A Future-Driven Life Adventure
From troubled youth to pioneering futures scholar, acclaimed futurist Wendell Bell takes readers through his life’s highs and lows in this candid new memoir.
What do growing up in an alcoholism-plagued household, laboring for minimum wage in a warehouse, and flying an airplane through tropical storms have to do with the future? A lot, according to Wendell Bell, a Yale University sociologist and futurist whose life story incorporates many such tales. What some people would see as rough patches, he sees as lessons in planning ahead, and as opportunities to envision and create better outcomes.
“I achieved many of my hopes and failed to achieve some others, and I avoided many of my fears (such as becoming a severely injured or dead navy pilot; a life-long warehouseman, agricultural worker, or insurance salesman; or a drunkard or a university president),” he writes.
Bell is renowned for establishing futures studies at Yale and for writing a collection of books and articles on humanity’s long-term outlook, including the two-volume Foundations of Futures Studies. In this autobiography, Bell recounts the life journey that brought him into academia and foresight. He relates the adversities that challenged him, the people and places that inspired him, and the special significance that “images of the future”—notions of what might come to pass, and what one might do about it—hold for him and, truly, for all of us.
“Such images are dynamic determinants and motivators of our actions,” he writes. “Although most images of the future may fall like the dead leaves of autumn, some fall like seeds on fertile ground and grow into the tall trees of the future.”
Bell’s beginning was not auspicious. Alcohol abuse afflicted his family, and his memories of childhood are checkered with scenes of spousal abuse, police interventions, and the spring afternoon when his mother and grandmother took him with them across the country to start a new life without his binge-drinking father and grandfather.
But there were positives among the negatives. Books and ideas inspired him, and so did the kind stepfather, Sharkey, who sat and listened to the young Wendell rattle off at length about Buddhism, individualism, and the other concepts that he was discovering through reading.
The first few years after high school offered less in the way of inspiration. Having enlisted in the Navy but waiting to be called up for active duty, he took up stints clearing warehouse floors for United Grocers. It was drab work that wore down those who made their living by it, and Bell’s brief sojourn in it stiffened his resolve to attain a better life.
The Navy did call him up, and he became a pilot assigned to patrols in the Philippine Sea. Squadron command would have him fly planes into typhoons to observe their trajectories and intensity, so to alert ships and bases in their paths. Bell attributes his later futurist work, in part, to these missions.
“I had witnessed the importance of foresight and early warning—in this case, to prevent damage and loss of life by knowing some small aspect of the probable future,” he writes.
He returned ashore to attend Fresno State College, where he also met his wife, Lora-Lee Edwards. A doctorate in sociology at UCLA followed. Bell then proceeded to teach classes at UCLA, Stanford, and Northwestern universities and to work as a visiting fellow at Australian National University in Canberra.
He also lived in Jamaica during its early-1960s transition to independence from Great Britain. His experiences there were a springboard for his launch of the UCLA West Indies Study Program, which he served as director while extensively researching Jamaica and training students from the United States and the Caribbean islands to do the same. His studies were respected enough that CIA agents periodically consulted him on his findings.
Yale was another professional high point for Wendell Bell. He was the chair of sociology, and in this position, he introduced futures-studies courses. He also launched an African American Studies Program and helped transform the all-male and culturally White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant institution into an internationally minded one with women and minority students and faculty.
Bell also fondly remembers the 1980 “First Global Conference on the Future,” which the World Future Society co-hosted in Toronto with the Canadian Association for Futures Studies. He devotes several pages to this conference, at which he delivered two presentations, and writes of the luminaries who attended and of the zeitgeist of intellectual enthusiasm that permeated the event.
“People excitedly talked to one another, agreeing, disagreeing, or taking off together in flights of imagination,” he writes. “Some, as I had done some years earlier, came out and said it, ‘I am a futurist!’”
Bell details all of these career highlights, and most readers will find them impressive. His narrations of braving danger and hardships in the Navy and of surviving an often-rocky childhood likewise command admiration.
However, other details of Bell’s memoir put him in a less-flattering light. Readers may be surprised, for instance, by Bell’s admissions of alcohol abuse, which he only in later years curbed to moderate consumption.
“I remember being amused by some of the supercilious, antiestablishment, countercultural things people, including me, said or did under its [alcohol’s] influence,” he writes. “Later in life, I realized how unhealthy drinking to excess was and what asinine behavior it could cause.”
Bell speaks unreservedly about many episodes that other memoir writers might leave out for vanity’s sake: among them, rowdy after-hours get-togethers with warehouse workers, which included visits to a brothel, and casual romantic flings in young adulthood, one of which produced an out-of-wedlock child with whom he lost contact.
Readers get the full story of Bell’s life. He presents his strengths of character alongside his shortcomings; his triumphs are backlit by his setbacks.
Most people appreciate a great life story that brims with meaning and purpose. Such is the life of Wendell Bell as he relates it, unsparingly and, at times, even unflatteringly, in Memories of the Future.
About the Reviewer
Rick Docksai is an assistant editor of THE FUTURIST and of World Future Review.
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