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Sustainability and future quality of life: a discussion paper

Abstract

In most of the sustainability debate, the discussions refer to the past much more specifically than to the future. Collectively, we seem to select things from our current lifestyle that we’d like to keep, others which we think we might do without, or yet others for which we expect to find the substitute technologies that allow us to maintain our comforts while mitigating their impact. But the predominant tendency has been to focus on those things that we don’t want for our future: resource scarcity, lower comfort levels, destruction of ecosystem services or increases in air pollution or waste. On the other hand, there is relatively little positive reflection or discussion on “What kind of future do we want?” which starts from first principles and/or is detached enough from the past or the present to draw
a ‘Gestalt’ of that future.
Given this situation, the first question to ask is, of course, “Why would this be so?” Digging a little deeper, I raise the question: “Does our intellectual tradition, and in particular our scientific tradition, have anything to do with that?” I argue that that is indeed the case – that our reductionist scientific tradition, together with the institutional framework (universities, career structures, etc.) that underpins it (and which is only slowly being replaced), has handicapped us in thinking freely about the future. In particular, it has emphasized thinking about “origins” rather than “emergence”, about “feedback” rather than “feed-forward”, about “learning from the past” rather than “anticipating the future”.
Next, one cannot but wonder whether this bias in favor of an “a posteriori” or “ex-post” perspective as opposed to an “a priori” or “ex ante” point of view is, or is not, part of the way our cognition works. Atlan (1992) seems to argue in favor of that thesis when he proposes that our theories are underdetermined by our observations. If that is so, then the logical conclusion would be that our theories are over-determined by prior experience. But that may not be the last word on this issue, and in the paper I will delve deeper into it.
Can we change the way we are thinking about the future? Many individuals, from classical Greek philosophers to 18th and 19th century science-fiction authors, have either been able to design utopias or to extrapolate positively from their lifetime observations into the future. Inventors have also been able to anticipate, and most of us call on our “intuition” when we need to anticipate. The question is thus raised whether it could possibly be the case that, at the individual level, many people have the capacity to think about the future, but that the capability to communicate such thinking is rare?
If the latter is the case, then our next question is: “Is communication about the future difficult per se, or is it rendered (more) difficult because we do not train this capacity in our education?” Or even more critically: “Is our capacity to anticipate in some way diminished by our education?” Here we touch on what I deem to be one of the most critical issues for our society in the current predicament – the fact that most education in our societies is focused on causally understanding the past, rather than creatively promoting reasoned and testable creative thinking about the future. What would be needed to change that?

Author: Sander van der Leeuw

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