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Equinox greetings: bounded imagination
March 20, 2021, 5:37 am ET

Greetings at the onset of a new season. This letter marks the beginning of the second year of Probable Futures. For those of you who are new to the community, welcome. I write a letter about our work and the ideas behind it on the equinoxes and solstices. The March and September equinoxes are days on which sunrise and sunset are almost exactly 12 hours apart everywhere on Earth. I find these days welcome reminders of our commonalities and of the non-negotiable limits imposed by our planet. I am going to use this letter to argue for the virtues of those limits and to explore the cultural challenges we face in accepting them. In particular, I want to explain and encourage an idea that I call bounded imagination.

I started this endeavor to help people see what was coming due to climate change, what we all had to start preparing for, and what we should try to avoid. I read a lot and spoke with dozens of experts about the future of our climate. All of this was extremely helpful, but I didn’t hear anyone articulate what different outcomes might be or feel like. The future, various experts explained, was either abstract or apocalyptic, both of which left me feeling empty. They tended to be optimistic, which gave the impression that someone else would figure things out, or pessimistic, which gave the impression there was nothing to do. As I learned, I grew confident that it was possible for everyone to understand the basics of climate science and then envision the future in ways that would positively affect how they thought, felt, acted, and related to others. I suspected that a good name could help.

I wrote down lists of words like useful, hope, worry, forecast, possible, wonder, planning, pathways, risk, envision, and foreseeable. I purchased lots of internet domains. On sunny days, I purchased ones like workingonthefuture.org. Other acquisitions betrayed a sense of potential futility, like messagesinbottles.org. I bought plenty of wacky ones (an unclaimed URL can be purchased for $20/year). In a meeting I heard Tammy Dayton, now our Creative Director, invoke a hypothetical climate organization called Climate Bonanza. I had happily sent $20 through the internet to buy climatebonanza.org before she had finished making her point.

The name I kept coming back to is the one we settled on: Probable Futures. The plural Futures conveyed the existence of a range of future outcomes, while Probable indicated that this range should be used as a guide: Some futures have zero probability, others are likely, and still others have low probabilities but would be so catastrophic that ignoring them would be negligent. I didn’t want this endeavor to be optimistic or pessimistic, but instead frank about the range of outcomes we face and encouraging to anyone who wants to participate in creating the future we and our successors will live in. I thought of “encouragement” literally: to give people courage.

The first provisional homepage I made simply said that Probable Futures would be a “Home for science, applications, and imagination. We’re going to need all of them.” We are still using that phrase. Most people have a pretty good idea what science and applications likely mean. I am excited about the marvelous research, mapping tools, and case studies that the 20+ people currently working on Probable Futures are putting together. As climate change starts to gain more notice and momentum in society, I am also less worried that our work will be like a message-bearing bottle thrown into an uncaring ocean. I am still worried, however, about the lack of imagination being employed by institutions, leaders, communities, and all forms of culture. I am hopeful that we can do better.

A brief history of imagining the future

The future is a peculiar domain. It isn’t taught to children. There is no faculty for it at universities. It doesn’t exist, so it cannot be studied by the sciences. Most people would look askance at any who declared their occupation to be “futurist.” But if the future is no one’s expertise or occupation, how do we approach it? A look at the history of the future can be instructive. It also happens to be one of my favorite pastimes.

There is a spookiness in Buckminster Fuller’s plan for a dome protecting Midtown Manhattan from environmental degradation:

And there are both charm and prescience in illustrations from 1900 that imagined the year 2000:

I am not a literature expert, but I have come to understand that speculative tales set in the future have been told in the West for centuries, with a more explicit focus on the implications of scientific discovery, technological advances, and increased human power coming about during the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Scientists wrote novels, and novelists wrote about science. The border between the two was porous. 

The novelist Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable is a brilliant exploration of how, after this period of intermingling, the physical world and the future both receded from culture, especially from the novel. He discusses how the rise in science’s understanding of natural systems and industry’s increasing power and control led to a decreased interest in the newly tamed natural world. Moreover, science’s progress was made by cutting the world into pieces whose experts occupied ever more limited domains. 

