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Why we must move beyond doomsday scenarios in order to save the planet

This theme has been nagging me for a long time but a recent piece in Wired called made me decide to pre-publish a snippet of a scientific article I’m writing on this.

The piece that triggered this post concludes: It’s time to stop telling our children that they’re going to die from climate change. It’s not only cruel, it might actually make it more likely to come true. It was written by Hannah Ritchie of Our World in Data fame – one of my heroes – and she describes how the doom and gloom almost made her quit the field. So here it goes. Maybe someone gets some inspiration from this.

Be careful with inventing Apocalyptic futures

We must be careful what futures we invent. Many people in sustainability opt to invent Apocalyptic futures, and “overwhelmingly, climate change appears in novels as part of a futuristic dystopian and/or postapocalyptic setting.”1 Maybe it’s because “the age of ecology opened … with a dazzling fireball of light and a swelling mushroom cloud of radioactive gasses”2 and nuclear weapons provided the impetus of the environmentalist movement.3 Authors write about a “Requiem for a Species”4, an “Uninhabitable earth”5, crime,6 and “climate barbarians at the gate”7. Such visions can act as self-fulfilling prophesies: Fava contents we are “Designing Nightmares”.8 And that’s relatively easy because our brains are primed by a rich Apocalyptic tradition in our myths9 and faiths10. The allure of Apocalyptic dystopian alarmism can be especially strong for activists: avoiding dogmatism means their emotions must oscillate between certainty that drives action and doubt that allows curiosity. This is not easy: it requires ‘a high level of individual emotional maturity’ (what Derrida termed ‘aporia’) and it’s easier for the ‘internal establishment’ to decree that dissident thoughts are no longer allowed.11 Others become apathic9,10,12–15 and depressed.11,15,16 Apocalyptic visions can also become secretly thrilling “climate porn”.12 In the play “the heretic” the titular character contents: “This generation are disaster junkies. Armageddon in three acts. … It’s as if their every last twitching synapse has been transplanted from the stolen corpse of a Hollywood screen writer.”17

Visioneering: turning bleak visions into self-defeating prophesies

Fortunately “we are still the masters of our own faith”18 and complexity science teaches us to treat Armageddon as just one of many possible futures that we can choose to avoid. A good example is the Report of The Club of Rome19 that showed there were planetary limits to growth and humanity was on course to crash into them within a century. McCray20 describes how the report led scientists like O’Neill and Drexler to “reconcile environmental and social concerns with ambitious technological visions”. And so they imagined a future with visions of space colonies and nanotechnology. Others went to work on solar, wind, batteries, electric vehicles, meat replacements, et cetera. The result of these people imagining a more sustainable future was a spur of new technology so we can now say “the business-as-usual story is misleading”: an explosion in coal use by the end of the century is unlikely and we are now heading for roughly 3 degrees instead of 5 degrees.21

Of course 3 degrees is still too much, and the high degree of uncertainty means we are still playing Russian roulette. But we haven’t stopped imagining better futures. “Currently, the production, manipulation and exploitation of socio-technical visions are increasingly recognized as important elements in innovation and transformation processes, especially in science and technology studies (STS) and also in technology assessment (TA) literature on new and emerging technologies. “Visioneering”…” is becoming increasingly important.22

Future studies: we can choose to imagine a better future into being

Son describes how the intellectual heritage of future studies lies in competing intellectual traditions. Religion provided anti-humanistic and predetermined tendencies and this determinism was further empowered by historicism, classic industrialization and neoliberalism that led to forecasting growth within the capitalist paradigm. On the other hand, science fiction tends to empower dramatic ideas and recently complexity science inspired thoughts of methodical transformation.23 It’s this second tradition that is useful to us if we want to deploy VIPs so that is what we will zoom in on. Here we find inspirators like Polak24–26 who wrote about “how various human cultures have shaped their own destinies through their collective images of the future.”25 He influenced well known scholars like general systems theorist Kenneth Boulding.27 Boulding used the metaphor of “spaceship earth” on a long voyage through space and time, popularized by Henry George and Buckminster Fuller.3,28 But instead of focusing on abundance like George, or on decoupling like Fuller, he drew attention to the fact that earth was a materially closed system and we were quickly running out of fossil fuels, although he also thought we would keep increasing information and condensing matter with energy we harvest directly from the sun.29 Boulding thought that fantasies of a physically unlimited earth as an open system where dangerous. They led to a “cowboy economy” and “reckless, exploitative, romantic, and violent behavior, which is characteristic of open society.” He observes that in an open system, measures of throughput like GDP make sense. But once you understood the earth is a physically closed system you should “distinguish within GDP between exhaustible and reproducible resources, and distinguish between useful output and pollution.” He proposes we should move to a “spaceman economy” in which the goal to increase throughput and material consumption is replaced with the goal to “increase the nature, extent, quality, and complexity of the total capital stock, including the state of the human bodies and minds included in the system.” He notices that “the idea that both production and consumption are bad things rather than good things is very strange to economists, who have been obsessed with the income-flow concepts to the exclusion, almost, of capital-stock concepts.”29 Boulding inspired present day visionaries like Rockström and Steffen to come up with “a safe operation space for humanity”30 within “planetary boundaries,”30,31 and many others who are now imagining us towards a circular economy.32–36 For us Boulding serves as a powerful illustration of both the power of complexity thinking and of imagining a more sustainable future into being.

Polak and Boulding also inspired current ‘futurists’37 and complexity combined with imagining the future is now standard in the field of ‘future studies’.38–40 There is a strong current of holistic thinking over reductionism, of abundance over scarcity, and of improving relationships over elements.38 They don’t believe in ‘a future’ but in shaping ‘potential futures’.38,41 Forecasting is replaced by backcasting.42,43 By anticipating the future they create it.38,44–47 (Weber already posited how protestant anticipation of the afterlife created capitalism.48) A strong strand is what has recently been termed critical future studies that focuses on sustainable alternatives for capitalism.49–53

“Knowledge is empty without imagination, without spirit, without the heart… no civilization ever became great on knowledge alone” (Okri 2015: 14)

Techno optimism, science fiction and the crafting of new stories

A powerful method for futurists envisioning a more sustainable future that is mentioned often in the literature is science fiction.1,54–62 Johnson coined the term “science fiction prototyping” or SFP.57 Burnam-Fink laments that scenarios often lack a relatable protagonist, a plotline moving towards resolution, imagery, of other emotionally persuasive techniques of (science fiction) literature.60 Others note utopias are useful as a device in scenario building.63–65


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