Whose Story, What Future

What you think about the future changes everything. Think you'll have a good place to sleep tonight? Think your children will have lives like yours? Or do you think we may be in for ecological instability or breakdowns in society?

Building scenarios is one way to make explicit our implicit “stories” about the future. Doing so enables us to think more clearly about our assumptions, to plan for various possible futures, and to see whether our current path has any meaningful future.

A powerful example of this came about in 1991 and 1992 when leading figures in South Africa took part in a scenario planning exercise to consider what might happen in their country over the coming decade. The exercise turned out to be a powerful one; participants from across the political spectrum were able to tell a plausible and hopeful story of South Africa's future if apartheid was eliminated, but they were able to develop no such story about an apartheid-dominated future. (See YES! Fall 1998.)

So what stories would we tell about our future? Susan Cannon, a doctoral student at the California Institute of Integral Studies, is studying stories of the future imagined by “Cultural Creatives.” Cultural Creatives is a term coined by sociologist and market researcher Paul Ray to describe people with ecological, community, personal growth values (see YES! Fall 1996). Here are her stories of possible futures.

Matrix of Four Different Future Scenarios

I began the process of constructing these scenarios by interviewing Cultural Creatives to learn what they believe are the major driving forces behind their future projections. Some of these driving forces are already in the pipeline and almost certainly will happen, according to the people I interviewed, so I included them in all the scenarios:

• A limit to growth will be reached that will alter our lives from the present path,

• The technology/information revolution will continue no matter what else happens,

• Society will feel the effects of shifting demographics, including population growth, Baby Boomers aging, Gen Xer's moving into leadership, and the tech-savvy generation coming into adulthood.

The Cultural Creatives were less certain about another 25 factors, which they felt could break in one direction or the other. These I distilled down to two questions, which define the scenarios that follow:

• Will there be a significant consciousness shift to Cultural Creative values or will we see a continuation of Modernist values, characterized by an emphasis on economic and technological growth and secular values?

• Will systems remain relatively stable or will we see major system breakdowns in either economic or ecological realms? Might we experience overshoot and collapse?

As you can see in the diagram, these two uncertainties define a matrix that generates four different futures. Each represents a logical, though caricatured, world that would result from combinations of the two uncertainties. These are not predictions of the future: there is too much we can't foresee in our rapidly changing world. Rather, they are stories of the future based on the particular assumptions and questions held by Cultural Creatives.

Necessary Simplicity

Assumption: Cultural Creative values take hold coupled with a system collapse. During the first decade, a fringe movement becomes a cultural shift toward CC values and more sustainable practices. Science and technology begin to retool toward sustainable systems, and green taxes dramatically alter the economy. Nonetheless, so much environmental damage was inflicted in preceding years that global warming combined with accumulated toxics and the pressures of population growth induce a major biosystem disruption. Like dominoes falling, populated coastal areas flood, food supplies collapse, and epidemics rage. Key sections of the economy are in disarray, and the last vestiges of modern life in the developed world – limitless resource consumption and mobility, and endless material growth – have abruptly ended. The crisis, remembered as “The Shock of 2012,” accelerates the cultural values transformation. People turn to their neighbors, family, and inner life.

Out of necessity society embraces a simpler lifestyle of reduced consumption, a deeper commitment to community, and a reverence for nature. Spiritual values are ascendant, and we are able to draw upon the social capital developed over the past decade.

The Internet, due to its organic design, survives the disruption reasonably intact. It facilitates community and personal connection and is used to create informal local economies through barter and information exchange.

Meanwhile, government is overwhelmed, its resources tied up in disaster relief. Networks of small community groups appear to link themselves spontaneously into a national citizens' network for emergency planning, trade, and education. Regional clusters begin to self-organize based on watershed, climate, and other geographic features. Through this network of networks, we begin to rebuild a sustainable, caring world. The economy, political power, and social institutions decentralize radically but remain connected in a web of alliances.

War and Pieces

Assumption: Modernist values prevail coupled with a system collapse.Warnings that surfaced at the end of the 20th century go unheeded, and industrial age economic growth patterns, values, and practices continue. Huge multinationals take advantage of the unconstrained markets and erode the power of nation states. Environment, labor, and social justice issues are not addressed, and the competitive forces of global trade drive a race to the bottom for everyone but a global monied elite.

In the US, the gap between the haves and have nots, both in technological access and income, creates a large, seething underclass living at the margins of material survival. Anger fuels isolationist tendencies and xenophobia. Intolerance increases.

