Are We Drowning in Dystopias?

Cop15 opening film image

Images via Cop15 opening film 'Please Help The World'
This is the first in a series of guest posts by journalist and climate change communications strategist Ella Saltmarshe
When we think about the future of the world, it's mostly bad. I'm not sure when this dawned on me. It could have been while watching Dune or Children of Men or The Road or perhaps while reading Margaret Atwood's brilliant new Armageddon novel, The Year of the Flood. The cherry on the cake was the trailer for 2012, Hollywood's latest offering of disaster porn. In the space of 2 mins 48, the Vatican crashes to the ground, Rio's iconic statue of Christ crumbles, Mecca/ Tibet/ London/ India are engulfed by chaos, firebombs fall from the sky onto American forests and countless skyscrapers collapse. Our response to uncertainty is to create negative futures
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Doomsaying is our default position
As environmental activists, doomsaying has long been our default campaigning position. As visions of rising seas, expanding deserts and mass extinctions move from sci-fi books to peer reviewed scientific articles, the logic is that when people realise how dark the outlook is, they'll change. If we can just communicate this grim future graphically enough, politicians will legislate for clean energy, couples will stop flying to Prague for romantic getaways, teenagers will turn off their TVs at the plug... and so on...

Except that in the last decade of communicating sustainability in the West, we've learnt that fear only works with small demographics. Study after study has shown that Armageddon scenarios do not motivate most people to change their behaviour.

Where are the positive visions of the future?
So that's what makes the following even more mystifying... a few months ago, I was writing a TV pitch and I wanted to know what 2020 would look like if we get it right. What would my east London street be like in ten years time if we made the necessary changes to keep climate change under 2 degrees? I didn't factor in much time for this research--thought I could just rummage around online, find a couple of scenarios and plunder.

Except it wasn't that easy. First I mooched on Google, then I scrambled through Wikipedia until finally I was wildly throwing the metaphorical shoes out the closet in an effort to find scenarios. Nothing. I berated myself. I must be looking in the wrong places. I reluctantly emailed my most eco friends, slightly embarrassed to demonstrate my ignorance to these environmental pioneers, but then... guess what? They couldn't find much either. There was a nod to corporate scenario planning, to Transition Town's Energy Descent plans, to Ecolabs' recent work but otherwise, nada. Nothing. Rien.

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A colossal failure of imagination?
Now this blew me away. If we don't know where we are going how the hell are we going to get there? How can we have suffered from such a colossal failure of imagination? To be fair, many campaigners have visualised a desired future in their area, be it energy production, agriculture, housing or forests. Monbiot, Van Jones, Lovelock et al. have provided detailed prescriptions for their visions of sustainable futures.

Many professions from architects to designers to economists, produce sophisticated modelling for use within their fields. There is a wealth of positive prototypes of the future, the problem is they are isolated and sector specific. Meanwhile, there's a deficit of detailed, rich, local visualisations that makes such futures widespread, tangible and real. Instead we are drowning in dystopias and inferring positive futures that we never quite articulate. Utopia as 'no place' indeed...

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What is the effect of disaster fantasies?
So why do we default to dystopias when faced with uncertainty? Perhaps it is some kind of Darwinian Boy Scout survival trait; imagining the worst will make us better prepared to deal with it? But with cruel irony, a psychological response that could have evolved to avert catastrophe may be the exact thing that brings it on. In 1965 Susan Sontag wrote, "The lure of such generalised disaster as fantasy is that it releases one from normal obligations." Do we veer towards the dystopic because it releases us from responsibility in the present? If Sontag was right, then does this make the current proliferation of devastating visions of the future, a raft of self-fulfilling prophecies?

Or perhaps we are drawn to dystopias because, from 1984 to the Age of Stupid, they have played a vital political role, highlighting the negative consequences of present day actions by extrapolating them into the future. Positive and negative futures are like the Yin and Yang of campaigning, we need them both. We still need the constant wake up calls, the very real looming apocryphal visions of the future, but we also need to know where we want to be going.

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Building ladders in the popular imagination
To be clear: this is not a call for utopia as an opiate used to mask the painful symptoms of the present. I am neither advocating wishful thinking, nor denial. If fantasy is imagination unrestricted by reality, then I am talking about imagination very much restricted by reality. It is precisely because of the horrifying scenarios humanity is facing that we need to come together across disciplines and start creating, modelling, and demonstrating brave new worlds. We need to make such futures seem so clear and so real, they feel inevitable. We need to build ladders in the popular imagination to those futures. I repeat, we need to make them inevitable.

We're using a roadmap without a destination
While I may like to credit myself with a unique moment of insight, fortunately this isn't true. With the cacophony of the wake-up calls reverberating in our heads, it is as if collectively campaigners are realising, that using a roadmap without a destination isn't going to take us very far. Earlier in the year, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund convened a multidisciplinary group in New York to discuss Futurama - a vision of a sustainable 2050. Meanwhile, "The Road to Ecotopia", Futerra's "Sell the Sizzle - The New Climate Message" and The Future We Want (that does what it says on the tin) are all projects that have all been launched in the time I've been writing this article. And we are about to see a lot more, with governments and campaigning organisations alike, hurriedly articulating their desired destinations: in the words of Transition Town's Rob Hopkins, "We are only just beginning to scratch the surface of the power of a positive vision of an abundant future..."

Mostly I'd like to be wrong: I'd love people to respond to this telling me about reservoirs of localised visions for a low carbon future. Asking me how could I have missed XXXX? But just in case these emails don't come, perhaps you, the architects, storytellers, filmmakers, designers, planners, campaigners, entertainers, engineers, lawyers, gardeners, educators, communicators, politicians, students, doctors, artists, psychologists, social scientists, technologists, biologists, ecologists, economists, nutritionists, physicists, chemists, parents, sons and daughters.... can help answer the following question: "How will we create tangible visions of a future in which we get it right? Who will do this? When?"

This is a guest post for TreeHugger by Ella Saltmarshe
About The Author
Ella Saltmarshe is slightly obsessed by climate change communications. As a Winston Churchill fellow she spent most of 2006 in Asia and Latin America meeting with climate specialists, decision makers and impacted communities. She returned passionate about using the communications industries to accelerate the transition to low carbon living. Ella has written climate reports for not-for-profits and governments. She has been published in a range of publications including The Financial Times, Monocle, Creative Review and Marie Clare. She is also a fiction-addict and has just finished writing her first novel with an award from the Arts Council. Ella splits her time between London, India and Pakistan.

More on visions of the future
Movie Review: The Age of Stupid - A Lot of Stick And Not Much Carrot
Eco-dystopia: Trendy Cinematic Vision for the Planet?
Arcosanti: "A Utopian Well in the Desert"
H2PIA: A Vision of a Hydrogen Future
Velo-City: Cycle Tracks Will Abound in Utopia
Children of Men. Science Fiction Movie. Or Maybe Not?
New Film Version of Dune

Are We Drowning in Dystopias?
Images via Cop15 opening film 'Please Help The World' This is the first in a series of guest posts by journalist and climate change communications strategist Ella Saltmarshe When we think about the future of the world, it's mostly bad. I'm not sure when

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