A hopeful scenario for the future of water – and everything else

Tree underwater
Photo by Nermin Judson

Realistic Hope – Facing Global Challenges

Edited by Angela Wilkinson and Betty Sue Flowers

Amsterdam University Press, 276 pp.

Imagine, for a moment, that Austin – and for that matter the world — does not have a water crisis.

Or a global migration crisis.

Or a food and agriculture crisis.

Or a production of clean energy crisis.

Or a population crisis.

Or a looming jobs crisis.

Or even that sum of all crises, a global crisis of climate change.

As hard as it that may be to imagine, this is currently the case. For the means to redress all these “crises” is very much at hand.

What we do have, however, is a crisis of change. Or, more precisely, a crisis of managing the change that accompanies a future arriving with a force that strains the ability of societies, institutions and individuals to cope.

Which is the central point of Realistic Hope – Facing Global Challenges, an anthology edited by poet/scenario planner Betty Sue Flowers and physicist/strategic foresight counselor Angela Wilkinson. Flowers, of course, is well known both as an Emerita Professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin as well as the former director of the LBJ Presidential Library.

This book’s 28 authors are neither polemical nor clamorous; their voices all lack the emotional rhetoric to which we’ve become accustomed in today’s narratives on these issues. But they are trenchant. The collective power of their imagination is resolute and decisive.

Drawing on a source perhaps too “pop” for a book of this weight and authority, Realistic Hope is about Future Shock, that concept made famous almost half a century ago by the late futurists Alvin and Heidi Toffler. Their book by that name argued that “too much change in too short a time,” overwhelms thought, rationality and decision-making. This was a theme written into most of their subsequent works as well, along with their familiar waves of history: agricultural, industrial and informational.

Forty-nine years on, the shock of the future is very much the current culprit.

Getting real

“Whether we subscribe to the thesis that post-WWII global institutions were once capable but became gridlocked, or rather, as we would contend, that global institutions were never sufficiently developed to deal with the complexities of an interconnected world, the result is the same: Multilateral cooperation is under severe pressure,” argue Joëlle Jenny and Alyssa Stalsberg Canelli. This is their thesis for Chapter 3, Are Major Wars More Likely in the Future?

A similar argument is waged in Chapter 5, Digital Technologies: Every Cloud has a Silver Lining, by Claire Naughton and Stefan Hajkowicz. They write of digital technologies:

“….the pace of change within our institutional structures and that of digital technologies is out of sync, giving rise to unintended consequences and exacerbating existing asymmetries in society.”

Or there’s the assessment of the root problem in Chapter 8, Transcending Boundaries: The Realistic Hope for Water, which examines the drivers of growing water scarcity worldwide:

“(The) misalignment of human governance and ecological systems is nowhere more apparent than in the challenge of governing trans-boundary aquifers which hold the majority of fresh water that is not stored in glaciers,” argues the chapter’s author Alejandro Litovsky. “Groundwater abstraction has happened at a much faster speed than the creation of regimes and agreements to manage it, leaving groundwater systems under-regulated, undervalued and poorly understood.”

Meanwhile, this pace of change had made conventional economic analysis all but useless in an era where the methodologies of GDP measurement are irrelevant. The new economy’s most important asset of all – the data entwined with every aspect of life – cannot be captured on any balance sheet or tax levy but still eclipses those assets of old: land, labor and capital. We’ve simply lost visibility on the forces that drive economies and the sources of economic equilibrium, argues Christian Kastrop, the author of Chapter 12, Rethinking Global Economics for Global Challenges.

While not touched upon in this book, a recent estimate by the US Federal Reserve confirmed Kastrop’s point about digital value unrecorded with the outdated metrics of the analog economy. It puts the aggregate value of data, patents and proprietary information held by US businesses at $8 trillion.

Compounding all of this is a kind of digitalization of our consciousness itself, Kastrop adds: “Recent events in the US show that living in a digital (social) media environment is already creating possibilities for different groups to hold such different views of reality as to undermine the fundamental consensus required for an ethical civil society.”

