Jim Dator, a futurist at the University of Hawaii, developed a classification system in the 1970s that he has used ever since to order discussion about possible futures. He argues that there are just four main visions underlying attempts to outline possible or preferable futures. Here’s an outline of his four “Generic Images of the Future”:
Continued growth: This is still the most common view, and certainly the “official” view of most political and academic discussion. Growth is desirable because it has made good things possible for some people already, and will bring more good things to more people in future. The idea that growth might falter is usually discussed only in terms of economic recession, and almost always assumed to be a “Bad Thing” – as a glance as any newspaper will confirm.
Collapse of economic structures: This is the family of futures which descend from Malthus via The Limits to Growth. It has a popular constituency, who believe that the carrying capacity of the planet has already been exceeded, and that growth cannot be sustained much longer. The last straw may be climate change, oil depletion or a variety of other things, but the consequences are similar.
Disciplined, sustainable society: This is the first addition to the simple Malthusian versus Cornucopian visions. It means trying to manage things to avoid the worst. The “third way” is outlined in many detailed plans for organizing a transition from the current social and economic system. The premise is that growth cannot go on forever, and avoiding collapse is overwhelmingly important. So these scenarios try to outline paths to a sustainable, steady state. What form the transition might take is controversial, partly because of the difficulty of designing a no-growth economy that works according to the currently dominant capitalist model and does not fall into depression.
Transformation: These kinds of visions are about transformation, not transition, because they embrace a radical, usually technologically driven, alteration of the conditions of human life, and possibly of humanity itself. Under this heading are filed the future pictures which see the next stage of evolution as involving the immensely powerful development of, for example, artificial intelligence, robotics, genetic engineering or nanotechnology. These are “post-human” futures that perhaps include moving to off-Earth environments – one pretty convincing way of escaping from a closed system.