Why a world without imagination puts your future at risk


We can’t build what we can’t imagine. We can’t build what we can’t imagine. I’ve said it again and again, but please, let it really sink in. It’s the most important fact on our planet right now: We can’t build what we can’t imagine.

The Heroic Future — this ambitious documentary project we’ve launched — aims to ignite the imagination we need to survive our planetary crisis. Even if you don’t choose to back us, you need to know why this work matters.

[TL:DR? Listen to an audio recording of this essay.]

Imagination creates the foundation for success. If we want a thriving, prosperous, sustainable world we have to imagine it, first, and — given the speed of the crisis unfolding around us — imagine it fast. Indeed, humanity’s fate now depends on our ability to envision success quickly; to design the future we seek while there’s still time to build it.

Imagining success is harder than it once seemed; in fact, it’s harder than it once was.

Much of our popular thinking about “sustainability” is old. Many of our ideas about green living sprang from the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Then, they seemed like good answers to the ecological problems of that time.

Humanity’s fate now depends on our ability to envision success quickly; to design the future we seek while there’s still time to build it.

In the meantime, though, we’ve seen decades of inaction. We’ve now burned through much of our carbon budget, destabilized ecosystems around the planet and left unmet the basic needs of billions of people. This is no longer a crisis we’re going to escape with a little light recycling, urban gardening and careful reading of the labels on the products we buy.

No, imagining planetary success today demands we envision a wholesale dismantling of the industrial systems of the 20th century — and the building of new systems around the world on a nearly inconceivable scale.

To provide for 10 billion people on a finite planet means transformation. This transformation will leave no aspect of our material lives untouched. Much of the world we’re used to thinking of as “normal” is about to disappear. Transformation will change how we live, travel, work, shop and eat. It will shutter whole industries. It will obsolesce whole realms of technology. It will destroy whole categories of business models. It will render generations of technical expertise irrelevant.

All this change will happen whether we want it to or not. Planetary reality trumps our individual preferences and ideologies in the same way that war trumps them. Change is inevitable. That is the nature of our day: the only survival path is headlong transformation; the only way to restore planetary stability is widespread disruption.

The kind of change we get, though, is far from certain. How long we delay real action — and the actions we can imagine choosing once we start — can still lead us to a wide range of futures. Not all of them are awesome. The quicker and bolder our actions, the better our chances. We’re on a fast-flowing river. If we want to reach the calmer waters of a fairer world, we have to brave the rapids ahead of us.

Bold imagination could ensure that this transformation births new opportunities. It could remake our cities, creating new ways of life. It could launch booming new industries. It could turn around the fortunes of whole regions. It could drive breakthrough inventions. It could make new goods and services profitable, leading to new business opportunities and new jobs. It could give this generation a chance to reinvent everything.

We have the technology. I ran the solutions site Worldchangingfor seven years. I can tell you that we already have many of the solutions we need. There’s an army of worldchanging innovators out there now. Huge leaps are being made in clean energy technologies, like solar, wind and battery storage. Green building has gone through a threshold change, with breakthrough new building designs and construction technologies. Electric vehicles have hit the streets, and self-driving cars are not far off, while better urban planning and digital lives have proven their ability to dramatically slash demand for cars in the first place. From ecological restoration techniques to sustainable product design, water filtration to farming, we live today in a standing wave of ecological innovation and creativity. Our technical capacity for delivering the pieces of a zero-impact society is already far greater today than it was even when I wrote my book Carbon Zero, in 2011.

We have the knowledge, then, to build a bright green global economy. We know that the benefits of success will far outweigh the costs, even in the most crass financial terms. If we act quickly and fairly, humanity could thrive in the future we choose. We possess the power to save the world.

What we lack is the vision. Having the ingredients for a dish is far different than having the recipe perfected, much less being ready to feed multitudes on short notice. Our planetary crisis is a systems crisis, and having the pieces of better systems is not the same thing as having the systems themselves, much less the power to build those systems at a scope, scale and speed never before seen… never before imagined.

