“Crisis”, like in climate-crisis or pandemic-crisis, comes from the Greek verb ‘krínein’, meaning ‘to decide’: deciding amongst multiple recovery options, multiple futures, and multiple worlds we want for ourselves, our children and grandchildren to live-in. But how can you decide on a future you can’t see, something that is not here yet? For that, you would need a vision; and Science for a reality-check.
Envisioning sustainable futures and sustainable worlds is now more important than ever, and this is driving scientists towards scenario-based and explorative studies where, instead of focusing on the negatives of our current situation, possible worlds — better worlds– are described. After all, to use a Yogi Berra’s quote “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else”.
Amongst many insights on envisioning sustainable futures, we wish to recall here two we believe are of special significance. At the 1994 meeting of the International Society for Ecological Economics in San José, Costa Rica, Donella Meadows (responsible for one of the most famous, and turned-to-be accurate, scenario-based study in 1972 with the Limits to Growth) talked about envisioning sustainable worlds. She remarked the importance of having clear goals and a vision that is socially shared, discussed, and formulated. She said that the lack of an alternative vision is what makes growth so easy to be sold in policy arenas. She recognised the tendency we have to jump straight to implementation, often disregarding or taking for granted a shared vision and goals.
As she also pointed out, there is a lack of training on how to be a visionary, or maybe what we need is just to put aside some of our technical training and rediscover our ability to vision in order to “make the idea of a sustainable world a living picture in our minds and other people’s minds”. Finally, she touched on how to make a vision responsible and ethical, that is through dialogue and sharing.
More recently, Robert Costanza and others discussed on two possible paths, or futures, for a post-pandemic world. Going back to normal, or “build it back as before”, does not require a lot of imagination, and would be an easy-to-sell strategy if no alternatives are envisioned and shared. The risk in embracing this vision is crystal clear, as “the normal” of biodiversity destruction, climate change, and rising inequalities, is what got us here in the first place.
There is indeed an alternative, a vision of sustainable future that must be discussed and shared around to become responsible and ethical. This vision is of building back better, a vision of a sustainable wellbeing economy which requires political will to become a reality. We need to express a vision of well-being as something more than material consumption, we need to create goals of material sufficiency, equitable distribution, and sustainable human well-being. First, we need to imagine a world economy that preserves ecosystems essential to life and well-being, and then we must work all together to make it real.
Photo Credit: Matt Noble