Chapter 13, “Leadership and the Future of Democratic Societies, by Martin Mayer and Verena Ringler, goes back to the 1970s and the Trilateral Commission. It notes that the then-new discussion group’s observations that “the demands on government grow while the capacity of democratic governments stagnates.” Fast forward to our era, and Mayer and Ringler note what has ensued in the interim: the decline of trust, the construction of isolated new networks of political participation and leaders such as the Brexit administration or Donald Trump who “try to impose their transformational agenda, arousing emotions and avoiding any form of rational argumentation for their decisions…”

Realistic Hope paints a pretty good picture of the ways our politics are now captive to a kind a closed and self-reinforcing loop. At risk of oversimplification (mine not the authors), climate change drives water scarcity, crop failure and migration. Water scarcity exacerbates political turmoil, leading both to conflicts such as the nine-year-old uprising in Syria that in turn spawned war and invasion, as just one example. That leads to even more migration, not just that of the 1 million who have arrived in Europe from Syria, but to that of those fleeing elsewhere to fragile neighbors from war-torn places as diverse as Afghanistan, Venezuela, sub-Saharan Africa and Central America. That emboldens nativist politicians for whom migrants are the most obvious scapegoat for a range of ills. Future woes such as climate change are denied as a matter of course as leaders play to followers desperately seeking to retrieve an imagined past. Foreign aid is of course slashed in a continuing spiral. The centripetal forces of isolationism turn nations inward. All of which only further complicates and ravages creative thought and action toward the future. And the woes at the root of this cycle only deepen. As former Republican Sen. Jeff Flake recently framed the issue in the US context, we have a “sugar high of populism, nativism and demagoguery.”

As if to underscore this dynamic, we see Australia burning nightly on our television screens while the countries prime minister is climate change denier, coal industry darling and populist immigrant basher Scott Morrison.

Similarly, the narrative of Hindu nationalism swept incumbent leader Narendra Modi to a stunning victory and second term last year, ending any pretense of India continuing with the principles of secularism and the tolerance on which the country was founded 73 years ago. And in Europe meanwhile, we see the sad residue of the Brexit fight as parties of the far right and far left shunt aside the centrists elsewhere in many places on the Continent.

From a huge variety of sources, just a few other escapees in Realistic Hope from the Pandora’s Box of global change that is so fast outstripping the existing ability to comprehend and cope by society and its institutions:

  • Some 70 percent of industrial waste in developing countries is being discharged untreated into rivers and lakes. Of the world’s 37 largest trans-boundary aquifers, 21 are already being heavily depleted and polluted. Of 500 trans-boundary aquifers globally, only five are covered by international agreement.
  • The number of major violent conflicts has tripled since 2010. In 2016, more countries experienced violent conflict than at any time in nearly 30 years.
  • Past technology mainly replaced physical functions: motion, hitting, lifting etc. But the new technologies are cognitive, taking on functions like speech, hearing, vision, and so on. 73 percent of jobs in the food and hotel sectors, 60 percent in manufacturing, 57 percent in agriculture, 52 percent in retail and 51 percent of jobs in mining are at risk from artificial intelligence, AI.
  • Empathetic concern among college-aged students declined by 48 percent from 1979 to 2009 along with a 34 percent decline in their capacity to take another person’s perspective, one study shared here finds.
  • Cybercrime is a “silent global digital epidemic,” costing the global economy $126 billion in 2016 and hitting 689 million victims. Figures since Realistic Hope was published put the overall economy of cybercrime at around $1.5 trillion a year, dwarfing the $360 billion of the illicit drug trade.
  • Between now and 2050, the world’s urbanized space will grow by the equivalent of one new city of 1.4 million people every week. Said differently, that’s one new metro Austin every four days for the next 31 years.
  • Meanwhile, in coastal cities, 350 million people today are vulnerable to sea level rise and all cities are at risk from climate change. This estimate of risk may already be outdated. Previous estimates of potential sea level rise were doubled in a May report published by the US National Academy of Sciences. Its extreme case scenario envisions a rise of 6.6 feet that would globally swamp an area three times the size of California before the century is out. Parts of higher ground Houston might survive, but not Port Arthur, Galveston, Corpus Christi or many smaller Gulf towns and cities.
  • Halving global poverty was achieved ahead of the schedule established by the UN’s 2000 Millennial Development Goals as more than 1 billion emerged from extreme poverty by 2010. But the achievement of that statistical success came almost solely from gains in China and India. In 30 countries, poverty actually increased over the same time frame.
  • Food production is the primary driver of the loss of 60 percent of species diversity within distinct ecosystems. Similarly, marine ecosystems are quite literally dying out from overfishing, ocean acidification and pollution. When fuel use, fertilizer production and land use change are included, 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture.
  • Reduction of meat and dairy consumption – responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gases — is a leading imperative to halt climate change. Yet livestock production is central and critical to the livelihoods of 2.1 billion people living on less than $2 per day.
  • By 2030 the world will need to produce 50 percent more food and energy together with 30 percent more fresh water while mitigating and adapting to climate change.
  • By that same year, one in six people globally will be over 60, a 56 percent jump over 2015 for a total aging population of 1.4 billion. And three quarters of them will suffer some chronic disease.

