When I was a boy, growing up in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, I owned this wonderful book called Future Cities: Homes and Living into the 21st Century. It came out in 1979, when I was 7 years old, and it gave me my first glimpse into the futures that might yet be. It kicked off a fascination with possible, probable and preferable futures that continues until this day and had a lot to do with me winding up at the Institute for Sustainable Futures.
Actually, the book was one of three parts of The Usborne Book of the Future (there’s a scanned copy here). The three parts (also sold separately) were on future cities, robots and space travel. If you’re into this kind of thing, there’s a great blog called Paleofuture that looks at a history of the future that never was.
Like most future predictions, the book is a mix of the eerily accurate, the almost right and the incredibly wrong. Colonies in space and zero gravity sports were perhaps a bit optimistic. But wristwatch TV may not be far away if rumours of the Apple iWatch are to be believed. And solar heated houses are commonplace (although looking quite different to what’s shown on the cover of the book).
Like many visions of the time, it’s steeped in optimism about human potential and possibilities. As a child in the 70s, the future looked rosy to me. Humans would achieve great things, fanning out to explore beyond our small planet. The future was a high tech utopia, full of endless possibility.
Since then, visions of the future have darkened. Dystopian visions are now commonplace. Starting with seminal environmental works like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in the 1960s and The Limits to Growth in the early 1970s, we have become all too familiar with the dark side of progress – climate change, deforestation, water wars, grinding poverty, ecological and social collapse.
These dystopian visions have become the fodder of Hollywood. From Blade Runner to The Road to The Hunger Games, it’s not hard to conjure up bleak images of the future of humanity on this planet. The science pointing towards dystopian futures is compelling and there is little doubt that futures where we overshoot the carrying capacity of the Earth and human civilisation collapses are a real possibility.
Richard Eckersley has written a brilliant piece on the three possible responses to fears of the apocalypse: nihilism, fundamentalism or activism. For a certain kind of person, awareness of apolalyptic futures can be motivating, pushing them down an activist path. For me, becoming aware of the dark side of the future pushed me down a path of working hard to avoid that kind of future and reclaim the optimism of my childhood. But for others, this kind of vision is an entertainment that breeds nihilism, apathy and despair.
Ultimately, I find apocalyptic and dystopian visions of the future unconvincing because I think we humans are ingenious, compassionate creatures and I just can’t see us letting it get that bad. Yes, I know that there are lags in ecological and climatic systems that mean that we might not realise how bad things are until it’s too late. And some will accuse me of radical optimism. But I think we will keep finding ways to avoid the worst futures.
Meanwhile, the techno-utopian visions of my childhood remain very much alive, albeit often overshadowed by Hollywood’s obsession with apocalypse. Proponents of techno-utopian visions argue that technology will save us from ourselves and avert disaster. Which technology will save us is open to debate. Here we see visions of carbon capture and storage, new generations of nuclear power, space-based solar collectors beaming power down to Earth with microwaves, geoengineering to prevent climate change (e.g. giant mirrors in space to reflect back sunlight) and speculation about the singularity, when humans will merge with super-intelligent machines to become infinitely powerful.
I wrote about one techno-utopian vision in my recent review of News from Gardenia, which describes a future world where ubiquitous power surrounds us like WiFi, drawn from enormous solar collectors in space and on every spare surface.
These techno-utopian visions of the future are clearly attractive, but they are problematic because technology is a double-edged sword. New technologies solve problems but create new problems. They bring new risks. And they may not arrive in time.
A more realistic vision, something of a hybrid of the first two, is that presented by Paul Gilding in his book The Great Disruption, which I’ve also reviewed here. Like those promoting dystopian visions, he agrees that a global crisis is now inevitable and may already have begun. He sees great human suffering and loss on the horizon. But he believes that this crisis will shock us into action, awakening our great pools of creativity. He believes that, when our back is to the wall, humans will awaken to what is needed and there will be a shift to a sustainable economic system, supported by new cultural values.
This feels like the most likely future to me. The ecological, social and economic pressures on human civilisation will continue to build through a series of cascading and interlocking crises until we have no choice but to restructure our economic and social systems so that they fit within planetary ecological boundaries. We will muddle our way through to sustainability but we will lose a great deal along the way. By the time problems like climate change are severe enough to force action, they will have wreaked great damage on humans and ecoystems, and further damage will be locked in.
My preferred future is best captured in the work of the Great Transition Initiative, which I wrote about in my last post. This Initiative has developed a set of global scenarios that include the kind of dystopian and muddling through visions I’ve already discussed. But they also set out a preferred vision where we don’t wait for the crises to get so bad that we must respond. Instead, we apply social foresight and begin to shift our values now, as part of a global citizens movement that will bring about a sustainable future. It’s a future built on cooperation, collaboration and egalitarianism. Glimpses of that future can already be seen in emerging movements such as collaborative consumption and the commons movement. It is a tantalising prospect, but feels far removed from the political and market realities of today.
In the end, despite what they might claim, nobody really knows how the future will unfold. There are two key reasons why we cannot reliably predict the future. First, we live in a world made up of complex systems where emergent behaviour is the norm. This behaviour is inherently unpredictable. Second, humans have the ability to exert agency. As soon as we predict a future, we begin acting in ways that alter the course of the future.
If thinking about the future is not predictive, then what value does it have? For me, futures work is about exploring a range of possible futures and drawing out multiple perspectives on what might happen so that our map of the future is more complete. Then, armed with a better map, we are able to make better decisions. We can make decisions that are robust and resilient – they still look like good decisions under multiple possible futures.
So, where do you think we are headed? What did the future look like when you were a child, and what does it look like to you now? I would love to read your own visions of the future.