Writer Mark Goldthorpe reviews Anticipatory history, a book that explores the possibilities for ‘looking back’ at histories of environmental change in places to help us ‘look forward’ to what futures might be in store, and we might shape.
approximate Reading Time: 9minutes
A copy of Anticipatory history goes to Jennifer Leach for her contribution to our series, A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.
This 2011 book grew from the experiences of the Anticipatory History Research Network, a one year project within AHRC’s Landscape and Environment Programme. Led by Caitlin DeSilvey and Simon Naylor at Exeter University, the network brought together fellow scholars in humanities, social, natural and physical sciences, writers and artists, and environmental practitioners in wildlife, coastal, landscape and heritage management. I had the good fortune to be doing my MA Climate Change at Exeter at the time. So, although my involvement was at the latter stages of their research, I was able to contribute some work locally with the National Trust — on ‘Storying adaptation’ — to the network’s final symposium.
Here, I want to introduce Anticipatory history the book — as a process, a product and a provocation. It’s a slim volume but written in many voices, offering rewarding encounters on different levels.
Publication often seems the natural endpoint of research activity, but the group assembled around this network’s central question — what roles do “history and story-telling play in helping us to apprehend and respond to changing landscapes, and to changes to the wildlife and plant populations they support?” — found themselves creating this book almost as a byproduct of their discussions. Something that I’ve encountered when researching how large, multi-partner climate change projects successfully incorporate very different academic fields and societal stakeholders is that the new interdisciplinary teams very often spend 18 months — typically up to half the project lifetime — coming to terms with each other’s vocabulary and ways of seeing the world. They have to find ways to achieve that in parallel with ‘doing the job’. Often an ad hoc and iterative process, this frequently catalyses creative approaches to ‘getting to know each other’. One large network developed their own glossary for terms that engineers, sociologists, modellers and planners might have ‘in common’ but which had different meanings and usages for each ‘tribe’.
It seems that Anticipatory history developed in a similar way:
“Over the course of four meetings a number of people participated in an extended discussion about the meaning and efficacy of anticipatory history as a concept and a mode of engagement with the past. As we followed debates we noted down key terms on index cards – words or phrases that have a bearing on aspects of environmental change over time and in place, and our responses to these changes. We then went through a process of culling entries and drafting collective definitions. Lastly, participants were asked to adopt particular key terms and to produce entries. This book is then a work of many hands and can in no way claim to be the product of a single vision. It was never our intention to provide a definitive statement on the means and ends of anticipatory history, even if that was possible to do.”
At what point that exercise crystallised into a book for a wider readership, I don’t know, but it has been offered as a glossary or work of reference for those wanting to know more about … Well, what is ‘anticipatory history’?
The introductory essay that includes the passage above starts by noting that while reports of climate and environmental change are “the daily fare of a twenty-first century media diet” our ability to take in and respond personally to the implications or lived experiences of change’s impacts often disconnects from scientific data.
“Many of these changes … will register as subtle (or not so subtle) alterations in familiar landscapes: a lost section of coastal path, a favourite flower vanished, dwindling populations of waterbirds in a local saltmarsh, the removal of a customary fishing quay. But the range of available responses to these changes is limited – usually cast in terms of loss and guilt – and we often do not have the cultural resources to respond thoughtfully, to imagine our own futures in a tangibly altered world.”
As a clutch of the book’s entries explain, our personal sense of time and the ‘natural’ state of things is shaped by our generational timeframes: what one entry (Shifting baseline syndrome) calls “’generational amnesia’, due to relatively short life spans and memories” and another (Tempocentrism) describes as “the tendency to take for granted the premises, expectations and values of one’s own timeframe.” We struggle to acknowledge unwelcome changes in our environment (either locally or in places with treasured memories) — or, if acknowledged, to accept what is often the naturalness of processes we cannot halt. A third entry (Presentism) raises the risks of extending these mental frames into how we imagine the past, where we inevitably filter, select and assemble our own data on what that famously ‘foreign country’ was really like; “We make our stories about the past; we don’t find them fully formed … Do we have any chance of transcending our present point of view when we approach the making of history, and should we be pretending to?”
