Climate Change: Four Futures

Sara Robinson

As the debate over the climate bill heats up, there’s one rule of thumb that may help you keep your bearings as the rhetoric becomes more gaseous and the weeds grow ever higher around the facts.

It’s this: There are, in the end, only four possible futures here.

Future 1 is Continuation — more business as usual. The people favoring this approach aren’t just the deniers; they’re also the people who intellectually understand and accept the reality of global heating, but are so locked into the status quo and its systems that they’re either unable to imagine or impotent to instigate the kind of responses required to meet it.

(A rather sobering example: a friend told me earlier this week about a meeting with a Congressional staffer who proffered the opinion that 350 ppm of atmospheric carbon — the absolute target set by the IPCC as necessary to avoid catastrophic warming — wasn’t possible, but a target of 450 ppm could probably be sold on the Hill. The guy honestly thought you could negotiate with physics the same way you negotiate state school lunch funding — that Mother Nature is a bureaucrat who can be counted on to pad her budget request forms, expecting Congress to dock them. That’s classic Continuation thinking.)

Under this assumption, American life will go on in this century more or less as it did in the last, perhaps with some adaptations here and there.

Future 2 is Collapse — the end of the world as we know it. This is the Jared Diamond/James Howard Kunstler/Limits to Growth scenario, where civilization’s immensely complex and brittle systems break down, and life winds down to something more simple and local. This isn’t necessarily a “worst case” scenario — a lot of us wouldn’t mind returning to a less complex existence — but it’s radically different from the modern world we know now.

Future 3 is Discipline — we acknowledge and accept the magnitude of the problem, make a serious plan to deal with it, and commit to following through. There will be sacrifice. There will be change. But because the transition is thought through and undertaken in an orderly way, much of what we value can be salvaged; and new (perhaps more authentically human) values can be brought to the fore as well. This is the path advocated by most environmentalists and climate activists — not to mention a growing number of businesses who are seeking coherent guidance as they invest their capital in new green initiatives.

Future 4 is Technology and Innovation — putting our confidence in our own ability to create technological solutions like geoengineering and carbon-free energy sources that will solve the problem. This is the future where science fiction meets future fact. Perhaps it’s time for humans to consider moving to other planets, or creating artificial environments here that will sustain us when the natural environment turns hostile. Whatever the vision, it’s taken for granted that humans are very smart monkeys who can invent our way out of anything if we simply decide to think big enough.

The truth of the matter is that no matter what kind of fate-of-the-world conversation you find yourself in, when you get right down to it, these are the only four futures on the table. But they also work at a smaller scale: they’re also often the four most plausible futures when you’re discussing the fate of nations, organizations, families, and individuals as well. (As a thought experiment, map them onto economic reform, health care reform, immigration reform — see? They’re good tools.) That’s why, within the futures trade, they’re known as the “four generic futures.”

The four generic futures were first described back in the 1970s by Dr. Jim Dator, founder of the futures program at the University of Hawaii. Over a number of years, Dator and his students collected literally millions of images of the future from all kinds of sources — corporate and public strategic plans, statements by politicians, policies and laws, science fiction books and magazines, movies, photos and drawings, and so on. He finally realized that every one of the images they’d collected could readily be grouped into just four piles — these four alternative visions of the future. Dator writes:

These four futures are “generic” in the sense that varieties of specific images characteristic of them all share common theoretical, methodological and data bases which distinguish them from the bases of the other three futures, and yet each generic form has a myriad of specific variations reflective of their common basis.

Also each of the alternatives has “good” and “bad” features. None should be considered as either a bad or a good future per se. There is no such thing as either a “best case scenario” or a “worse case scenario”. Also, there is no such thing as a “most likely scenario”. In the long run, all four generic forms have equal probabilities of happening, and thus all need to be considered in equal measure and sincerity. This last point is very important.

Dator also points out that “these four futures are always before us — though some loom larger in our consciousness at some times than at other times.” Furthermore, he says, the Official Future of all modern societies is Continuation: “All education and governance is towards creating and maintaining such a society.”

And that, in a nutshell, explains a lot of the disconnect that’s infuriating those of us who are exasperated at Washington’s apparent inability to get a grip on climate change. A huge government system that’s set up explicitly to perpetuate the Continuation future can’t help but greet the other three futures with varying degrees of incomprehension and resistance.

