Eco-Futurism: To Save the Environment, We Must Change the Way We Think

By Sulaiman Ilyas-Jarrett, The Future Society


“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”

– Albert Einstein


The future is a frightening place. It is, by definition, a collection of uncertainties, and so it is natural to approach it with caution.


As a result, most are slow to adapt, and seldom prepared. This means we carry old paradigms into new contexts, where they no longer hold true. An unwillingness to grapple with the fundamental changes technology may bring about, means we are often constrained by out-dated modes of thought.


A bias towards the status quo limits policy-makers and business leaders alike. This is particularly true in the public sector and larger corporations, with innovators often being confined to start-ups or university labs. While these certainly have their part to play, for environmental action to work we need the big players on board as well.


Our current environmental policy is being formed within a set of paradigms from as far back as the 1960s. Our emphasis on growth as a key economic indicator, our expectation that energy production will be centralised, even our meat-intensive diets; all of these are assumptions we inherit from the past, but are in many ways arbitrary. Other than convenience, there is no reason to carry them into the future.


If we have any hope of limiting global warming to the 2oC target set in 2015, we need bold and innovative strategies that step outside these kinds of assumptions.


From as far back as 2009, scientists from Stanford and the University of California have argued a total global transition to renewable energy is possible by 2030, yet the ambitious policies and investments needed to make that happen are nowhere to be seen.


This is in part because, outside of academia, we define ‘possible’ as how close something is to the current convention, not as what we can technically do. This must change. Otherwise, we will continue to replace harmful environmental policies with slightly less harmful ones, rather than designing strategies with a positive impact.


At The Future Society, we recognise that governments must be at the forefront of this agenda. Yet since the early 1990s, a combination of laissez-faire governance and the sheer speed of technological change has meant policy makers have been l eft on the back foot when it comes to innovation.


Things have mostly been left to the private sector, which has a crucial role to play in spreading new technologies, but lacks the incentive or capital to tackle long-term environmental issues head on. While a handful of smaller nations have managed to embrace imaginative government styles – notably Estonia, Costa Rica, and, to an extent, Rwanda – governments are often hesitant to reclaim ownership of innovation.


The purpose of the Eco-Futurism Project is to demonstrate the importance of environmental innovation, examining disruptive technologies and analysing what they mean for policy and governance. In this article series we will examine some of the biggest environmental challenges we face, including food production, energy, and waste. It is only by sketching out new paradigms that we will invalidate the old ones.


We need a space to explore these ideas holistically. To examine new technologies and to think about their wider societal impact. When it comes to renewable energy, for example, we must think beyond technical specifications. About how falling costs will mean more people produce their own energy, or how the intermittence of wind and solar should encourage flexible working days to prevent spikes in demand. About how this will interact with the proliferation of electric vehicles, how big data and artificial intelligence might make distribution more efficient, and what implications this will have for privacy. Or even cybersecurity on a national level. These are the kinds of questions we must ask.


To tackle the multitude of environmental issues we face, we need deep and disruptive change. We need to be bold. To encourage the cross-pollination of ideas, and to invest heavily in the research and development of green technologies.


But first and foremost, we must be imaginative. In order to inspire the innovative policies and private ventures we need, it is essential that we step outside present ways of thinking, to form a clear picture of the society we hope to create. Perhaps then, the future won’t seem so frightening.