Respice Prospice

Respice Prospice: look back, look ahead.  That was the motto on my school crest, the words underneath a stylised oak tree.  The image was meant to reinforce the motto:  the oak tree’s past is in the acorn, and the acorn holds the promise of the tree in the future:  I guess us students were the acorns!  Strangely enough, the motto left out the third word Aspice, look (now), which usually sits between the other two.  I think it is possible the wise heads setting up the grammar school assumed that everything was about observation, and their choice of motto was just to ensure you realised the directions in which you were looking were important.

Mottos are shorthand, and the school was really trying to help us focus on more than mere looking.  Learn from the past and try to foresee the future.  Much of my final years of school life was focussed on learning from the past, as I found myself drawn into the world of geology.  I still can’t ignore the geomorphology of countryside when I travel, noting the rounded valleys scraped clean by an ice age thousands or millions of years ago, or the sides of a roadway, cut through rock showing strata twisted into synclines and anticlines.  I loved mineralogy, and the strange world of crystalline symmetry.  Most all, however, I was fascinated by fossils, the remains of living things turned to stone!

The particular variety of fossil that grabbed my attention was the graptolite, (nicely named from the Greek, ‘written on rock’, as they looked like some strange kind of writing).  The first graptolites I found came from Wales, with examples of Dictyonema and Monograptus.  Back in the 1960s, graptolites were still being carefully researched, but taxonomy and many other aspects of the creatures had been determined.  Those I collected in Wales[i] fell into the two main types, those that looked like a tree-like branching growth (of which Dictyonema was a fine example) and those that looked more like independent strands (Monograptus).

While most graptolites were found as crushed specimens in shale, their bodies replaced by a mineral, I learnt that some were to be found in limestone, their bodies preserved unchanged in three-dimensions.  That set me off searching outcrops just south of Girvan, in Scotland, and to the limestone (and limestone quarry) area of Slemmestad, south of Oslo.  I managed to collect some specimens of Didymograptus (which in a complete specimen looks rather like a tuning fork!).  I brought my finds back home, and then used acid to dissolve the rock, and reveal the chitinous exo-skeletons, within which some kind of polyp had lived.  Under the microscope I could see growth rings in the chitin, still visible all those millions of years later.

Graptolites were a common life-form during the Ordovician and Silurian eras, from 485 to 420 million years ago.  These are the second and third periods of what is known as the Paleozoic Era, which began with the Cambrian period, starting some 540 million years ago, and the time when life began to flourish.  However, fossils have been found earlier, and just this last week, we learnt about another astonishing finding from the period some 570 million years ago, the Ediacaran era as some describe it.  In a few places: the Ediacara Hills in South Australia and in cliffs above the White Sea in North West Russia, there are impressions of soft bodied creatures, found preserved in shale. [ii]  Were they some kind of vegetable matter, a primitive life form?  Now, it seems clear they were animals, organisms that lived 570 million – 540 million years ago, based on the analysis of fat molecules from a beautifully preserved 558 million-year-old fossil!  I still find it amazing we can find the remains of creatures living more than 500 million years ago.  For geologists, the most famous of the locations for similar finds is the Burgess Shale in the US, which has specimens from the more recent Cambrian period showing detailed imprints of tissues.  For years, I envied the collectors who had been there.

Geology has to be one of the most exciting ways to look back.  To see the evidence of creatures long disappeared, to trace changes in various types of animal over millions of years, geology is a natural historian’s laboratory.  Natural selection, or as it is more popularly described, “survival of the fittest” (as it was coined by Herbert Spencer) written in the rocks over the millennia.  I left school to continue with geology at university, but a year later I had transferred to Social Anthropology (and that’s another story, for another time!).

Social Anthropology helped me look back with a different perspective, to ways of living in societies that had survived without being taken over by technology, business and the other elements of our post-industrial world.  Now the time scale was only hundreds or possibly even a thousand or so years.  Despite the denigrating term “primitive societies”, these other societies varied in ways which were often largely superficial.  Different rules about marriage, different religious beliefs, different political systems, even different systems for subsistence, but at heart, these were people just like me!  Funny, creative, thoughtful, suffering under the challenges of work and sometimes the demands of rotten, selfish leaders, enjoying moments of leisure and appreciating music and art.  The lives of those we studied were not idyllic, but they helped me understand how humans have always tried to make sense of the world around them and carve out a meaningful way of life.  No, not idyllic, but in some respects richer and more in touch with the environment that can be said of most Australians or Americans today.

Unable to stick at anything for too long, my attention switched to studying education, intellectual development, dreaming, and then the world of work in industrial societies.  Suddenly, my focus was not so much on looking back as looking ahead.  Serendipity took me to a conference in Germany for Shell staff, and there I was to meet and learn from Bohdan Hawrylyshyn.  Hawrylyshyn was a Ukrainian, who lived and worked in Canada and then Switzerland for many years.  He had been invited to speak at the Shell conference as the Director of Switzerland’s International Institute for Management Development (now known as IMD).  A leading thinker on future trends and issues, he introduced me to the world of futurology and scenario thinking.

It was scenario analysis, a technique developed by Shell, that had drawn Hawrylyshyn into working with the company.  His presentation explained how scenarios are developed, and the use of Shell’s 1980’s scenarios (he had been part of the team Shell had commissioned).  I had already been attracted to thinking about the future, but that had been on the big scale.  One of my father’s books was George Gamow’s The Birth and Death of the Sun.[iii]  Gamow was the theoretical physicist and cosmologist, but he had the knack of writing accessible books for the general reader.  I said accessible, but for me, also slight terrifying, as he calmly explained how the sun and later the planets had formed and how, in an almost unimaginably distant future, the sun would grow, destroy the planets, and then destroy itself.

