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Creating a Shared Vision of a Desirable and Sustainable Future

Probably the most challenging task facing humanity today is the creation of a shared vision of a sustainable and desirable society, one that can provide permanent prosperity within the biophysical constraints of the real world in a way that is fair and equitable to all of humanity, to other species, and to future generations. This vision does not now exist, although the seeds are there. We all have our own private visions of the world we really want and we need to overcome our fears and skepticism and begin to share these visions and build on them – until we have built a vision of the world we want.

We need to fill in the details of our desired future in order to make it tangible enough to motivate people across the spectrum to work toward achieving it. Nagpal and Foltz (1995) have begun this task by commissioning a range of individual visions of a sustainable world from around the globe. They laid out the following challenge for each of their “envisionaries” :

Individuals were asked not to try to predict what lies ahead, but rather to imagine a positive future for their respective region, defined in any way they chose – village, group of villages, nation, group of nations, or continent. We asked only that people remain within the bounds of plausibility, and set no other restrictive guidelines.

The results were quite revealing. While these independent visions were difficult to generalize, they did seem to share at least one important point. The “default” western vision of continued material growth was not what people envisioned as part of their “positive future.” They envisioned a future with “enough” material consumption, but where the focus has shifted to maintaining high quality communities and environments, education, culturally rewarding full employment, and peace.

These results are consistent with surveys about the degree of desirability that people expressed for four hypothetical visions of the future in the year 2100 (Costanza 2000). The four visions derive from two basic world views, whose characteristics are laid out in Fig. 1.2. These world views have been described in many ways (Bossel 1996), but an important distinction has to do with one's degree of faith in technological progress (Costanza 1989). The “technological optimist” world view is one in which technological progress is assumed to be able to solve all current and future social problems. It is a vision of continued expansion of humans and their dominion over nature. This is the “default” vision in our current western society, one that represents continuation of current trends into the indefinite future. It is the “taker” culture as described so eloquently by Daniel Quinn in “Ishmael” (1992).

There are two versions of this vision, however. One that corresponds to the underlying assumptions on which it is based actually being true in the real world, and one that corresponds to those assumptions being false, as shown in Fig. 1.2. The positive version of the “technological optimist” vision was called “Star Trek,” after the popular TV series which is its most articulate and vividly fleshed-out manifestation. The negative version of the “technological optimist” vision was called “Mad Max” after the popular movie of several years ago that embodies many aspects of this vision gone bad.

The “technological skeptic” vision is one that depends much less on technological change and more on social and community development. It is not in any sense “anti-technology.” But it does not assume that technological change can solve all

Fig. 1.2 Payoff matrix for technological optimism vs. skepticism

problems. In fact, it assumes that some technologies may create as many problems as they solve and that the key is to view technology as the servant of larger social goals rather than the driving force. The version of this vision that corresponds to the skeptics being right about the nature of the world was called “Ecotopia” after the semi-popular book of the late 1970s (Callenbach 1975). If the optimists turn out to be right about the real state of the world, the “big government” vision comes to pass – Ronald Reagan's worst nightmare of overly protective government policies getting in the way of the free market.

Each of these future visions was described as a narrative from the perspective of the year 2100 (Costanza 2000). A total of 418[1] respondents were read each of the four visions. They were asked: “For each vision, I'd like you to first state, on a scale of −10 to +10, using the scale provided, how comfortable you would be living in the

Table 1.1 Results of a survey of desirability of each of the four visions on a scale of –10 (least desirable to +10 (most desirable)) for self-selected groups of Americans and Swedes

Americans (n = 316)

Swedes (n = 102)

Pooled (n = 418)

Star Trek Mad Max

Big Government Ecotopia

+2.38 (±5.03)

−7.78 (±3.41)

+0.54 (±4.44)

+5.32 (±4.10)

+2.48 (±5.45)

−9.12 (±2.30)

+2.32 (±3.48)

+7.33 (±3.11)

+2.38 (±5.13)

−8.12 (±3.23)

+0.97 (±4.29)

+5.81 (±3.97)

Standard deviations are given in parentheses after the means

Fig. 1.3 Frequency distributions of the responses to the visions survey

world described. How desirable do you find such a world? I'm not asking you to vote for one vision over the others. Consider each vision independently, and just state how desirable (or undesirable) you would find it if you happened to find yourself there.” They were also asked to give their age, gender, and household income range on the survey form. The surveys were conducted with groups from both the US and Sweden. The results (mean ± standard deviation) are shown in Table 1.1 for each of these groups and pooled.