That means we need to imagine not only what we do, but who does it, and how. The kind of disruptive sustainability we need demands a new politics, new business models (indeed, new kinds of enterprise), new civic platforms, new ways to work together, to collaborate, to connect. Most of all, it demands imagining a new culture; because ultimately, all large-scale progress is first preceded by a culture of change.

Now, every successful future involves not only making things never before made, but changing things never before changed.

We’re racing against catastrophe. Before we can win, we’ll need a cultural moment when millions of people — designers, artists, engineers, entrepreneurs, planners, politicians — dream in public about choosing a better way, and become a movement to fight for it. What could that Zeitgeist be like? Imagining that is now every bit as critical as, say, inventing better solar panels — because now every successful future involves not only making things never before made, but changing things never before changed. That is the future we must learn to see.

That’s not the future we’re imagining now. No, our culture today is full of denial, dire predictions, disaster scenarios; escapes to the stars and post-apocalyptic survival tales. The futures being imagined today are largely ones of failure or escapist transcendence, not win scenarios for all of humanity.

We desperately need to be able to see the possibilities for change. Edmund Burke once wrote that all that’s necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing. Well, this is when we are, people: All that’s necessary now for the largely irrevocable destruction of the world is for our society not to change. Business as usual — the status quo — is a doomsday weapon.

It’s also, unfortunately, a very profitable doomsday weapon. Fossil fuels, dirty infrastructure, toxic chemistry, industrialized livestock, the strip-mining of our soil and aquifers and oceans and forests — all of these make their investors money in piles higher than you can easily imagine.

These industries aren’t profitable for everyone, of course. Most of us see very few of these riches, though all of us pay the costs of their destruction — the the young and the poor most of all. (As Paul Hawken wrote, we have an economy that steals the future, sells it in the present and calls it GDP.) But for the people who own them, these corporations are firehoses of cash aimed at tax-free bank accounts in the Cayman Islands.

Every year they can keep it all going means another swimming pool of cash.

And these investors are smart. They know that what they’re doing is completely unsustainable (indeed, they knew before most of us did). They know that, sooner or later, for the good of humanity, their industries will be shut down forever.

Later, for these folks, works much better than sooner. Every year they can keep it all going means another swimming pool of cash.

We’ve allowed these opponents of progress to define what the future can be. The best way to keep people from demanding change is to convince them that change is impossible. The best way to convince them nothing can change is to make sure they can’t visualize what change would look like. Billions of dollars buys a lot of blindness. We live in a time of mobilized deception, of predatory delay.

That’s just commonplace, despicable greed. However, in denying the verypossibility of a bright, sustainable future, this predatory delay has set in motion something far worse.

When we can imagine no future we want, something far more dangerous takes its place in our minds: the future we fear. Without visions of progress worth coming together to fight for, crisis tears people apart. That’s no accident, either. Divide and rule. Where there is no vision, people are easy prey.

A dark unknowable future becomes raw power in the hands of a fear-monger. All over the world, we see demagogues lashing audiences into frenzies by putting old faces of hate on people’s new fears for the world ahead of us. Combining the anxiety of crisis with political scapegoating has birthed some of the greatest evil humanity has ever seen. Make no mistake: That evil is again on the march in the world, with talk of walls and camps, wars for living space and the battle for the last remaining resources. This time it threatens to tear us apart at the very moment when the only thing that can save us is working together.

You’d think that this would be when the Very Serious People who’ve been running our countries, corporations and culture would step up and counter that fear-mongering with leadership and vision. You’d be wrong.

They can’t lead us because every good future is now a heroic one, and they’re not heroes. They’re managers and accountants and gatekeepers — heroism is completely absent from their job descriptions. So we get the weird claim — made again and again — that our only path forward is clearly insufficient incremental change combined with some miraculous feat of techno-wizardry no one can yet produce (fusion, geoengineering, American bipartisanship).

