The future and The Great Experiment

In Musings

It seems strange to study the future when there is actually nothing there to study. Some people like to try to predict the future, perhaps to make bets, or convince themselves that all is going to rack and ruin. More reasonably, actually studying the future, and its ramifications into many futures, is about making plans, very broad based and wide ranging plans, so that, when the unknown future arrives, we are at least vaguely familiar with what we see, and, if we are lucky, we might have some concrete ideas of how to behave. Of course, the future doesn't arrive suddenly. One advantage of the passage of time is that it happens in small bits, and, if we are awake, we can learn from what we see and make adjustments so that the future we get is more in line with the future we want. We need to know how to make these plans, how to structure them, how to identify possible futures (based on institutional assumptions), and how to clear the mind and allow the imagination to work outside current assumptions.

One way of dealing with this is to generate scenarios. There are two kinds. In one kind, lets call it reactionary, the starting point is likely to be identification of possible future states. We might presuppose that there will be a crash of the financial system, and we are interested in how we might respond when that thing happens. The second kind, lets call it anticipatory, starts from now and imagines paths to follow. Here we have an idea of what future state might arise and we want to make plans either to stop that future state from occurring, or to reinforce its likelihood. This anticipatory approach identifies what we do now, and helps us think about what we might alter as we observe what happens.

As we know, the possibility of the 2008 financial crash was not recognised (except by followers of Hyman Minsky1), and certainly nothing was put forward to avoid it (except by followers of Hyman Minsky1). Both aspects of this approach are important.

In the case of global futures we have identified the problem. If we do nothing we're fucked2. This identification comes from reactionary scenarios, otherwise known as models. These models calculate that if certain things pertain now then certain things will happen in the future. There's nothing much in these models about how the starting conditions come about, but they have helped by identifying alternative futures, in the sense that we can see the possibility of a range of outcomes, from boiled frog, to more-or-less comfortable. This more or less continuous range of possibilities only exists if we focus on anticipatory planning. The more comfortable outcomes will not happen by luck.

I suppose it could be said that invoking luck in that way can be interpreted as a valid, if trivial, approach. It might be more useful though to come up with a set of more nuanced and examined approaches. Of course, the problem is hugely complex, in that it involves the very ways our planet works, and the ways in which human societies work to interact with the global systems. From a planning perspective there are no buttons to push that will change the global systems. It might (or might not) be possible to find some technological fix, but that is part of the choices that we have to make. In effect, the material we have to work with is human society, together with the approaches we have to hand, or need in the future, that allow us to make choices about how we want to live. Social structures don't lend themselves to mathematical modelling, and, as it happens, we have more then one human society currently operating in this world. What seems appropriate is a hierarchical analysis that sets out the types of response we need and leaves the details to specific cultural environments.

As it happens, Peter Frase3 and Joel Wainwright & Geoff Mann4 have done just that. Each book arranges four scenarios based on two pairs of opposites. Frase chooses hierarchy/equality on one axis, and scarcity/abundance on the other. Since he generally likens hierarchy to capitalism he creates an opportunity to discuss capitalism versus socialism, while abundance and scarcity provide opportunities for addressing social organisation. On the other hand, Wainwright & Mann build on capitalism/non-capitalism coupled with planetary/non-planetary sovereignty - a more explicit capital/society forum that leads to similar results.

Both books pick up on current capitalist influences (prison systems, policing protest, rich people searching for hiding places) and, unsurprisingly, conclude that the related futures are bleak. Equally both books conclude that there is a sweet spot in the opposite corner, where capitalism doesn't exist and organisation is local rather than global. Neither Frase nor Wainwright & Mann offer a utopian vision here. Frase explores ideas based on a pastoral socialism, but does not offer a solid conclusion. Wainwright & Mann are perhaps more honest in saying they don't know what fills this box, but they do know that we have to try. The common cause is that globalism doesn't hack it, and responses to global futures must be localised and dealt with where common cultures and approaches can be used to build appropriate societies.

The analysis of these scenarios gives us ways to understand the other type of future gazing that tends to focus on apparently utopian visions. Yanis Varoufakis5, for example, offers alternative ways to operate businesses, although he doesn't directly mention issues such as farming, and, in contrast, Chris Smaje6 extols a pastoral vision of small farmers, while not addressing how the non-farming remainder of society might work. These are two examples out of many, and all of them can be useful in picking our way through the incredibly complex situation that we find ourselves in.

All these attempts to delineate the future fall into the category of anticipation. We have targets we hope to meet, mostly stated in the form of social change, with hints (very strong hints, indeed) at changes to our institutions. What is less obvious is what we should do now. What I do know is that, having taken the first step we need to constantly review what has been done and what has been achieved (not necessarily the same thing), and to make changes. In this we see a parallel with conventional planning: observe, consider, change, repeat. We must, in effect, be willing to experiment.

  1. Hyman Minsky spent a lifetime examining financial crashes and their causes and the crash of 2008 was a perfect fit for his approach: Daniel Neilson, Minsky (2019) 

  2. Wainwright and Man have identified this phrase describing the outcome of the global challenge in many respectable books, publications, and a film: Joel Wainwright and Geoff Mann, Climate Leviathan (2020) 

  3. Peter Frase, Four Futures (2016) 

  4. Joel Wainwright and Geoff Mann, Climate Leviathan (2020) 

  5. Yanis Varoufakis, Another Now (2020) 

  6. Chris Smaje, A Small Farm Future (2020)