Futurist Nicklas Larsen explores how the future can be a source for hope, social innovation, and sustainable development together with pioneers in the field.
Q&A with Climate Activist, Marc Buckley.
As one of the first to be trained by Al Gore as a Climate Speaker in 2006, Marc is a forerunner in climate activism. Today, Marc is a high-profile United Nations advocate for the Sustainable Development Goals, an expert for the World Economic Forum’s Innovation & Agriculture and Food & Beverage networks, a global food reformist and an Adjunct professor in Big History, Resilience, and Sustainable Futures. Among his current projects is a digital ecosystem for the Earth that compiles 1,200 geospatial data points; and the Earth School, a 30-day quest for school children to learn about our environment online and in nature. We spoke with Marc about the need for optimistic future visions, how humanity needs to wake up to systems thinking, our common mission on Spaceship Earth and to learn about what might come after the Sustainable Development Goals.
Marc, tell us about what role the future plays in your activism?
All my activism is about creating resilient and desirable futures, so that we can have a world operating within its safe planetary boundaries, the future essentially plays the biggest role. As for the methods I apply when dealing with climate futures, I often need to backcast from potential future scenarios to arrive at solutions and insights. I am a big fan of the Limits to Growth report from 1972, based on a computer simulation studying the exponential economic and population growth with a finite supply of future resources. Therefore, I often use a wide range of modelling tools and concepts for sensemaking, combined with the endless re-imperatives, such as regeneration, repurpose, reuse, and recycle, as they very clearly connect the future to the now.
How can we use the future to inform and encourage people to care and act for the climate?
I believe that it comes down to the visions, narratives, and stories that we can provide to the media and for them to then start asking themselves the burning question ‘WTF?’. I don’t mean the swear word that we have been all asking ourselves all 2020. It stands for ‘what’s the future?’. Believe it or not, but most people have not asked themselves that question. Few to none can point to the climate plans at the city, country, regional or even global level. Without the ability to answer that question, we are never going to reach the needed thrust by governance policy. No matter where you live, the future will largely be decided for you by the predetermined infrastructures and the habits of the communities where you reside. So, if you know what the future is, if you have that vision, then you ought to hold your politicians and your nations accountable to that vision.
How do we create those visions and images of the future?
Right now, a lot of these visions come to us through social media, movies and tv series, and they are all dystopian. I was a part of an experiment where we asked participants if they could give three examples of non-dystopian media in the present that depict the future by 2030. Beyond TED talks, they couldn’t point to anything. My generation had Star Trek, 2001: A Space Odyssey and other sci-fi type of movies with different visions of the future that led to innovations. They showed us futures that were post-racial, and which had holograms, tricorders, and 3D printers. These aspirational futures inspired creatives, engineers, architects, and designers to re-create them over time. We have come close today. The problem is that there are no visions of our future that are not dystopian, and we really need that type of media to help us with our activism and transition in the long term. This would help inspire the people with the talent and creativity to apply themselves and help solve our climate-related problems.
What image of the future has made the largest impact on you?
When we put humans on the moon in the late 60s, it was planned into the future to the smallest detail, so that every scenario and situation could be known in advance. During that process we saw the world from a distant and different point of view. The Earth rise and the blue marble photo made a change in our consciousness, what we call the ‘overview effect’ or the ‘collective cosmic perspective’. This shifted our cognitive feeling of how we view the world as Spaceship Earth and how we protect it. This image impacted not only me but many around the globe, and in many ways this perspective started the climate movement.
How does the Spaceship Earth analogy relate to climate futures?
We are all members of Spaceship Earth. We drink the water, and we breathe the same air. It is just recycled because there is no ‘throw away’ on this Spaceship Earth, and there are only a few of us, for short periods of our lives, who are passengers — babies and the elderly. The rest of us are all crew members and we can choose to put our hands on the steering wheel to guide us into the future now. That is where the responsibility lies. You do not have to wait for your government or someone else to deliver the future for you.
Why is systems thinking a part of the solution?
