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Building an argument for a better world runs into a recurring problem: people like to imagine awful futures. Seriously. There are undoubtedly numerous explanations for this, ranging from Cassandra complexes ("I warned you, but you didn't listen!") to Terriblisma, the wonderful term Alex dredged up out of Renaissance Italy to describe the awe-filled feeling one gets from witnessing utter devastation. The unwillingness to imagine positive futures may be a wish to avoid hubris, or it may denote an underlying hope to be wrong, to encounter a good future as a pleasant surprise.

For most of the last decade, my job (in its various manifestations) has been the development of scenarios, plausible stories about the future. Usually, these scenarios were linked to a given organization's strategic concerns, whether that organization was as large as a global IT manufacturer or as small as a local school district. Sometimes, the scenarios were used to build out dramatic worlds for film, television, or games. Occasionally, the scenarios were simply an exercise in thinking through what the next five, ten, or fifty years might look like.

When people set out to think about the future, the first (and usually only) question they ask is "what if things go wrong?" This is by no means a bad question (in fact, it would be nice if it were asked more often). But focusing only on negative outcomes blinds one to the possibility of things going right. The possibility of victory. I'm not alone in this observation; Alex has spoken in the past of working with environmental groups, asking what their "win" scenario looked like, and getting nothing but blank looks in response.

It seems that, all too often, people trying to change a paradigm are themselves prisoners of that paradigm. They are so invested in understanding the world in a certain way that, when the world changes -- even as the result of their own efforts -- they're lost. When the outcome of a struggle is negative, it is painful but perversely gratifying to be able to ride off, tending one's wounds, certain that one is right even when the world is wrong. With a positive result, however, one has to deal with the trauma of figuring out what to do next.

What's more, when results have been negative for so long, it can be hard to imagine what a positive result might even look like. I'm certainly sympathetic to the argument that things are bad, and could easily get worse. But we don't do teeth-gnashing, the world is ending and here's who to blame, finger-pointing j'accuse.com entries here at WorldChanging. Or when we do, they're linked to an assortment of "and here's what to do to fix it" sites, at the very least. Why not? Frankly, it's way too easy. If all we wanted to do was point out in the most humorless, hectoring way just how the world is going to hell, we could do that and still have time for punch and pie.

(And I was told there was to be punch and pie.)

We're under no illusions. The world is stumbling its way to hell, environmentally, politically, economically -- but whining about it isn't going to change it. What can give us hopeĀ is a combination of good ideas, novel tools, innovative technologies, unexpected collaboration, and a healthy doses of democracy and transparency. So that's what we talk about here.

It's not simple; the temptation to post a link to the latest bit of terriblisma is often overwhelming. Eschatology -- the study of the end of the world -- is a sweet, seductive science. But we can build a better world. We have the tools, and we're making new ones all the time. We have the knowledge, and our understanding of how systems work keeps getting better. And we have the motive -- we have a world that needs fixing, and nobody's going to do it for us.

Comments (6)

Stefan Jones:

"We have the tools, and we're making new ones all the time."

[Tongue in Cheek]
That's easy enough for YOU to say. What about people who DON'T have tools? How do you think THEY'LL feel about this approach. Bet you didn't think about THEM, did you?

And what about people who don't LIKE pie?
[/Tongue in Cheek]


As a classical musician I have always enjoyed the serious attitudes of scientist who are searching - confident in humans striving, just like Beethoven...gloom/despair is present but harmony wins in the end. The earth and it's inhabitants have purpose. We are not doomed. We have forgotten how to seek 'pure' enjoyment in life. Define 'pure' any way you want to.

Good post, Jamais. Will there be an Atkins-compliant desert, tho'?


reminds me of a quote by jesus from the gospel of thomas :D


"Those who seek should not stop seeking until they find. When they find, they will be disturbed. When they are disturbed, they will marvel, and will reign over all. [And after they have reigned they will rest.]"


Stefan Jones:

"Will there be an Atkins-compliant desert, tho'?"

So you can live off the fat of the land?


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