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First person: On becoming a futurist

Fall 2016 | By Jenny Seifert (M.S. ER ’11)

I had never thought of myself as a futurist. In fact, I didn’t even know futurism was a thing until about three years ago, when I started a new job and was tasked with writing what amounted to science fiction.

Jenny Seifert
Jenny Seifert

The gig was with the UW-Madison Water Sustainability and Climate project, and the task was to write scenarios, or fictional-but-plausible stories about the future. These stories, collectively called Yahara 2070, describe four different ways current generations in Wisconsin’s Yahara Watershed (where Madison lies) might address their water challenges.

Hardly my own futuristic fantasies, these tales actually reflect a compilation of trends and ideas derived from local stakeholders and the academic literature. Our research team then used computer models to simulate the land-use and climate changes portrayed in the stories to give us an idea of what those changes could mean for future generations and ecosystems by the year 2070.

The point of such an exercise is captured in this quote by sustainability guru Buckminster Fuller: “We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims.”

Scenarios essentially help us realize this calling. By considering a few “what ifs” and their potential consequences, we can think more coherently about long-term changes, envision a future we actually want, and then figure out how to go about building it.

The hitch is, long-term thinking doesn’t seem to be our society’s forte. Picturing a future a few generations from now is a difficult task — many of us can barely see past next week. Not only is the future unpredictable and riddled with uncertainties, but our accelerated world also constricts our vision with short cycles and instant gratifications. Some studies even say we humans tend to devalue or discount the future in favor of more immediate rewards.

I’m not convinced we’re short-term thinkers by nature, however. Despite our obstructed vision, I believe we can nurture a collective long-term lens.

Illustration from Yahara 2070 project
The fictional-but-plausible Yahara 2070 stories describe ways current generations in Wisconsin’s Yahara Watershed might address their water challenges. A research team then used computer models to simulate the land-use and climate changes portrayed in the stories, to illuminate what those changes could mean for future generations and ecosystems by 2070. Illustration by John Miller.

 

As ecologist Erle Ellis said in a recent essay, we humans are a species of “ultra-social” capacities. It was with these capacities that we transformed earth systems and brought about the Anthropocene, the new geologic epoch scholars argue we have ushered in with our climate-altering powers. But these capacities don’t have to lead to our own demise, urges Ellis. Rather, we can use them to intentionally evolve toward a good Anthropocene.

I agree and posit that long-term thinking is a socio-cultural capacity we already possess, but it is underutilized and, thus, under-developed. Developing it is necessary if we want to make the Anthropocene an epoch we can feel good about in the end.

Fortunately, this capacity should come easily to the Nelson Institute’s ilk. Long-term thinking goes hand-in-hand with sustainability, resilience, conservation, and even the turn-back-time thinking of ecological restoration.

“The Anthropocene may
have gotten off to a rocky
start, but it doesn’t have
to follow the gloom-and-
doom scenarios we are
accustomed to hearing.”

And storytelling through exercises like scenarios is a powerful way to help nurture this capacity at a collective level. Stories are part of our human nature. They are our age-old tool for making sense of the world and long spans of time. By telling more stories about desirable futures, we essentially create blueprints for the path forward.

The Anthropocene may have gotten off to a rocky start, but it doesn’t have to follow the gloom-and-doom scenarios we are accustomed to hearing. Those narratives may be worthy as cautionary tales, but only by countering them with empowering, solutions-oriented alternatives can we turn the epochal ship around.

My work on Yahara 2070 made me a futurist. Before, I could have counted the number of science fiction novels I’d ever read on one hand. I still can, but now I think in scenarios.

And I think we can all be futurists, no matter our reading preferences. Cultivating this capacity doesn’t require complex scientific exercises either. To build a good Anthropocene, we need just our imagination.

Jenny Seifert is the science writer and outreach coordinator for the Water Sustainability and Climate Project at UW-Madison, a National Science Foundation-funded effort to understand how water and the many benefits people derive from nature could change over time, with a focus on Wisconsin’s Yahara Watershed. To learn more about the project and the scenarios Seifert helped to produce, visit wsc.limnology.wisc.edu.

 


In Common welcomes first-person essays from Nelson Institute alumni on topics related to your lives, professions or perspectives. Send an idea, or a draft to be considered, to incommon@nelson.wisc.edu.



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