Our world is growing good, bad, and ugly around us. Everything is going exponential. Even you Nicklas, since you were a baby and up until now, have had an exponential path. Every day, exponential amounts of cells die off, an exponential number of cells regrow, the biome in your gut alone is an exponential. So, you are made up of very complex systems. Systems are all around you and we need to understand how it applies to each of us. We have been dumbed down too much, longing for the simple version and the quick pitch and that does not solve our global grand challenges. We need to embrace and understand complexity and systems. I want everyone that might say ‘that’s too hard’, ‘that book is too thick’, or ‘what a boring report’ to know that your human body is made up of 11 systems, such as the digestive, nervous and skeletal system. Not one of them controls the other 10. All 11 of these systems work independently but harmoniously. Every day you are operating multiple complex systems autonomously, without a lot of thought, and if you break a bone, if you get a disorder, then those other systems try to compensate to help you to overcome that disability and to get better. By understanding that everything in our world is made up of systems including us and thinking in systems we include ourselves as an integral part of these systems and not separate from our environment. The same goes for our planet.
The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) launched 5 years ago. What is your perspective on them today?
It is the world’s first-ever global moonshot and without precedence in human history. 193 countries came together and agreed upon a road map for the future towards 2030. If you know anything about politics or diplomacy, you will know that is hard enough for two countries to decide where they are going to go eat lunch let alone for 193 to agree on a plan and roadmap for our future. But I think the SDGs were very misunderstood and poorly presented. So, to aid that, I wrote the SDG Manifesto for the United Nations, as I wanted people to feel, read and put themselves into what it would look or feel like to live and in a world in December 2030 if we reach the goals.
How can entrepreneurs contribute to the green transition in the best way?
We can really see the shift from the first, second and third quarter of the year that those who have put ESGs (environmental, social & corporate governance) into the business have mostly outperformed their traditional counterparts during this time of economic downturn. There are many examples on the Morning Star Review, New York Stock Exchange, Nasdaq, and Global SMP 500. Why was Tesla able to pivot during a pandemic and deliver respirators, and to create molecule printers for COVID-19 Vaccine (basically RNA micro-factories)? Why were Apple and Amazon still delivering vital services during these times? They all have business models that not only had sustainability and environmental social governance, but also automation and mechanisation. They had social distancing built into their model already. They were efficient and smart in the way they did business, with tools and structures to quickly pivot to put those things into place. These are Platform Systems Dynamic Business Models with ESG engrained into all aspects of their business model.
Can you point to new examples that show promise for the future?
Look to the new futuristic mega city in Saudi Arabia being built called Neom. They are doing incredible things in sustainability and closed renewable energy systems putting Liveability at the core for their inhabitants. ALEPH Farms Cellular Agriculture out of Israel was selected as WEF’s top Pioneer of 2020 and then there’s Neoom Group, out of Austria, that won the global energy prize. They just came up with the Phantor, a new product which captures ambient water out of thin air.
What might come after the Sustainable Development Goals in 2031?
In April 2019 we started a project called Resilience Frontiers. We launched it during Songdo, Korea National Adaptation Plans (NAPs) NAP Expo a week long intensive Moonshot workshop and gathered onehundred thought leaders and delegates with help of futur/io institute, UNESCO’s Riel Miller and UNFCCC for five days of foresight, futures literacy labs and collective thinking on how to maximise long-term resilience to climate change to start preparing the roadmap for the future from 2030 to 2050. It assumed that we would reach the SDGs by December 2030, which gave us a sustainable infrastructure platform to work from. It resulted in eight interrelated pathways to a resilient future, ranging from ensuring universal and equitable access to frontier data technologies, to mainstreaming regenerative food production, to developing transformative financial instruments, and beyond.
How do you wish to see the impact of your work?
I want to empower billions of global citizens to live an adaptive lifestyle of health and sustainability within the safe operating spaces of our planetary boundaries. It is not the products of the future, but how we produce them that will have the biggest impact on health and environment and get us into the safe operating space of our planetary boundaries. It is about lifestyle and the cultural evolution of liveability, which can be seen as a shift that works much better for all humanity.
Some advice to future Marc from the present?
We are all star stuff; the microcosm is the key to you, Marc. You are Homo Symbious. Just imagine you speak for the Earth. You are the way for the cosmos to know itself. If you want to create an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe. It comes from Carl Sagan whom I admire because he cared about this Earth and humanity and did it in a way for us to understand the cosmos.