Ghosh writes, “[Scientists] were trained to break problems into smaller and smaller puzzles until a solution presented itself. This is a way of thinking that excludes things and forces (‘externalities’) that lie beyond the horizon of the matter at hand: it is a perspective that renders the interconnectedness of Gaia unthinkable.” I have seen this problem firsthand in academia and industry. Breaking the world into small pieces has increased the stock of human knowledge, but the synthesis, connections, meaning, and risks of that knowledge have turned out to be no one’s domain. We now live in a society with few futurists or generalists. 

Ghosh goes on to explain that just as geologists began to discover long, gradual changes in the Earth’s past, fiction similarly gave Nature a smaller, less interesting role. “Nature was moderate and orderly: this was a distinctive mark of a new and ‘modern’ worldview.” 

Ghosh laments how this modern, relentlessly human-centric culture limited what would be considered sophisticated expression. “This pattern is epitomized by the career of the novel, which in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries often included frontispieces, plates, and so on. But all of these elements gradually faded away, over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, until the very word illustration became a pejorative, not just within fiction, but in all the arts.” By the mid-twentieth century, the aeronautical engineer and author Robert Heinlein would say, “A handy short definition of almost all science fiction might read: realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method.” To find stories with these attributes, readers could not just read fiction, they had to locate a special section of the library or bookstore.

You may wonder what the history of the novel has to do with understanding and addressing climate change, but I think they are inextricably linked. I am certain that if we don’t start telling better stories about the future, there is little hope. Ghosh puts it this way: “If there is any one thing that global warming has made perfectly clear, it is that to think about the world only as it is amounts to a formula for collective suicide.” We have to start envisioning the probable futures toward which we are racing. This will require changes in our culture, which will be hard, but earlier storytellers would likely have envied how much we can know about the future. Our sincere hope is that our tools will be useful for novelists, poets, screenwriters, artists, musicians, and other creators of culture as they create and tell stories that can help us find our way. Not only that, we are confident that our work will be important for banking.

Banking as an exercise in imagining

Probable Futures is quickly growing from my personal notions into an initiative with many contributors, but my interest in societal failures and successes is woven into the fabric of our work. Since the late 1980s, I have focused my energy and attention on understanding why some places and organizations experienced good fortune, while others faced catastrophe. This interest led to many unconventional projects, several of them involving lending and investing.

At the heart of a lending decision are two issues: Is the borrower likely to generate enough income to pay back the loan, and can the borrower pledge some collateral that can be sold to reimburse the lender if, for some reason, the expected income doesn’t materialize? This may not sound like the stuff of imagination, but it definitely is, and Russia in 1994 was a great place to see this.

In late 1993, I was hired to start and run a small business lending program in the city of Nizhny Novgorod. At the root of this program was a simple but deep problem: Russia’s future was not going to look like Russia’s past, and the financial system was unprepared. There had been no independent small businesses or banks in Soviet Russia, so how could lenders assess which potential borrowers would be worth lending to and which wouldn’t? No one in Russia had relevant expertise, and almost no one from elsewhere wanted to take this job. I was working in a bank on the South Side of Chicago, preparing loan documents for borrowers in underserved neighborhoods. I was curious, and I was willing to go. That was enough.

I worked in three banks, one run by the mob, one owned by the playboy son of the head of the local KGB, and one run almost entirely by thoughtful women. We worked together to create forms that potential borrowers would fill out. These forms were about what you would imagine: lines for basic information like address and number of employees, tables for budgets and forecasts of revenues and expenses, descriptions of uses of the proceeds of the loans, etc. They were reasonable pieces of paper onto which we asked potential borrowers to describe their probable futures.

