My great-uncle was an accountant who responded to my father’s question about how to best figure taxes, “I go to the line that says ‘Amount Owed’ and I write ‘0’ and figure backwards.” Hmmm. We might not think much of his humor, but creating the future we want is no joke. His method might be helpful in some crucial ways.
Those who study strategic planning sometimes explore envisioning work, which is a bit like my great-uncle’s tax method, but with practical advantages. First, imagine the future you desire in, say, 20 years. Then work backward in logical increments (OK, if we want to see this happen by 2033, we need to at least have this precursor in place by 2028…If we want to see that reality by 2028, we need to have achieved this by 2023…Since we want to have this by 2023 we must have this other condition established by 2018…OK, how do we get that done in five years?).
This is how we will best move from our hyperconsumption, wildly overpopulating, extractive and wasteful polluting present to a sustainable future. It has distinct advantages over extrapolative planning that is solely based on where we’ve been, say Dublin’s Trinity College sustainability experts Anna R. Davies, Ruth Doyle and Jessica Pape. Writing in the journal Area, they explain the immediate uses of those processes in Irish homes attempting sustainable practices. Freeing up their minds by speculating on how they will have achieved all this by 2050, the researchers found that participants generally achieved “imaginative co-creation of knowledge” (p. 57). Working in groups of seven, they went in their minds to 2050 and envisioned their society running in a sustainable manner that satisfied their needs, almost always involving novel solutions emerging from liberated imaginations freed of current path dependency, and then worked backward and, along the way, joined their desired future with the bogged-down present. They had created a line of sight to a better future.
Peace researcher and sociologist Elise Boulding heard about the very earliest such work and created a process, Inventing a World Without Weapons, in the late 1970s. Her work made a slight impression then but was not so much utilized; it is possible that its time has come now in our new millennium of more arms, more weapons, but fewer wars. Indeed, the most egregious arms—nuclear weapons—created such a dire nightmarish vision of an apocalyptic future that humankind has, so far, not shot them at each other since the first two were used to slaughter so many civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Our imaginations have frightened us away from that dystopic disaster, but can we put our imaginations to a stronger process of imaging and then reifying a world without any war at all?
Our great grandchildren are depending on us to make that world possible for them. Let’s go to the line that reads “Numbers of wars fought in 2033” and imagine “Zero.” Once we’ve imagined it, we can create it. It will take all of us. Let's figure back and then go forward.
Davies, A., Doyle, R., & Pape, J. (2012). Future visioning for sustainable household practices: Spaces for sustainability learning? Area, 44(1), 54-60. doi:10.1111/j.1475-4762.2011.01054.x