Planetary futurecraft: the time is now
We’ve long highlighted the dearth of novels and films about how humanity might marshall our ingenuity and societal focus to get from here to a better/wiser/saner future. Most of the stories about the future seem to be set in post-breakdown dystopias or seriously degraded, “muddle-down” worlds. And the few “breakthrough” tales, like Star Trek, offer no sense of how the transition occurred.
One of our favorite next-gen futurists, Alex Steffen, is aiming to do something about that. He’s not shifting gears and becoming a novelist—that could be great!—but he is gearing up to weave together a story that points the way forward. At a time when every year of delay ups the ante on our game of chance with the climate, and during a season in which the US political world is being shaken from all sides, he reminds us:
When we can imagine no future we want, something far more dangerous takes its place in our minds: the future we fear. Without visions of progress worth coming together to fight for, crisis tears people apart. That’s no accident, either. Divide and rule. Where there is no vision, people are easy prey. … You’d think that this would be when the Very Serious People who’ve been running our countries, corporations and culture would step up and counter that fear-mongering with leadership and vision. You’d be wrong.
They can’t lead us because every good future is now a heroic one, and they’re not heroes. They’re managers and accountants and gatekeepers, (telling) us that all we can do is take small steps, support slow transitions, gradual improvements, incremental policy gains.
If you know Steffen at all, you know he won’t settle for that! Alex cut his teeth running Worldchanging, the crowd-sourced, solutions-oriented compendium that was a new-millenium grandchild of the venerable Whole Earth Catalog. He then moved on to write Carbon Zero, a look at what it will take to decarbonize our cities, along with a series of powerful clarion calls for change, including a profoundly thoughtful 50-year vision, Putting the Future Back in the Room, and a recent “here’s how we did it” talk framed as recollections from 2115.
Now he’s putting that same energy, and all he learned along the way, into a project he’s calling The Heroic Future:
Our challenges are epic. But if building a better world seems out of our reach, then we need to become people who can reach farther, together. We extend our conceptual reach by embracing bigger shared visions. To become people capable of doing heroic things together, we have to imagine what heroic futures might be like. That’s something we can learn how to do.
Humanity’s fate now depends on our ability to envision success quickly; to design the future we seek while there’s still time to build it. … We’ll need a cultural moment when millions of people — designers, artists, engineers, entrepreneurs, planners, politicians — dream in public about choosing a better way, and become a movement to fight for it. What could that Zeitgeist be like? Imagining that is now every bit as critical as, say, inventing better solar panels — because now every successful future involves not only making things never before made, but changing things never before changed. That is the future we must learn to see.
Steffen is producing a 3-part documentary series that paints that picture in ways that can inspire collective action. The first two cover somewhat familiar ground: understanding what the future demands of us (he calls this “planetary thinking”) and digging into our collective capacities for—and limits to—achieving this (“heroic action”). The third theme is especially intriguing, and responds directly to the missing-stories theme we began this post with: exploring the workings of imagination itself, and how we might become more skilled at working with it to create fundamental societal change. This is what Steffen terms “futurecraft,” and we can’t wait to see what that looks like!