Why We Need to Envision Positive Futures

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Lu Lacerda
Visions allow people to see themselves in an alternative future, a more powerful tool than mere reason.

An eternal trait of men is the need for vision and readiness to
follow it; and if men are not given the right vision, they will
follow wandering fires.
– Sir Richard Livingstone

Where there is no vision, the people perish. – Proverbs 29:18

One cannot construct what one cannot image. – Lawrence Goodwyn

To do the same thing over and over again and expect different results is crazy.
– Albert Einstein

There is no shortage of well-researched journal articles and books on climate change, habitat destruction, species extinction, degradation of water sources, fouling of the land and atmosphere, and other forms of environmental despoliation. There is equally no shortage of well-researched journal articles and books on the sources of absolute and relative poverty worldwide. And there is ample documentation of violations of human rights as well as intra- and international conflict.

In Solutions, we emphasize the positive. More specifically, we feature articles on reducing carbon emissions; rehabilitating damaged ecosystems; protecting fresh water sources and forests; restricting the introduction of harmful chemicals into the soil, oceans, and atmosphere; pulling people and countries out of poverty; de-escalating conflicts; and resisting tyrannical regimes.

In the battle of ideas, we like to think (I certainly do) that we have the better logic and stronger evidence and that citizens in democratic societies should be rallying to our side. However, that does not seem to be happening. Some attribute this to more effective communication (some would call it propaganda) on the part of those corporations and wealthy individuals who benefit financially from environmental destruction, economic deprivation, and conflict. There is much truth to this and means we need to examine some of our fundamental ideas about how to achieve change. In particular, we need to acknowledge that logic and evidence, though important, are not sufficient for changing minds and behaviors. There is much research that tells us that this is so: for example, the pioneering work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky on behavioral economics; the findings of linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff on framing; as well as the work of neuropsychologist Drew Weston on the role that emotions play in political decision making.

Evidence, statistical and otherwise, can be impressive but is rarely convincing. As just one example, people are less afraid of automobiles than air travel when all the evidence clearly establishes that the former is far more dangerous.

One finding of behavioral economics is that change does not come easily to individuals or societies; resistance to it is stubborn. As often as not, people must first believe and then they see, not the other way around as it is commonly stated. Thus, when confronted with new evidence, people will select those parts that confirm their existing views. They strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains, which goes a long way to explaining the resistance to change.

Consequently, people won’t become involved in change until they can see themselves in the alternative future to which the change aspires, and they won’t be able to see themselves in that future until they become involved in change. The purpose of a vision is to enable people to see themselves in an alternative future. Envisioning is then a tactic for enacting democratic change.

A vision is not a list of values, goals, objectives, or principles. Rather, it is a clear and integrated proposal for the future. It should be a depiction of society detailed and precise enough that it is possible for most people to see themselves in it. It could focus on a single element of the future such as education, housing, work and employment, care and treatment of children, or of the elderly, or it could look at the big picture and describe how such elements fit together and interact. To be effective, a vision should be bold, daring, exciting, and generate hope. It should invite counter visions, stimulate debate, draw new people into politics, and induce them to act.

Duncan Hull
Enact change by imagining a different future for yourself, and encourage the creative envisioning of others.

A vision should be informed by a theory of human decision making, in particular, how people formulate expectations of the future. Expectations are formed from two elements: the alternative outcomes that might result from our choices which we differentially value on the basis of their desirability; and our subjective estimation of the probability that a particular outcome can be achieved. As a tactic for change, a vision emphasizes how much more gratifying life could be as contrasted with the present and that there is a reasonable chance that such a future can be obtained. To be successful as a political tactic, a vision should satisfy three conditions: it must be desirable, it must be feasible, and it must be unifying.

To be desirable, a vision should suggest how fundamental human needs will be satisfied. To be feasible, a vision must be achievable with what is currently known and not depend on scientific breakthroughs or interventions from outer space or the supernatural. To be unifying, a vision must appeal to nearly everyone and hold out the promise of an improvement in the quality of life for the vast majority. The logic of the vision must be compelling and consistent, and its components should fit into an integrated whole.

At one time, before we became jaded, we turned to utopians and let their imaginations guide us. As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, H.G. Wells both inspired and frightened the people of his time with utopian and dystopian works such as A Modern Utopia and Things to Come. Before him, Edward Bellamy roused many with his novel Looking Backwards, which in turn inspired William Morris to pen his own vision, News from Nowhere. The works of Bellamy, Morris, and dozens of other utopian authors were a response to Karl Marx, who viewed his work as the “scientific” alternative to Enlightenment utopians.

Inspiring the great thinkers of today and tomorrow is an activity needs to be rekindled. In its Envisioning section, Solutions offers a place where that can happen. We welcome submissions and every one we receive will be given careful consideration for publication.