The bakers, accountants, dentists, hovercraft manufacturers, and others who applied for loans looked at these forms and literally laughed. How could we possibly ask these people at this time in this place to fill in small cells on a form with any information about two or even five years into the future? One early spring incident captured the feeling. The mud was overwhelming. After a winter with low temperatures that often hit -40° (C and F are equivalent at this level) and meters of snow, the thaw made everything treacherous. Our car swerved and sloshed its way out to a brick-making plant, whose owner wanted to borrow $50,000 for equipment. At one point, he cut short the interview and said, “Look. Gogol said it best: ‘Russia has only two problems: fools and bad roads.’ You can see that my road is awful, so you only have to figure out one of the problems.” He thought our inquiring about the future was ridiculous. I heard similar stories when my work took me to China from 1999 to 2008: Who could possibly know what was coming?

And yet, many folks in Russia and China were planning for the future. They were imagining something different. And some were doing it much better than others. They were starting to see how they could serve people in new ways, how they could turn what they had learned in other parts of their lives into something valuable in the unknown but not completely mysterious future ahead. If we could discern who had a better plan, who was more flexible, and who was more likely to succeed—even if their plans had to change—we could provide money to help them change the future. The one thing that never made sense in those places was lending to or investing with people who longed for the past and its familiar patterns to come back.

Rejecting limits and limiting imagination

Over the last few hundred years, many cultures have elevated humans above Earth and its other inhabitants. Parents in these cultures often tell their children to discount limits. “You can do anything you put your mind to” is a modern encouragement. Similarly, “I want you to give 110%!” is an exhortation to disbelieve the very limits you perceive. I don’t want to discourage dreaming and aspiration, especially at the individual level, but some of the cultures that most encourage unbounded thinking are least prepared for climate change and are going to have the hardest time grappling with its consequences. Let me offer an example.

I was talking with a group of trustees of some of the biggest endowments and foundations in the U.S. These folks are responsible for oversight of organizations that have a lot of money and an ambitious mission. I was explaining the need to prepare their institutions for the risks posed by climate change, when a man in the audience asked me, “What about micronuclear power?” I asked him to clarify. “Nuclear power doesn’t produce greenhouse gasses, and if we have small nuclear devices that can power everything, the problem will be solved.” I asked him if he had such a technology or knew of one. “No, but someone might,” he replied. I told the audience that this was the kind of thinking that I was most worried about: a hope that something highly improbable would save not just the day but every future day as well. “He’s just a pessimist,” was the grumble I heard from the table nearest the podium after my reply. The truth is, I am not a pessimist. I believe in true love, marvel at the many wonderful things humans do every day, and pursue this work because there is so much potential for good. Moreover, I would be delighted if ubiquitous, safe micronuclear power appeared tomorrow. That said, ignoring the probable and expecting a miracle is a terrible way to govern an organization. It is also a debilitating mindset for addressing climate change. 

It may be obvious that having a miracle salvation as your plan is bad leadership, but it is currently Plan A in most communities and institutions. There is a second thread in the interchange with that trustee that I think is also worth highlighting: He was repelled by the idea of taking modest action. I wasn’t suggesting that his institution give up, build a bunker, or spend all of its money on clean energy. I was merely suggesting that they do more work on risk, incorporate some easily comprehensible data, and consider changes in priorities and relationships. “Some things need to change” proved too much to ask, while an infinite number of perfectly safe, pocket-sized nuclear reactors were not too much to expect.

This may seem like a niche example, but I assure you it’s not. I have been working on the future for a long time and have seen consistent patterns in people’s approach to it and chatter about it. In conversation, people say that the future is unknowable and that anything could happen. Yet they make long-term commitments, including going to school, pledging devotion to loved ones, having children, dedicating themselves to an employer or profession, emigrating, buying a home, saving for retirement, etc. I am sure those endowments’ trustee meetings include much discussion of the future. These actions suggest that their expectations about the future are not wildly uncertain.