A century of accumulated environmental damage explodes in a major perturbation of the biosphere, causing food supplies to collapse, major pandemics in populated areas, and extensive destruction of coastal areas and species. The global economy implodes. Devastation is so terrible that even “off the grid” alternative groups practicing voluntary simplicity are struggling. Many who were part of the middle class or wealthy elite lose what they have.

In the absence of social glue a period of chaos ensues, and scarce resources are diverted to maintain security. The remaining elites wall themselves behind gated fortresses, but environmental and social degradation lowers the quality of life for all. Suffering, alienation, and depression take over, as the consumption-addicted population, now in painful withdrawal, has few internal spiritual resources to draw upon. The “every man for himself” spirit annihilates any sense of community and incites ethnic warfare.

People are able to gather survival information and set up exchanges using the Internet, but some violent groups, such as militias, use it for organizing. A neo-fascist charismatic figure gains control of a consolidated media and begins to appeal to the strife-weary population. Others begin to cluster together in small gated communities to figure out how to share resources and information and protect themselves.

Soul-less in Seattle

Assumption: Modernist values prevail coupled with system stability.Society prizes economic growth, technological solutions, individualism, personal success, material consumption, and sensual pleasure. The US is wired, increasingly wealthy, gridlocked, and, in small patches, militantly green. The economy, fueled by technological innovation, frictionless e-commerce, and open global markets, appears to prosper. Extraordinary concentrations of wealth in vast multinationals create a shadowy global monied elite with the ability to influence international and national policies. Workers not enlisting with the corporate multinationals join a technology-enabled, decentralized network of nimble entrepreneurs and portfolio professionals. The remainder, mostly refugees from the collapse of public education, form a hardened underclass.

The elite recognize the threat to their interests from global economic and environmental instability. They pursue a strategy of pacification through prosperity, attempting to level the playing field so that people will join the ranks of the lower middle class and adopt its values.

During the first decade, climatic disasters increase in devastation and frequency, pressing powerful corporate and scientific worlds into a burst of activity. Government, scientific, and engineering resources are redirected toward developing low-resource products, alternative energy sources, and sustainable processes. The elite influence a shift toward strict global environmental regulatory integration from a vantage point of self-preservation.

The US provides the world a model of a high-quality, low-resource lifestyle with stringently enforced environmental regulations. Decentralized work and the ability to carry out many of life's tasks in virtual reality afford control and choices, but at the same time increase social isolation and alienation, heightening insecurity for those left out. With the focus on a personally designed world, physical infrastructure decays and community and family bonds are strained. A sense of internal exhaustion permeates society, which many seek to counteract with intense experience (virtual or physical) or material pleasures. People withdraw further into worlds of their own creation, though the landscape is increasingly homogenized and “Disneyfied” by the global corporate culture and media. Society is fragmented, and the hardened underclass lives in isolated zones that have deteriorated into Third World situations. Most others are resigned to live in some form of gated community.

Integral Dawn

Assumption: Cultural Creative values take hold coupled with system stability.The number of people in the US with CC values rises until the dominant culture is colored by it. The materialism that plagued the close of the 20th century is abating. A general recognition of the connectedness of all things and the fragility and sacredness of all life has softened actions and decision making. Economic practices are dramatically changed, and lifestyles reflect the sustainability and simplicity ethic. Aging Baby Boomers, many holding significant wealth, rediscover the idealism of their youth and temper it with wisdom.

Community, relationships, spirituality, and neighborhood are ascendant. That trend, coupled with increased population density (which insures gridlock) accelerates a move toward decentralized work, urban villages, and sustainable communities with shared collective resources. Most people do significant amounts of unpaid work. The civic sector experiences a renaissance.

An environmental “near miss” at the turn of the century, combined with shifting social values and technological advances, accelerates a turnaround to sustainable business practices. Growth was intentionally slowed during the transition, but new value is created in the emerging Green Economy sector. We are able to do much more with less matter and energy.

A commitment to local economies, which exist as a decentralized network, balances the economic might and homogenizing effect of the global corporations. The younger generation, fervently environmentalist, is now entering the workforce. More women and Gen Xers are in positions of responsibility, redefining work, success, and progress, and redesigning organizational structure. Lifestyles, education, business practices, and even government policy are transforming.

Did any of these scenarios push a button? At least one is bound to challenge your current worldview. Remember, reality is likely to include aspects of each quadrant. Nevertheless, these scenarios indicate important forces at play and evoke key changes that should impact our actions and widen our perspective.