Future Scenarios blog post May 2017

Blogpost Mon 29 May 2017


A week in a life of thinking about future scenarios…


MONDAY 8th May

Café conversation with Ha-Joon Chang in Hot Numbers – Chang’s perspective is refreshing: optimistic, but there’s something of JG Ballard in his suggestion that political apathy is more damaging to democracy than the rants of a UKIP-er type who is still engaging with political process.

He invites the recognition that the imbalance in global equity must inform views on growth – ‘degrowth’ is necessary, but it isn’t one-size-fits all – you can’t insist someone who doesn’t have enough to eat should eat less. ‘Growth’ is only a problem when ‘needs’ have become social rather than existential. Redistribution might be a better term – enabled through three elements Chang identifies: an economy that is more high tech, more collectivist and more egalitarian – that is, one in which technology transfer from those that have the means to do research and those who have the need to apply the technologies. When Chang talks about it, it sounds self-evident, this politics of generosity, of meeting need where it needs to be met – and on the way changing the whole value structure of ‘development’ away from the materialist, individualist model promulgated by recent Western societies.


Chang’s discussion of alternative forms of finance is a reminder that climate change is not only about time running out, but that the difficulties of doing something about it are also related to time: we are now a world of finance so fast no human can keep up with the algorithms running the stock exchange; in which the average length of a share-holder staying with a company has gone down to just 6 months. This destroys the notion of the ‘enlightened individual’ – we cannot think for our children and grandchildren when the value of ‘return’ is measured in split-seconds, when no one who finances a company stays with that company long enough to engage with what it is actually producing and how it might affect the world. Here I have the start of a response to one of the questions I posed at the start of the residency: ‘Why are there so many Cassandras truth-telling, and why are those in power unable or unwilling to listen? And why don’t they care about the future of their children like I care about the future of mine?’



I go to a meeting at the University to discuss the government’s green paper on future Industrial Strategy. On first reading this document I was astonished by the lack of reference to climate change, when everything about a future industrial strategy must surely be considered in the context of the (legally, morally and scientifically) required transition to a low carbon economy. The green paper was published by BEIS which is the new government department that didn’t so much merge with the former Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) as swallow it whole. Originally there was a plan for the artists on the residency to visit DECC. How times have changed – that proposed encounter now feels like another scenario in an alternative life. Again the ‘Cassandra’ feeling resurfaces. How can it be that artists, with access to scientific, industrial, environmental, architectural, and economic expertise, can be clear that climate change is now the context for all future scenarios, industrial or otherwise, whilst those whose disciplinary backgrounds would appear more appropriate to understanding what is at stake, and further who are tasked with the actual future of the country, do not appear interested in taking it into account?



The Labour Manifesto is leaked. It is tantalising. It occurs to me that it is itself a future scenario for an alternative economic structure – one which would have a far greater possibility of addressing the technological and social changes than the current state of affairs – not least because the mantra of ‘for the many, not the few’ invites a collectivist coproduction of society, which Ha-Joon suggested on Monday was necessary for garnering an adequate response to climate change. I’ve been experimenting with the postcard format that I’m developing for summarising possible scenarios, and I decide create some around Labour’s manifesto (see @metisprojects) – I’m posting one or two a day up until election day; summarising the alternative economic structure the manifesto articulates.


In the small window between the manifesto’s publication (officially 11th May) and election day (8th June) is when this document can be seen as a future scenario. On first reading, it seems a beautiful fiction for another future – not because the recalibration of the socio-economic structure is not plausible but it seems so unlikely that Labour will win the election. But things move fast: at the time of writing, the polls are narrowing and this future scenario is (perhaps only for a brief hopeful moment), gaining traction as an actual possible future. At the moment it seems to depend significantly on the turnout of under-twenty-fives. For once the future lies in the hands of those it will affect most. I hope you recognise your power and use it.




I do a research-in-public conversation with Paul Mason at the National. A slightly different constituency of people, this audience consists of staff and artists linked to the NT. The National are developing a new environmental policy, being of a scale of institution that CAN model how to make things work differently. As with Monday’s event – and indeed all the ‘future scenario’ conversations – the questions from those who attend hugely strengthen and broaden the conversation; it is exciting to be researching with others in this kind of co-thinking space – a network of colleagues, friends and strangers.


