Tag Archive: we futures


Amongst those people who are alert to the ‘perfect storm’ of climate change coupled with peak oil frustration is building as political debates seem to discuss everything else except this, the UN Copenhagen fiasco portends further international talk fests that accomplish little and the tiny steps attempted towards reform (“we might put a price on carbon”) are quickly tossed out of the balloon when some group complains. To many people actual progress is proceeding at a pre-global warming glacial pace. To those people the need to move to a low carbon or even carbon free energy future is critical if we are to prevent runaway global warming. Yet around them they see almost nothing is changing. In Australia we are digging the black and brown coal up as fast as we can and either sending it off to China or burning it to meet or urban energy needs to run our plasma televisions,  and air conditioners. Any entrepreneur who proposes a wind turbine farm is certainly going to be opposed by group objecting to the ruination of the landscape, the danger to wildlife or the impact on property prices. Meanwhile state governments invest in freeways rather than public transport and the proliferation of low cost airlines and the growth in per capita air miles is seen as an unproblematic ‘good’.

It is opportune that Vaclav Smil’s latest offering, Energy Transitions: History, Requirements, Prospects, has just landed. Smil is required, if uncomfortable reading, for anyone who professes a concern in matters to do with energy transition. In his previous writings Smil has outlined in forensic detail all aspects of our current energy system. In his previous books Smil has destroyed the optimistic claims proffered by alternative energy proponents that we can maintain our current economic and social systems by just changing from carbon-based systems to something else. The numbers just do not add up. So is Smil also impatient for change? No he is not.

In this book Smil outlines how the energy transformation that we must make, and we will make it, is a generational exercise. The history of energy system transformations show us that anything up to four generations would be needed to accomplish the bulk of the economic, political, scientific and social unwinding and rewinding that will have to take place. When we change how we get our energy, and especially if the energy that is coming gives a lower energy return on its investment then everything must change –  by everything he means how we live, work, feed ourselves, educate our children, form communities, relate to other people, form our geopolitical relationships, fight our wars, entertain ourselves and create art. Everything.

Smil’s latest warning is that people are underestimating the extent of change and overestimating how quickly the changes can occur. When things move slowly, as Smil says they must, then people will get frustrated, will toss out their political leaders because they are not ‘doing anything’, and then toss out the ones after that because they are no better. What will follow is decline in institutional respect, suspicion that others are ‘free riding’ on the backs of others who are trying to do the ‘right things’ and commercial enterprises will flee from investing in the necessary innovations.

Into this unpleasant scenario I inject myself and all the other like-minded souls who are concerned about the future. What should we do, given Smil’s prediction? I suggest we need to practice patience and purpose.

If Smil is right, and I think he is pretty close, then I think preaching and practicing patience is a good first step. We need to realise that we are unlikely to see the desired transition in our lifetimes. Rather than blame others for failing to do more we should adopt the philosophy of the people who built the great cathedrals and their like. Begin a monumental building process that will be completed and enjoyed by those who come after us. Ours is not the key generation, not the group who will save the world. It merely is the generation that realises that a lot needs to be done and so starting work is far more important that thinking about the end. Adopting and living to that purpose might be the best thing we can do.

Patience and purpose together. The necessary changes will be made quickest when someone starts, so we are the ones who can start now. We need the patience to realise that our individual actions will be largely invisible, like the actions of the person who lays one stone in a wall are largely invisible when the wall is completed.  We need the purpose to stay at the task while others are not doing likewise. Someone needs to start, I think it needs to be us.

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There is a pair of questions about the future that when people are asked, no matter where in the world and when it was asked, they evoke the same set of answers.

The questions?

  1. Do you think you will have a good future?
  2. Do you think the world will have a good future?

The answers?

  1. Yes
  2. No

It seems a curious pair of answers when you first see them. We have an answer why we see that pair. You see people are confident about “I” futures – the ones that I control by my own actions – while people are less confident about “We” futures – the ones where a bunch of I’s need to act in a way that supports their mutual interest.

Thus we come to one of the most critical goals of doing foresight work – working with groups to help them create shared futures – “We” futures. While it is important that individuals feel hopeful about their own futures it is critical that we also develop hope in our shared futures too. These are the big ones that occupy a lot of our thoughts.

So can we do it? Yes we can (Doesn’t that sound familiar)?

We know how to do this by visiting a theory of moral reasoning – a philosophical approach called The Social Contract. In this theory of moral reasoning we should make decisions as if each and every one of us had contracted to act in our collective interest. Sounds cool doesn’t it?  The core of this theory is contained in a game of logic called The Prisoner’s Dilemma – if we can make the correct call in the game then we can always make moral decisions.

The game goes like this.

“You are in a totalitarian country and you are arrested by the police and charged with a crime you did not commit. You know that there is no group that is going to get you out of this situation; you have to get yourself out. You learn from your captors that someone else, someone called Smith, has also been arrested and is currently being interrogated along with you. Your captors tell you they must have some to charge with the crime. They don’t care who it is, either you or Smith will do. They offer you this deal. If you cooperate and give evidence against Smith and he refuses to cooperate then he goes to jail for 10 years. If Smith cooperates and gives evidence against you while you refuse to cooperate then you get the 10 years. If you both cooperate and give evidence against one another then you will each get 5 years. If you both refuse to cooperate, well they will have to release you both and then go and get another couple of people and start again.”

You don’t know Smith and will never meet Smith. So what do you say to your captor? Your best decision from your “I” perspective is to cooperate – either you get out if Smith doesn’t or you get 5 years if he does. The best outcome for both of you is a “We” future – both refuse and both go free. But here is the clincher – Do you trust Smith? If you act in such a way as to get both of you out, refuse, then Smith is out no matter what he decides. Because you acted in such a way as to expose yourself to hazard then a good future is possible for both of you. If you trust Smith then that is the only decision you can make. But can you trust someone that you have never met?

And that is what goes to the core of “We” futures – building ideas of good futures based on trusting the other party, even if we don’t know them and never will know them. The big car and house, the round the world holidays – If we both take it all then we both are in trouble. However, If I don’t cooperate and I trust you to do the same then we have a good future together – I trust you notwithstanding that you might betray me and take the holiday, car and house anyway. If I act in any other way then I’m consigning myself to a bad future.

But can I trust you …