Frequency distributions of the results are plotted in Fig. 1.3. The majority of those surveyed found the Star Trek vision positive (mean of +2.48 on a scale from −10 to +10). Given that it represents a logical extension of the currently dominant world view and culture, it is interesting that this vision was rated so low. I had expected this vision to be rated much higher, and this result may indicate the deep ambivalence many people have about the direction society seems to be headed. The frequency plot (and the high standard deviation) also shows this ambivalence toward Star Trek. The responses span the range from +10 to –10, with only a weak preponderance toward the positive side of the scale. This result applied for both the American and Swedish subgroups.

Those surveyed found the Mad Max vision very negative at −8.12 (only about 3 % of participants rated this vision positive). This was as expected. The Americans seemed a bit less averse to Mad Max (−7.78) than the Swedes (−9.12), and with a larger standard deviation.

The Big Government vision was rated on average just positive at 0.97. Many found it appealing, but some found it abhorrent (probably because of the limits on individual freedom implied). Here there were significant differences between the Americans and Swedes, with the Swedes (+2.32 ± 3.48) being much more favorably disposed to Big Government and with a smaller standard deviation than the Americans (+0.54 ± 4.44). This also was as expected, given the cultural differences in attitudes toward government in America and Sweden. Swedes rated Big Government almost as highly as Star Trek.

Finally, most of those surveyed found the Ecotopia vision “very positive” (at 5.81) some wildly so, some only mildly so, but very few (only about 7 % of those surveyed) expressed a negative reaction to such a world. Swedes rated Ecotopia significantly higher than Americans, also as might be expected given cultural differences.

Some other interesting patterns emerged from the survey. All of the visions had large standard deviations, but (especially if one looks at the frequency distributions) the Mad Max vision was consistently very negative and the Ecotopia vision was consistently very positive. Age and gender seemed to play a minor, but interesting role in how individuals rated the visions. Males rated Star Trek higher than females (mean = 3.66 vs. 1.90, p = .0039). Males also rated Mad Max higher that females (−7.11 vs. −8.20, p = .0112). The means were not significantly different by gender for either of the other two visions. Age was not significantly correlated with ranking for any of the visions, but the variance in ranking seemed to decrease somewhat with age, with younger participants showing a higher range of ratings than older participants.

Much more work is necessary to implement living democracy, and within that to create a truly shared vision of a desirable and sustainable future. This ongoing work needs to engage all members of society in a substantative dialogue about the future they desire and the policies and instruments necessary to bring it about. Scientists are a critical stakeholder group to include in this dialogue.

The future, at least to some extent, is amenable to design. As when building a house, a good plan or vision of what the house is intended to look like and how it will function is essential to building a coherent and useful structure. This design process needs to be informed by the reality of the situation – the nature of the complex, adaptive systems within which we are working – but it also needs to express our shared desires. In the future our knowledge about living systems will dramatically improve and we can achieve a true consilence among all the aspects of that knowledge. This will help us understand the constraints within which the design process must work. But we also need to involve our imagination, creativity, and ability to envision in order to design as useful and beautiful a world as we can within those constraints.

  • [1] The Americans consisted of 17 participants in an Ecological Economics class at the University of Maryland, 260 attendees at a convocation speech at Wartburg College in Waverly, IA, January 27, 1998, and 39 via the world wide web. The Swedes consisted of 71 attendees at a “Keynotes in Natural Resources” Lecture at the Swedish University of Agricultural Science, Uppsala, April 20, 1999 and 31 attendees at a presentation at Stockholm University, April 22, 1999
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