Our relationship with past and future, caught as we always are in the interval of uncertainty between the two, can be emotionally and culturally complex and unsettling. Anticipatory history offers ways to interrogate our uncertainties; the example of Orford Ness lighthouse suggests how impermanent features in our landscape can become stabilised in our imagination, and natural processes then threaten both the physical and cultural permanence which seems so natural to our tempocentric selves. The lighthouse, already at risk of erosion of the Orford Ness shingle bank, was also deemed redundant as coastal wayfinder: a combination which undermines the future of this 220-year-old Suffolk landmark. Indeed, the lighthouse has now been decommissioned and the sea continues its advance on the brick building. What was once an aid to navigation in space might slip into a new, symbolic role as navigational aid between past and future; there was a time with no lighthouse on the shingle, and this seems likely again. ‘Anticipatory history’, as conceptual framework, explores how looking back in a place might help us look ahead to its plausible futures. Highlighting the potential for Palliative curation as one approach to this predicament, Anticipatory history suggests an end-of-life ethic of care and attention, taking our leave of loved but transient features.
With these subjective, limited perceptions and judgements in mind, it can be tempting to see scientific and technical expertise as the prized location for all useable knowledge about historical and future change, the only reliable base for our policies. That, time and again, it still surprises us when this fails to deliver everything we expected is not an argument against expertise or evidence, but for a broadening of what we mean by these, and what counts. Picking up the book’s introduction again,
“History and storytelling … might seem a surprising place to begin an investigation into the potential consequences of environmental change … However, our argument is that the humanities have much to contribute to these debates. [Some forms of history,] guided by a concern for the future, [look] to the past to find intellectual, emotional, and spiritual resources to help us direct this concern towards sustaining specific communities – both human and ecological.”
‘Anticipatory history’ borrows that future orientation from the notion of ‘anticipatory adaptation’ to prospective changes rather than ‘reactive adaptation’ after the fact. Looking back can inform a more experimental gaze forward, exploring our imaginations and stories of environmental change, our different versions of ‘here and ‘now’ as well as ‘there and then’. The authors quote two historians:
“Our ability to project ourselves into the future, imagining alternative lives that lead us to set new goals and work toward new ends, is merely the forward expression of the experience of change we have learned from reflecting on the past.” – William Cronon
“We study the past not in order to find out what really happened there or to provide a genealogy of and thereby a legitimacy for the present, but to find out what it takes to face a future we should like to inherit rather than one that we have been forced to endure.” – Hayden White
The book’s different authors were therefore engaging with the past(s) not out of nostalgia but out of a desire to see how “the stories we tell about ecological and landscape histories shape our perception of what we might call future ‘plausabilities’”, complementing the scientific study of climate change probabilities. As such, anticipatory approaches to history might “intersect with other areas of concern – including the communication of science, the pragmatics of land management and the practice of art.” Relying solely on any one of these approaches — or even a naïve combination of all three — in situations of contention, controversy and conflict over threats to valued wildlife, landscapes, heritage or livelihoods can be a damaging experience. When a partnership of agencies culled the ‘invasive’ rats on Lundy island in order to restore breeding populations of birds, they acted solely on scientific grounds and without public consultation. Recounting the outcry from animal welfare protestors wanting to “save the Lundy rats” , the book exposes the moral judgements that scientific justifications rested upon: “that introduced species should be removed to support indigenous species; that less charismatic animals should make way for more popular ones; and that people’s emotional responses to the killing of the rats were not relevant to the decision-making process.”
“Terms like ‘slaughter’ were used to describe the cull. The risk to other animals from possible ingestion of the poisons was highlighted. Protesters also noted that the rats had been on the island for over 400 years, and in doing so questioned the implication that the rats were recent interlopers – unwanted immigrants that disrupted a settled indigenous nature on the island.”
How different interests, communities and individuals “know the past in place” is as crucial and meaningful as the professional expertise informing our decisions on how we respond to change.
“Anticipatory history may be capable of tapping into these meanings, in that it does not attempt to construct a singular, authoritative historical narrative. As an approach, it leaves room for expressing the ‘small stories’ and ‘lay knowledges’ that are layered in place, and then linking these to a hoped-for future.”
So, back to the glossary. The 50 terms explored in this book range from the technical-sounding (Acclimatisation, Coastal squeeze, Entropy, Equilibrium, Managed realignment, Monitoring) to the deceptively simple (Birds, Ebb and flood, Living landscapes, Memory, Museum, Place, Rhododendron, Tides, Woods) via the playful or provocative (Besanded, Dream-map, Liminal zone, Palliative curation, Rewilding, Story-radar, Unfarming, Zone of exclusion).