It was on a bookshelf next door to James Jeans The Mysterious Universe, [iv] another book for the general reader on cosmology and Einstein’s theories of relativity.  Looking forward was mind twisting.  I skipped some of the maths, but I got the general gist of things.  Only Stephen Hawking has written something similarly accessible, in A Brief History of Time, [v] on the big bang and black holes.  Scenarios are on a different scale, using possible (probable, realistic, but different) short term futures to help think about contingencies we should consider in planning.  I have used Hawrylyshyn’s ideas – and even some of his techniques for presenting scenario analysis – ever since. It is an exciting but demanding approach to thinking about the future.

Looking back has its challenges, too.  Trying to make sense of the past has led many to search for patterns, especially cycles.  In geology over the long term, the record suggests there have been at least five occasions when cataclysmic events wiped out a large part of the existing fauna and flora. [vi]  On a smaller scale, there have been ice ages, followed by warmer periods, with three of these cycles in last 150,000 years. [vii]  Enthusiastic followers of this data have noted that ‘inter-glacial’ periods usually last around 20-25,000 years, and we are about 10-15,000 years from the end of the last ice age.  Guess what:  that suggests we will soon (soon in geological terms!) start entering another ice age, and that proves that global warming is wrong; it’s going to get colder, yes?  There’s the reason we can ignore global warming and changing temperatures!!

There’s a problem with cycles.  There are cycles in many things, but many are far from predictable.  The sun’s sunspot cycle, yes.  Economic cycles, no.  However, economic or business cycles get daily attention, as experts try to predict where we are in the current cycle.  Few predicted the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-9, but, no matter, several are telling us the next recession is just around the corner.  I think this is like economists predicting the coming year’s growth rate in GDP:  it’s all just guessing, but every so often, by luck, you’ll get it right!  Are we about to enter another financial crisis, driven by an overheated housing market?  I have no idea, but there are a lot of overheated economists and business people who seem to think so.

When it comes to politics, cycles are seldom discussed.  Arthur Schlesinger, the Harvard historian, offered a provocative analysis of American politics, suggested there was a cyclical shift between liberal and conservative periods.  He also suggested that some changes become permanent, and so when the next swing takes place, these remain in place.  In other words, his model was rather like a spiral spring, the cycles always moving up (up, well, always moving beyond what had been achieved before).  His theory was published in an essay in the Yale review in 1939, and it appears it was largely ignored. [viii]

For a long time, I believed that UK politics was cyclical, perhaps not exactly in the same way Schlesinger was suggesting.  It seemed to me that the Conservative Party would run government for a few years, slowly nibbling away at protections for workers, social security and the like.  Then the voters would get fed up enough to throw them out, and the Labour Party would take over, re-instituting protections and safeguards for the underprivileged and the vulnerable.  Then the mood would change again, and fears about the costs of the ‘nanny state’ would reappear, and the Conservatives would be back in power.

That was then.  Now the British political scene is much harder to understand, and the similarities between Labour and Conservative approaches seem to have increased.  They may be moving away from one another on some issues right now, but the balance between the two is much closer, and closer to the conservative side of the spectrum than before.  Within both of the two major parties, there are battles between those more persuaded of community needs and those concerned about free markets and business growth.  In both parties, some support Brexit, and some don’t.  It appears they both say anything to grab and hold on to power.  And so it goes on.

That appears to be the case in America, too.  Many Democrats sound like the Republicans of twenty years ago, although few Republicans sound like Democrats.  There is the same tendency for the positions of the two parties to become closer on some policies, although in other areas they have swung very far apart as Trump has galvanised a populist agenda.  For sure, in America too, the common theme is rich men (and companies) grabbing and keeping power.  Machiavelli knew all about that!  As for Australia, all that talk about ‘wets’ and ‘dries’ in the Coalition has disappeared, and neither side has much to commend it.

Political cycles?  No, I don’t think so.  Politics today is more like watching a fractious group of schoolchildren (schoolboys), shouting, arguing, trying to grab advantage, and very little evidence of a cohesive view of the world, and what should be done to make it a better place.  Some, the Abbotts and Rudds of this world enjoy puncturing the aspirations of each new party leader, as much for the enjoyment they get from the exercise as it is to further their own ambitions.  If there were cycles in politics, they are harder to see today.  The one thing that keeps me optimistic is that, in the long run, things will get better again, but, dear me, how long will we have to wait?

Standing back, I might be a little wiser about the ways of the world than I was twenty years ago.  Looking back and looking ahead are really about the same thing, which is trying to understand the patterns and processes of life and of the world around us.  They are only important if they are related to the missing element, Aspice, to look at things now, observe, pay attention.  In my occasional forays into executive education, this is where I focus, trying to help senior managers see more clearly.  That task is always focussed around two things.  First, we spend time looking back at what has been happening, trying to reframe the past into more helpful categories.  Then we move to thinking ahead, developing skills in foresight, first by looking at trends (demography is a marvellous starting point), and then on to scenario thinking and the world of possible futures).  All this to assist them in the present, observing and thinking about what to do.

Who would have thought that my school motto should so accurately describe what I aim to help others do:  to see things in perspective, look back, look ahead, respice, prospice.


[i] The area around Capel Curig and Betws-y-Coed

[ii] <>

[iii] Viking Press.  I read the 1952 Edition.

[iv] Cambridge University Press, 1931

[v] Bantam Dell, 1988

[vi] <>

[vii] <>

[viii] After battling for some time, I have given up trying to access the article to read, and I have relied on secondary sources.  The original article is ‘Tides of American Politics’, Yale Review, Vol. XXIX, 1939-40, page 217