The ‘prospective turn’ in environmental thought

The other day I watched the pseudo-documentary A Simpler Way: Crisis as Opportunity.  I say “pseudo” because, in some respects, parts of the film are closer to propaganda than providing a factual account of the subjects it covers.  The film follows the establishment of a small intentional community in regional Victoria in Australia (this aspect of the film is, in many ways, quite interesting) whilst various talking heads tell us that modern civilisation is about to head over a cliff and argue that we must urgently embrace radical change, e.g. by starting intentional self-sufficient communities.

One line of argument for embracing such change that is advanced in A Simpler Way is the idea that we should pre-empt crises (or a ‘collapse’) by acting in an anticipatory matter, as such action will help us to be ready or not be impacted when the crisis occurs.  According to this way of thinking moving towards self-sufficiency and other changes (e.g. starting or joining an intentional community) might be viewed as a form of insurance.  A more extreme version of this way of thinking can be seen in the “preppers” movement (see link, link).  Another line of argument is that if we don’t urgently change direction then catastrophic outcomes are an inevitable part of our near-future.

In some respects this is not new.  Discussion of environmental issues, environmental imperatives, and related possible solutions or courses of action (e.g. ranging from technological changes through to envisaged transformations of economic systems) is very often future-oriented.

However, more pronounced forms of future-orientation have developed over recent decades – what Jens Beckert (2016) would term a shift in “temporal disposition”.  I’ve begun to wonder to what extent this is a “good” thing and to further probe the consequences.

Example research and advocacy themes include: modelling civilisational collapse or similar disaster style events (e.g. link, link, link); the increasing emphasis on possible ‘tipping points’ of various kinds, such as possible tipping points in the global climate system (e.g. link, link), some of which have more scientific validity than others; and much more extensive modelling and prospective analysis of energy transitions (e.g. link) and related potential transformations (e.g. link).  Methodological changes have also been evident with the increasing use of computer-based simulation models and growth in computing power, amongst other shifts.  Related environmental discourses have also developed such as the climate emergency discourse and claims about a “sustainability emergency”.

Some of the arguments that are made can be traced back to the emergence of modern environmentalism in the 1960s and 1970s, and subsequent debates such as those prompted by studies like Limits to Growth. 

Indeed acceptance of the idea of limits to growth is central to the ideology of ecologism.  Basic ideas like ecological limits to growth have become more prominent with more recent research on “planetary boundaries” along with new global problems such as climate change.  A number of beliefs commonly follow from such views and understandings, including:

  • Skepticism towards “technological fixes” – arguing that action should instead focus on underlying economic, social and/or political causes and structures;
  • The belief that it is both possible and desirable to transform people (e.g. towards beings that embrace frugal and local lifestyles and reject materialistic consumption, etc).  As psychologist Jonathan Haidt (link) observes “radical reformers usually want to believe that human nature is a blank slate on which any utopian vision can be sketched” (Haidt 2013, p.37);
  • Expectations of material/resource scarcity related to the finitude of Earth’s resources; and
  • Viewing capitalism as the underlying source of environmental ills.

Book like Six Degrees, The Fate of the Species, The Great Disruption, along with solution-oriented books like Atmosphere of Hope and Prosperous Descent: Crisis as Opportunity in an Age of Limits, point to related trends in environmental and science writing.  Futuristic books like The Zero Marginal Cost Society and PostCapitalism: A Guide to our Future also have become quite popular.

To the extent that there has been a prospective turn we can ask: is this a “good” thing?

In some respects this may seem like a silly question to ask.  Exploration of ‘worst case’ and ‘collapse’ scenarios can be interesting or illuminating even if it’s unlikely to provide an accurate forecast; if people want to start or join intentional communities because they fear that the systems they rely on could soon collapse it doesn’t hurt anyone and may be a fulfilling experience; efforts to get a better handle on climate risks through consideration of possible future non-linear changes may promote new insights and lines of inquiry, even if this can result in analysis that many dismiss as alarmist and sparks disputes (e.g. see the reaction to James Hansen’s latest paper); and so on.

In this post I’ll briefly note a few issues or ‘wrinkles’ with such a position.

One issue to consider is common responses to worst case scenarios and the potential societal implications of such responses.  Cass Sunstein’s points to the susceptibility of individuals and governments to two kinds of responses that are often problematic: excessive overreaction and utter neglect (see earlier blogpost).  Both reactions can have negative social consequences.

Sunstein also points out that actors who seek to amplify the salience of such threats – who he terms “worst case entrepreneurs” – often have other motivations that are driving them such as political objectives.  I’ve seen this in many domains.  This led me to believe that we often need to view more critically actors emphasising worst case scenarios and assess their analysis skeptically.

Major challenges are also inherent to any prospective turn.  For example, change can often only be accurately understood or interpreted in retrospect, i.e. looking back.  Present events are often ambiguous, which promotes debate, and future change is even more uncertain.  Social theorist Zygmunt Bauman makes similar observation regarding claims we are leaving modernity:

“How would one know this anyway, assuming that things like them – beginning or ends of eras – are at all knowable to insiders, people who live through it? …  How can we know that we live currently in late – instead of, for instance, early – modernity?  We are allowed to use the denomination ‘late antiquity’ or ‘late Middle Ages’ only because both those eras ended a long time ago and the date of their death is (retrospectively, retrospectively!) fixed – even if somewhat arbitrarily; and let’s note that those dates were picked a long time after the event.  People present at the funeral of an era are as a rule unaware that they are in a graveyard or crematorium.  On the other hand, the history of public opinion is full to brim not just with (false) announcements of new dawns and ages, but also with (false) obituaries that are doomed to sink rapidly into oblivion” (Bauman 2015 [in Bauman & Bordoni, 2015]).

Those making pronouncements about the ends of eras (such as of modern capitalism) and the beginning of new ages – ranging from folk like Paul Gilding through to writers like Jeremy Rivkin and Paul Mason – should perhaps read Bauman and become more humble thinkers. Typically some sort of “narrative bias” is at play, resulting in “compressed” foresight (see Williams 2006).

A related issue is expectation formation under conditions of uncertainty.  Where “the openness of the future rules out the possibility of restricting expectations to empirical reality” (Beckert 2016, p.62) this opens the door to social influences.  This means that we need to ask sociological questions about what shapes actors’ expectations and decision-making processes.

I found in my Master’s research on nanotechnology that actors’ expectations and policy debates often had, at best, a tenuous link to empirical reality.  This led some to argue that the precautionary ethical reflection seen in such debates had veered too far towards “speculative ethics” (e.g. link).  Similar concerns about whether speculative scenarios receive too much attention have been voiced in relation to other areas of innovation (e.g. agricultural biotechnologies).

A further issue is whether some aspects of the prospective turn contribute to the problematic politicisation of science.  STS scholar Roger Pielke Jr argues that such “politicization is a natural, and indeed essential, part of the political process”, which occurs whenever science is invoked “as a justification for selecting one course of action over another”.  However Pielke also points to the possibility of “pathological politicization” in political contexts which limit the roles of science and in which competing actors all mobilise science to support conflicting positions.  Anticipatory knowledge can be particularly prominent in such contexts, such as when as warring or competing groups each mobilise different modeling results to support their policy preferences.

Where does this leave us on key questions about the prospective turn?

Asking whether this is a “good” thing clearly is too simple a question.  To the extent that there has been a socially significant shift in temporal disposition this clearly isn’t an unmitigated social good, but few things are of course.  Attending to possible future scenarios is often ‘core business’ (as noted earlier in this post), and is often crucial for taking action (Beckert 2016; Ramirez & Wilkinson 2016), but many issues and challenges also need to be recognised.

To the extent that there has been a prospective turn this suggests that we need to attend more closely to the increasing “expectations work” (Farla et al. 2012) that’s being done, ranging from those seeking to build and influence expectations in order to help enable innovation and mobilise the necessary resources (e.g. as seen in the context of emerging technologies) through to the worst case entrepreneurs identified by Cass Sunstein who often seek to mobilise expectations for other purposes.

The issues and challenges noted here also emphasise the need to be aware of what shapes the production, evaluation and use of anticipatory knowledge, such as the influence of biases as well as social factors.  These will strongly influence the value of any prospective turn.

I also think there is a need to further consider the roles of expectations and imaginaries in the emergence and growth/decline of social movements.  Some sociologists have noted that there has been little consideration of the roles of expectations in change processes and explored expectation formation under uncertainty (e.g. Beckert 2016).  Their work could be built on.

Key references

Bauman, Z. & Bordoni, C. 2014, State of Crisis, Polity Press.

Beckert, J. 2016, Imagined Futures: Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics, Harvard University Press.

Farla, J., Markard, J., Raven, R. & Coenen, L. 2012, ‘Sustainability transitions in the making: A closer look at actors, strategies and resources’, Technological Forecasting and Social Change vol. 79, no. 6, pp. 991-8.

Haidt, J. 2014, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Penguin Books.

Pielke Jr, R. 2007, The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Ramirez, R. & Wilkinson, A. 2016, Strategic Reframing: The Oxford Scenario Planning Approach, Oxford University Press, Oxford, United Kingdom.

Williams, R. 2006, ‘Compressed Foresight and Narrative Bias: Pitfalls in Assessing High Technology Futures’, Science as Culture, vol. 15, no. 4, pp. 327-48.

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