You can move between these personal explorations guided simply by your curiosity, the convenience of the alphabetical ordering, the threads of different authors’ reappearances, an index map that ties each entry to a place in the British Isles — or by the handy signposting under each entry, pointing you to: (Erosion) “See: Art, Coastal squeeze, Cycle of erosion”, or (Equilibrium) “Do not see: Entropy. See: Shifting baseline syndrome”; (Entropy) “Do not see: Equilibrium. See: Aspic, Discontinuity”, and so on. It’s a book that calls you to explore, revisit and share.
The variety of voices, styles, genres, directions and intents found even within the confines of an academic and professional network makes for a very partial glossary, whose cumulative effect is to hint at alternative ‘meanings’ that could have found their way into these entries via different authors, and at the ghosts of other terminologies and common words which might just as easily have featured in the discussions sparking this work. Being partial but being open about partiality and to inviting in more seems to me to be one value of an anticipatory learning from our subjective histories and imagined futures.
In a later post, I will look at some of the entries in the book and the themes these explore.
Find out more
You can read a response to this review from environmental artist Linda Gordon, illustrated with a recent example of her ephemeral art.
Anticipatory history (2011), edited by Caitlin DeSilvey, Simon Naylor and Colin Sackett, is published by Uniform Books. All the indented passages and unattributed quotations are taken from the book’s Introduction, which you can download as a sample. There is more information on the research network activities that produced the book at the Arts and Humanities Research Network programme pages.
The quotation from William Cronon is taken from his 2000 article Why history matters, (Wisconsin Magazine of History, 84, 2-13) available at his website.
The quotation from Hayden White is taken from E Domanska (2008) A conversation with Hayden White, (Rethinking History, 12, 3-21) and might be found through a web search…
Questioning a word? Space for creative thinking..."One of the entries in Anticipatory history is Enclosure. What does this word mean to you, in the conext of environmental change and how we imagine and discuss pasts, places and futures?" Share your thoughts in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form.
Writer Mark Goldthorpe explores an online ecolinguistics course, delving into how we structure and receive discourses — texts, dialogues, advertising, news reports, stories — in ways that shape our attitudes and beliefs on environmental, social and economic issues.
approximate Reading Time: 8minutes
The Stories We Live By is a free online course in ecolinguistics, created by Arran Stibbe at the University of Gloucestershire and a team of volunteers from the International Ecolinguistics Association. A programme that you can study at your own pace, with an optional online forum, it looks at how language structures our environmental relationships: stories as “structures in the minds of individuals … or across the minds of multiple individuals in society.”
“Ecolinguistics analyses language to reveal the stories we live by, judges those stories from an ecological perspective, resists damaging stories, and contributes to the search for new stories to live by.” – Arran Stibbe, course notes
There are many ways of viewing the environmental challenges we face – from the bright ‘can do’ optimism of ecomodernism to the darker ecology realms of ‘uncivilisation’ and beyond. But what they have in common is a recognition that the stories we’ve told ourselves to get to this situation – stories we’ve told ourselves into – have created an urgent for us need to find new ones, better aligned with environmental imperatives.
Those old stories include those our Book Club is discussing, in Kate Raworth’s book Doughnut Economics: myths of the unquestioned need for endless economic “growth”, narrow indicators of “healthy” GDP figures, “free markets” steering us clear of the “tragedy of the commons”. But the ideological limitations of stories can also be seen in environmental world views that shape competing planet-saving blueprints – an area also discussed in Mike Hulme’s book Why We Disagree About Climate Change.
I’m about half way through, and enjoying the very clear notes, exercises and further reading on offer with each module: moving easily but with much thought through discussions on ideologies, framings and metaphors, with fascinating examples and questions. The course will also take me through how we use stories to evaluate ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in the world, the identities we hold as individuals and groups, our convictions about the way the world is, and how language makes some issues invisible.
Ecolinguistics and our stories
This could all be quite heavy, freighted with all sorts of academic terminology (‘ecolinguistics’ itself, for example). Fortunately, the notes and exercises have a light touch, using clear everyday language in between the necessary (and interesting) smattering of technical stuff (a helpful glossary covers all those new words and phrases). The course is not about finding the “correct” way of talking about the natural world and our relationships with it; there is no single, “right’ story. Yes, ecolinguistics invites us to judge the stories we receive from media, government, businesses and campaign groups, use in our professional and personal lives, or tell ourselves. But “judging a story from an ecological perspective involves comparing it with [our] own ecological philosophy, or ecosophy” – and recognising in the process that ours is one of many; our judgements are always relative to that personal perspective.
So what does ecolinguistics involve?
It focuses on discourses that help shape how we act towards human and other beings and ecosystems.
It looks for how linguistic features form our cultural codes: the values and norms that reflect our ‘common sense’ view of the world.
