Skip to content

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

References

1.         Johns‐Putra, A. Climate change in literature and literary studies: From cli‐fi, climate change theater and ecopoetry to ecocriticism and climate change criticism. WIREs Clim Change 7, 266–282 (2016).

2.         Turner, F. From Counterculture to Cyberculture. From Counterculture to Cyberculture (University of Chicago Press, 2021).

3.         Deese, R. S. The artifact of nature: ‘Spaceship Earth’ and the dawn of global environmentalism. Endeavour 33, 70–75 (2009).

4.         Hamilton, C. Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth about Climate Change. (Earthscan, 2010).

5.         Wallace-Wells, D. The uninhabitable earth. (Columbia University Press, 2019).

6.         Agnew, R. Dire forecast: A theoretical model of the impact of climate change on crime. Theoretical Criminology 16, 21–42 (2012).

7.         Bettini, G. Climate Barbarians at the Gate? A critique of apocalyptic narratives on ‘climate refugees’. Geoforum 45, 63–72 (2013).

8.         Fava, S. Environmental Apocalypse in Science and Art: Designing Nightmares. (Routledge, 2012). doi:10.4324/9780203094716.

9.         Salvador, M. & Norton, T. The Flood Myth in the Age of Global Climate Change. Environmental Communication 5, 45–61 (2011).

10.       Skrimshire, S. Climate change and apocalyptic faith. WIREs Climate Change 5, 233–246 (2014).

11.       Hoggett, P. Climate change and the apocalyptic imagination. Psychoanal Cult Soc 16, 261–275 (2011).

12.       Gill Ereaut, G. & Segnit, N. Warm Words – How are we telling the climate story and can we tell it better? (2006).

13.       Foust, C. R. & O’Shannon Murphy, W. Revealing and Reframing Apocalyptic Tragedy in Global Warming Discourse. Environmental Communication 3, 151–167 (2009).

14.       Moser, S. C. & Dilling, L. Toward the social tipping point: creating a climate for change. in Creating a Climate for Change (eds. Moser, S. C. & Dilling, L.) 491–516 (Cambridge University Press, 2007). doi:10.1017/CBO9780511535871.035.

15.       Lertzman, R. Environmental Melancholia: Psychoanalytic dimensions of engagement. (Routledge, 2015). doi:10.4324/9781315851853.

16.       Searle, K. & Gow, K. Do concerns about climate change lead to distress? International Journal of Climate Change Strategies and Management 2, 362–379 (2010).

17.       Bean, R. The Heretic. (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2012).

18.       Gabor, D. Inventing the Future. (Secker & Warburg, 1963).

19.       Meadows, D. H., Meadows, D. H., Randers, J. & Behrens III, W. W. The limits to growth: a report to the club of Rome (1972). (Universe Books, New York, 1972).

20.       McCray, W. P. The Visioneers. The Visioneers (Princeton University Press, 2012).

21.       Hausfather, Z. & Peters, G. P. Emissions – the ‘business as usual’ story is misleading. Nature 577, 618–620 (2020).

22.       Ferrari, A. & Lösch, A. How Smart Grid Meets In Vitro Meat: on Visions as Socio-Epistemic Practices. Nanoethics 11, 75–91 (2017).

23.       Son, H. The history of Western futures studies: An exploration of the intellectual traditions and three-phase periodization. Futures 66, 120–137 (2015).

24.       Polak, F. et al. The image of the future. (Elsevier Scientific Publ. Comp, 1973).

25.       van der Helm, R. The future according to Frederik Lodewijk Polak: finding the roots of contemporary futures studies. Futures 37, 505–519 (2005).

26.       Polak, F. De toekomst is verleden tijd. (1955).

27.       Boulding, K. E. General Systems Theory—The Skeleton of Science. Management Science 2, 197–208 (1956).

28.       Fuller, R. B. Operating Manual For Spaceship Earth. 44 (1969).

29.       Boulding, K. E. The economics of the coming spaceship earth. New York (1966).

30.       Rockström, J. et al. Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity. E&S 14, art32 (2009).

31.       Steffen, W. et al. Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Science 347, (2015).

32.       Korhonen, J., Honkasalo, A. & Seppälä, J. Circular Economy: The Concept and its Limitations. Ecological Economics 143, 37–46 (2018).

33.       Murray, A., Skene, K. & Haynes, K. The Circular Economy: An Interdisciplinary Exploration of the Concept and Application in a Global Context. J Bus Ethics 140, 369–380 (2017).

34.       Lieder, M. & Rashid, A. Towards circular economy implementation: a comprehensive review in context of manufacturing industry. Journal of Cleaner Production 115, 36–51 (2016).

35.       Bocken, N. M. P., de Pauw, I., Bakker, C. & van der Grinten, B. Product design and business model strategies for a circular economy. Journal of Industrial and Production Engineering 33, 308–320 (2016).

