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
A central underpinning of The Resilient Investor is the recognition that in our increasingly complex world, it’s nearly impossible to predict how the future will unfold. That remains true, but a team of researchers at Northeastern University is using complex non-linear math to try to shed some light on a key modern problem: predicting when a natural or social system will hit a “tipping point” that triggers rapid breakdowns in its natural resiliency:
Using statistical physics, Northeastern network scientist Albert-László Barabási and his colleagues Jianxi Gao and Baruch Barzel have developed a tool to identify that tipping point—for everything from ecological systems such as bees and plants to technological systems such as power grids. It opens the door to planning and implementing preventive measures before it’s too late, as well as preparing for recovery after a disaster.
Then, says Jianxi Gao, one of the researchers who developed the method, “you can begin to tackle how to manipulate that resilience—how to enhance resilience or restore resilience. These are not easy questions, but our theory, by giving us a picture of the entire system, paves the way to the answers.” A video about their work (embedded below) is especially evocative.
While this is only a start, it’s just the sort of previously unimaginable leap of understanding that will likely come more and more frequently as computing power increases, taps into the distributed data now gathering in the cloud, and moves inexorably, though at a still-uncertain pace, into increasingly functional artificial intelligences. Along the way, say resilient investors who favor the Breakthrough/Driver perspective, we’ll find that these kinds of complexity models will become more common, and offer practical insights that have been beyond our grasp.
Alex Steffen recently gave a keynote talk at The Nature Conservancy’s annual trustees meeting that could serve as a statement of purpose for the Dreamers and Drivers among us who continue to believe that we can find our way through the eye of the historical needle. It’s in the form of a talk to a conservation gathering a hundred years from now, looking back:
We’ve lost so much. We came far too close to losing nearly everything. If things went on as they were, we might have.
Instead, we live today on a healing planet. Yes, much has been lost, but much was saved or restored or reinvented, and what was saved and healed and made anew has become a powerful legacy.
Those gifts became the seedbeds from which sprouted our new world. That we have so much left from which to coax a long and bountiful tomorrow is no accident. Those seeds of hope were saved and planted and tended to by people who made the decision that they would live as if the future mattered. As if nature mattered. As if we mattered.
These were visionary people. Responsible people. Courageous people. All around the world, our best ancestors took up the challenge of leaving a different, bolder legacy, one not of error and loss, but of leadership, stewardship, innovation.
Take five minutes to soak in Steffen’s vision of how we became the ancestors who, “when they understood the planetary crisis they faced, their answer was not cynicism or surrender, but to seek out others and together meet that crisis with action.” It’ll perk you up for another day of doing what we can today to assure that our descendants have a future worth living in. (That final link is another compelling essay, in which Steffen makes the moral case for not giving in to despair.)
Several new crowdfunding lending platforms have made it possible for non-accredited investors to help fund clean energy projects; the loans can often be relatively small, and are repaid with interest. This article profiles several of the early entrants into this exciting new field; be sure to do a fresh web search to find new options as well. Some raise most of their money from accredited investors, or do crowdfunding only in some states, though most are eager for the new SEC rules that will open up crowdfunding opportunities more widely. Read article.
Peter Diamandis is the driving force behind the innovation-fueling X-Prize and Singularity University, and a leading writer and speaker on the potential for exponential and unexpected technological and socially/environmentally-beneficial breakthroughs in the years to come. We could easily have included him alongside his oft-colleague Ray Kurzweil as a Driver, but the breadth of his vision, especially in the book Abundance, tips him toward Dreamer-hood.
Two recent Diamandis initiatives are designed for entrepreneurs and impact investors looking to make positive change in the world: Book: Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World Website/network: Abundance360 Book review of Bold: The review’s opening sentences capture the gist of Diamandis’ breakthrough dreams: “Just as an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs that ruled the Earth and made way for small furry mammals, a new wave of planetary disruptions is about to occur. The new asteroid is called ‘exponential technology.’ It is going to wipe out industries in a similar manner to the rock which fell on Earth during the Cretaceous Period.”
Ray Kurzweil is an accomplished tech innovator (flatbed scanners, OCR, text-to-speech) and a leading voice/visionary of techno-optimistism, especially the potentials of artificial intelligence, which he likes to term “accelerating intelligence,” to capture the ways these developments will benefit and enhance human thought, decision-making, and insight. His book titles give a clear sense of his vision: The Age of Spiritual Machines, How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed, and The Singularity is Near.
Kurzweil’s website Since 2001, KurzweilAI has highlighted the accelerating change that fascinates Kurzweil, with coverage of important breakthroughs in science and technology. See especially the Videos page, which gathers videos of many related thinkers that Kurzweil feels are worth seeing, and the Blog.
Kurzweil’s TED talks Includes talks on hybrid thinking, the accelerating power of technology, and the Singularity University project
Projects that Kurzweil is a key player in: Singularity University An innovative educational initiative that includes programs for young adults, graduate students, and corporate executives and entrepreneurs.
