Imagine, if you will, the world 50 years from now, if the current trends of global climate change go unchecked. You can likely summon abundant imagery to project onto the movie screen of your mind: rising seas that submerge iconic shorelines, parched farms whose soil spools into dust, glaciers that calve into the oceans, sweltering city dwellers, refugees fleeing from coasts. You’ve probably already seen similar images in the news, in science fiction, and maybe even caught glimpses of them in your backyard after hurricanes or droughts.
But what if you instead try to envision a future in which utter climate catastrophe has been averted? If you are like me, this task is a bit harder. The imagery that eventually arises prominently features predictable technologies: wind farms and solar panels, sleek trains and electric cars traversing compact cities, maybe an array of space mirrors that block the sun from Earth.
Whether you are optimistic or pessimistic about how bad climate change will get, you may find your imagination failing to conjure a future where people get through the crisis together. Perhaps that is because it’s easier to envision a future planet changed by technology than one where human beings and communities help one another. People in the past or future can feel even more distant to us than contemporaries from cultures far different from our own.
This common failure of imagination might not appear on its face to be a problem. After all, avoiding the worst of climate change will require monumental shifts in the way we tap and use energy sources, and the way we organize and transport ourselves. Problems way beyond the scope of individual people. Problems that involve infrastructure and electricity sources, battery storage technology and data from digital sensors, and feats of engineering. Not problems that can be solved by singing “Kumbaya” around the fire or taking out a neighbor’s trash.
But our images of the future are not empirical reality. And they have a more pressing purpose: shaping how we act in the present.
Unlike the past, which is experienced and remembered, and the present, which we perceive with our senses, the future is merely an idea, a figment of the imagination.
In the recent book Homo Prospectus, a cadre of psychologists argue that the human preoccupation with the future is what defines our species (as opposed to the highly suspect attribute of wisdom implied by the name Homo sapiens).
We don’t only imagine the future alone, in our own heads. Psychologist Roy Baumeister hypothesizes that shared ideas of the future made cooperation a useful strategy for our primordial ancestors who hunted and gathered. I forgo eating all of my fresh kill today to share some with you, knowing that there is a tomorrow we will inhabit together, when you’ll acknowledge my past sacrifice and share your fresh kill with me. (Note: Baumeister’s work on ego depletion has raised considerable skepticism in the field, but that research is distinct from these conclusions, which derive from transparent logic rather than any particular experimental design.)
Today, shared constructs of the future make possible the mundane (trains that run on time, the common acknowledgement that it’s the month of September) and the magical (widespread belief in afterlives like heaven and reincarnation).
Yet the evolutionary purpose of imagining the future persists: to motivate us to take some action in the present that is in our eventual interest. And at this, at least when it comes to climate change, our images of the future of the planet are failing us.
A few years ago, Australian psychologist Paul Bain and his colleagues sought to understand what attributes of the imagined future motivate people to support social change in the present, and what fails to motivate them. In a series of eight studies, nearly 600 people were asked to envision the state of society in the year 2050 given a particular scenario. The scenarios asked them to assume, for example, that severe climate change had been averted, or that marijuana or abortion had been legalized. The study participants practiced different religions (some were atheists and agnostics) and had varying political persuasions. They wrote down details describing the scenario they envisioned and talked to the interviewers about what the future would look like. Then, they were asked what policies and personal actions they would support taking today to achieve or avert that possible future.
Across the studies, the researchers found that people were most motivated to support current policies or personal behavior change today when they imagined a future state of increased warmth and morality on the part of people in society—an attribute they dubbed benevolence. The participants were less motivated by visions of scientific and technological progress than they were by the idea of a future with kinder and better people—whether they were God-fearing conservatives or progressive atheists. (A less powerful but common motivator was avoiding future societal dysfunction in the form of crime, poverty, and disease.)
That research is hardly the final word on the subject, nor are its conclusions universal. But it strongly suggests what ought to be intuitive: that many people are more motivated to act on concern for the future if they believe it will ultimately improve humanity, and more specifically, how human beings treat one another. (In a separate study, Bain demonstrated that even climate deniers could be persuaded of the need for environmental citizenship if researchers framed the measures, such as reducing carbon emissions, as ways of improving people’s future conscientiousness toward one another.)
Most efforts to educate the public about our choices when it comes to climate change—on the part of scientists, nonprofits, and governments—have focused far too little on entertaining a future that involves people simply being better to one another. I have been personally guilty of this. I’ve trafficked in doomsday scenarios of a warming climate on the one hand and techno-optimism on the other.
It takes more work—especially if you are pessimistic about the prospects—to conjure images that reflect how people and society might be better if we avoid the worst climate disasters. But the past can offer some examples of how this can work: people helping their elderly neighbors during heat waves (as they did in one Chicago neighborhood during the deadly 1995 heat wave), communities building gardens together, families enjoying protective wetlands as public recreation areas instead of suburban subdivisions, and, of course, people creating and using new technologies to help each other and not just themselves.
Earlier this year, I visited Fukushima, Japan, on the sixth anniversary of the nuclear reactor explosions, and I caught a glimpse of an imagined future that surprised me. In a high-tech educational center meant to inform the public about the disaster, designers had created an exhibit with a simulated future Fukushima neighborhood powered by clean energy. It featured the usual suspects—solar panels and green rooftops—but also avatars of the exhibit’s visitors inhabiting the future community. It stopped short, however, of showing them interacting with and helping each other.
Humans are wired to seek instant gratification; we’re hard-pressed to value future consequences like climate change in our current decisions. If we want more people to care about the future in the present—enough to act—we may need to start imagining the future as we’d like it to be, and more importantly, as we’d like to see ourselves in it.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.