No one is fooled. The issue-dodging of think tank policy pronouncements, the greenwashing of most corporate sustainability and the buck-passing of distant, vague targets that calls itself global governance these days do nothing to meet our crisis. The more the Very Serious People proclaim that half-steps are the path to a better future, the scarier the future seems to people, and the more comforting the howls of the demagogues feel. (Cowardice in crisis always feeds extremism.)

We need truth in our targets, democracy in our visions and courage in our plans…

The future is too important to be left to bureaucrats, think tanks and PR companies. We need truth in our targets, democracy in our visions and courage in our plans and none of that’s on their talking points list.

So, every good future is now a heroic one, and only democratic approaches to imagining heroic change will likely work. The problem is, few of us feel like heroes these days.

Every day, people tell us that all we can do is take small steps, support slow transitions, gradual improvements, incremental policy gains. We look at this gulf between what we sense we must do to build a thriving world and what we’re told we can do… and we despair.

Our challenges are epic. But if building a better world seems out of our reach, then we need to become people who can reach farther, together.

That’s when we must remember that we don’t need to be heroes ourselves to to take part in heroic change.

Our challenges are epic. But if building a better world seems out of our reach, then we need to become people who can reach farther, together. We extend our conceptual reach by embracing bigger shared visions. To become people capable of doing heroic things together, we have to imagine what heroic futures might be like. That’s something we can learn how to do.

“Free your mind,” George Clinton once said, “and your ass will follow.”

Inour day, we free our minds by imagining success — not just imagining the possibility of success, but imagining a successful future itself.

The future doesn’t just happen to us, and the way we see it is always a choice. We choose our paths forward, and, if we’re smart, we choose the destinations we’re aiming to reach. Heroic futurism is about learning how to choose more powerfully.

Our responsibilities begin with our visions, so it’s important that all of us learn to create better visions of the future. Heroic futurism is not about dictating utopian proposals or plans, much less any attempt to foist on the world a single vision of the road ahead. Heroic futurism is a stance towards what might be, one that treats reimagining the world of tomorrow in order to change the world today as a set of tools we can all learn.

To powerfully reimagine the world of tomorrow, we need to master three tools:

  • to conceptually grasp what the future demands of us (what we term planetary thinking)
  • to gain insight into our capacities for success — and their limits (what we refer to as heroic action)
  • to become more skilled with the workings of imagination itself (what we call “futurecraft”)

Each of the three episodes of The Heroic Future (the documentary series we’re preparing) focuses on one of these questions. Each 90-minute show is centered around a talk, incorporating stage presentation, film and photography, visual design, sound, music and lighting to share my stories of where we are, where we need to go, and the kind of visions that might guide us through the planetary crisis we face. We’ll be revealing more about these shows in the weeks ahead.

For the last five years, I’ve been passionately committed to exploring planetary futurism — working to understand these three great tasks of planetary thinking, heroic action and futurecraft. My work as a planetary futurist has given me the chance to see our problems in systems, and see those systems in stories. Now I’m ready to share those stories.

It’s the best work I’ve ever done. When we truly understand the structure of the planetary crisis, it becomes no less scary, but it does become more bearable. When we really comprehend the opportunities we have to make the world better, they don’t get any easier, but working together to achieve them becomes a lot more feasible. And when come to understand that every future is a story about who we are now — and that we can use futurecraft to design those stories to illuminate rather than dishearten — imagining the world we need to build becomes an amazing adventure.

These are teaching stories, not proclamations. The point is not that everyone should adopt my stories of successful futures; it’s that they learn to tell their own. Nothing under the sun is more powerful than that.

If I’ve learned anything, I’ve learned this: Sharing stories makes us allies. We need a repertoire of heroic stories that the whole of humanity can share if we’re going to survive the storm bearing down on us.

Finding better stories, fast, is the last, best hope of humankind.

Back The Heroic Future on Kickstarter.