At last week’s Cafe on Uncertainty and Emotions, we explored how confronting the kind of uncertain future evoked by issues like sustainability, climate change, energy, and the changing nature of work can produce strong emotional reactions, ones that change our sense of who we are, our place in the world, and our sense of possibility – of what we are capable of doing. Hope, fear, anger – all these and more ‘disclose’ the world to us in different ways, as Martin Heidegger might have said: they show us the same things in a different light, opening up different possible futures in each case.

In discussion last week, one theme that came to particular prominence was the role of stories or narratives in helping us make sense of an uncertain future, and to help us deal with negative emotions. In last night’s Cafe, we explored this contribution that narratives – and imagination more generally – can make to how we confront the future, with the aid of a performance from Rhodri Thomas, Carolina Vasquez, and Chris Young, an extract from their upcoming multi-media piece, Who’s Afraid? (based on a poem and artworks by Susan Richardson and Pat Gregory). Dancer and choreographer Siriol Joyner was unable to attend in person due to illness, but a video of her recent performance at a workshop organised in Aberystwyth by the Environmental Futures Dialogue project and Cardiff Philosophy Cafe is embedded further down this post. More about Environmental Futures Dialogue and the workshop.

The value of stories lies in the fact that all we have to make sense of the future are stories and the elements out of which they’re made – because all attempts to grasp the future are necessarily fictional. As the French futurist Bertrand de Jouvenel wrote in 1967:

It seems, then, that the expression “knowledge of the future” is a contradiction in terms. Strictly speaking, only facta [facts] can be known; we can have positive knowledge only of the past […] ‘On the other hand, the only “useful knowledge” we have relates to the future. A man wishing to display his practical turn of mind readily says: “I am only interested in facts,” although quite the opposite is the case. (The Art of Conjecture)

Facts are records of the past – but when we turn our attention to the future, all we have are stories. Within these stories, there are protagonists, antagonists and the events they shape and which shape them. By telling such stories, we reach an understanding of who we are and what we ourselves can do to shape the future.

Stephen Emmott
Stephen Emmott

Thinking about the future we confront, we could locate the stories we tell ourselves on a continuum, stretching from one extreme position to another. Recently, the head of Computation Science at Microsoft, Stephen Emmott, published a book called Ten Billion, analysing the complex problems facing a world with a growing population, which he concluded with the following words:

We urgently need to do – and I mean actually do – something radical to avert a global catastrophe. But I don’t think we will.

I think we’re fucked.

In the story Emmott tells about the future, the protagonist (or maybe ‘our’ antagonist) is Nature, or rather the natural limits on finite resources. These limits drive the narrative, shape the events therein, and define the end of the story.

Kim Eric Drexler
Kim Eric Drexler (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For the other extreme of the continuum, consider the future vision of K. Eric Drexler, often credited with popularising the term ‘nanotechnology’ (in the specific and speculative sense of sub-molecular scale engineering of matter). Drexler , in his 1986 book Engines of Creation, proposed that the future would see the development of ‘molecular assemblers‘, tiny machines that would, by working together in parallel, enable us to manufacture anything we liked out of cheap feedstocks (like carbon). This would herald a future of abundance.

Assemblers will be able to make virtually anything from common materials without labour, replacing smoking factories with systems as clean as forests. They will transform technology and the economy at their roots, opening a new world of possibilities. They will indeed be engines of abundance.

Here, the story is something like ‘we [shall] have the technology’. Its protagonists are humans, or at least scientifically-trained ones, and the future is one in which natural limits are overcome through human ingenuity, and the destiny of the tale is a state of earthly bliss.

Both stories recognise the future is uncertain, but nonetheless, paint pictures that encourage us to recognize the implacability of certain forces –  Nature on the one hand, technological evolution on the other.

Continuum of futures narratives
Continuum of futures narratives

But most of the stories we will tell ourselves about our collective futures belong somewhere in the messy middle of this continuum, coloured by a mixture of fear and hope. In Rhodri, Carolina and Chris’ performance , a film-maker and environmental campaigner, Taliesin Blyth, takes us on a tour of our fears and the doubts about the future which both create them and which are reinforced by them. Where once faith fastened on religion and the prospect of salvation, he suggested, now it resides (when it endures at all) in the belief that markets and technologies will save us from climate change, resource depletion and so on. Yet our fears, which he saw dramatized most powerfully in recent years in the film 28 Days Later, remain, fears that are stimulated by the people we share the planet with. It is others whom we fear most, he suggested, and the prospect of the anger and hostility that comes from fear. Emotion, with its roots in our evolutionary past, emerges as a key protagonist in Taliesin’s story. Humour, in which his monologue is also rich, is one response to fear and negative emotion more generally that preserves a sense of agency, of being able to do something that takes us beyond paralysis. But is this enough?

A video of Siriol Joyner's recent performance from a workshop on art and sustainability organised by the Environmental Futures Dialogue project

The audience were asked to respond to the questions ‘what is your story?’, ‘what do you want the future to look like?’, ‘who are its protagonists?’ and ‘how will they make this future?’

In discussion (see here for photos from the evening), it was clear that the kind of  clear, end-state-focused story told by both Emmott and Drexler held little attraction for the majority of audience members. People focuses instead on stories guided by particular values (such as equality, non-violence, respect and so on) that took on the role of protagonists, moving people closer together and building connections of care and responsibility. The future, some suggested, instead of being characterised in terms of what it could be like (this characterising earlier ways of imagining the future, as containing particular technologies, urban forms and so on – like the 50s retro-future of flying cars, ultra-high-rise buildings and so on) , should be described in terms of how it would be lived – in increased simplicity,  more ‘slowly’, with more deliberate interruptions (with the switching off of lights on Earth Day being cited as an example) and with mindfulness as a goal. Taking care of the future was seen as something not to be undertaken, necessarily, through grand projects but through placing oneself in the moment, in order to free oneself from anxiety and fear, emotions that excite defensive reactions, and lead one to ‘rein in’ one’s creative, courageous and caregiving impulses.

Some suggested that the pathway to a better future lay in building non-violence through dealing with close relationships and the conflicts or resentments that arise within them, in the belief that such efforts will do more to change societies (and how people deal with ‘bigger’ issues) than grand visions. Indeed, utopian, end-state focused stories may themselves create fear in those who see potential for danger, injustice or  exclusion within them.

It was pointed out that the protagonists of a future worth wanting will have to be ‘us’, people collectively considered, perhaps organising themselves with the aid of technologies (social media, online petitions). This is because of antagonists ‘holding back’ the future, such as corporate interests, but also participants in party politics, where the future as such appears to have almost been extinguished as a dimension of political language. But perhaps most deeply felt as a cause of fear before the future is our fear of death, one audience member pointed out. Without the will to talk about this, and about our essential vulnerability and finitude, we will not be able to make progress towards a future lived differently.

What’s your future story? How would you like our collective future to turn out, for your generation, its children, or its grandchildren? Who will make it happen? Add your comments below.
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