This inconsistency is particularly evident in the way people think, tell stories, plan, and act about climate change. There are two dominant portrayals of the climate of the future: pretty similar to the present but with more sleek electric cars and solar-powered smart buildings, and apocalypse. Books and movies about climate change tend to portray an extreme hot, cold, dark, bright, or otherwise dystopian future. Much closer are disorienting, painful experiences, as lovely places become harsh, moderate places oscillate between drought and deluge, hot places become hotter, reliable infrastructure becomes ill-suited to its environment or our demands, and everything becomes less assured. 

Already present are the emotional, moral, and relational challenges that face children. What does it feel like to be a kid who knows that they will never live in as agreeable a climate as the one their parents enjoyed? And to know that their parents won’t live to see much of the suffering? What does it feel like to be the parent of that child? Billions of people are already starting to imagine futures with these constraints, but they are mostly doing so silently, often while doing other things. I sometimes wonder what is going on in the minds and hearts of young people who are studying subjects or training for jobs that they suspect won’t exist in a more circumscribed, volatile future. Stories about such interior dramas are barely being told, even in novels. Bizarrely, we may be better envisioning a far-off future like that portrayed in the movieMad Max rather than what is right in front of us. Tragically, by not addressing the near, probable futures, we are making Mad Max more likely.

This bifurcation can be seen in policy and politics as well. Those who are pushing for more action to mitigate climate change tend to argue that the necessary changes aren’t that big: Electrification, renewable energy, and some regulatory change will get us a green, stable future without much pain. They are undoubtedly right that futures with clean energy are vastly better than ones without in nearly every way (health, instability, income, biodiversity, culture, peace, etc.), and they have my full support, but the scope and nature of the transformation they imagine is almost surely insufficient. Indeed, they often go out of their way to reassure audiences. Ghosh sees the absence of imagination in the Paris climate agreement: “[T]here is not the slightest acknowledgment that something has gone wrong with our dominant paradigms; it contains no clause or article that could be interpreted as a critique of the practices that are known to have created the situation that the Agreement seeks to address. The current paradigm of perpetual growth is enshrined at the core of the text.” 

We are trying to address a profound problem while reassuring adults that the changes will be minor and can be handled by specialists. It shouldn’t be a surprise that adults balk at the thought of changing their diets, travel, or other consumption. It also shouldn’t be a surprise that people who repeatedly say that climate change matters to them have continued to live almost exactly as before. Meanwhile, children increasingly understand that the range of futures they will live in is tilting every day toward more hardship.

The bounds we face

What we hope to do, as I said at the outset, is encourage imagination and engagement. The Probable Futures team is building tools to provide the bounds for that imagination. These tools will allow anyone anywhere to see weather outcomes in any given place when the world is 1.5°C, 2.0°C, 2.5°C, and 3.0°C warmer than the historical climate. Maps of various measures of heat, cold (and its absence), drought, precipitation, and other phenomena will vivify a future few have seen. The data have robustly high resolution. Nothing like these tools exists for planning and assessment of risk, infrastructure, agriculture, and lots of other things, and our tools will be global, providing world-class science to poor and rich communities and institutions alike for free. 

We are already collaborating with partners who are interested in this data, agree with our insistence that it be a public good, and have offered to help, including investors, banks, consultants, and actuaries. Their first reaction is invariably, “How can I put this data directly into my institution’s models?” What they figure out, however, is that their models portray a civilization built on a stable climate. Contemplating probable futures leads them to the insight John Holdren of the Woodwell Climate Research Center offered in 2007, “We basically have three choices, mitigation, adaptation, and suffering. We’re going to do some of each. The question is what the mix is going to be. The more mitigation we do, the less adaptation will be required, and the less suffering there will be.” 