It reveals our own ‘ecosophy’ and how different discourses align with or contradict this.
It raises awareness of the role of language in ecological protection or destruction, through policy, education, news and entertainment.
Early on, ‘the Ecosophy Quiz” asks us to assess our own ecological philosophy, accepting or rejecting a number of statements on a spectrum from cornucopianism, sustainable development, social ecology, ecofeminism, deep ecology, transition movement, dark mountain project, deep green resistance, voluntary human extinction movement and beyond. Interestingly, there were no overtly religious or spiritual statements to dis/agree with, which seems a lack given the central position of faith in cultures, countries and personal lives around the world.
The problem with problems
I’ll focus more on specific aspects of the course in another post, but one early point for me has been to get me to revisit my own position, that climate change is not a problem – in the sense that it’s not something with a ‘solution’. That perspective unsettled rather than shocked me when I first heard Mike Hulme suggest several years ago. It did shock many others in the room – a gathering of people with clear ideas of what the solutions are, and a drive to get them adopted. I came to agree with Hulme’s point pretty quickly, as it spoke to my growing unease with our failure to really get to grips with … the problem. His book gave strong pointers as to why framing climate change as ‘a problem’ is a problem – at least if you want to solve it. But what I’ve struggled with since is finding an approach that really improves on ‘problem’. ‘Wicked Problems’ is a good way to conceive the messy entanglements of cause–effect–side-effect–cause, but wicked problems still seem to trigger a ‘solutions’ mindset. I looked into that with my first post, where I picked up on ‘clumsy solutions’ as a way to address ‘wicked problems’, but I could see that something was missing; proposing the idea of ‘wicked cultures’ offered part of an answer.
Hulme had also looked at ‘clumsy solutions’ in his book, “as a way of escaping from the idea that, when faced with contradictory definitions of problems and solutions, only one definition must be chosen and all others rejected … Clumsiness suggests that we construct our problems in such a way as to make them fit our capabilities for solution-making …” But he accepted that even clumsy solutions won’t ‘solve’ climate change; they will be partial and contradictory in what they deliver, not just in their methods:
“We must recognise the ‘wickedness’ of climate change and we must appreciate that while clumsiness – with all its contrariness and messiness – is perhaps the limit of our human ability to respond, it will not deliver the outcomes we seek.”
As he points out, the idea of climate change is changing how we understand and live in the world as much as the physical phenomena we call ‘climate change’. The idea works for us – doing different work for people with different world views. In identifying some common myths behind our world views, Hulme comes back to stories: myths that embody fundamental truths, “powerful shared narratives which may bind together otherwise quite different perspectives and people.” These myths might be lamenting the loss of our ‘natural’ climate and environment; or presaging the coming apocalypse as we crash through all our tipping points; or saving ourselves through our geoengineering/GM/nuclear/nanotech mastery; or a call for and celebration of justice for the dispossessed, exploited and marginalised. He ties these neatly to Judaeo-Christian Biblical myths of Fall, Armageddon, Babel and Jubilee; others are available, of course, and these are not mutually exclusive.
Landing on “climate change as idea” rather than “climate change as problem”‘ is perhaps in danger of leaving us high and dry with grand narratives similar to those that got us in here (and have so far failed to get us out again). I’ve been looking for something more … down to earth, more pedestrian. Less likely to appeal to our messianic tendencies.
The predicaments we live with
The Stories We Live By is not an examination of the language of climate change; its scope is the full range of ecological issues. But it does explore different framings of climate change – for example, as ‘security threat’, as ‘violence’, as ‘business’, as ‘problem’, or as ‘predicament’:
Climate change framed as a security threat: “Instead of treating the climate crisis as an environmental issue, to be dealt with by environment and energy departments alone, we need to reframe it as the overwhelming threat to national and global security which it is.” (Caroline Lucas, Green Party)
Climate change framed as violence: “Call climate change what it is: violence. Climate change is global-scale violence, against places and species as well as against human beings.” (Rebecca Solnit, writer, historian and activist)
Climate change framed as business: “Let’s reframe sustainability as the biggest and boldest supply chain challenge yet, to give the 9 billion people we expect to see on the planet quality and sustainable lives. Business is good at giving customers what they want, so let’s get on with it.” (Alan Knight, Virgin)
Climate change framed as problem: “The best solution, nearly all scientists agree, would be the simplest: stop burning fossil fuels, which would reduce the amount of carbon we dump into the atmosphere.” (Michael Specter, science journalist)
Climate change framed as predicament: “It has been revealed that humankind’s activities giving rise to our present global warming and climate change predicament occurred during that extremely short 57 year period.” (Bob Robertson, author)
To my mind, the first three of these are usually examples of, rather than alternatives to, ‘problem thinking’, reducing the overall complex mix of issues to a single dimension and expectations that a solution is at hand. But each could also be cast as ‘predicament thinking’. The course explains the distinction:
“Many things we’ve conceptualized as problems are actually predicaments. The difference is that a problem calls for a solution; the only question is whether one can be found and made to work, and once this is done, the problem is solved. A predicament, by contrast, has no solution. Faced with a predicament, people come up with responses.” — John Michael Greer
Solutions make problems disappear; responses keep predicaments in view. Solutions promise completion; responses offer coping. Guess which sounds sexier; admit which is more honest. So, if one response is to adapt to a climate that continues changing even when all the remaining oil is left in the ground (because the atmosphere and oceans respond slowly to past greenhouse gas emissions) then these stronger, adaptive communities will still have to deal with the impacts of a changing climate. And surely we know that ‘security,’ ‘violence’ and ‘economics’, which we also treat as problems, are more like predicaments which no ‘solutions’ are likely to make disappear? Better responses might help minimise the impacts and live more safely, justly and prosperously.
If ‘security’, ‘violence’ and ‘business’ framings (and many other ways of simplifying the idea of climate change) can be deployed in either ‘problem-solution’ or ‘predicament-response’ ways, then perhaps there is another level to our stories. But whether that is so, or ‘problem’ and ‘predicament’ are simply two framings among others, The Stories We Live By has already given me something I’ve been looking for: the extra step beyond my earlier journey from ‘problem’ to ‘wicked problem’ to ‘clumsy solutions’, but without leaving me in the slightly nebulous territory of ‘idea.’ Predicaments are what humans do, after all.
It’s refreshing to take a course that invites me to acknowledge my subjectivity, my own set of values and attitudes, and informs them with some new thinking on ecosophies, framings and, in particular, predicaments. The Stories We Live By asks me to acknowledge that this subjectivity is where I build my judgements of others’ views and actions as protecting or damaging to the environment. That stories, and not unquestionable facts, live in our heads and shape how we think, speak and act is not a new thought for me or for many people, but it’s one we need to come back to if we’re to avoid our own judgements taking on the same ‘natural’ force that the dominant narratives have assumed. Knowing our stories as stories can help us keep open the space we need for creative conversations.
Find out more
You can view and download all the notes and exercises for the course at The Stories We Live By. And if you register, you can also access the forum, additional reading and volunteer tutors. Everything is free and available to enjoy at your own pace.
The original essay from which the John Michael Greer quote above is taken can be found here, in the Archdruid Report archive. I am currently reading his book, Collapse Now and Avoid the Rush, which includes essays from that site.
Questioning Problems & Predicaments? Space for creative thinking...
"For you, is climate change a problem or a predicament? How would your creative response change if you swapped these frames? How would you talk differently about it with others?"
Share your thoughts in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form.
Dramatist Julia Marques introduces her research on the increasing interest in climate change within new drama, using visual discourse analysis to chart how the topics are addressed explicitly or form a backdrop to the world of the performance.
approximate Reading Time: 4minutes
After much deliberation and changing of my mind, I settled on my dissertation topic; climate change theatre. More specifically, visual discourse analysis of climate change theatre. Who knew an MA in Climate Change could lead to a final project that allows me to go off in search of environmentally-themed theatre? I certainly didn’t.
But what is visual discourse analysis? An excellent question. This methodology consists of analysing any live climate change theatre that I manage to see myself (hence the visual), or any footage of climate change theatre that I can find through theatre archives. Once I have seen it, and perhaps read the script, I can go about analysing it for climate change content.
Performing climate change
How did I come to create such a topic? As our social research lecturer had predicted, it was not a linear route. I began by listing some of my interests with regards to climate change, and finally decided to incorporate one of my previous areas of study; Drama. What an exciting prospect! I had all sorts of ideas for my research. I was going to survey audiences at different climate change performances to garner their reactions. I was going to interview theatre-makers for the inspiration behind certain productions. I was going to conduct workshops using Theatre of the Oppressed techniques to explore the emotional responses to climate change. My research location moved from London, to the rest of England, to the UK, to even further afield. I started contacting people and groups in order to set up this elaborate operation. The wheels were in motion, the ideas were flowing, my days were filling up fast and . . . it was all getting a bit too much.
I took a step back and realised that there was so much which had already been created that warranted delving into. What about all the theatre that was being conceived right here, in London? What treasures there must be, just waiting for me to find them and write about them! Mixing drama and geography is not an altogether common occurrence in the arena of research. It is not often that you see academic papers that truly consider the arts. I was inspired by the “Four Cultures” idea put forward by Matthew Nisbet and colleagues in their paper Four cultures: new synergies for engaging society on climate change. In it they detail a new vision for the effective incorporation of the environmental sciences, philosophy and religion, social sciences and creative arts and professions. In light of this, and seeing as I hadn’t discovered a wealth of academics who do include the arts in their analyses, I decided to explore this for myself.
A creative appeal
Why include the arts? For one, my MA is entitled Climate Change: History, Culture, Society. Culture, although a contested term, most definitely includes the arts – they are part of any culture. Similarly, society without drama, dance, art and music would be devoid of theatre, films, concerts, gigs, clubs and bars (unless they were sans music), television, parades, galleries, national anthems . . . the list goes on. In addition, I know that the arts have a lot to offer environmentalism, as environmentalism has to offer the arts. Indeed, many artists are very conscious of the issues facing our planet and all who dwell in it, and wish to contribute to the effort to help resolve these conundrums. There is increasing interest for creativity and imagination in the science world, in order to alleviate the situation, and this to me is an obvious appeal to the arts, which lives and breathes creative imaginings of the world. This is not to say that scientists and geographers are not creative, no! But this is a different type of creativity which the arts brings into the environmental sphere.
On commencing my search for plays that I would deem to be climate change-themed, I realised that there seems to have been a surge of new plays about climate change roughly between the years 2005 to 2013. This in itself is intriguing, but my mission is to find what I can see myself and thus be able to analyse. But what am I actually looking for? Climate change content, and the way the topic has been approached – is it overt? Is it implied? Is it the main theme, or a sub-theme that rumbles on in the background? Are the words “climate change” even mentioned?
I have ended up with a mixture of live performances and archival recordings as the pool into which I can dip my researcher’s toes. Once I have made notes on these, and featured them in a series of posts on my website, I can decide which (if not all) I will include in my final write-up of the fascinating area of climate change theatre.
As a postscript to this; I am keen to hear from anyone who knows of, or is involved in, any sort of climate change / environmental theatre. The bigger the pool, the more I can swim!
Questioning Discourse? Space for creative thinking..."The way we speak about the world helps shape how we - and others - think about it. And what we don't say can be as powerful as what we do. How do you read the presence of climate change in some of your favourite fiction or plays, even if it seems to be absent? Does it inform the story, regardless? " Share your thoughts in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form."
David Thorpe — one of the short story writers, poets and non-fiction writers commissioned from two Weatherfronts climate change conferences — explores the thinking that went into his story, included in the free anthology of the winning pieces.
approximate Reading Time: 5minutes
I have a story, ‘For The Greater Good’, in the new collection, Weatherfronts. Here is a tracing of my thought processes that led to me writing it.
Originating with Thomas More’s 1516 book Utopia, the eponymous word literally means “no-place”, or any non-existent society ‘described in considerable detail’… as in his book. But over time it has come to mean an ideal sort of society in which everyone has what they need and there is peace and justice for all. Perhaps everyone has their own idea of what utopia would be like.
Its opposite is dystopia, a term coined 352 years later in 1868 by the philosopher J.S. Mill, who used it to denounce the then government’s Irish land policy. Dystopian fictions became popular in the 20th century. Dystopian movies now seem to dominate our screens, all graphically and dramatically prophesying a dire future.
I fear that there is a danger that by populating our imaginations with pictures of a future of suffering by the masses, environmental despoliation, endless conflict and/or the dominance of machines, as in films like Metropolis and Blade Runner and novels like Nineteen Eighty-Four then we could end up creating the very world that we fear. In other words that these prophecies become self-fulfilling.
By contrast, what are the features of utopia? Should we instead be picturing this?
Are we living in Utopia but don’t realise it?
I started thinking that for people living 500 years ago, the way we live now would actually seem like a utopia.
All year round we are able to eat an incredible variety and plenitude of food from all over the world.
If we get ill we are taken care of by doctors and nurses for free, and there is always a hospital nearby.
People increasingly live past 100 years of age. If no one can look after them they are looked after by carers in special homes.
There are no poor houses or workhouses, instead if you cannot work you are given money to make sure you have somewhere to live and can buy food.
If you are mentally handicapped or ill, you’re not shut away in an awful madhouse, you are given medicines or therapies to make you feel better or manage your illness.
People with disabilities are cared for and their special qualities understood and valued.
Human rights are recognised and protected in law.
We live in warm homes and can travel incredibly cheaply anywhere in the world in a few hours.
We can talk to people anywhere, watch movies, take photographs and videos, listen to music and find out almost anything we like using cheap gadgets that fit in our pockets.
This would all be considered incredible, even 100 years ago. Miraculous even. But do we think we are living in Utopia? No! We are only too aware of what is wrong with our society: injustice, environmental destruction, war, pollution, climate change, inequality….
Of the above list of benefits, the increase in life expectancy, the widespread availability of more than enough food, improved health, and the increase in wealth can all be attributed to the industrial revolution and to the widespread availability of fossil fuels. The downsides of this are climate change and pollution.
These downsides are what at the time were the unforeseen consequences of what was considered hugely beneficial.
Then what is it?
So I began to imagine: what if we created a ‘utopia’ in the UK, based upon the ideals expressed in Zero Carbon Britain and One Planet Living? What would be the unforeseen consequences?
In other words, what if we had a society which could feed everybody with food grown within the country and all energy was renewably generated? It would seem ideal to us, but what might be downsides?
First, how would it work? ‘Ecological Footprinting’ is the science of measuring the environmental impact of a society against its share of the Earth’s ‘carrying capacity’. The idea of an ecological footprint is that it is linked to laws of supply and demand. I will explore this in a later post. For now, though, on the supply side there is the availability of natural resources and the ability of the Earth to absorb the waste products and other environmental consequences from our activities. And on the demand side there is the level of population and its corresponding consumption level.
For the world to be sustainable the demand must not exceed the supply, or we are burning up the future to satisfy the present – as we are now. If the entire population of the planet lived the same lifestyle that we have adopted in the Global North, then together we would need the equivalent of at least three Earths’ worth of resources. Which we don’t have.
We are beginning to get used to the idea that sensors, meters and other monitoring equipment can measure in real time all kinds of things from energy use to traffic levels, productivity, resource use and so on. At the same time algorithms are becoming more and more sophisticated in the way that they analyse the results of all this monitoring and make use of the data processed, incorporating them in feedback loops.
If we extrapolate this tendency into the future we can imagine that a society which attempts to sustainably manage itself will use algorithms and monitoring extensively to model future supply and demand, and make corrections automatically along the way so that they’ll continue to be matched.
Where is this leading?
That was the premise for my story, ‘For The Greater Good’ in Weatherfronts. It’s all very well being able to cater for an existing population with existing productivity levels. But what if the models forecast that a population increase and a simultaneous decrease in productivity would mean that the population would suffer?
Would we want to live in this kind of world? You’ll have to read the story to find out if my heroine does!
Find out more
You can read more about David’s fiction and non-fiction at his website and download a free ebook of the new anthology Weatherfronts from Cambria Books, featuring stories, poems and essays from twelve writers who won commissions from the two events that TippingPoint and partners held at the Free Word Centre in 2014 and 2016. There are videos of some of the authors reading their works and audio recordings of panel discussions at the events on the Free Word website: search for ‘Weatherfronts’.
For an interesting discussion of the history of Utopia and Dystopia, see this set of articles from the British Library. And this article from Encyclopaedia Britannica describes ten literary dystopias (somehow managing to bypass Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four).
Questioning Utopia? Space for creative thinking..."What do you think are the best ways of reaching people who don't normally think about climate change? Does Utopian thinking help or hinder? How about humour, or other ways of bypassing the usual cognitive filters to touch our emotions? Share your ideas in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form."
Multi-disciplinary artist Deborah Mason outlines her collaboration with researchers, engaging people in counter-factual imagination. What if one historic event had been otherwise, giving us an alternative present to ours? What would be the possibilities in our altered ‘Now’?