If that sampling of problems sounds wicked, it is. And let’s not fool ourselves, neither a trade war, barricaded borders nor even a Green New Deal are enough to capture and return these sources of misery and sorrow to Pandora’s vessel.

Seeds of Hope

But a comprehensive, holistic approach to wicked problems is possible. Not with any conventional solution, but with what I’ll call here the “anti-solution.” It is what Realistic Hope is all about, writes Ged R. Davis, executive chair of scenarios for the World Energy Council, in the Foreword.

“And for a wicked problem, there is no solution that lasts forever,” Davis continues. “As our knowledge expands, as new stakeholders emerge and as mind-sets change, the framing of our problems will also change, and relevant scenarios will need modification.”

Indeed, the “world today is full of so many large, complex socially messy, and interconnected challenges that solving them often seems hopeless,” write the editors, Wilkinson and Flowers in the introduction, “Building Better Futures.” And this is where they also note that in the classical Greek myth, when Pandora opened the box releasing death and all the other challenges to human life, she shut it as quickly as she could. And inside, she trapped one remaining human attribute – hope.

Thus Realistic Hope issues a challenge to the future-focused field of disciplines that includes scenario planning, foresight strategy and strategic forecasting. While not diminishing the daunting scope of the world’s challenges, the book offers a mix of these future-shaping tools and a glimpse of realistic hope in action.

An early nod is given in the forward by Davis to Finite and Infinite Games, the conceptual work of philosopher James P. Carse which divides human endeavor into two categories. The first is the finite, that for example which seeks a “solution,” a “resolution” or a “fix.” A “finite game” is a pretty good metaphor for how our institutions approach obdurate problems today. The second category of endeavor is the infinite, the ongoing and the broadly participative. In the context of Realistic Hope, this evocation of Carse suggests that we think not of finding once-and-for-all answers and solutions to our intractable challenges. Rather, it is a call to create continuing collaborations to assimilate and enable radical change in the way we live, work and interact with the world’s fragile resources. Lots of them.

In this sense, Realistic Hope is a prototype for this way of thinking. Like all prototypes, this book is a preliminary esquisse, an unfinished work that both needs and invites ongoing work and amplification by others. It does not attempt a set of global change scenarios on its own, though it does include a number of examples that are valuable both for their insights and for the example they provide as an introduction to readers unfamiliar with scenario planning and whole systems thinking.

Futurist Peter Schwartz, for example, posits in Chapter 4, The Future of Work, four plausible scenarios for labor and the elimination of jobs by artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies:

False Alarm: Under this scenario, jobs persist despite technological change and the new jobs take a very long time to emerge. “After all, AIs and robots were supposed to replace workers many years ago, but a second AI winter in the 1990s slowed the deployment.” Prosperous but slow-changing Scotland, for example, is where such a scenario is conceivable.

