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Futurists take a sober look forward and a critical look back

At its major assembly in Toronto four years ago, the World Future Society introduced a new phrase into the lexicon of the socially concerned: ''Think globally, act locally.''

Its purpose: to encourage people to think about the interrelationship of concerns at the global level and, at the same time, to help ground the energy and ideals of futurism more concretely in daily affairs. Some leading society members felt that energy was being dissipated in cerebral abstractions.

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In fact, the exact impact of this 30,000-member international society on world affairs has always been hard to gauge. It is the only organization of its kind - an ''ad hoc university'' founded in 1966 to discuss future possibilities, future needs, and emerging ideas. As such, the World Future Society is very alive, as evidenced by its recent assembly in Washington, D.C., ''World View '84 : Problems and Opportunities.''

During the five-day conference in mid-June, some 3,000 participants could choose among 200 sessions given by some 600 speakers, who included B. F. Skinner , Hazel Henderson, Amitai Etzioni, and Sen. Claiborne Pell (D) of Rhode Island.

Those attending were Washington policy specialists, scientists, churchmen, educators, and artists, as well as unpredictable types like the couple I met who run a tourist resort in Barbados.

Many of the smaller sessions encouraged think tank-style interaction between speakers and participants on subjects as diverse as energy, habitats, economics, careers, defense, food and agriculture, education, the third world, values, science, and technology.

''We occasionally shudder at the magnitude of these issues - but we think about them anyway,'' one of the participants commented.

Edward Cornish, president of the World Future Society, said he felt that, along with the nuclear issue ''we are all so familiar with,'' the global economy and the third world were the areas of most concern to members this year.

Among the subjects under debate:

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* The possibility of a worldwide economic depression ahead. Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Jay Forrester presented computer projections that suggested that overdevelopment of industrial capacity in the world today is leading toward a fierce competition in which prices could very well fall to record lows.

The result would be debts that could not be paid and chaos at the global financial level.

* Global population trends. Third-world specialists offered evidence that developing nations have succeeded in cutting their birthrates by 11 percent over the past decade, with China cutting its rate a full 30 percent.

* The causes of economic stagnation in the third world. Rashmi Mayur, director of the Urban Environment Institute in Bombay, argued that third-world problems result largely from gross mismanagement within the countries themselves. A solution, he said, requires, not more money from the West, but eradication of internal corruption.

Such topics are the diet of the futurist, and their contributions to the world debate have always been somewhat controversial.

Since its inception, the society has had to deal with a problem of image; it is often regarded as a flaky group of technological Utopians and ''Star Trek'' junkies.

To be sure, some technocrats were on hand this year to preach the redemptive power of the robot and the computer. But on the whole, romantic euphoria about the future was hardly visible. In fact, the futurists appeared to be a very self-critical lot.

They criticized the armchair oracles in their ranks who predicted that India would never be able to feed her own people. An appreciation for futurists' intellectual parentage was said to be lacking.

Robert Jungk, a leading European futurist, pointed out that if one were to go back to medieval times, when the earth was believed to be flat, and ask an average person how he envisioned the future, he would likely see in it monasteries, churches, and castles - only they would be bigger and more elaborate. Jungk warned against such static and misguided conceptions of change.

One of the more stimulating sessions dealt not with the future, but the past. A panel of longtime futurists were asked to tell what they had learned since joining the society in the mid-1960s.

Biologist Bob Francoeur, a dean at Fairleigh Dickinson University, admitted his scenario turned out to be too slow. Developments, for example, in recombinant DNA, embryonic transfer, and genetic engineering occurred 10 to 20 years sooner than he expected in 1968.

During some sessions participants complained that speakers weren't offering solutions to such problems as the nuclear threat, water shortages, and a perceived lack of sustainable resources. That seemed to be a recurrent theme not on the program.

One speaker finally responded bluntly: ''Well one of the problems, actually, is that we aren't finding a great many solutions today.''

Cornish, however, had a different viewpoint. He told the Monitor that solutions are available today, but ''the effective solutions are painful and, instead, everyone wants easy answers - cost-free solutions.''

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