Do you remember those Marlboro cigarette adverts? The ones in which rugged cowboys smoked cigarettes against a romantic desert backdrop? They were a successful attempt to capture a false but widely shared narrative about America’s past and use it to sell a product that would kill people. Smokers, worried about dying from their addiction, could displace that grim thought with the idea of a cigarette as a gun: a necessary weapon in a tough world, where life is a lottery and the cigarette signifies strength, manliness and even a quick death.
In the same way, perhaps, the fossil fuel industry has sought to frame a narrative of the future that makes it difficult to imagine a world beyond carbon. If the oil industry wanted to scare us half to death it could hardly do better than the movie Mad Max 2. This portrays a world where humans fight over the remaining scraps of fuel, children scavenge in the dust, evil gangs roam the desert landscape raping and pillaging. And the cause of all this? Why the scarcity of oil of course, blatantly and symbolically expressed when our rugged protagonist, a kind of future cowboy, gets behind the wheel of — you guessed it — an oil tanker, in a bid to save himself and civilisation.
I’m not saying that Mad Max 2 was funded by the oil industry — though I would not be terribly surprised to learn it. But like many people I have worried about what we are doing to the planet and where we are going. When we imagine the future we tend to draw on shared narratives created by others. Often these are dark dystopian visions like the world of Mad Max and The Road. It is almost too painful to imagine my grandchildren growing up in such a world.
I have spent the past year trying to persuade my profession — English Language Teaching — to act with environmental responsibility. But I’ve learnt there is no point in trying to fix the present if there is no hope for the future. So for me, the biggest part of my recent journey has been the attempt to replace nightmarish narratives of the future with something more positive.
Not everything is going to be rosy. But neither should we give up or despair. One writer talks of ‘the mental and emotional journeys that people may need to go on to support the goal of transformation, without being deluded about the dire predicament we now face.’ That sounds about right and we should of course prepare for the worst. But we should also prepare for the best. And the best is limited only by our imaginations.
There is a wonderful book called ‘This Is Not A Drill’ — an Extinction Rebellion handbook featuring a dead — or perhaps merely sleeping — penguin on the front cover. Part One of the book necessarily and poignantly describes the damage we are doing to the planet. Part Two offers a solution: Act Now. And contained within that solution are several essays on the future: A New Economics, A Green New Deal, The Zero-carbon City, and What if…We Reduced Carbon Emissions to Zero by 2025?
I call this Looking Forward and I think it is something we all need to do. We can do this generally, by informing ourselves about things like the Green New Deal and by reading books like Doughnut Economics and Utopia for Realists. But we also need to move beyond theory by imagining a new and better future for our own specific situations, personally and professionally practising a kind of deliberate optimism.
How might my town look, post fossil fuels? Currently, traffic is a constant nuisance. Roads that were never designed for cars are littered with vehicles parked half on the pavements and blocking the way. A walk through the town is dominated by the noise, smell and danger of traffic. I can imagine a future where vehicles instead of being parked most of the time are always on the move, silently and non-pollutingly transporting passengers on demand to wherever they want to be. This has hugely improved the town and freed up space outside peoples houses. The ability for people to mix more easily has improved the sense of community in the town. Many more people now grow their own food on shared allotments, improving local wildlife diversity. The car park in the centre of town has been transformed into a leafy public park. People of all ages sit under the trees, enjoying the fresh air and company. The pub on the square is now able to put tables out at the front, using what was the beer garden at the back for growing food it serves to its customers. The pub is benefitting from increased custom now that people can get to it without having to drive. Insects buzz, birds sing in the trees. The sky is a deep, hypnotic blue of the kind last seen when Icelandic volcanos put a temporary stop to air travel..
A re-imagined future like this might feel a bit facile, the kind of picture a child might paint. And there will certainly be things in the future — both opportunities and threats — that we cannot imagine because they are not part of our experience. The point is not to try to predict accurately what the world will be like but to imagine a future which is different from — and just as valid as — the dystopian nightmares we are prone to when we think about societal breakdown.
Professionally too, we need to Look Forward. A boarding school called Port Regis in the UK has plans to become self-sufficient by 2025 in food, water and energy. The school has already planted fruit trees and a herb garden. Each main building will become self-sufficient through installing solar panels on their large sloping roofs which by happy chance face south. The school has found an old water bore hole and hopes to filter this for drinking water. Robot lawn mowers will allow ground staff to redeploy from mowing sports fields to more useful labour-intensive food production. Children also help out, learning how to grow food, developing their awareness of ecology, deepening their connection to nature and becoming more resilient for the future..
So try it. Imagine a better future for the place where you live and the organisation where you work. Better still, since our ability to think about the future is limited by our individual memories, bring people together to create a more comprehensive shared vision. By looking forward and pushing some of the dark clouds aside I hope you and your colleagues will feel more positive about the future and more energised to act in the present.