Jobs Crisis: Whole categories of jobs suddenly disappear: drivers, clerks, assemblers, auditors etc. Existing jobs quickly evaporate with new ones slow to emerge. This is the scenario most pundits debate today and it is similar to the path that industrial cities like Detroit or Birmingham have already gone down.

The New Economy: Existing jobs give way under this scenario, but new ones arrive in an economy that feels very different as 3D printing creates an explosion of new manufacturing, new distribution needs birth a new delivery sector and training and re-education is adequate to enable people to navigate the transition. Singapore might be an example where a version of this scenario is already playing out.

Labor Shortage: New jobs emerge rapidly. But in this “surprise” scenario, the old ones don’t simply fade away. Most new applications of AI, say automated vehicles, need both humans and machines. A glimpse of this future might be in today’s San Francisco Bay Area where technological change abounds but the region still faces a serious labor shortage.

Replacing the binary debate over AI’s threat to jobs – doomsday vs. techno utopia – will allow for thought and policy deliberation that can be far more nuanced and ultimately productive than that which is now typical, Schwartz’ example suggests.

In three of the four scenarios, the best policy response is the same – investment in training and education and policies that support labor mobility. Only in the “False Alarm” scenario is the need modest.

“But the risks of the others are so great than on balance it is vital to take the steps today that will enable disruptive economic transformations without shattering social fabrics,” Schwartz writes. “If workers feel that change is not their enemy because they have the tools to adapt and the support they need, then the legitimacy of the system will remain unchallenged. But if change feels overwhelming, disruptive and of benefit only to distant ‘others’, then the legitimacy of the market economy and the technological progress it drives could be fundamentally undermined.”

Schwartz’ example illustrates the potential of such multi-stakeholder tools as scenario planning and foresight strategy, which eschew hierarchy and favor collaboration among diverse actors. This is happening and these are growing and multiplying around the world.

The OECD organization of developed countries has been using scenario tools to chart and plan for multiple futures since 2014. It is now a standard tool of intelligence organizations and in 2017 America’s National Intelligence Council (NIC) used such tools to model scenarios for globalization that examined the staged dynamics from the level of communities, to regions, to nations, to the world. The goal was to capture pro- and anti-globalization sentiment – and the implications — in all its dimensions.

A foresight and futures thinking initiative at Oxford University is exploring the future of cities. Scenarios include a future where cities are thriving but surrounded by failed fringes, another future where young leaders have taken charge to push a work-life-ecology revolution in holistic systems governance, and a final vision of failed urbanism and a future of predatory war-lordism. The idea is not that one vision will inevitably prevail, but that mayors, chambers of commerce, journalists and other local leaders can think deeply and creatively about ways to make their communities more resilient for whatever change – or combination of changes — may come their way.

An example of ways that such multi-faceted problem-solving can be scaled comes from the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) based in Switzerland. In 2015, it set a new record for cross-border collaboration in a project on the Large Hadron Collider that included 5,154 scientists and engineers. Ground breaking research, such as finding a cure for cancer, is no longer a product of individual labs as researchers in one time zone finish for their day while colleagues in another pick up where they left off. Global 24/7 science is here.

It’s not just emerging new networks, but emerging new fulcrums. When the United States pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord in 2017, 1,200 mayors, governors, businesses and universities stepped in to bridge the policy gap.

Globally, more than 8,000 local projects, worth $52 billion, are underway to build a new and sustainable global economy. Some 7,000 mayors are part of the “Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy.” Another collaborative grouping, “C40 Cities,” connects the leaderships of some 90 megacities with a collective population of 650 million that represents a quarter of the world economy. Its mission is to enable peer-to-peer urban planning, “smart city” infrastructure development and preparation for climate change.

