Why Backcasting Can Help Us See the Pathway to a Sustainable Future

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Image credit: WTL Photos, used under Creative Commons license.

I've never liked vision statements. All too often they smack of wishful thinking and fantasy. Yet the environmental movement is rife with them. As I have argued many times before, the green movement needs a concrete plan, and that plan needs to embrace strategic thinking. Luckily, vision statements are just one tool in our tool box; there's another one that can help turn visions into pathways: It's called backcasting.The idea behind backcasting is to first envision the future you want to see—being specific both in terms of goals and timelines. Whether it is a fossil-fuel free town by 2050, or a household that is 100% debt free by 2015, the idea is to not just say what you want, but when you want it too.

Having established that goal, and imagined that you have already reached it, you then start working backwards to identify the steps that had to be taken along the way to get you there—whether that be the establishment of certain institutions; achieving fundraising goals; or the maturing of a particular technology. The process might involve simply laying out a concrete timeline with specific milestones and achievements, or it might mean getting more creative with your story telling.

Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Movement, has long been an advocate of backcasting as a means of moving forward. Writing over at Transition Culture, he lays out an explanation of how backcasting works:

One exercise which is a good way of bringing backcasting to life is the 2030 School Reunion exercise which was first done at the launch of the process that led to the creation of TTT's 'EDAP'2. Here 4 actors play different characters who all attended the local secondary school in 2010. The group divides into 4 smaller groups, each of which has lots of cards each of which tell a different aspect of the story of where the character's life went between 2010 and 2030, and what happened in the world around them. The audience share what they know about the character, and then after discussion in groups, the actors role play a school reunion, and the characters meeting each other and catching up on their lives. If done well, with good actors, it can be a surprisingly engaging and moving exercise.

Now I must confess I have never been one for such "workshop exercises" either. But having witnessed the backcasting process on a number of occasions, I've been struck by how well it encourages practical, real-world thinking, not fantasy play or daydreams.

Now I just need to backcast from a world where vision statements are always accompanied with a plan to get us there...

More on Strategic Thinking for the Environmental Movement
Environmentalists Need Strategy: Saul Alinsky and the Green Movement
To Win, the Green Movement Needs to Understand Leverage, Not Just Footprints
Activism Beats Prophecy: Wishful Thinking is Not a Strategy
Does Morality Matter in Saving the Planet?

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