The future ain't what it used to be

19 March 2020

By Gordon Peake and Christian Downie

This article first appeared on The Interpreter, published by the Lowy Institute

If Covid-19 teaches us anything, obviously we need to plan, but let’s not pretend the future is actually predictable.

What do the East Timorese defence force, “clean coal”, women’s empowerment, and Kevin Rudd’s first-term government have in common?

The answer is the year 2020.

Back when 2020 felt like a halcyon time far-far away, this was the year that, respectively, the Government of Timor-Leste, the International Energy Agency, and the United Nations nominated as being either an end point or key waystation for their ambitious, transformative plans, road maps, and goals. Rudd marked this year as the one to think big towards in his Australia 2020 summit, held in Canberra in 2008.

All the plans are weighty. The Timor-Leste defence blueprint Forca 2020 (complete with covetous pictures of helicopters and surface-to-air missiles) runs to 148 small-font pages. While the IEA’s 2009 Technology Roadmap is a bantamweight 52 pages, the Beijing Plan for gender action a whopping 277, and the Australia 2020 summit report exceeds them all, coming in at 405. One can only imagine the forgotten bureaucratic sorrows endured in producing these documents: multiple drafts, impassioned quarrels over sub-clauses, the setting up of intricate monitoring and report frameworks, translation headaches.

None of these plans (or any of the myriad that also feature 2020) are likely to feature high on The Interpreter’s quarantine reading list”. But they are sitll worth labouring through, especially at a time when Covid-19 is sweeping away so many loudly proclaimed planned government certainties from last year, and decimating all plans for this one and next.  

Reviewing these documents should make us think about the actual practical value of that default governmental recourse: the long-distant end-goal.

     For sure, planning is important. Goal-setting is a vital part of long

     -term government planning. It can inspire hope, mobilise resources,

     and create political space for actions that did not already exist. And,

     to be fair, pandemic planning is not the principal purpose for these

     particular documents, and governments have sought to scope out 

     such scenarios elsewhere.

     But to another extent, magnified exponentially by these last few

     weeks, there seems something both absurd yet strangely

     comforting about feeling emboldened enough to guess a course for

     endpoints years away.

     The planning documents are proof-positive of that old Yogi Berra

     maxim that the most difficult thing to predict is the future. By 2020,

     Timor-Leste would be starting to develop its own air force; there

     would be 100 carbon capture storage projects globally, mainly for

     coal, and 12 broad goals for gender action meaningfully progressed.

When we get

through this present

crisis, let’s not

plan for futures

we do not intend

to meet, to produce

long-term fig

leaves for business-

as-usual, plans

written at such a

level of generality

that avoids


promising faulty

futures that we know

we will never see.

And for what? No-one mentions the Forca 2020 plan in Dili nowadays; the concern there now is the aftermath of devastating floods, as well as Covid-19. Failed carbon capture and storage pilot projects litter the world. How many times have we been promised by the coal industry that emissions from coal can be safely captured and stored away in the not too distant future?

Two of these long-range plans do mention the word “pandemic” (similar to what Greg Earl has already noted). The Beijing platform for action mentions the word seven times but each time it is with reference to HIV/AIDS rather than a Covid-19 style super-virus. Covid-19 has kyboshed all meetings this year, including those intended to “tackle the unfinished business of empowering women through a new ground-breaking, multi-generational campaign”.

The public-health components to the Australia 2020 visioning make for eerie reading in the cold light of the present day. “There is … potential to leverage from Australia’s science knowledge, applying biowarfare technology to tackling the challenges of a pandemic” avers the Australia 2020 scribe, while emotionlessly noting that while “Australia prides itself on a willingness and ability to respond quickly in the event of a regional crisis … in the event of a pandemic, this would not be possible.”

We are four Prime Ministers distant (excluding his own return) from the Rudd years.

Nowadays, 2030 and 2050 are the new “2020”, the mystical target years. Think the Timor-Leste Strategic Development Plan 2011–2030, the Sustainable Development Goals, and the 2050 emissions targets among others.

Hands up who thinks there will be unforeseen events that will ensnarl progress on the way?

Two points to end on.

First, obviously we need to plan, but let’s not do so pretending the future is predictable. When we get through this present crisis, let’s not plan for futures we do not intend to meet, to produce long-term fig leaves for business-as-usual, plans written at such a level of generality that avoids responsibility, promising faulty futures that we know we will never see. By all means set long-term plans. But better to know what concrete actions you will do this year and then the next to get there.

Second, just maybe, in an oddly counterintuitive but comforting way, the return of all those loose, saggy, convoluted planning documents will be one of those ineffable signs that the governments and institutions of the world as we know it are settling back to their normal rhythms. If that’s so, we’ll be on the first plane to any gauzily focused planning plenary going.