Future Tense

Imaging a “Future of Opportunity”—and Governing Toward It

A Future Tense event recap.

A young woman holds a sign that says "Stop Global Warming" with a polar bear on ice in the middle of water.
A student at a “Fridays for Future” protest on May 24, 2019, in Budapest. Attila Kisbenedek/Getty Images

A polar bear on melting ice: It’s a favorite image of nature documentaries and charity ads alike, never failing to put you in the emotional dumps for a simple reason—it forces you to grapple with a changing world, a darker future.

But that emotion is often temporary, replaced quickly by others, because its effects are not immediately or directly felt, explained Peter Schlosser, the vice president and vice provost of global futures at Arizona State University. Footage of houses on fire in California, Oregon, and Australia alarms us, but falls short of making us understand that our own home may be next.

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These “delusions of escape,” in the words of science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson, or “failures of imagination,” in the words of Future Tense academic director Ed Finn, placate us into reactive, piecemeal, short-sighted decision-making.

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There’s no simple antidote to the delusions. But storytelling lights the path forward, agreed Robinson, Finn, Schlosser, Future Tense fellow Alexandra Zapata Hojel, and Malka Older, also a sci-fi author. The five discussed the need to mobilize science fiction and imagination to govern for the future in a Future Tense event on Tuesday.

“We’re missing people believing that the way we live now can change,” said Older, who has spent her career watching governments scramble to react to emergencies, rather than anticipating and planning for them. Older—the author of “Actually Naneen,” a Future Tense Fiction story that explores artificial intelligence and caregiving via a narrative about robot nannies—believes storytelling is a crucial part of imagining the consequences of complacency, and importantly, the versions of the future that we can create if we choose a different path.

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“We need to be taking risks, because we need different stories, and we need different types of art,” she said.

Information, narratives, and art are fundamentally public goods, said Older, and they deserve robust government support. By the same token, fiction and imagination aren’t fluffy footnotes in our tackling of the climate crisis—they are key to progress, and indeed, survival.

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“We have to practice living and thinking and feeling in new ways in order to survive the 21st century,” said Finn, who also directs ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination.

And to do so, said Robinson, we have to get creative in the ways we imagine and share our blueprints for the future.

“If storytelling itself is going to be adequate to this global situation that is beyond any one individuals’ comprehension,” he said, “then you have to just throw caution to the wind and try to make up new forms and tell stories that actually reflect this dynamic moment that we’re in.”

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For example, in his new novel The Ministry for the Future—set in “not a desolate, postapocalyptic world, but a future that is almost upon us”—Robinson employs “fictional eyewitness accounts” that contextualize the universal and individual effects of the climate crisis, framed around the story of an international organization tasked with fulfilling the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement.

One of the big picture problems in addressing the climate crisis, explained Robinson, is the incentives and priorities we’ve cemented into our international economic system.

“Saving the planet is not the highest rate of return. … We don’t value the planet or the future people enough in our current economic system to do justice to them or to dodge the mass extinction event,” he said.

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But many of the elements of our international financial systems are themselves imagined, said Finn. We create narratives that shape priorities and sculpt realities. We can choose to change them.

Both politics and the pandemic affect the emerging futures we can imagine and work toward.

In the case of politics, “recent news has made it easier to be a parent, at least for me, in terms of thinking about the kind of policy, policy decisions, and the kind of example that we are setting for future generations,” said Zapata Hojel.

And the pandemic, which has affected some of us in drastic ways but all of us in some way, functions as a sort of “test run for the climate case,” Schlosser said, forcing us to cope with “an extended period of suffering” provoked by sudden disaster.

Ultimately, “reacting is much easier than making a choice,” Schlosser said. But if we don’t imagine and make better choices now, we will eventually create a future empty of them. “What we want to have is a future of opportunity,” he said, “not a future of sacrifice.”

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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