Stories of the Future – and why they’re essential for our survival
By Sophy Banks 17th June 2014
What do you think the future will hold? Transition to a greener better world? The collapse of civilisation? Humans abandoning the Earth for a future on Mars? Technical solutions to all our problems? A few survivors living in remote regions?
There are four key stories around at the moment. If you look in our media we can see the different stories in what’s being reported – but also underlying our plans for the future, our investment in technologies, in advertising and politics. Our major story industries – books and films – seem able to only deal with two of these versions of the future. Business and politicians are trying to persuade us to buy the story which is an enticing dead end, and the story which we most need for our future well being is almost completely missing from our public debate.
Getting clear on what the stories are, what distinguishes them, and which ones are actually plausible helps get the ground back under our feet in what can otherwise be a bewildering time.
This work was developed as part of the Transition: Launch training, and originated with David Holmgren’s Four Stories of the Future. I’ve added insights from psychological fields which helps us to see both why we get stuck in the two least helpful stories, and gives a way of seeing all the stories as part of a huge change process that the dominant global culture is going through.
What are the four stories?
The graph offers a simple visual for the four stories – following centuries of continued expansion of humanity’s use of energy resources, production of pollution and size of population we are at a key moment. Why now? Because the scale of our global use of resources is about the same order of magnitude as the total resource base, and capacity for absorbing waste, as the whole planet. In the past 70 years or so we’ve used about half of the planet’s resources of many things. We can’t clearly can’t go on for another 70 years. So where next? The four lines represent the four stories about the future, explained below.
Business as usual
This is the story of continued material growth. Every problem has a technical solution. Because we have always found a way out of every difficulty we will always be able to do the same. Limits to resources or pollution levels do not apply to the human species. We can go on growing our population, material wealth, energy demand, and waste output for ever.
We carry on attempting to grow and hit a catastrophe – runaway climate change; sudden collapse of a global system highly dependent on cheap energy; wars over scarce resources. (There are other scenarios less related to the predicament we have made for ourselves – comet strike, reversal of the earth’s magnetic poles, unstoppable illnesses and so on). In this story population and technology use crashes. A much smaller population lives on in the ruins of our civilisation.
In this story we have the same lifestyle but we make green versions of everything we have now. Electric cars, high speed trains, super insulated houses, lots of renewable energy. Overall we aren’t growing, but we also don’t have to reduce anything much. This story is popular with business and politicians – it suggests there might not be too much material discomfort as we deal with the changes that are needed.
Our use of energy and other resources – and hence pollution – follow the curve of what’s available, falling rapidly over the next decades as fossil fuels, in particular, fall out of use – due to falling supply or limiting use to prevent disastrous climate change. As a species we make an unprecedented change in direction towards sustainable, consciously created culture. Does population fall? This is a big, very charged and unanswerable question.
Growth or Collapse? Addicts and politicians get stuck here
There are several insights from the field of psychology that I think are helpful in understanding these stories and their meaning.
The first is applying understandings from addictions to the two stories of “Business as Usual” and “Collapse”. When we were doing research into future stories for Transition Training we noticed that these are the only two futures that any film has depicted, as well as almost every book written about the future. Often the future is both brutal in some way and technologically fantastic – with flying cars, huge populations, vast metropolises, mining on other planets and so on. There are increasing numbers of films and books about global disasters, from The Day after Tomorrow to The Age of Stupid. There isn’t a single film made, and very few books written, that describe how the human race turned things around to create a low energy, inclusive, satisfying way of living on the planet. Is it surprising we’re not doing a great job of getting there?
Only having these two stories is similar to having an addiction. Part of what keeps an addict caught in the pattern of needing their fix is a belief that without it life will feel overwhelming or catastrophic. “I have to get my fix, or I can’t cope, or… ” From outside the world view of the addict it’s easy to see that another way of living is possible. So as a culture we might consider ourselves addicted to economic or material growth – without our fix of material comfort, distractions, consumption, our life has no meaning or value, feels catastrophic or simply unimaginable.
