Four Worldviews of the Ecological Post-Collapse Future

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Chris Riedy:

Scenario 1: We are all doomed

"Dark, dystopian visions of the future, where human civilisation collapses under the pressures of climate change, ecological catastrophe, war, disease or invasion, are pervasive in popular culture. They are the fodder of Hollywood, giving us films like Blade Runner, The Road and The Hunger Games. They are commonplace across multiple media, from literature, to comics, to television, to gaming. The specifics of the story vary. Sometimes, humanity reaches too far and apocalypse is a punishment. I am reminded here of the story of Icarus, who built wings from feathers and wax but soared too close to the sun and fell to Earth when the wax melted. Sometimes, the apocalypse seems unjust, like an alien invasion of a thriving human civilisation. Raskin et al. (2002) identify two variants – a barbarization scenario in which all of civilisation collapses and a ‘fortress world’ scenario, where the rich protect their standard of living with force, consigning the rest of humanity to despair. Regardless of their specific form, stories of future doom are all around us.

When images of apocalypse are so accessible, it is not surprising that some people will react to information about sustainability challenges like climate change with urgency and activism. It is easy to map the scientific warnings about climate change onto the ever-present story of future doom and see future climate scenarios as apocalyptic. The dramatic imagery of the dystopian story helps to communicate a sense of urgency about responding to sustainability challenges that may motivate people to take action to avoid an unpleasant future. Indeed, many of the purveyors of dystopian visions are actively calling out for transformation. However, for some of the audience, these visions can be overwhelming, leading to nihilistic and fundamentalist responses (Randle & Eckersley, 2015). Further, there is a risk that the dramatic imagery of the dystopian story overplays what humanity is facing and actually hinders the development of particular responses. If we hold firmly to a deep story that urgent action is needed to respond to sustainability challenges (for example, that we are living in the ‘critical decade’ (Climate Commission, 2011)), then perhaps we will discard responses like interior transformation and cultural change that can only happen gradually. Something important might be lost in doing so.

Scenario 2: Technology will save us

An alternative deep story, even more pervasive than the dystopian story, is the techno-utopian story. This is a story of dominance over nature, where humans adapt the environment to suit our needs using ever more ingenious technologies.

It is a story of eternal progress, steeped in optimism about human potential and possibilities. In the techno-utopian story, humans will find new technologies to solve the climate crisis – either new energy technologies or geo-engineering technologies that allow us to manage the Earth’s ecological systems, build green cities and prevent the worst impacts of climate change. It is a particular staple of science fiction, where humanity has often fanned out beyond the Earth to conquer other planets and other galaxies. Star Trek and Star Wars are typical examples. In this story, there is no limit to human potential and planetary boundaries do not constrain us. It is fair to say that this is the dominant story in our capitalist, consumer societies.

Whereas the dystopian story can engender too much urgency, the techno-utopian story leads to complacency. If technology will save us, then there is no need to worry about the future or to take action to live within planetary boundaries. Instead, we should embrace new technologies and enjoy the benefits they bring. The potential dark side of technology is ignored. In this story, interior transformation is not necessary. Instead, we pursue transformation of our technologies to allow us to continue living our lives as we do now, but on a grander, wealthier scale.

An important metaphorical concept within the techno-utopian story is that of terraforming. In science fiction, terraforming is the process of deliberately modifying a planet or moon so that it becomes habitable by humans. Literally, the term means ‘Earth-shaping’. As the Earth is unique in the solar system in its ability to support human life, and there may be few planets like ours further afield, the techno-utopian story relies on terraforming as a way of allowing humanity to leave the confines of the Earth.

Scenario 3: Terraforming ourselves

Both of the deep stories presented above are problematic. The dystopian future narrative can provide an impetus for action but can also provoke fearful reactions, nihilism and fundamentalism. Further, it may overstate or overly dramatise the urgency of our predicament. The techno-utopian future narrative is blindly optimistic, failing to see that human pursuit of technological solutions and unconstrained growth is leading towards ecological crisis. It requires humans to reliably manage the Earth’s complex systems, which is a task that may well be beyond us. As we rely more and more on technology, we become, in many ways, less resilient and more vulnerable.

