Greetings from Rüschlikon
I write this gazing out over Lake Zurich, in a hotel room that seems quintessentially European: spare, vaguely futuristic, extremely stylish. I'm here as a guest of Swiss Reinsurance, the second-largest reinsurance company in the world, and a long-time leader in grappling with the implications of climate disruption on global systems. This is Swiss Re's "Centre for Global Dialogue," and I go on stage in just about two hours.
I'll be delivering a talk tonight, and two more tomorrow, in my guise as an affiliate of the Institute for the Future, but I was asked to do this more because of the breadth of work I've done outside IFTF. And when asked to speak at Swiss Re, I jumped at the chance.
Thinking about my presentation got me musing about the difficulty of imagining a future that's neither identical to the present, nor on the verge of apocalypse. Not a utopia, per se, but a future that gives us a bit more to hope for than to fear.
I think it's because, to reverse Tolstoy, all unhappy futures are identical, but every happy future is happy in a different way. Unhappy futures, no matter their province -- environmental disaster, technological doom, bird flu, peak oil, civilizational suicide-by-spam -- are really about three basic fears: deprivation, pain and death. The relative balance of the three will vary, as will the proximate causes, but for the starving masses, it ultimately doesn't make much difference whether their demise was at the hands of a global climate collapse or a super-empowered high-tech terrorist.
We know all too well, conversely, that definitions of happiness vary considerably between cultures and between individuals. A bucolic life of growing my own food and living amidst nature doesn't work as a "happy future" for me, but would be idyllic for some of you; neither of us, however, would likely welcome a future that would be a happy one for a religious zealot.
Or, to put it in a more considered (and less pointed) fashion, we tend to recognize that happiness is contingent, and because we can so easily imagine how any given happy future could become less happy -- and have trouble imagining how a disastrous future, once underway, could become less apocalyptic -- it's far harder to accept that we might succeed (at avoiding doom, at improving our society, at changing our values, etc.) than that we might fail. It's my job to make those happier, or at least less-apocalyptic, futures easier to accept.
Sometimes, being a futurist isn't about making forecasts or spotting trends.
Sometimes, being a futurist means acting as a civilizational therapist.