Steepening Problems — and the Need to Imagine Faster

The longer we wait to act, the bolder our future visions must become, and the more quickly we must find them

We find it difficult these days to comprehend that we’re making hugely important, very long-term decisions, and we must make them very fast. We must choose a new course quickly because our present course is both unsustainable in the short term and potentially disastrous for the future. The on-going, daily operation of our society creates damages that will stretch out millennia, even into human eternity. Decisions we’re used to thinking of as small, as local, as matters of taste or preference, have become freighted with meaning and urgency.

How we build and power our cities; how we grow our food; how we make and consume things: all these mundane concerns affect our distant posterity. We’re not used to thinking of our daily lives as having multi-generational, serious (even catastrophic) consequences. We’re still trying to figure out how we incorporate that knowledge into our old worldviews of industrial abundance without limits or real costs. Essentially none of our institutions are yet capable of making this kind of planetary thinking central to their decisions.

To make matters worse, modern bureaucratic cultures believe that slow decision-making is more responsible — and likely fairer — decision-making. In reality, our systems worsen the crisis every day. Every day of delay makes our problems harder, means we need bigger, faster solutions. When we spend today deciding to begin tomorrow to implement yesterday’s solutions, we wake tomorrow to find those solutions no longer work.

It is the steepening aspect of this crisis that demands that we err on the side of boldness, not caution…

This “steepening” aspect of our planetary crisis, I believe, is the most dangerous one to us and our children and our descendants. It is the steepening aspect of this crisis that demands that we err on the side of boldness, not caution; that we define responsibility not as doing the comfortable minimum to preserve the status quo, but transforming it as rapidly as we can. Prudence, seen clearly, now demands headlong, unpredictable moves to change systems and practices and lifestyles we’ve grown up thinking of as stable, “normal.” The only way to conserve what’s essential and practice precaution today is the rapid and disruptive creation of new forms of sustainability.

Ironically, this often puts the needs of real sustainability in direct conflict with institutions intended to act in our long-term interests, from environmental laws to community planning to infrastructure investments — not to mention that wealthy people have seized control of many of these institutions to block change for their own benefit: predatory delay.

Reform is slow. Committing to the years needed to reform (rather than cast aside) these powers and practices predestines our failure, I fear. That means we’re in a really weird position. We must aggressively disrupt status quo decision-making if we are to make ethical, responsible decisions.

The rooms that most need to be shaken up are the rooms in which we make plans for the future, the rooms in which we’re tasked to look ahead. It’s in those supposedly careful, deliberate, sensible rooms that the catastrophic destruction of the world is being approved, by consensus.

It’s in those supposedly careful, deliberate, sensible rooms that the catastrophic destruction of the world is being approved, by consensus.

The most powerful tool for shaking up those rooms is imagination. It is politically necessary for those defending the status quo to be able to argue that the future will be much like the present — and for that argument to be believed. If the future is much like the present, then protecting the present arrangement of things can be portrayed as caretaking for the future. If, on the other hand, the present arrangement of things is both unsustainable and unjust to future generations, protecting the present is seen for what it usually is, now: an exercise in exploitation.

Then, the only defense possible for the status quo is fear, uncertainty and denial. Every different arrangement of our affairs must be made to seem worse, and every person advocating change must be made out to be unrealistic or even deceptive. We call this “darkening the future.”

Imagine a brighter future, though, and we undermine this strategy.

We can’t build what we can’t imagine. We must imagine a world that works much differently than the present, and imagine it in the very near future. If we go farther, though, and practice ways of imagining that help us intuit how we might go about building a better world with the speed and at the scale demanded of us — with all the challenges of innovation in the face of opposition — we actually lay the ground for much better, much faster decision making.

Here’s the rub: because we must move so fast, we must also imagine much more quickly than we’re used to. A vision of future which takes decades to cohere and gain appreciation is a worthless future, caught as we are in these steepening perils.

That’s what The Heroic Future is: an exploration of what it means to imagine quickly and boldly, while there’s still time for vision to matter, for action to succeed.

Alex Steffen is a planetary futurist and creator of the books Worldchanging and Carbon Zero. His new project The Heroic Future launches in September. Follow Alex on Twitter or to sign up to get his free weekly newsletter.