It’s also worth noting that politicians are caught in a trap of publicly maintaining the story of business as usual – because it would probably be electoral suicide to be the first party to announce that growth is at an end (even though many politicians increasingly acknowledge this privately). And that the “Austerity” message that Conservatives have persuaded voters to believe in the UK – that we all have to live with pay freezes, cuts to services and so on – is actually a story of continued growth for the very few (bankers are still getting payrises and bonuses) while the vast majority are experiencing either steadily eroding standards of living through reducing real salaries, pensions and welfare, or collapsing standards through unemployment or cuts to essential services.)
Out of the frying pan into the fire
The Green Stability story is psychologically a huge step forward from the trap of the first two stories – but is still a dangerous concept, based on flawed ideas. Politicians and businesses like it because it basically proposes that the current system can keep going, making a green version of itself – reducing resource and energy use, recycling, replacing fossil fuel with renewables. Part of the trick is to solve a problem in one area without looking at the consequences in another area. We’ll geo-engineer the climate (requiring huge energy inputs). We’ll use nuclear energy (requiring huge carbon heavy concrete installations, and unknown amounts of radiation pollution).
Out of the frying pan, into the fire
One of the most vital, radical and essential things we can do in this time is to imagine together what a desirable future would look like which is neither a Business as usual techno-fantasy world of every increasing growth, nor a disaster scenario – because our politicians and media generally aren’t doing it for us. And to share our visions, make them public, interest politicians, writers and journalists in visioning a world we all might want to be part of.
The process of visioning has been an essential aspect of Transition since it started, and I’ve been interested in seeing how powerful it is as a process. I’ve heard lots of Transitioners quoting the Einstein epithet “You can’t solve a problem with the same consciousness that created it” and visioning seems to enable us to make that shift. Instead of getting into problems solving the energy shortage, greenhouse gases, water shortage and so on – each solution creating more problems in another area – visioning helps us to step out of the current way of thinking and imagine completely new systems based on a different mindset.
Stages of Change and Loss
These four stories of the future have a deep resonance in our psyche because they relate directly to the phases that we go through when are faced with a loss that is outside our control. The model was developed by Elizabeth Kubler Ross both for people experiencing bereavement, and those given a diagnosis of terminal illness. In her model there are five phases, which go something like this:
Shock and Denial
“It can’t happen to me, things will go on as before”. in the Business as Usual story the person clings to a belief that a solution will be found, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, both from experts and personal experience.
Destructive rage, despair
The Collapse story of the future parallels the anger phase – “It’s all going to end in a heap anyway so I may as well keep drinking / take risks with my health / burn whatever fossil fuels are left..”. Another similar response is despair, sinking into depression and apathy, refusing to engage with what is left of life. A commonly expressed version (which doesn’t sound angry, but implies an appalling refusal to engage with the suffering it proposes) is the version that says something like “it’ll be a good thing if humans are wiped off the face of the earth, we have caused so many problems, we are like a cancer on the face of the planet”.
In this phase we make deals with life. In our stories of the future this might be an individual bargaining about their lifestyle – “I’ll stop eating meat but still fly for my holiday every year, I’ll keep the car but turn the heating down a degree or two…” In the wider scale this is the kind of bargain industry and politicians are making – we’ll invest in high speed trains to replace air travel, we’ll have greener factories and houses..
In the Energy Descent scenario we accept that the Earth places limits on all life forms, including us, and acknowledge that life can be worthwhile and enjoyable without high material consumption. Our resource use and pollution, including Carbon emissions, must fall continually in future years and our only choice is how we deal with that. What happens as we come down the energy curve is a huge question. Do the rich accept that they are the ones whose lives most need to change, and start to engage with the task? Can businesses radically change their model to serve life rather than profit? Do communities come together to re-imagine and rebuild their way of life as resilient, relocalised community economies as in the Transition model?
There are other psychological models to do with loss which can be applied to the ending of our globalised industrial system. The Carbon Conversations project, set up by Rosemary Randall, uses Worden’s “Tasks of Mourning” to take groups through coming to terms with the reality of Climate Change. These include
- Getting to grips with the information, digesting and making meaning out of it – “What does this mean for my life, for my children’s future? Is my work still relevant? Should we move? ”
- Expressing feelings of grief, fear, anger, betrayal, uncertainty, despair, confusion, and so on. Processing the feelings that naturally arise from the diagnosis is a necessary part of getting to a place of peace.
