This data-gathering and question-posing doesn't lead to predictions, per se. "Two words are taboo in forecasting - 'will' and 'will not,' " says Shostak. Instead, what most business futurists provide clients is "scenarios," which are minimovie scripts that outline possible futures. And the emphasis is on the plural - futures - because most futurists caution clients against putting all their chips on just one possibility.

Here's one set of scenarios. Imagine a U.S. oil company weighing the wisdom of investing several billion dollars in Russian petroleum reserves. It takes many years - 10, 20, longer - for these giant investments to pay off, and even for a well-heeled oil company, this represents a sizable bet. So the company might want to consider various scenarios and how they would affect profitability.

  • Russia reverts to socialism and nationalizes all private holdings. The investment is lost. The probability is not high, but nostalgic voices remain in Russia, so this is a possible future.

  • Organized crime muscles in on the oil holdings and demands a share of the profits. This scenario would explore the costs of doing business with the racketeers, but also the costs of ignoring them.

  • New technologies make hydrogen-powered cars an economic reality. Demand for petroleum plummets. More and more positive findings come out of labs, and already there are prototype vehicles running on hydrogen, so this is a definite maybe that needs scrutiny.

  • Petroleum consumption continues increasing, and the investment pays off steadily as the Russian economy flourishes and its internal demand for petroleum is brisk. Demand in export markets also is high, as U.S. domestic production continues to wane.