Humanity needs positive, long term futures, now

Humanity faces a deepening polycrisis marked by ecological collapse, political polarization, and institutional coordination failures. While the developed world responds to the symptoms of this “new normal” – extreme weather, megafires, megadroughts, rising poverty, fraying infrastructure – a deeper analysis is crucial for uncovering and addressing the root causes. This three-part series explores foundational questions: How did we reach this point? Where do we aspire to go? How can we navigate there? 

I share these posts as background and inspiration for exploring the potential of The Bay Delta Trust, a new initiative for bioregional weaving and coordination.

At this point in the story, things are pretty grim. Our protagonist is struggling with a crisis of faith in themselves. Their adversaries are formidable, and prospects look bleak. We, as readers or viewers, might be ready to throw in the metaphorical towel along with the protagonist, were we not accustomed to the underdog effect. In the end, our protagonist digs deep, finds their strength, and our hope is rewarded.  

If you haven’t guessed, humanity is the main character in this story. Our situation certainly seems bleak, with our back against the wall of a daunting polycrisis. Unlike the traditional story, though, I fear we may be losing the ability of the underdog to find hope and agency. What if we are actually at risk of throwing in the towel? If so, then we must build our hopeful storytelling muscles. That is why I choose to tell a story in which humanity finds our collective power to persevere by telling stories of positive potential futures. 

In these challenging times, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. The constant stream of bad news about global issues can be disheartening, if not debilitating. Recent years have inundated us with tales of strife and suffering across the globe, from expanding wars to ecological collapse to public health crises. With few optimistic scenarios presented in mainstream media, cynicism and disengagement are reasonable, if unfortunate, responses.

There are compounding factors beyond the weight of the news itself. Confronting widespread suffering is difficult when each of us  faces our own personal challenges. Sometimes we are too tapped out from our own struggles to engage. The hyper-sensationalized, sound-bite “attention economy” does not help us contextualize the scope and scale of current issues. Turning to family or friends for comfort or perspective is not always helpful when feel confused or alone. Misinformation and political polarization has beleagured even these relationships with surprising conflict.  

The polycrisis and existential despair

I fear that the convergence of crises at the systemic, group and individual levels, often termed “polycrisis,” is leading humanity to a sense of existential despair, with potentially devastating consequences. In my first post of this series, I wrote about how the developed world’s perceived separation from natural contributes to this despair. Whatever the cause, the epidemic of despair is real. A recent article from Brookings points to new research that shows that “downward trends in hope are a key factor in the rising numbers of U.S. deaths of despair—a term that encompasses suicide, overdoses, and alcohol-related mortality.”

As my 5-year-old son becomes more aware of world affairs, I worry how his outlook and mental health may suffer. Will be be able to grow reserves of joy and resilience admist distressing and depressing news and views of the future? Such concens underscore the importance of finding hope and agency through positive visions for the future.

Consider the last time you heard something genuinely hopeful about the future. Can you? The paucity of such examples is striking. Our media and entertainment frequently portray dystopian futures, saturating our collective imagination. From The Hunger Games to The Squid Game, much of popular culture fixates on narratives of adversity and scarcity within authoritarian structures.

We cannot afford to let the prevailing dystopian vision, fueled by existential despair, become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If humanity, even a small part of it, is unable to envision positive futures to guide our lives and actions, we’re unlikely to ever live them.  We must break free from this downward spiral of negativity and shift our societal perspective on the future.  By allowing ourselves to dream beyond perceived limitations, we open the door to possibilities. Imagination, freed from constraints, plants the seed for potential positive futures. Compelling visions of the future might even pull us toward them. This would be we welcome change from exhausting, expensive efforts to push social change.   

Science fiction: dystopian enabler and liberator of imagination

Science fiction has long explored this realm. Sci-fi has brought me hope, and informed my worldview. Works like Aldous Huxley’s “Island” and Ernest Callenbach’s “Ecotopia” offer templates for positive possibilities for our collective future alongside the harsh realities of the present. Kim Stanely Robinson’s recent “Ministry for the Future” even walks through a near-term   Sci-fi also paints a vision of humanity resilience, be it Ursula K. Leguin’s deindustrial classic about life long after sea leve rise, “Always Coming Home,” or  Cory Doctorow’s visions of joyful, resoureful squatter-cyber-tribes in the abandoned urban ruins of capitalism in “Walkaway.”  

One strain of positive futures science fiction that deserves special mention is “solarpunk.” This popular genre envisions futures filled with renewable energy, ecological balance, and community well-being as core elements of positive societal transformation. Solar punk is a derivative of “cyberpunk,” itself a wildly influential, if not bleak, genre. Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash famously inspired the makers of Google Earth, and, of course, predicted the dystopian metaverse that Silicon Valley is rushing to realize, and monetize. Let it not be said that stories cannot inspire! The optimistic and sustainable futures envisioned by solar punk deserve serious consideration, and, of course, enjoyment. 