Authors Martin Mayer and Verena Ringler, of Chapter 14, Leadership and the Future of Democratic Societies, note more examples of the countless such projects evolving worldwide.

One is a German-French collaboration under the auspices of the Berlin-based innovation incubator “Open State.” It brought together 300 participants to work for five weeks on open-source hardware projects. Results ranged from the invention of a $30 wind turbine made entirely from scrap materials to a shower loop filtering and recirculating water instantly. These and other prototypes inspired more than 25 million media contacts and netted 50 international partners. The open-source blueprints for the designs created at this future framing exercise were uploaded to the Internet and downloaded a half million times.

Resolving asylum and migration crises, enabling a global energy transition and progressing toward global sustainable development are not simple problems but puzzling and messy challenges, argue Mayer and Ringler.

“One prerequisite for this quality of competence is the mastery of the modern futures toolkit,” they write, “which links foresight, innovation and policy design in an integrated way.”

How that tool kit might be applied to globalization is just one of the questions for Carl J. Dahlman, author of Chapter 1, Making Globalization Work.

He concludes that the jury is still out as to the future of globalization but underscores the reversal in attitudes: Three decades ago, most people in advanced countries had a positive view of trade, while many in developing countries had a negative view. Today the perceptions are opposite.

“A key question is whether there will continue to be an open, multilateral, multipolar system, or, instead, a free-for-all, with each country or group of countries on their own, where the strongest will have an advantage,” he writes.

But as the world finds itself amid a deepening US-China trade war, his insights on Asia’s emerging superpower are important to note: “Clearly, China is the largest and most important emerging power and is widely seen as the main competitor to the US. Ironically, it also appears to be assuming a role as the key supporter of globalization, at least in pronouncements, if not in actions.”

Another example of events validating the premises of this book is the African Continental Free Trade Area, or AfCFTA. While little noticed outside of Africa as much of the world focuses on so many emerging trade wars, it was set to become operational as of July and could soon become the world’s largest free trade pact with 1.2 billion people and a combined GDP of $2.5 trillion.

But whatever the trend is, the tools of scenario planning and foresight strategy can help us sharpen the positive side of technology’s double-edged sword, writes Dahlman, if we are thoughtful and careful.

“Technology has been and will continue to be a game changer for better or for worse. New disruptive technologies – including digitalization, the internet of things, 3D printing, automation, artificial intelligence, biotechnology and nanotechnology – have tremendous potential to reduce costs, improve efficiency, substitute for limited resources, increase food availability, reduce negative emissions, produce alternative energy, reduce disease, replace faulty organs, prolong life etc.”

This is a theme which Jenny and Canelli support as well in their chapter, discussed above, on war and conflict.

“The new ‘glocal’ – the merging of local and global – creates unprecedented opportunities to harness the benefits of science and technology for all and to distribute power more equally. This could help address many of the pressures that drive the risks of war. More actors with greater agency complicate decision-making, but also bring more voices to the table, with greater influence, that can contribute to mutually beneficial outcomes.”

Jenny and Canelli also suggest that while the nation state may have brought us into our current predicament, new forms of sovereignty are emerging that will help us cope in new ways: “The search for global solutions is no longer the prerogative of states alone: corporations, networks of cities or universities, venture capitalists, international coalitions of civil society organizations, and even single individuals, such as Bill Gates, all carry significant weight at various levels.”

And despite the breakneck speed of urbanization, denser, more vertical and smarter cities are a particular source of hope, suggest Keith Clarke, Viviana Jimenez and Tim O’Riordan in Chapter 6, Cities to the Rescue.

Adoption of smart grids, more compact urban design and use of renewable energy could cut eight gigatons of carbon by 2050. That is 40 percent of current emissions. Globally cities are on track to spend $41 trillion on smart technology within the next two decades.

Today, some 800 million people are involved in urban agriculture. Urban-related farming has made the Netherlands the world’s second largest food exporter after the US, despite 1/270th the land mass!