The policy folk in DC do OK with technology and innovation solutions, because history has proven their ability to drive economic growth. That’s why we’re still seriously discussing “drill here, drill now,” even while an open gusher explodes on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico; and clean coal and more nukes continue to hog center stage in policy discussions like attention-starved five-year-olds. Washington likes technological fixes — especially when the technologies entail known risks (however absurdly high). As the crisis escalates, we can expect bold geoengineering schemes to capture their imaginations as well, especially if there are strong economic upsides to be had for their clients.

But these folks are loath to embrace solutions rooted in Discipline — or even worse, Collapse — because both of these alternatives are implicit admissions of failure. They’re there to keep the system running. If we have to re-trench our economy in a whole new set of values — or if things fall apart altogether — then they flat out haven’t done their jobs. For the people who run this country, these aren’t plausible alternatives at all. They’re the stuff of their worst nightmares, the kinds of events that discredit everything they’ve done in their lives. And, of course, that makes these alternatives painfully hard to even contemplate, no matter how patently necessary the discipline or how looming the collapse might be.

Of course, the odds are good that wherever we end up, it will be due to all four of these forces coming together in some combination. So the most sensible strategy is to plan for all four of them, in the hope of gaining some understanding (and, in instances, even some control) of how they interact and play out as the century unfolds.

Ironically, if Continuation is the goal — that is, we want to retain as many comforts of this modern life as possible in a more constrained world — then ignoring the problem by assuming that Continuation is also the most likely future is the very worst thing we can do. Climate change is real, and happening all around us right now. (Don’t think it’s happening in your town? Go ask a farmer, gardener, or biologist.) Every day our policy makers fail to confront that truth is another opportunity lost to protect the very systems of money and power they’re so committed to protecting. The longer they delay, the worse the catastrophe will be when it comes, and the more unprepared they’ll be to deal with it. (That movie was called “Katrina,” and we’ve already seen how it ends.)

Instead, we need a plan (Discipline) that makes a serious investment in moving us quickly, calmly, and in a fiercely committed way toward a new energy paradigm. We need to re-tool our economy and government to perpetuate a new system, one that acknowledges the boundaries of this planet and emphasizes more humane values. We need to face our new limits, and find creative, joyful ways to live within them. As part of that discipline, we should also be openly talking about our fears (and hopes) for what Collapse might look like, and figure out how we still might survive and make satisfying lives in reduced circumstances. The more familiar and comfortable we are with the full range of possible trade-offs we’re facing — including the most extreme ones — the more likely we are to be able to make whatever choices become necessary with intelligence and grace.

And that plan should, absolutely, include bold investments in innovative technologies that create alternatives to carbon-based fuels, promote energy conservation, and remove carbon from the atmosphere. Discipline partisans tend to denigrate technology solutions (in no small part because if we can solve the whole problem with technology alone, the economic, cultural and spiritual realignments implicit in Discipline won’t be necessary); but there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit out there, just waiting to be picked, and we’d be irresponsible not to set our inventors and scientists to the task of harvesting it. It’s probably true that our first, best, and fastest carbon-abatement solutions will come from this quarter.

Seen this way, the really important questions we need to be asking are the ones that look like this:

Can Technology make big enough breakthroughs fast enough to ensure full (or near-full) Continuation? And is that even desirable?

Are Americans capable of enough Discipline to act quickly enough, with enough focus, to save their economy and restore their fading technological dominance?

Are our cities and towns resilient enough to cope with whatever degree of Collapse may come? If they’re not, how do we begin to plan for that?

Will the forces of Continuation evade their duty to seriously engage the other three alternatives so long that the whole conversation eventually becomes moot?

Every discussion about climate change is implicitly rooted in these four visions of the future. And arguments over which of these futures we should be assuming or planning for are, at heart, pointless. When you lay all four of them out this way, it’s easy to see that the most sensible strategy is to plan equally for all four. It’s not either/or. It’s and-and-and-and.

Prepare to protect the life we have, to whatever extent we can. Do this by also preparing solid plans that route us away from assumptions and systems that are no longer workable, and find acceptable substitutes. Prepare for the worst. Invent for the best. And if we do all this, in the end we’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that whatever future we arrive at will, at least, be the one we had the strongest possible hand in choosing for ourselves.

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