- Letting go of the old sense of identity and forming a new one – which could include losing relationships, making new ones, changing jobs, what we eat, wear, where we live and so on.
Understanding the processes and support which help us to move through the stages means we can design interventions which help. In Transition processes this includes places for finding emotional support, and spaces just to talk with others going through a similar process. It’s a common mistake to think that most people can hear powerful information about Climate Change or resource depletion and immediately change their lifestyle (although some do). The tasks described above are all major life changes and for most of us take time.
It’s also worth noticing that these models of loss generally relate to something that is dear to us, a loved one departed, a loss of job or home or relationship. Is this the same for losing our industrialised global system as a way of life? In some ways it is – many things of great value and benefit have come from the high tech modern lifestyle. But it has also brought high levels of loneliness, stress, anxiety and depression, destruction of indigenous peoples, natural habitats, species extinction, pollution and resulting sickness and so on. Which brings us back to the addictions model. Are we giving up something beloved or a self harming addiction we’ll be better off without? I think both are partly true.
Which stories are possible and which do we want?
A key question that arises from looking at these four stories of the future is – what choice do we have? Once we look at the full picture of resource and waste limits we can see that Business as Usual simply isn’t an option. There are a plethora of technological “solutions” to depleting energy, climate chaos and so on. The most deceptive of these create solutions in one area by creating greater problems in another – building massive systems to affect weather systems which require huge resource use or carbon emissions. Similarly tar sands, liquids from coal, ethanol and other technologies might appear to solve the energy crisis, but they have devastating environmental impacts, and don’t take into account increasing pressures on land and water for food supply.
If we refuse to engage with all the issues and attempt to keep growing we are most likely to end up with the Collapse scenario. We continue to use up our last easily available fossil fuels, we fail to address major issues of water supply, deforestation and so on, or population growth, especially in high consumption countries – and future generations are left to deal with a degraded, asset stripped world, with extreme climate events if not runaway climate change, quantities of toxic nuclear or other waste with very few high quality resources and a large population. This is a real possibility – and one which many are already experiencing.
The current story of “Austerity” divides the world into those with money and power living a Business as Usual life of increasing affluence, while the poor endure more or less rapid Collapse – illustrated in theUK by massive rises in the use of food banks in recent months. As some have said, which story you live may be more to do with geography – or social class – than time.
The last two stories – Energy Descent and Green Stability are the most difficult to distinguish, but it is important that we continue to do so. As we move towards using scarcer and lower quality resources – energy, minerals, forests, fertile land – we have a limited window to put in place technologies that will genuinely see us and future generations into a liveable, sustainable future. The question of whether a solution belongs in the trap of “Green Stability” or “Energy Descent” is best thought of in terms of how far down the curve of reducing resource use it takes us, and how many people can benefit from it.
The first issue – how far down the curve does it take us? – can be thought of like this. Does it reduce energy / resource use / waste not just by 10% but by a factor of 10? Electric cars may have a place linked to a national battery scheme which soaks up renewable generation and offers it back to the grid (as proposed by the Zero Carbon project of CAT), but as the main means of getting around for a population it’s unrealistic – we will need efficient mass transport systems instead.
The second issue is how many people can afford or access the technology. As Eastern countries gain economic and political power many within their populations expect the lifestyle of the affluent west– even though the planet cannot possibly afford air travel, consumer goods, meat and dairy based diets and so on, for another one or two billion people. As we see inequalities within most countries soaring many can feel the ethical and social unacceptability of this direction. It’s morally indefensible, and in time is likely to lead to riots and increasingly violent repression as those who are starving or profoundly excluded fight for what they need to live.
So solutions that will be peaceful and sustainable will have to be viable in the long term, and available for the vast majority rather than the minority.
