Anticipating futures and melting away the environment

The future seems to be arriving faster than we’d expected, whether materialised in chaotic climate, Russian troops invading Ukraine or massive changes to online life. But today I’d like to recall and celebrate the important fact that in these historic times it’s rather clear that many of those who specialise in anticipating the future, have been on the right tracks. And this has helped the rest of us. Their work goes on whether we notice it or not, though futures professionals do put out some communications, of course. Like this report by Finland’s Committee for the Future about Russia as a neighbour.

One of my favourite albums of all time is Supertramp’s Crisis, what crisis? They nailed something that I think my 12-year-old self recognised as worth nailing back in the 1970s (I got to the album a little late, courtesy of my older brother, but it coincided with an ‘environmental awakening’ of sorts for me). Today crisis talk is popular or at least prevalent, but Supertramp’s take (look at that cover!) on the issue is unbelievably relevant still. That said, since then, futures research has grown, and helped governments as well as businesses understand and prepare for unpleasant surprises.

You might say foresight expertise really came into its own when COVID19 hit two years ago. At the time not everyone even knew about the existence of futures work, or, indeed, about Finland’s National Emergency Supply Agency. In spring 2020 they didn’t have the face masks that, in hindsight, might have made the Covid pandemic less disruptive in Finland. But their efforts certainly helped life in Finland to continue, if not as before, then at least in relative comfort and security for most of us.

Discarded facemasks in Helsinki, March 2021

Our health or the environment – or both?

The pandemic has alerted many to how complex a thing the once politically marginal concept of ‘the environment’ actually is. COVID made us (once again) aware of the deep and intense entanglements across time and space that global capitalist relations have generated. It ridiculed the way capitalist institutions have (had?) fooled themselves into believing that ‘over here’ can be kept separate from ‘over there’, a lesson that seems truly hard for wealthy westerners to grasp. Euqally oddly, the most comfortable among us behave as if the past, the present and the future are unconnected. Environmentalists and those who suffer today the harms of historic toxic discards know better.

Those dealing in the future with the left-overs of our efforts to deal with the pandemic may also think about how pasts and futures get tangled up.

‘Environmentalists’ and the term ‘environment’, which only really appeared in political life in the 1960s, can refer to many things of course. And they’ve shape shifted over the decades. But I think something is happening that is bringing the environment ‘in’ to places where it was formerly easy to ignore it. For a long time, even for us self-styled environmentalists, the environment was something distant or at least an intricate system for experts to know, and for us to learn about from them. It was necessary to have some specialist insight, in the seemingly good old days, to know that the environment was hurting.

No longer. The hurting and, I think, the environment are now right here, in our bodies. Teeny tiny, like a corona virus, yet with deadly and global impacts. The zoonotic diseases like the bird, swine and other influenza viruses that have affected the world in recent years are personal and family tragedies. They create new socio-economic and health divisions, affecting everything. They don’t concern just natural environments but have everything to do with the built and social worlds. They are also in our thoughts and emotions, our political and cultural preferences (particularly visible in young people’s protests that have shown no sign of abating), and in what we do for a living.

Environment = (geo)politics

And if ‘the environment’ really hit the world as a health problem with COVID, right now, in early March 2022, it’s also clearly a geopolitical problem. And it’s about to massively impact our wallets and weekly budgets.

Take energy. It comes in many forms, but I’m talking about the kind that economists and politicians talk about, the kind that fuels industry and economic life (which may or may not include human powers, for they are and they need energy too. But that’s to digress). Mainstream media has commented from time to time – over decades – on how addicted the capitalist world is to fossil fuels. And it has kind of been admitted that herein have long lain future geopolitical calamities or at least dangers.

Now, as unthinkable atrocities of war shake life in Europe, and as retaliation for this aggression comes in the form of economic sanctions more than in military hardware, more and more people who do not identify as environmentalists are also realising how disastrous this addiction to fossil fuels is. 

The International Energy Agency published a 10 point plan for Europe to exit this crisis in recognition of this. But it feels pitiably timid, as if they’ve not really accepted how deep the sh*t is that we are in. Leading opinion is stuck, it seems, in the old thought patterns, where bads can and should be pushed far away in time and space.

Crisis, what crisis? As if ‘the environment’ didn’t concern everything!

Compare today’s response to the energy crisis of the 1970s, when supplies of oil and gas from the Middle East were cut, causing widespread alarm but also forcing change. It spurred on imaginative renewable energy projects as well as strict rationing programmes. I vaguely recall that time spent in our family car went down, and I know that economic activity relaxed a bit (three-day working week), but I also know that much was done to support changes that, it was hoped, might end our debilitating addiction to fossil fuels: renewables, public transport, smaller cars, etc. Today, in contrast, only grassroots initiatives and individuals, it seems, are really serious about transformation and starting it now.

