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International Futures: Choices in the Face of Uncertainty

Barry B. Hughes
Boulder, CO: Westview Press
Third Edition 1999
Paper: ISBN 0-813-36841-3

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Reviewed by
Matthew J. Hoffmann
Department of Political Science and International Relations, University of Delaware, Newark, DE, USA.

Cover of book
We will never fully anticipate [our choices'] consequences for ourselves or others. We will act in the face of uncertainty. Yet we will make choices; collectively we will continue to reshape the world. (p. 1)
What will be the future of human environmental, economic, and socio-political systems in the 21st century? ... no one knows. (p. 1)
We cannot know the future, but it is essential to act in the face of that uncertainty. (p. 3)

These three quotations set the stage for Barry B. Hughes' first-rate volume, International Futures: Choices in the Face of Uncertainty, and the International Futures (IF) model that accompanies it. Hughes adds to the family of 'world models' literature in a clear, concise, jargon-free manner. However, the value of this book lies not so much in the advancement of the frontiers of modelling (though the model is comprehensive and well done), but rather in its strong potential as a teaching tool. This book, aimed at undergraduates in political science and international relations, is a recent volume in the wonderful undergraduate international relations series, Dilemmas in World Politics. As a teaching tool and an introduction to modelling, it is a significant contribution and I both highly recommend it and plan to use it in my own classes.

The utility of this volume for teaching purposes is two-fold. First, Hughes does an excellent job of describing general modelling procedures and explaining the rationale for using modelling techniques in the study of international relations. This volume will inspire students to think about world politics in a different way. Second, the model is well constructed and provides a good environment for hands-on exploration of policy scenarios. Students will be able to delve into policy experimentation very quickly.

* The Volume

Chapters One and Two contain the introduction to IF modelling and significant background material on the 7 issue areas addressed with the model: demographics, economics, agriculture, environment, energy, technology and society/politics. Chapter One lays out the scope and concerns of the volume in a jargon free manner: readers do not have to have a deep background in political science or modelling to follow it. Perhaps most crucially, Hughes recognises and discusses the importance of perspective in modelling. He notes that "... values tend to shape discussion of even our first question concerning where current changes appear to be taking us. We will see that the different value-and-understanding orientations emphasise different trends or can interpret the same trend in quite different ways" (p. 6). Chapter Two examines recent historical trends in the seven broad issues of concern in the volume. The trends of interest are large-scale as the IF model is built with national/regional/global data and relationships, and is designed to explore questions such as world population trajectories, global sustainable development, global climate change, and other macro patterns in world politics.[1] Chapter Two is an adequate sketch of trend analysis that provides necessary background for the chapters that follow. However, one potential concern in Chapter Two is the treatment of the concept of 'change'. The discussion of change presented in the chapter makes change analogous to trends. Thus a times series graph becomes the way to represent change. However, this ignores some fundamental questions about change itself (e.g. how do we recognise it?). It is insufficient to discuss change as a trend line, especially when the trend line is produced by an unchanging econometric function. To be fair, however, a full scale philosophical discussion of change is beyond the scope of this volume.

Chapters Three and Four introduce the IF model and modelling procedures. Chapter Three includes an accessible and useful introduction to simulation modelling (in the world model tradition) as a tool for understanding international relations as well as some crucial insights about sensitivity to initial conditions and interconnectedness. The bulk of Chapter Three walks the reader through an examination of the provided baseline scenario for the IF model and looks at the forecasts that it produces in the seven areas of concern. Chapter Four turns the focus to scenario/policy analysis, prompting the reader to go beyond the baseline model. As Hughes notes, the baseline model is meant to represent a possible future based on a particular set of ideas about the relationships that have produced current trends. This is a crucial point to highlight for students not familiar with modelling, as many models using entirely different assumptions (and even using a different modelling methodology) could also reproduce the trends of interest. Hughes encourages the readers to test potential policy scenarios that would alter the possible future presented though the ability to alter the fundamental assumptions about the variables that drive the macro trends is difficult (if not impossible in some cases). This chapter also includes a primer on causal analysis and an important recognition of the some of the inherent arbitrariness of modelling.

With the first four chapters as introduction and background, the reader is ready for chapters 5-12. These chapters take each of the seven issue areas one at a time and explore possible policy interventions. Throughout these chapters, Hughes provides solid technical advice and interesting modelling suggestions. Each of these chapters has a similar structure. The issue area is introduced, the issue dynamics (what variables/parameters are driving what outcomes) are discussed, and possible policy experiments are explored. Each chapter includes discussions of 'good' modelling procedures and Hughes includes an important caveat about the hypothetical nature of this type of modelling. "Use the model as a 'thinking tool,' not as a crystal ball." (p. 133) This is an especially important caveat given the target audience of undergraduate students. The volume concludes with Chapter Thirteen's discussion of the limitations of modelling and a call by Hughes for readers to ask 'big' questions.