approximate Reading Time: 5minutes
When Ann Light, professor of design at the University of Sussex, asked me to make her a Counter-Factual World Generator – an analogue Counter-Factual World Generator – I was immediately enthused and excited. I’d been watching The Man in the High Castle on TV and was also aware of other fictional counter-factual works (such as The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, or The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon) and my head immediately started buzzing with ideas. The generator would be used in a workshop that formed part of the University of Sussex and Wired Sussex ‘Philip K Dick season’. Ann had a clear idea of what she wanted to achieve from the workshop. It was intended to address the theme of Ways of Being in a Digital Age, taking as inspiration a quote from Dick’s novel, The Man in the High Castle:
“On some other world, possibly it is different. Better. There are clear good and evil alternatives.” – Philip K Dick
How might innovation work differently if we thought about narratives of development that were made unfamiliar through counter-factuality? Ann’s introduction ran like this:
“Philip K Dick once said that, in good science fiction, the idea depicted sets ‘off a chain-reaction of ramification-ideas in the mind’ unlocking the reader to create worlds alongside the author. Dick’s work (which includes the stories behind the Bladerunner and Total Recall films) often portrayed fantastical technologies, setting them in a 20th century future or counterfactual present, but the reason his ideas still haunt us is that he dwelt on the societal consequences of the technical developments he envisaged … We will use the Counter-Factual Worlds Generator to provide the stimulus for new perspectives and avenues of enquiry, asking what publics are, were and could be through a series of exercises that take us back to old worlds and forward to ones that we hope for or dread.” – Professor Ann Light
A fairground sideshow
During our initial conversations, I sketched out some ideas – inspired by the character of Childan, who sells Americana artefacts to the Japanese. I created the Counter-Factual World Generator to look like a fairground sideshow (with slight Americana styling). At the turn of a bird-shaped lever, it would roll out papier mache ‘worlds’. Inside each world were art-silk squares, each with a different counter-factual world represented. They also contained a scroll of paper with a little more detail on the counter-factual context and some ‘speculations’ to help discussions along.
The counter-factual contexts we chose were:
Katherine of Aragon and Henry VIII’s children all survive to adulthood – no need for a divorce, no break from Rome;
the Brazillian rubber monopoly holds – rubber is a luxury;
the Russian Revolution fails — no communist bloc in Eastern Europe;
the San Andreas fault causes an earthquake that wipes out silicon valley (and Hollywood) at a critical moment;
and finally the classic – the Nazis win World War II.
Only the ‘rubber world’ was designed specifically to trigger thoughts about the environment and how we might think differently about resources. But everyone was given a little set of knobs labelled ‘Cultural’, ‘Economic’, ‘Social’ and ‘Environmental’ as ways of thinking about the impact of any innovations.
As I worked on each context, creating the silk squares and the scrolls, I had my own ideas how these might affect the world we live in now, and what we might or might not design for it. The results from the workshop were far more interesting!
Where possibilities become more possible
Through a process of Worlding, Chronicling, Creating and Analyzing, participants used the idea of a world different to our own in one major historical detail to explore values and choices. When each group presented their worlds and their ideas at the end of the workshop, it was interesting to see that the idea of being present in that world – rather than speculating on a future one — created first-person narratives or presentations that were in the ‘now’ rather than in imagined futures. The idea of embedding oneself in a speculative present made ideas more real, more visceral, both less dystopian and less utopian. The possibilities became more possible. It also freed the proposed innovations from the constraints of current innovations and current trends, so it was not just a rehash or iteration of existing design ideas, trends or apps. This freedom also allowed for exploration of inventions, trends, and ideas that we might want to guard ourselves against rather than exploit, but in a way that still gave space for future exploration of possible positive applications (for example DNA modification; or the use of digital to create ‘wonder’).
Some of the ideas coming out of the exercise might have environmental or climate change implications and it occurred to me that this exercise of imagining a different present (and how we might operate in that different present) was as valid as, and possibly more powerful than, asking people to imagine alternative futures. The future is a place we never reach and cannot inhabit. The present is where we always are. A different future is optimistic and helps to promote long-term planning, but a different present highlights the actions we can take now, ourselves, to make the changes we imagine and the world we would like to be.
The Counter-Factual World Generator now lives at the University of Sussex, but other similar machines could be made, or other versions of this exercise trialled as a way of thinking about climate change and different presents leading to different futures. Ann and I are always interested in exploring the possible.
Find out more
The University of Sussex Creative Technology Research Group is concerned with the interfaces between humans and digital technology and how these are changing, and investigates interaction in the broadest sense, in relation to digital technologies, connected physical artefacts, and people’s experience and practices with mobile, immersive, ubiquitous and pervasive computing. You can see a selection of Professor Ann Light’s publications at her University of Sussex page.
There is an interesting New Statesman review by John Gray of Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (although if you are reading the novel or watching the TV series, needless to say: ‘Spoiler alerts”).
Counter-factual questions: Space for creative thinking?"What historical event would you change, and what specific ways do you imagine this altering the present world that we know? Would the alternative 'Now' be unambiguously better, or might it bring new complications?" Share your thoughts and speculations in the Comments below or use the Contact Form.