Take, for example, migration, a form of both adaptation and suffering. When you see our maps and stories, I guarantee you will imagine people moving, something that is already occurring and on which security and military experts are focused. Yet discussing, modeling, and preparing for climate-induced migration are taboo in many forums. They are explicitly omitted from models of the economic impacts of climate change. At the same time, many policy and academic communities are uneasy talking about the topic, for fear of stigmatizing migrants or validating vicious politics. I attended a conference on climate migration last year and was confused by much of the jargon that seemed to swerve around the main topic. When I asked what I thought was a straightforward question about climate refugees, I learned that there was no such term. Indeed, there is no legal or internationally recognized term for someone who flees heat, drought, flood, or fire. Refugee status is strictly limited to people threatened by other people. Sitting there in a university conference room, I had the same thought Amitav Ghosh had as he witnessed an unprecedented tornado in Delhi pick up motorbikes and throw them into trees: “If it were in a novel, no one would believe it.” 

What if we’re wrong?

When one looks back at prior speculations, it is clear that the future that arrived often bore little resemblance to those forecasts, but that doesn’t mean that those works were pointless. Jaron Lanier has helped me understand that the person worrying about a bad future rarely wants that future. Saying that she or he is pessimistic misses the point. For example, there was great worry that television and other mass media would be used by fascist, militaristic, controlling government leaders. Indeed, Nazi Germany showed this was a very real possibility, as did Soviet Russia. Other societies reacted to this threat by designing media regulations to make that far less likely. George Orwell did as much as anyone to make media less dangerous. I think of 1984 as both wrong and successful. It helped societies envision a real risk and plan to prevent it. Lanier has written for years about the risks of social media and an internet paid for by advertising. I’m sure he is sorry that he turned out to be so right.

Probable Futures will present vivid portrayals of how the world will likely be and feel at 1.5°C, 2.0°C, 2.5°C, and 3.0°C. These small-sounding numbers are actually different futures altogether. Having passed 1.2°C this year, 1.5°C is just around the corner, so it is a near-certain future; 2.5°C is likely even if humans act quickly and decisively; and 3°C and higher are likely to cause so much radical change on Earth that they are almost impossible to imagine. We are hopeful that by helping people imagine 3.0°C and higher levels now, society acts to make forecasts of those temperatures look pessimistic in hindsight.

Why do we trust the science on which we are drawing these boundaries? Because, unlike virtually every other forecast, climate science has been right. Impressively, reassuringly, terrifyingly right. The libertarian Peter Thiel famously said, “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters” as an indictment of the focus of science and technology. A strict, identifying allegiance to libertarianism is the best predictor of aversion to climate science. If your worldview is one of extreme individuality, no collective action or responsibility, no meaningful externalities, and a desire for no government other than to protect your property, then climate change violates your worldview. It is extremely hard to imagine, let alone accept, things that undermine your identity. I understand the point Thiel is trying to make, but I have a quite different appreciation of both the efforts and the accomplishments of science in the late 20th century: It is when scientists figured out how our home planet actually works and gave us the tools to see into our collective future. If you told the speculative writer H.G. Wells that scientists in the future would not deliver flying cars but would be able to predict the future and tell us how we could shape it, it’s unlikely he’d think that a bad trade.

I’ll conclude with a statement about how we at Probable Futures think about our work: The more clearly we show the past isn’t coming back, how much preparation will be required for the warming that is already assured, and just how awful higher levels of warming would be, the better choices we will make and the more space we can leave for today’s young people—and all the people to come—to imagine futures they anticipate with hopefulness instead of dread.

Onward,

Spencer

PS: An invitation

The Probable Futures platform is growing and coming together quickly. We are hoping to launch before the next equinox. In the next few months, we will be doing quite a lot of user testing to learn how people react to what we are building. If you would like to be a tester, please send an email to hello@probablefutures.org (the same address to contact if you would like to be added to the mailing list). It would be great to have your help.

Here are a few books that are related to the themes in this letter:

Fiction

Flight Behavior and Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver
The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson
American War by Omar El Akkad
The Overstory by Richard Powers
A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet
Weather by Jenny Offill

Hybrid

The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway

Non-fiction

The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable by Amitav Ghosh
A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold
The Affluent Society by John Kenneth Galbraith
Who Owns the Future? by Jaron Lanier
The Shallows by Nicholas Carr
Radical Hope by Jonathan Lear
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf