The future ain’t what it used to be!

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Many of us grew up in thinking that we knew what ‘the future’ was going to be like.

If you were a child of the 60s or 70s your vision of the future was probably one of flying cars, endless leisure time and food tablets that could provide all of your nutrition in an instant. The future was always the year 2000 and everything that came after that. Most of our images of the future were either of this luxurious, leisured lifestyle, or one shaped by films and comics. In the late 70s, one comic book, 2000AD, brought an alternative future of atomic war wastelands and robotic warriors.

My favourite book as a kid back in 1979 was the Usbourne Book of the Future.

The page that really got me was of a projection of the year 2000. It had two different scenarios, one positive, and one negative.

The negative picture portrayed a decaying world filled with pollution (this is pre-global warming), dead trees, overpopulation and an environment which had reached its limits. On the other hand, the positive picture showed a world with bright blue skies, abundant green vegetation, clean electric transport systems, smart urban design and happy, healthy people. Not surprisingly, the second image was the one that I hoped the year 2000 would be like, but the first image was the one that scared me.

Now in 2012, the future might look a bit like the past. Less energy, yes, but what else? Energy descent as a concept is very simple on the surface, but when you start painting a scenario, all sorts of questions get flung about. In Peak Everything, Richard Heinberg suggests we could be looking at a messy collapse at the most pessimistic level or an ‘intelligent’ descent on the more optimistic. Many of us can visualise the collapse scenario because we’ve been conditioned by Hollywood through countless films of a future dystopia: 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, Mad Max, Terminator, Planet of the Apes, Idiocracy, WALL – E . . . the list goes on.

What we seem to have more trouble with is the intelligent, planned transition vision. When I have run workshops to visualise this type of future, a lot of people have tended to be unable to really tune into a positive vision (maybe it was me!) or struggled with it. But, what an energy descent future could look like is tricky. Nine million farmers? Community supported agriculture? Millions working from home? Massive levels of microgeneration for wind and solar energy? Do we keep the internet? Ipods? An economy based on salvaging the scraps of the present? The end of globalisation? Arts & crafts? Horse-drawn transport? Weaving? What do roads look like in 2040?

There is almost an infinite number of questions that could be asked about a post-oil future, and as we know, predicting the future is fraught with problems. The other thing is that for a child of the 60s, reared on 70s sci-fi about the ‘YEAR 2000’ (and beyond), the future is already here. Not quite as set out in old comics and books, but look at where we are: climate change, peak oil, globalisation, the internet, biofuels, economic meltdown. None of that was in 2000AD comic in 1978!

On another level, of course, the future is an illusion. It never comes, because when you get there it’s now/today . . . So, where are we going with this? Well, I’ve got a wish list of things I’d like to see happen:

  1. Develop a vision of what positive transition to a post-peak world/West Sussex (where I live) could be like. Even down to the little details.
  2. Realise that today/now is the only opportunity we ever have to do anything in, and we can’t just live in hope that the future will magically solve all these issues. The future doesn’t exist!
  3. Encourage cartoonists and writers of sci-fi to come up with a new comic which deals with an energy descent future, warts and all!
  4. Sign out and cook some dinner. I am planning ahead.

Visioning and Backcasting for an Energy Descent Action Plan

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Back in June, 2011, Transition Town Worthing ran its first World Cafe event.

The purpose was to work on the detail already collected in Worthing’s Transition Timeline, and with input from the local community, start building content and firming up ideas. The Transition Handbook refers to this process as ‘backcasting’. In other words, you start off with a vision of what you’d like things to be like, then take several steps back and work out what actually needs to happen to make that vision a reality.

This all sounded great at the planning stage. Book a venue, organise a lovely cafe atmosphere conducive to enabling discussion, set up tables/people to ‘host’ discussion based on a variety of topics for the EDAP (e.g. energy, transport, food, local economy, wellbeing, re-skilling, waste, and so on), and work out a structure for the 3 hours of the event.

Well. it all sort of worked. We had the cafe with loads of homemade cakes and fairtrade beverages. We even got TTW members turning up to the event, eager to take part. I even took along my 1979 edition of the Usborne Book of the Future for an introduction to thinking about the future, and how it’s often a hit and miss affair . . .

Where we diverged from the ‘vision’ for the event was the backcasting, because getting people to focus on what was already on the timeline and work with that rather than come up with a swathe of new ideas was what happened. So we need to rethink how we approach this sort of EDAP event in the future . . . World Cafe principles worked well. We had separate tables on food, energy, local economy, reskilling, green spaces, housing, transport and waste. Each was chaired by a TTW person with some background in that theme.

It also made me think that backcasting is crucial because it brings work on the EDAP back to the present, and things that are happening now. For TTW this means the Angmering CSA, food mapping, community gardens and woodland, as well as our reskilling and heart & soul activities. Without that anchor to the present, transition towns are at risk of being seen as ‘all about the future’ or ‘dreamers’.

Getting people into the right frame of mind to develop their vision of the future is an art in itself. The work of TTW’s Steering Group over the coming months is going to be focused on the EDAP, with backcasting as a priority. We will clearly need to get external input on most of the themes, but need to have a blueprint in place first.

Hmmm. I’m going to vision my lunch now, and backcast to work out how to make it happen!