Environment = economics = household economics

Another implication of how the environment is coming closer is that degrowth isn’t just a programme for preparing for tomorrow. De-growing in the sense of getting smaller, of shrinking, is a reality already affecting us.

Whatever future energy systems and sources I will end up living with, even in these wealthy parts of the world, good things are in shorter supply. We experience shrinkage even as prices go up. Thios isn’t what degrowth could be about, but actual degrowing and coping with destruction are part of our present reality, even far away from the unimaginable carnage of the war. And goodness knows what Russian household economies will feel like soon.

Here a few examples of how we are already – de facto – in a world of reduced goods.

1) Paper. Finland’s biggest newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, has had to stop printing its weekend supplement on paper (as explained here in Finnish). War in Ukraine and a long-term strike in a major papermill mean not enough paper is available. Who’d have thought that the country that once produced the paper on which the London Times was printed, would end up in this situation! (So we access the information electronically, though I am not sure which is more detrimental, turning forests into daily papers or the growing carbon emissions of life digitalised.)

2) Food. Looking to my kitchen table, my personal addiction to bananas stares me in the face, but also reminds me that it too is vulnerable to plant diseases. Well, at least the Cavendish cultivar is, which accounts for most commercial banana production. I hope for system change in how bananas get to my kitchen table, behaviour change at that table. And I marvel at how a lime grown in Brazil can cost only 18 cents in a northern Finnish grocery.

Opening my fridge door, a range of forthcoming shortages confronts me.  The easiest eating habit to drop will be occational almond milk habit. Drought and the ravages of plantation agriculture are likely to bring massive shortages rather soon. My already rather meagre consumption of meat and dairy products is likely to go down further. Indeed, the Finnish broadcasting company, YLE, announced this week, with curious understatement, that as a direct result of war in Ukraine, Finns may have to reduce their meat habit. Elsewhere alarm bells do ring louder, and looming lack of formerly taken-for-granted goodies is already well recognised.

Grains. In trouble. No surprise. And to turn them into bread, you need energy – getting more and more expensive each week. This will be painful particularly among the less well off (discussed here in Finnish) unless systems are put in place to prevent hunger, loss of livelihoods and civil unrest.

3) Healthy land. Decision makers are also stuck in the idea that it is cities and industrial landscapes that must be grown. So, areas of healthy biodiversity and regenerative landscapes of more rather than less peaceful coexistence get smaller and smaller. Queue those zoonotic diseases, for instance. Meanwhile, to prevent (the wrong kind of) animals from encroaching on human comforts, but also to keep wild creatures afraid of humans, Finnish authorities advocate what they call game-husbandry. Conversion of land from biodiverse to technology-intensive continues apace, in Finland as elsewhere. This goes with shouting matches (and worse) about the morality and otherwise of nature conservation (of which more in later posts, I hope). What’s striking about some of this is that the entanglement of environment and economy, which is beginning to be recognised in some areas of life, can so easily be forgotten or ignored in others.

Futures built on livelihoods, not economics

I only follow research around political economy to the extent that it helps me make sense of environmental and sociocultural issues. Rather than economy, a problematic term if there ever was one (as heterodox economists, environmentalists and researchers of many kinds have often noted), I am more interested in livelihoods. That’s a word that refers to ways of reproducing and regenerating life in all its creative, destructive and vulnerable dimensions. Some of us social scientists like to use that word because it captures a reality that people actually struggle with. It doesn’t divide the world up into academic and institutional silos like the economy, the environment and society.

To use the concept of livelihood is a way to remember human dependence on the living non-human world, to acknowledge what I started with, that ‘the environment’ is not somewhere out there, but in everything, including right here. And yet it doesn’t make the analytical effort – what academics trade in – weaker or less interesting. My colleague at Aalto, Eeva Houtbeckers, has posted an excellent book review and discussion of a key text, Ethan Miller’s Reimagining Livelihoods: Life beyond economy, society, and environment.

To get back to the work of long-term planning and foresight that I began with, it’s clear that it is more significant than ever. And so I’m keeping an eye out for foresight work, particularly where it has emerged from concerns that are conventionally thought of as environmental, like participatory foresight exercises related to food. And, starting next month, I’ll once again be teaching about futures work on the Values in Design Futures course with another inspiring colleague at Aalto University, İdil Gaziulusoy.

As a diffuse sense of crisis continues, I count my blessings that there are still universities and intellectual networks that make it possible to learn with foresight and collective intelligence. We cannot and, fortunately, need not just rely on hindsight or on commodified know-how.

At least at the two universities currently supporting my livelihood, the University of Oulu and Aalto University, still make such an enterprise possible.

Lammasjärvi, Kuhmo, melting. 11.3.2022

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