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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.


Nice gig, but couldn't they have put it somewhere with a better view?

See if you can rent scuba gear and find the illuminatus in the lake, too.

Are you sure you stayed in Rüschloken? What about Rüschlikon? ;-)

Hrmmm. Sorry. Fixed.

I was hired to work on a chapter for one of Peter Senge's (ghost-written) books some years ago and one of the things I did was look for ecologically positive visions of the future. I contacted Kim Stanley Robinson at UC Davis and later asked Ursula K. LeGuin and they gave me some meager leads but admitted that the pickings were slim. There is currently no accepted positive vision of the future, for the future.

Because of that, there may be no real future.

We desperately need a unifying vision of a possible, practical future so that we can backcast to now. Personally, I see it in my experiments with small scale solar, ideas like the HexaYurt project, and the experience of Cuba after the Russians turned off the oil tap and that island lived through their own experience of Peak Oil, an adventure that the world is ready to embark on as the latest figures I've seen show a clear oil production peak in June 2006.

The greatest drawback in "An Inconvenient Truth" and the recent "The Eleventh Hour" is that they don't give you an action plan when you leave the theater let alone a complete picture of what an ecological future might look like. Without that picture, without that vision, we have no real direction forward (or back).

Of course, in the present media and cultural environment, any positive vision would be, at best, ignored if not ridiculed outright.

this is why the declaration of independence only speaks about pursuing happiness, not securing it.

The happier vision seems very real to certain laborers longing for the next technoculture, working subculturally, often with little awareness beyond the technology itself. It is the futurist's memory work of seeing and presenting the seeds already there which brings the margin to the center, perhaps not so much by convincing a broader public, but by keeping a few fires burning and a few connections linked so a different technical imagination can emerge.

It might be that openness is both a method of the futurist's work and the raw product (and usually process) of the technical subcultures at hand.

The last two lines of this post were fantastic! Thank you Jamais for continuing to give us insight into your work through your blog.


A workable, diverse future needs to be like an ecosystem: many niches filled, yet all niches linked and coordinated. Perhaps we can't imagine a future we want because we focus too much on things and techniques, less on relationships and patterns. I've chosen the bucolic, grow-your-own-food life, but I find the fascinating challenge to be how to link and coordinate with other folks doing different things. I think a sustainable future needs to be an Emergent Property of diverse efforts - for that to happen, we need to design wholesome relationships across multiple scales.

I think you absolutely have hit it, both the reticence and the attraction.

(I blogged to this, btw.)


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