Paul reminds us that in relation to the time of the planet’s existence – c. 4 billion years – or even the time of overall human existence (c. 250,000 years) – or even the time of industrial capitalism (250 years) – that the 25+ years since the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the advent of neoliberal market system across the globe, is a mere temporal flicker. That this form of capitalism should have such an exponentially detrimental effect on the environment (through the exponential increase in fossil fuel burning) is a stark image of humanity out of kilter with both itself and its surroundings. Again, the conversation turns to the unsuitability of the structures of contemporary capitalism for the future technologies required. What is intriguing is that Mason’s response also offers a kind of answer to the political and social resistance to the technological change required to drive climate mitigation. He points out that the structures of financing required and the types of energy provision that result from a serious transition to renewable energy will of themselves start to change the economic system: ‘once you do this it doesn’t feel like capitalism any more’. His examples are of the predominant use of wind power (intermittent, unpredictable), and an enormous tidal barrier that would cost billions to put in place, but then would provide energy at almost no cost (other than maintenance) for 60% of UK households for generations. This is a kind of investment in the long-term future no current private company is likely to consider: and therefore ‘the solution is not the market’. Again, this comes back to a relationship to time – part of the resistance to significant long-term change is the charge that we cannot know what will happen. This is where future scenarios come in: if we don’t know, we can model it by rehearsing it. Mason is a strong advocate for agent-based modelling, pointing out that one of the significant problems of the current US administration is that they are no longer interested in constructing and testing scenarios, relying on emotional immediacy to drive policy.



FRIDAY 12th May

My son Max likes the CBBC downloadable animation series, Go-Jetters. Each episode, the Go-jetters head to a different famous place in the world, which they then find is being ‘glitched’ by Grandmaster Glitch, who is ruining it for his own selfish purposes. After hearing some ‘funky facts’ about the place, Go-Jetters then have to work out how to save it from him. Sometimes this involves stopping him vandalising a landmark, or stealing something precious, or damaging an animal habitat (echoes of colonialism here…). But tonight we watch one about ecological damage: of the Amazon rainforest. Glitch wants to picnic, but by drying out a bit of the forest to make himself more comfortable, he upsets the ecology; ‘a delicate balance with nature where small changes can make a big difference’. I tell Max I’m going to write about it for this blog post – and he recommends we watch another one, in which Glitch dumps masses of custard in the dead sea, because having already eaten vast quantities of it he’s decided he doesn’t fancy any more so wants it out of his sight. The bottom of the sea seems the ideal space of invisibility to him. Out of sight, out of mind. ‘Dumping things is no way to treat the sea’ and ‘take your litter home with you’ the Go-Jetters tell Glitch as they gleefully extract Glitch and the massive pool of solidified custard and plunk them back on Grim HQ… Max gets the moral structure; he is five years old. Fairness appeals to kids, and it really is as simple as an 11-minute children’s animation.



I wonder how we would feel if the Go-Jetters got real and like Glitch’s custard, dumped all our plastic that is clogging the oceans back on us. I did only last just over a month collecting all the plastic we used that wasn’t recyclable (see December’s blogpost), having it all in the house, piling up, started to choke the family (so like Glitch I dumped it). I still have the plastic I did save, but just couldn’t keep adding to it. It has definitely had a lasting effect on my purchasing behaviour however. It is not only that less plastic now comes into the house, even if non-recyclable plastic does still end up coming in and out (food packaging is the worst). It is also that I have an increasingly distributed sense of ownership. I don’t have the comfortable sense that Glitch does, that when I throw the plastic away that I will no longer have to think about it. This queasiness does translate into action, eventually, and in a way that sustains more than any moral injunction. It was similar with clothing when I was making World Factory. I couldn’t keep up the moral fortitude it took to stop myself ever buying new clothes, despite the ethics. But knowing the methods of production, sooner or later it just made me feel a bit sick when I saw those clothes – I no longer had to feel particularly moral, I just didn’t want them any more. I’ve not bought any such clothes now in a long time, and I don’t think I ever really will again. The same is slowly happening with plastic. It is difficult when the culture doesn’t support such transitions – I’m not someone who defines myself through specialist purchases, so it isn’t of interest to me as a ‘lifestyle’ choice. It takes this queasiness, a personal ‘just can’t do it’ to make me change… What would the equivalent be for using fossil fuels? The fact my slightly asthmatic younger son, who is now just over one-year-old, can’t breathe properly on high pollution days? But unlike plastic or clothing, my consumer ‘power’ feels very limited when it comes to the actual air we inhale…



Future events: 


10th June: ‘research-in-public’ conversation with Frances Coppola, exploring universal basic income (2 Degrees Festival, 10th June)


5th July: final ‘research-in-public’ conversation of this residency (although they will carry on in various forms) with Stephen Peake (Open University). This will take a slightly different form in which Stephen responds to a rough sketch of a future scenario, developed from the conversations undertaken over the residency. Hot Numbers, Gwydir Street, Cambridge, 7pm. For more information please click here.





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