Summary

In the concluding volume to the trilogy he began 20 years ago (with the bestselling Believing Cassandra), AtKisson draws on his thirty years of work in sustainability and focuses on the future — how we frame it, what methods we use to think about it, and how we attempt to create it. His survey of “future-thinking” ranges from its human evolutionary origins, to the emergence of “progress” as an article of faith during the enlightenment, to the technical models, forecasts, and scenarios of modern science and management practice. He relates these evolutionary advancements to the rise of global sustainability problems, as well as the wealth of warnings, prescriptions and proposed solutions that have arisen in their wake; and he illustrates his points with imagery from film and literature as well as compelling personal stories. AtKisson zeros in critically on how we deploy sustainability visions, goals, and strategies: usually without fully understanding what we are doing, which leaves us frustrated when efforts to realize those visions prove slow or ineffective. Drawing on the latest research into “anticipatory systems” and other disciplines, AtKisson closes with practical methods for “upgrading our relationship to the future” to increase our chances that we can actually create, as the UN once described it, “The Future We Want.”

Closing a trilogy — 25 years in the making

How do human beings think about the future? This is the question that frames and drives the third and final volume of a trilogy that began with Believing Cassandra, published in 1999 (after six years of development work).

Sustainability is fundamentally about “creating a better future”, but the practice of “future-thinking” — sometimes called “anticipation” or “prospective thinking,” but also characterized by many other common words and concepts — is surprisingly under-explored in the sustainability literature. Books on sustainability are generally about the future, typically consisting of trend analyses, warnings, visions (utopian and dystopian), predictions, scenarios, and prescriptions for action. What’s missing is a book about the mental, social, and societal processes involved, and those processes themselves need to be better understood, and better harnessed to the aims of sustainability.

Even in professional scientific presentations, words like “prediction,” “forecast” and “scenario” are often used interchangeably and erroneously, just as in informal conversation, we often blend words like “wish,” “dream”, and “hope”, or negative counterparts such as “worry” or “concern,” without really thinking about their differences, and the impacts of those differences.

But as research increasing tells us, these differences matter. How we think and talk about the future has everything to do with how we act. Here is a central message of this book: we are generally sloppy in our practice of “future-thinking” for sustainability. We need to upgrade our skills.

Here is a central message of this book: we are generally sloppy in our practice of “future-thinking” for sustainability. We need to upgrade our skills.

Of course, the idea that future-thinking is at the heart of sustainability is not new; it is just relatively unexamined as a topic in itself. Many people in the field of sustainability stress the importance of vision. The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have made goal-setting central to the global sustainability movement. “Science-based targets” are taking the world of sustainable business by storm. And yet there is a lack of clarity and understanding about how to relate to these future-focused concepts. The problem is not limited to nuanced differences in meaning between words like vision, goal, target, and strategy. Rather, our efforts are hampered by not fully grasping the role of future-thinking generally — as well as different specific modes of future-thinking — in framing discussion, debate, and ultimately decision-making and action.

Gaia’s Dreams makes the case that increasing our clarity of thinking about the future, and expanding our critical awareness of how “future-thinking” (good and bad) subtly dominates the way the world works generally, is essential to the practice of sustainability. The book provides a thorough-yet-highly-readable review of this topic, aimed at a professional and popular audience, together with practical recommendations for improving our capacity for “future-thinking,” and putting that capacity to better purpose.

In addition to reviewing current professional approaches (such as “anticipation studies”, “decision theater” and more), Gaia’s Dreams also takes a broad, historical view of how our capacity for future-thinking evolved, and it speculates on where that capacity might be heading, building on paleontology, anthropology, and brain science. The book summarizes the natural history of future-thinking, human and non-human; reflects on how the future looked to us in the past (and how that steered us into the present); and sets current images of the future — from science-fiction films to advanced scientific and economic forecasts — in a sustainability light.

It is important to note that Gaia’s Dreams, while it is written to be a stand-alone book, is also the conclusion of a trilogy of books by the same author, beginning with Believing Cassandra: How to be an optimist in a pessimist’s world (1999, revised edition 2011) and The Sustainability Transformation: How to accelerate positive change in challenging times (2008, revised 2010). The new book adopts the same narrative style as these previous Routledge-Earthscan books, combining professional exegesis, in a journalistic style, with occasional personal reflection (often framed as letters or diary entries). The new book also, like the earlier books, begins with a “Prologue” based around a character from myth — in this case the Greek goddess Gaia, a symbol for the Earth itself. Gaia’s dreams are now our dreams: in the age of the “Anthropocene,” human visions of the future have the power to determine the future of all life on Earth.

Gaia’s dreams are now our dreams: in the age of the “Anthropocene,” human visions of the future have the power to determine the future of all life on Earth.