Global Future 2045 Congress A 2013 gathering of futurists and techno-optimists; site includes introductory videos from several leading lights, including Kurzweil.
Carter Phipp’s book Evolutionaries surveys evolutionary thought with the aim of integrating our understanding of how a new “evolutionary” perspective can integrate consciousness, cosmology, and evolution, building bridges between the physical sciences and spiritual traditions. Builds on Ken Wilber’s integral theory/worldview. Visit the book’s website.
In recent years, the shortcomings of the commonly-cited GDP (gross domestic product) have become more widely recognized, spreading even to some governments and mainstream organizations such as the UN. Many alternative metrics have been proposed, each of which aims to capture aspects of societal well-being that are omitted by GDP, and/or to minimize the values-neutral elements of GDP (which considers money spent on, say, cleaning up the Deepwater Horizon spill as a positive contribution to GDP). Economist Hazel Henderson is a long-time champion of such alternative measures; Ethical Markets, where she is a principle, tracks news from around the world on such matters, and in an early-2015 essay, she highlights several current initiatives:
Genuine Progress Indicator. This website includes numerous articles and scholarly papers about GDP, several alternative measures, and the GPI, which estimates “economic welfare,” which appears to have peaked in 1978, while GDPs have generally continued rising.
Sustainable Society Index. A recently-developed metric that tracks twenty societal measures of sustainability (including sanitation, gender equality, income distribution, governance, and ecological factors) for individual countries around the world.
Gross National Happiness. A national initiative in Bhutan that has spurred interest from countries and cities around the world.
Amory Lovins is another of our D-type thought leaders that was hard to squeeze into one category. We’ve included him as a Driver because of his lifelong commitment to working with existing corporate and regulatory structures to move toward a more sustainable energy future, but in many ways, he is also a Dreamer, envisioning fundamental changes in social, economic, and energy systems. Still, his sharp focus on how we get there from here is what stands out, and this is the work of those dedicated to pushing our current system into the future. Lovins is the co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, which has pioneered innovative new approaches to automobile design, renewable energy, architectural energy efficiency, and many other key topics.
Book and RMI program: Reinventing Fire Amory Lovins’ book Reinventing Fire was published in 2012, and makes a case for a future powered with no need for oil, coal or nuclear energy. The book demonstrates a practical path away from our current fossil-fuel based economy, by integrating transportation, buildings, industry and electricity, combined with new business approaches and strategies. Video: Reinventing Fire A six-minute introduction from Rocky Mountain Institute Video lecture: Reinventing Fire, presented at the 2011 Bioneers Conference.
Video: Winning the Oil Endgame. In this TED talk, based on his recent book by the same name, Amory Lovins lays out his plan to wean the US off oil and to revitalize the economy.
Video: Amory Lovins on a 40 year Plan for Energy. In this talk filmed at TED’s offices, Amory Lovins describes his ideas for how to wean the US off of oil and coal by 2050, in a way that is led by business for profit, without requiring congressional acts. Lovins says the key is to integrate all four energy-using sectors, as well as applying four kinds of innovation.
Book: Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolutions
authored by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and Hunter Lovins
The concept of Natural Capitalism integrates the “triple bottom line” of profitability, environmental, and social responsibility into a single bottom line with an outcome of increased operational efficiency within businesses and organizations. The book is accessible via this website in free, downloadable chapters.
This website offers a collection of books, online resources, trainings and courses designed to provide the reader with ideas and tools to make their own community more resilient. Contains five guides with lots of examples as well as practical, tested tools. Check it out.
In 2001, Brown founded the Earth Policy Institute, with a focus on practical planning for a sustainable future. Now 80, Brown recently announced that EPI would shut down in July 2015, when he retires after the publication of his latest book, The Great Transition. With any luck, their informative website will remain alive.
Gar Alperovitz has had a distinguished career as a historian, political economist, activist, writer, and government official. He is president of the National Center for Economic and Security Alternatives, and a founding principal of the Democracy Collaborative. His widely-praised book, What Then Must We Do?, looks at how our economic system got to where it is, and why the time is ripe for a new-economy movement to coalesce; it’s already becoming visible, and Alperovitz outlines how we can move it forward.
Article: What Then, Can I Do? This article is a precursor to his book of a similar name, and features ten types of activism you can engage in to help the new economy to grow.
Democracy Collaborative. A research and consulting firm developing practical, policy-focused, and systematic paths towards ecologically sustainable, community-oriented change and the democratization of wealth.
Book: What Then Must We Do?: Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution. Alperovitz calls for an evolution, not a revolution, out of the old system and into the new. That new system would democratize the ownership of wealth, strengthen communities in diverse ways, and be governed by policies and institutions sophisticated enough to manage a large-scale, powerful economy. This next system is not corporate capitalism, not state socialism, but something else entirely—and something entirely American.