We’re living all four stories at once
In 2009 Transition Training did some work with UK local government where we used these four scenarios as a way to talk about the future. We asked officers and elected representatives to see if the stories applied:
- In requirements that were placed on them – by the electorate or by performance indicators.
- In projects they were working on or planning.
- In how they viewed the future.
What we found was that in most departments all four stories applied to some of what they did. They were planning flood defences for villages affected by rising sea levels; reducing waste collections to save fuel servicing remote villages; building business parks to spark economic growth, and offering support for renewable energy projects. The story that was most missing – which is often the case – is the Energy Descent story, the one we most urgently need.
Living with four contradictory realities at the same time in itself creates psychological stress – one of the main benefits of working with stories in this way is that we can clarify our assumptions about the future before discussing what we might want in it. As one Transition school project reported, kids may well want private swimming pools for everyone – and why not? – unless they understand resource limits.
We have also used the four stories as a personal reflection, to notice that as individuals we are often living all four stories. For example, I don’t have a car (Energy Descent) and take trains instead of flying for holidays (Green stability) but I’m still eating chocolate and expecting a return on my savings (Business as usual) at the same time as learning to grow my own food for times when the global system stops providing (Collapse).
Acknowledging the enormity and complexity of the change process we are all in can help us to be less judgemental of other behaviours – of institutions and people who we might see as being less far along the change pathway than we are!
[There is also a draft version of a game where players are dealt a number of cards suggesting current and possible future technologies, with the invitation to place them in one of the four scenarios. The trickiest are Energy Descent vs Green Stability – and for some I believe it’s impossible to say which combinations of solutions will actually endure.. if you’re interested to get hold of this let me know].
Ground beneath our feet
I hope this post gives some useful insights into the stories that are current, and ways they can help us to deal with the process of change we are all a part of. For many it’s a shocking wake up call to notice that the story that offers us the best hope of creating a truly liveable and thriving future is still almost completely absent from the public debate, and if someone suggests imagining a positive Energy Descent future they may well be dismissed as hopelessly idealistic or unrealistic. Yet without this story being described, debated, evolved, refined and embedded in our collective psyche, what chance is there that we can create it?
Many I’ve shared these with have found it relieving to have the stories framed in this way – that rather than seeing them as competing narratives, right or wrong, they all form part of one process of digesting and coming to terms with the enormous shifts in understanding we are going through. Seeing them together helps to put the ground back under our feet – where in many organisations and conversations the assumptions switch from one story to another without naming what’s happening – as we found in the local authorities. And having tools which help us distinguish one from another is also vital to support good decisions for where to put our energy and resources.
If you haven’t done anything like it I’d encourage you to do something we invite people to do on the Thrive training (do it with others if you are part of a group in Transition or something similar). Take time on your own or in small groups to think about how you are living all four stories in your own life or lives, and share what you find. I believe it’s inevitable that we are part of Business as Usual in some way – though that may feel uncomfortable. We need to give space to the places where stories of Collapse arise, and allow the feelings of despair or rage and uncertainty to have their place – otherwise they will come into our meetings as frustration, judgements, relentlessly driving ourselves, or exhaustion. It’s healthy to see where we’re Bargaining with the future, not yet ready to let go, or unable to because the new structures (public transport in the countryside) aren’t in place yet. And it’s good to recognise how far we’ve come along the path to Energy Descent – to celebrate the changes we’ve made, without making that something to judge others with because their path is different.
I’ve found these stories a great help to me in my own struggle for understanding, balance, compassion, and respect for myself and others while navigating the complex, impossible, inevitable and just-doing-my-best-each-day journey of these confusing and momentous times.
A recorded webinar of Sophy presenting ideas from this blog was given for Transition US on June 17th 2014, which will be on their YouTube channel later in the year.
Resources you may find useful
Active Hope by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone – how to engage with what’s happening without going crazy. They suggest 3 stories of the future, not distinguishing Green Stability from Energy Descent
Navigating the Coming Chaos by Carolyn Baker has many suggestions for processes and resources for support
Radical Hope – how the Crow people of North America lived through colonisation by white people and used dreaming and visioning as part of keeping their culture intact
Future Scenarios by David Holmgren