knew exactly what the future was supposed to be—what the future of life was—and that was continued economic growth, sometimes called progress, sometimes called development,” Dator says. “But that world, that image, is now highly problematic. I think the driving forces of it have come to an end, and … it’s absolutely essential that people, individually and collectively, scan the alternative futures that are before us and develop a new, preferred set of futures for themselves and their communities.”