As 30 percent of water used in homes goes to flushing, they note, alternative systems separating water use systems are being launched in Germany, Sweden, Finland and other countries. Similar initiatives are underway in the US. Austin is a leader in this, as are Chicago, San Francisco, Marin County and San Diego.

As Claudia Juech and Chukwudi Onike acknowledge in Chapter 7, The Future of Global Poverty,” the development aid to the poorest countries is spiraling downward.

But encouraging finance models being developed by innovative bankers are creating the means to tap into more than $200 trillion in private capital in global financial markets. These new financial instruments are growing as a powerful force to both fund development and redefine what development aid means today.

Among other innovations are “micro levies” on transactions such as travel that are relatively painless for consumers but create new funding sources. Four sub-Saharan countries initiated a tax on extracted gold, oil, bauxite and uranium in 2015. They estimate a global oil levy of 10 cents would generate at least $1.64 billion a year.

Seed giants DuPont and Syngenta are investing heavily in climate change-resistant crops. A new water efficient corn variety has been introduced to 200,000 farmers in Africa. And a malaria resistant mosquito that does not transmit the disease, developed through gene editing (CRISPR) technologies at the University of California, exemplifies other brand new innovations.

But all of this — from AI’s impact on jobs to the role of smarter cities and the conceptualization of the rollout of these new tools of consensus building and future-focused strategies — really is just backdrop to the imperative to halt climate change. For this each and every initiative must play a role.

The rough math of that, as described by Jeremy Bentham, author of Chapter 2, Energy: A Better Life with a Health Planet, includes the following:

  • Most greenhouse gas emissions come from fossil fuel energy in four sectors: power generation, buildings, transport and industry.
  • Americans now consume an average of 300 gigajoules of energy annually, equal to the output of 300 laborers. Europeans and the Japanese, by comparison, consume about half that. Those in the developed world consume far less, but they are fast catching up.
  • If we can get averages – including the newcomers to big energy use – to a global average of 100 gigajoules annually, then avoiding that threshold is plausible. Even with a population of 10 billion.
  • That would basically double the amount of energy we use today. So how do we double energy production while halting the buildup of CO2 and other emissions?
  • To do that, we need to swap out the energy mix which today relies on hydrocarbons for 80 percent of production. Instead, he envisions a mix of 40 percent of energy from wind and solar, about 20 percent from nuclear and hydro and about 15 percent from burning biomass with carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS.
  • We’ll still need to get 15 to 20 percent of energy from hydrocarbons. That’s because the 1,200 C heat required to produce two critical commodities – steel and cement – simply can’t come from the other sources.
  • Which is where biomass and CCS come in. This is because sustainably farmed vegetation sucks C02 out of the air. Couple this virtue with the capturing of the emissions when the biomass is burned, and the result is “negative emissions.”
  • That virtue of a negative bonus can then be redeemed against the emissions from the remaining hydrocarbon use that cannot be eliminated through CCS.
  • There is a catch. With proper land management and use of technology, the resources exist for biomass to offset lingering hydrocarbon emissions with a doubling of energy production. But not with a tripling, returning us to the goal of leveling consumption averages at 100 gigajoules annually.
  • And that gets us to a net-zero emissions world, providing we solve a few other lesser problems such as the use of nitrate fertilizers, which emit nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is 300 times more potent than CO2.

“The pathway to this renewed approach to land use, as with all the other sectors outlines, involves clear, stable policies that set the framework for the right decisions to be made,” Bentham states. “Fortunately, some of that work has already started, and much of the work that needs to be done is within reach.”

That reach is manifest throughout Realistic Hope. Five principles connect the work of the two dozen authors, conclude the editors Wilkinson and Flowers: Diversity, dialogue, experimentation, systems thinking and future framing.

Diversity requires us to be alert to different ways knowing and learning. “The richest societies or most developed nations don’t always have the answers,” they write.

Dialogue they find illustrated in examples throughout the chapters that highlight the work and potential of a diverse mix of state and non-state actors, including cities, NGOs and other groups.