In the search for a metaphor that could navigate between these two extremes, I found the concept of terraforming useful – if we could just turn it on its head. What if, instead of terraforming other planets, we sought to terraform ourselves? What if we collectively decided to become more ‘Earth-shaped’ and to live within planetary boundaries? What would that story look like? We would need to transform our values, worldviews and institutions so that they take shapes that are in harmony with the Earth.

There are several elements to this story that I want to stress. First, it explicitly recognises that we need to transform ourselves to respond to the sustainability challenge. This is a story in which humanity consciously shifts its values and culture to be satisfied with a way of live governed by what the Earth can sustain. It shies away from the techno-utopian reliance on exterior transformation alone, recognising that interior transformation is needed. Second, it is a positive, proactive story.

Unlike dystopian visions, there is a clear role for human agency and action. Third, it rejects some of the urgency of the dystopian story. In science fiction, terraforming is typically a slow process that happens over decades or centuries. It does not deliver instant results. This means letting go of our ability to transform ourselves instantly or rapidly in response to climate change, but opening up the potential for interior transformation to be part of a suite of responses to climate change, some rapid, some slower. Terraforming ourselves would be an ongoing, long-term project. Finally, terraforming planets would be an experimental process, where different approaches are tested out, evaluated and retained or discarded. Terraforming ourselves would be a similar process, where various initiatives for transforming human interiors were tested and evaluated in an environment of conscious experimentation. As part of the ongoing project of terraforming ourselves, we would need to experiment with new leadership strategies, narratives and frames, practices, communication strategies and cultural symbols to guide transformation.When the story of ‘terraforming ourselves’ emerged from my personal CLA process, I thought the process was complete.

However, the story was ultimately unsatisfying, for two reasons. First, the language of terraforming is abstract and technical, unlikely to provide the foundation for a compelling, shareable story that could drive transformation. Second, the story lacks the excitement and entertainment value of dystopian and techno-utopian visions. It is a story of sufficiency, restraint and boundaries, in which the goal is merely sustainability – becoming Earth-shaped. It is difficult to see how such a story could rapidly gain traction in competition with the dystopian and techno-utopian visions that currently dominate our entertainment industries. While wrapped in different language, the story is at heart the story of sufficiency and constraint that is already preached by many environmentalists. As I reflected on this, an additional story emerged.

Scenario 4: The thriving Earth

In the story of the ‘thriving Earth’, humanity still embarks on a process of interior transformation, seeking out new values and worldviews that will allow us to live within planetary boundaries and deliver well-being for all. However, the story emphasises a different goal. Here, the goal is not mere sustainability, but to live extraordinary, thriving, prosperous lives while respecting planetary boundaries and delivering a social foundation for all. We would be embarrassed to describe the key personal relationships in our lives as merely sustainable, so why should we aim for mere sustainability in our relationship with the Earth? The story of a thriving Earth is one in which interior transformation provides the foundation not only for a harmonious relationship with the Earth but to ‘strive toward the greatness implicit in thriving, flourishing, plentitude’ (Russell, 2013, Loc 127 [Kindle]). This story blends constraint in our material relationship with the Earth with abundant room for growth in what it means to be human. Russell (2013) provides the most complete telling of this story to date but there are elements in the work of many others that call for a move beyond mere sustainability (Benson & Craig, 2014; Evans & Abrahamse, 2009) or for a Great Transition (Raskin et al., 2002).

The story of a thriving Earth is clearly a positive one – who doesn’t want to thrive? As such, it avoids the negative responses that dystopian futures engender and instead seeks to harness individual and collective agency towards a goal that is more exciting than mere sustainability. At the same time, it does not shy away from planetary boundaries like the techno-utopian story. Instead, it uses these boundaries as constraints to encourage creative responses that allow us to live well despite the boundaries. In design, constraints can be important triggers for creative responses; this story takes a similar path. Finally, the language of thriving, prosperity and abundance is simple and familiar. We could expect people to more readily relate to this story than to the story of terraforming ourselves. This makes it more likely that the story will be picked up and shared widely, which is essential if it is to drive transformation."