Planning for the future means making conscious decisions now

We fill our lives with plans for our future selves. People have always done this. Someone who lives only in the moment is not quite human. During the past few hundred years, however, future thinking has expanded hugely in scope and substance.

Throughout most of history, we viewed the future as a simple extension of the past. There would be good and bad years, but life, on the whole, would carry on as before. Then the Industrial Revolution meant some in the west saw real changes in a lifetime. They seized hold of a new idea: progress. The future would be different. And it would be better.

Nowadays, we tend to be less sure about the second bit. In part this is because the future, like the past, is vastly bigger than we believed even a few hundred years ago. Victorian scientists unveiled deep time, a temporal abyss in which geology and evolution work slowly away. Today's cosmologists chart a past that goes back 14 billion years to the big bang. And they project futures for the universe that  extend far longer than that: more billions than the imagination can grasp. The optimistic ones even see a place for our descendants uncountable years from now.

Against that awe-inspiring backdrop, we are trying to run a society that takes a realistic attitude to the future on a whole range of timescales. We know that oil reservoirs took hundreds of millions of years to form, but only a century to burn. Cities, the longest-enduring human invention, can last thousands of years. Raising a child still only takes a decade or two, but in many countries he or she has a good chance of seeing the next century.

We try to think about all this while preoccupied with day-to-day futures, with minds more attuned to an older setting when long-term action meant planting crops to harvest next season. And we are led by politicians who check the polls weekly.

Those politicians are still obliged to promise a better future. We are often sceptical, and our scepticism takes several forms. One draws on studies of current trends that project a variety of disasters. Another looks back at past predictions of future wonders and recalls that, on the whole, things didn't turn out as the visionaries foresaw. The jetpacks, undersea cities and flying cars that excited people in the 1950s never materialised. And perhaps there is even a kind of dark enthusiasm for the end times, or at least for Hollywood-style apocalypse, a wishful thinking where the main wish is for the end of all things.

This scepticism is also fuelled by the fact that thinking about the future is hard. All we have to go on is the past, imperfectly understood and remembered. And from this unstable mix, we try and brew up a vision of a personal future too.

There is comfort to be had, however, from what we know about futures that have already crystallised or dissolved. The future that comes to fruition does not just happen; it is made by us, as history.

Living in the present now means living with a future-consciousness richer and more informed than humans have ever been able to benefit from in the past. We have a battery of new ways of monitoring our planet, even as we are changing it, and far better information about the lives of everyone living here. Combine that with more refined methods for delineating plausible events, and we can sketch not the future, but a range of possibilities, more or less desirable.

Then we need to believe that the daily, personal decisions we make are linked, in a million small ways, to those larger prospects – for they surely are. Global futures are built from personal choices in the present – yours and mine.

Jon Turney is contributor at The School of Life, a science writer, editor, reviewer and author of The Rough Guide to the Future (Rough Guides). To order The Rough Guide to the Future by Jon Turney for £10.49 (RRP £13.99), visit or call 0330 333 6846.

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