Renowned sci-fi author Octavia Butler succinctly captured the power of imagination when she said “Every story I create, creates me. I write to create myself.” By writing our own stories of possibility, we create our own future.

The practicality of positive futures

Dreaming of positive futures isn’t just wishful thinking or the realm of fantasy. It is also a practical, hard-headed strategy. In fact, cultivating a futures mindset is a core element of strategic planning employed across the business world. Corporations regularly ask simple questions such as “What do we hope to accomplish?” or  “What would success look like in 30 years?” This type of visioning happens less in the public sector or local communities, but it is as equally applicable, and, arguably, more important. Corporations are not beholden to the needs or desires of humans (or non-human life). Rarely do they set public good as an intended outcome of their activities.  When local governments or communities allow themselves to dream their future, however, they can adopt a pragmatic approach to long-term visioning and foster positive feedback loops of real change. 

I am particularly interested in 100-Year visions. This time frame places us into a future beyond our time, inhabited and run by our children, grandchildren and, possibly, great-grandchildren. Transcending personal self-interest and short term political cycles encourages a new perspective. Thinking in centuries enables a deeper consideration of intergenerational well-being, sustainability, and resilience. It can also foster a sense of collective identity and guide more rational decision-making. By prioritizing long-term thinking and investments, we empowers future generations with a legacy of thoughtful and responsible planning. In essence, a 100-year vision encourages a more holistic and enduring approach to community development.

Positive futures and 100-year visions are not new. In fact, Indigenous cultures have long considered the impact of their actions on future generations. The Seventh Generation principle of the Iroqouis Nation states that we must consider how every decision we make will impact the next seven generations. Here are some other, recent examples that showcase the power of envisioning a better future.

  • Dreaming New Mexico explored how to bring about restorative ecological and social transformation, both at the local and regional level, through a “wildly collaborative framework [that] directly affected state and municipal policies.”
  • California Water 2020: A Sustainable Vision, released in 1995, presents a unique vision of a truly sustainable water future for California and lays out detailed steps to reach such a vision, many of which are reflected in state water policy today
  • Yahara 2070 is an exploration of potential futures for water, ecosystems, and people in Wisconsin’s Yahara Watershed in order to encourage creative thinking and discussion about the region’s long-term future. 

The arguments against thinking big

I often hear complaints that positive futures are unrealistic and unachievable. Often this position rests on an implicit assumption that the required change is too difficult, or that there is simply too much to do. Such criticisms may result from the cognitive bias known as Gates Law, which states that “most people overestimate what they can do in one year, and underestimate what they can do in ten years.” You can prove this by simply looking back 100 years into the past and envisioning life in your community. Pretty different era, right? Much more change has transpired since that tine than anyone could have predicted. Who are we to say what is not possible in the next 100 years?

Some futurists caution that positive images of the future may be more harmful than beneficial for collective action. It is true that me must ground our visions for a better future in present day realities as a starting point. We also must seek to understand possible future scenarios, as well the potential tradeoffs of future actions, to inform our decision-making. However, a bold, concrete vision of the future enables a pragmatic look at how we get from “point A to point B”. For example, the process of backcasting involves working backwards from a positive future to identify specific actions and timelines for change. Such approaches actually help to de-risk our actions and improve our chances for achieving our hopes and dreams. Johanna Hoffman, author of Speculative Futures, argues that “connecting current moves to long-term change helps ensure that the tactics used to solve short-term problems can address the fifty- or one-hundred-year issues as well.”

The power of positive futures

Ultimately, I see the question of positive futures as one of power. Individual power. Economic power. Political power. When we live our lives in absence of a clear view of the future we want, we rob ourselves of the power of our voices. Worse, when we, as individuals or as group, think about the future only in oppositional response to someone else’s view of the future, we let others dictate our narrative. Most importantly, these oppositional views of desired futures often create unnecessary conflict. Coming together to dream a positive future together, grounded in the deep, authentic needs and hopes of all life, human and more-than-human, is a pathway towards individual empowerment and collective power. 

If we dare to dream brave new worlds, we can empower ourselves with practical next steps to protect those potential futures. Now, more than ever, is the time to find hope and agency through collective visions of the future. The ripple effects of forecasting something positive into the future could be the catalyst for something truly novel and magnificent. In my next post, I speak to bioregionalism as a new/old framework of place-based community and coordination in which we can dream our positive future into the present, together.

Thank you for reading! If any of this resonates, or if you have some quibbles to share, I would love to hear from you.