36.       Geisendorf, S. & Pietrulla, F. The circular economy and circular economic concepts—a literature analysis and redefinition. Thunderbird International Business Review 60, 771–782 (2018).

37.       Miller, R. Futures literacy: A hybrid strategic scenario method. Futures 39, 341–362 (2007).

38.       Fleener, M. J. & Barcinas, S. Futurists’ relationships with the future: a study of anticipatory meaning-making of ecosystem builders. FS 22, 633–642 (2020).

39.       Miller, R. Embracing complexity and using the future. Ethos 10, 23–28 (2010).

40.       Inayatullah, S. Reductionism or layered complexity? The futures of futures studies. Futures 34, 295–302 (2002).

41.       Transforming the Future. (Routledge, 2018).

42.       Höjer, M. & Mattsson, L.-G. Determinism and backcasting in future studies. Futures 32, 613–634 (2000).

43.       Andreotti, F., Speelman, E. N., Van den Meersche, K. & Allinne, C. Combining participatory games and backcasting to support collective scenario evaluation: an action research approach for sustainable agroforestry landscape management. Sustain Sci 15, 1383–1399 (2020).

44.       Miller, R., Poli, R. & Rossel, P. The Discipline of Anticipation: Exploring Key Issues. 14 (2013).

45.       Poli, R. The many aspects of anticipation. Foresight 12, 7–17 (2010).

46.       Riel Miller (editor). Transforming the Future: Anticipation in the 21st Century. (Routledge, 2018).

47.       Voros, J. Big History and Anticipation. in Handbook of Anticipation (ed. Poli, R.) 1–40 (Springer International Publishing, 2017). doi:10.1007/978-3-319-31737-3_95-1.

48.       Weber, M., Parsons, T. & Tawney, R. H. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism [1904-5]. Translated by Talcott Parsons. (G. Allen & Unwin, 1930).

49.       Godhe, M. & Goode, L. Critical Future Studies – A thematic Introduction. Culture Unbound 10, 151–162 (2018).

50.       Goode, L. & Godhe, M. Beyond Capitalist Realism – Why We Need Critical Future Studies. Culture Unbound 9, 108–129 (2017).

51.       Hideg, E. Implications of two new paradigms for futures studies. Futures 34, 283–294 (2002).

52.       Ferreira, F. de S. Critical sustainability studies: A holistic and visionary conception of socio-ecological conscientization. 13, 22 (2017).

53.       Feola, G. Capitalism in sustainability transitions research: Time for a critical turn? Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions 35, 241–250 (2020).

54.       Suvin, D. On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre. College English 34, 372 (1972).

55.       Berne, R. W. & Schummer, J. Teaching Societal and Ethical Implications of Nanotechnology to Engineering Students Through Science Fiction. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society 25, 459–468 (2005).

56.       Miller, C. A. & Bennett, I. Thinking longer term about technology: is there value in science fiction-inspired approaches to constructing futures? Sci Public Policy 35, 597–606 (2008).

57.       Johnson, B. D. Science Fiction Prototyping: Designing the Future with Science Fiction. Synthesis Lectures on Computer Science 3, 1–190 (2011).

58.       Bell, F., Fletcher, G., Greenhill, A., Griffiths, M. & McLean, R. Science fiction prototypes: Visionary technology narratives between futures. Futures 50, 5–14 (2013).

59.       Grimshaw, P. & Burgess, T. F. The emergence of ‘zygotics’: Using science fiction to examine the future of design prototyping. Technological Forecasting and Social Change 84, 5–14 (2014).

60.       Burnam-Fink, M. Creating narrative scenarios: Science fiction prototyping at Emerge. Futures 70, 48–55 (2015).

61.       Wilbanks, R. Incantatory Fictions and Golden Age Nostalgia: Futurist Practices in Contemporary Science Fiction. in The Palgrave Handbook of Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Literature and Science (eds. Ahuja, N. et al.) 221–241 (Springer International Publishing, 2020). doi:10.1007/978-3-030-48244-2_13.

62.       Jordan, P. & Silva, P. A. Science Fiction—An Untapped Opportunity in HCI Research and Education. in Design, User Experience, and Usability:  UX Research and Design (eds. Soares, M. M., Rosenzweig, E. & Marcus, A.) 34–47 (Springer International Publishing, 2021). doi:10.1007/978-3-030-78221-4_3.

63.       Levitas, R. Utopia as Method. (Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2013). doi:10.1057/9781137314253.

64.       Levitas, R. Where there is no vision, the people perish: A utopian ethic for a transformed future. CUSP essay series on the Ethics of Sustainable Prosperity vol. 5 (2017).

65.       Bina, O., Inch, A. & Pereira, L. Beyond techno-utopia and its discontents: On the role of utopianism and speculative fiction in shaping alternatives to the smart city imaginary. Futures 115, 102475 (2020).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.