Experimentation is a principle that acknowledges that there is no “one-and-done” proposition but that hope exists in an ongoing, flexible collaboration with continual learning, updating and reconsideration absolutely necessary. “In this context, uncertainty is a source of hope – a friend, not a foe, but it reminds us of the possibilities to shape the unpredictable future.”

Systems thinking reverses the centuries old way of solving problems, of taking the whole apart, dividing the parts and working on them incrementally. This won’t work with today’s complex and inter-connected challenges. The authors note that every challenge explored in Realistic Hope is embedded within a living, adapting, complex and dynamic whole of parts that are co-evolving. “In this world of messy, connected challenges, we need to avoid prescriptive and detailed top-down blueprints that focus on one part or claim knowledge of the whole.”

Futures framing, the editors argue, is not about thinking a better future into existence, but about learning with the future. The editors also advocate use of real-time, big-data analytics, the use of data-driven gaming of future scenarios and other means to explore the implications and interactions within whole systems. But not to be held hostage by data tools.

“In itself futures thinking can nurture realistic hope – but only if we move this process of disciplined imagination to action.”

Which is all fascinating, encouraging and certainly hopeful. But “hopeful” is still shy of hope. A reader might be forgiven for asking whether a set of methodologies, even a new epistemology to mobilize our minds and intellects globally in new and powerful ways, can really add up to an escape from the convergence of multiple perfect storms. Can an “anti-solution” succeed where so many solutions are clearly failing?

A new stance toward the future

The answer to that really comes at the far end of Realistic Hope, in an epilogue, From the Eclipse of Utopia to the Restoration of Hope, written by futurist Jay Ogilvy. Ogilvy is a philosopher, an author of nine books and the co-founder, along with Peter Schwartz and three others, of the Global Business Network.

He makes an effective case that we are moving out from under the pall of pessimism in many forecasters’ views that followed on the financial crisis of 2007-2008 toward a transition in attitudes toward the future.

He walks us through our attitudes toward the future from the time of the ancients, when reality was assumed to be eternal, to modernity’s march toward a secular salvation to the “eclipse of utopia” that foundered on the failed revolutions of the 20th Century, the Holocaust and the advent of nuclear weaponry, which then pretty much gave way to a more limited faith, that toward individual progress. By extension, this third phase of a faith increasingly limited to individual progress includes the “digital utopianism” of recent thinkers such as Ray Kurzweil, whom he includes in this eclipse.

The result by the first quarter of the new millennium leaves us with “very little by way of collective dreaming – for the race, for the species, for the human condition.”

But now, we are in the world that Realistic Hope confronts, a moment when time itself is taking another turn. “We no longer live the ahistorical or circular time of the ancients. Nor do we enjoy the optimistic, progressive time of the moderns. Nor, hopefully, the apocalyptic closing time of the post-modernists.”

The future is flying at us faster than ever, and “surprise is its middle name.” Both promise and risk abound. Science churns out discoveries at an unprecedented rate. The life expectancy of individuals is increasing even as that of the species is not.

Which takes us to a fourth stage of time, beyond the three described, which is asking us – or allowing us if we choose – to live in what is really a tragicomic time of multiple potential futures, a moment of many scenarios. Which leads us to Ogilvy’s term, the “scenaric stance.”

“In adopting the scenaric stance, by holding multiple futures simultaneously and constantly in view, one achieves a kind of emotional and intellectual maturity that is not available to either the simple optimist or the simple pessimist,” Ogilvy writes.

This time of the scenaric stance requires a new approach that holds “in mind at once both the high road and the low road, acknowledging the possibility of either, and giving full weight to human will in determining which path we actually take,” Ogilvy proposes. “We have it in our power to choose the high road. But it will take more than an epistemology based on computer code. It will take human will.”

Ultimately, the future must be about human will. The future is no more, and no less, than that which we choose. That is realistic. And powerful hope.

A version of this review essay also appear at World Futures – The Journal of New Paradigm Research

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