* The IF Model

The volume is accompanied by a CD that contains the student version of the IF model and this straightforward, easy to use program is what really makes Hughes' volume a quality teaching tool.[2] The IF model is a systems dynamics/econometric model designed for forecasting and scenario testing in the seven core issue areas (demographic,economic, agricultural, energy, environmental, technological, and socio-political). It includes over 200 variables and parameters at various levels of aggregation (national, regional, global) that combine to produce the macro trends of most interest (world population, global energy use, carbon dioxide increases, north-south gaps and so on).[3] This is not an artificial society with agents and decisions, but a social simulation model that begins with data-driven (recent) historical trends and extends them into the future. This type of modelling has the potential to be a great teaching tool in international relations, not so much for introducing complex systems or in-depth explanations of the seven issues, but rather for inducing critical thought about the complicated and interconnected nature of the world. It is appropriate for introducing students to the ways that population, technology, energy, environment, agriculture, social and political issues exhibit interdependencies, as well as for encouraging them to think about how policy interventions could influence outcomes.

The IF model allows for three types of experimentation. First, students can explore the baseline scenario, which consists of the forecasts produced by the initially configured functions provided by Hughes. This level allows students to get a feel for how different aspects of the world influence each other (e.g. the interdependence of the seven areas) given the relationships, variables and parameter values Hughes used to calibrate the model. The second level of exploration is scenario analysis or policy projections. This is the main focus of the IF model. Hughes has made it relatively easy to experiment with any and all of the parameters and variables in the model. Throughout the bulk of the book he walks readers through potential policy scenarios and provides useful suggestions for experimentation. The third level is for the most sophisticated students. Hughes has made it possible to alter some of the functions at the foundations of the IF model (mostly those dealing with the influence of GDP per capita on other variables and parameters). This allows the modeller to explore some of the fundamental assumptions in the model and alter them, however, not all (and I suspect very few) of the equations are available for manipulation. In addition, the underlying relationships (the independent and dependent variables) are fixed.

Although the IF model has a great deal of potential, there are two concerns to be aware of depending on its intended use. First, for the most part, this is a black box model. It is a classic macro level model (with the advantages and disadvantages inherent in this type of modelling) without agents or decisions. The forecasts are produced by econometric functions and the subject of the modelling is national/regional/global level variables. Thus the model is a telescopic rather than microscopic view on the world. To his credit, Hughes notes the concerns with this type of analysis. Thus, while this type of model is good for introducing students to modelling in general, it is a very specific type of modelling. It is not an introduction to complex adaptive systems. There is no emergence or generative modelling in the IF model and it is a tool for thought experiments and policy analysis more than it is for explanation. The model's utility is found in experiments that begin by saying, 'if the world works as assumed in this model, then what would happen if I change some specific relationships or intervene with specific policies.' A second concern is that the multitude of parameters and variables can lead to difficulty in separating out what factors drive the outcomes. This can increase the difficulty of understanding policy projections, especially for students who are not experienced modellers. The IF model captures complicated interactions and macro-level trends, and students will need guidance as they sort through the relationships, feedback and interconnections inherent in the model.

In sum, I recommend International Futures for use in undergraduate classes on international relations and modelling.[4] The volume and accompanying model allow students to think about population dynamics, sustainability, economic tendencies, political phenomena and a host of other crucial issues in a very concrete fashion and further to think concretely about how these issues interact and can be altered.

* Notes

1 It should be noted however, that national and regional patterns could be explored as well.

2 Mention is made of a professional version in Chapter 3 and an updated version of the model is available on the web, but I am unfamiliar with these and will restrict my comments to the model that accompanied the book. The IF model is a stand-alone program that installs easily. It is a menu driven, Windows program. (The version I installed was designed for Windows 95/98, but works fine on Windows NT as well.)

3 It is not feasible in this review to discuss even a subset of the parameters and variables driving the IF model. However, that is not to imply an unqualified endorsement of the variables chosen or the relationships that drive the trends. As Hughes notes, many of the causal relationships are oversimplified. Students will require a critical discussion about variable and equation choice to fully benefit from using this model.

4 In addition, the volume may be useful for graduate students with limited modelling experience.

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© Copyright Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 2001