The Vision Thing (Part I)

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"The best way to predict the future is to design it." –Buckminster Fuller

For some time now I have been proposing a national vision project – a conversation among the American people about the positive future we can create if we put our minds to it. That idea may have gained some momentum his month in a converted barn on the Rockefeller estate outside New York City.

With the help of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Rockefeller Foundation, we convened 30 people – a yeasty mix of communications wizards, sustainable development experts and philanthropists – to determine if they are interested in working together to launch that national discussion. They are.

I don’t yet know what shape this initiative will take, but I know why it’s necessary. As Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson put it in their book, The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People Are Changing the World:

Today, as we are besieged by planetary problems, the risk is that we will deal with them in a pessimistic and unproductive style. …Transfixed by an image of our own future decline, we could actually bring it about.

Have we reached the point that Ray and Anderson warn us about, helpless and depressed, immobilized like deer in the headlights by the frequent damage reports from climate scientists and apocalyptic images of civilization’s collapse?

You be the judge. If you have a few minutes, go to these links and watch:

The Day After Tomorrow

Six Degrees Could Change the World

Eleventh Hour

The Day the Earth Stood Still

Similar dark images of the future have appeared in books and on television specials. Even Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, the climate movement’s cinematic equivalent of the cerebral A Dinner with Andre, starts with a dread-invoking dose of disaster.

These days, we don’t have to rely on fiction to imagine civilization under siege. The images show up regularly in the news as the effects of climate change manifest in the United States and elsewhere, much earlier than we thought just a few years ago.

Go to these links for examples from the past 12 months, compliments of the Boston Globe: Wildfires, Hurricanes, Floods, More Floods.

For whatever reason – perhaps there’s something in our psychology that makes destruction more entertaining than construction – we are being exposed to many more apocalyptic images than images of a post-carbon world that can be positive and prosperous, even as we deal with the impacts of climate change that already are inevitable.

If Ray and Anderson are correct, the lack of balance between positive and negative visions could be our undoing.

For contrast, we might look at what previous generations have done in times of overwhelming challenge. The poster campaigns of World War II were calls to action rather than invitations to despair.

One of the best-known uses of positive visioning in American history came during the Great Depression, when Futurama, the General Motors pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, constructed a dynamic vision of “the greater and better world of tomorrow” in this “unfinished world of ours”.

Let me be clear: We need to face the very bad things that will happen if we don’t get a grip on climate change and the bad things that already are inevitable because of greenhouse gas emissions now in the atmosphere.

Images of disaster can motivate us to act. But they immobilize us if they are not balanced with positive visions of plausible possibilities. In addition to “unleashing our inner ant”, positive visions give us a sense of direction for public policy and private investment. It is not enough for us to talk about green-collar jobs, a post-industrial society, a new energy economy, a carbohydrate economy, a Third Industrial Revolution, sustainable development or a Green New Deal. Those are concepts, not visions, and for many of us they are abstractions.

Effective visioning must engage the grass roots, but national leaders play an important role. As I wrote during and after the presidential election:

Nov. 26, 2007: What is the dream? If we are moving away from fossil fuels and the industrial economy and greenhouse gas emissions, what are we moving toward? Good ideas alone aren’t enough. The true test of leadership in this campaign will be the candidates’ ability to articulate a positive vision for the post-carbon America and to unify the nation around it.

Nov. 21, 2008: We need a national conversation on the topic of change, on America’s future. The conversation is sufficiently important that it should be convened by President Obama himself…Obama’s people engineered the most sophisticated communications campaign in American political history. Now, they should persuade Disney, Google, Industrial Light and Magic, other New Age wizards, sponsored by today’s forward looking corporations, to build a new exhibit at Epcot Center, or a traveling exhibit, or a mind-blowing web-based adventure to help Americans experience and design life in a post-carbon world…However we do it, it’s time for the nation to talk about the future in more precise and creative terms than merely calling for "change."

Jan. 29, 2009: The best part of the economic stimulus package moving through Congress is that it calls for a significant down payment on a new energy economy. One of its weaknesses is that it doesn’t give the American people a clear, exciting vision for what that new economy can do…The stimulus needs compelling themes that make clear how tomorrow will be better than today and how every American can answer President Obama’s challenge that we all do our part.

Rob Hopkins writes in The Transition Handbook that we have not yet begun to tap the power of positive vision:

It is one thing to campaign against climate change, and quite another to paint a compelling and engaging vision of a post-carbon world in such a way as to enthuse others to embark on a journey towards it.

According to an article in the New York Times Magazine, Hopkins’ vision of “transition communities” in which citizens have mobilized and transformed their towns to survive the triple crises of peak oil, economic collapse and climate change – a movement he started in the UK – is inspiring some American communities to begin future-planning, more evidence that the moment for visioning has come.

In fact, one of the revelations as I organized the meeting in New York is that a number of groups already are working on visioning exercises of one sort or another.

A good example is a project titled America 2050 in which the Regional Plan Association in New York is convening stakeholders to create new ideas for transportation in 11 U.S. mega-regions. This work is timely and important for several reasons. Transportation is one of the big three sources of carbon emissions, it is the principal reason we are addicted to oil, and Congress plans to review our obsolete car-centered federal transportation policy later this year. Among other engaging exercises, RPA is creating “journeys” – virtual everyday trips in which people have a variety of mobility options and make choices between driving, biking and riding mass transit.

With a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, WNET, the public television network in New York, has launched a year-long multi-media project called Blueprint America to explore the nation’s options for improving transportation. Documentaries on the topic will appear on public television stations later this year.

Groups such as Reconnecting America, the Rails to Trails Conservancy and the Center for Neighborhood Technologies have been working for some time on greener mobility options ranging from bicycle paths to high-speed rail. Ken Snyder at PlaceMatters has assembled a gee-whiz toolbox of state-of-the-art devices to support and help democratize the planning process.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Colorado is working on the technologies for zero-carbon buildings and communities. Ed Mazria of Architecture 2030 is leading the movement for the designs and standards that within two decades will produce the carbon-neutral buildings NREL is researching.

The U.S. Green Building Council has developed a rating system for sustainable neighborhoods, while the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) has created STAR, a community-scale rating system. An American design team is trying to raise sufficient funds for a U.S. pavilion at the World Expo next year in Shanghai, where the theme will be “Better Cities; Better Lives”.

New real-life examples are also appearing to show what cities and buildings might be like in a livable post-carbon society:

    Pioneering architects such as Bob Berkebile, one of the fathers of the U.S. green building movement, have designed “living buildings”.

    Greensburg, Kan., leveled by a tornado two years ago, is hard at work rebuilding as a green community.

    Arup, the British-based engineering company, has designed a zero-carbon city called Dongtan to provide sustainable living outside Shanghai, China, for more than 500,000 people. (Unfortunately, the project has been put on a five-year hold due to leadership changes in China.)

    Another zero-carbon development called Masdar City is being built in Abu Dhabi.

I’m guessing that several of the major corporations investing in green technologies today – among them Toyota, General Electric, IBM and some of America’s more progressive electric utilities – have their own concepts of what a new energy economy will be like.

In these efforts, we see the future emerging from the bottom up and the top down. We need creativity from both directions, with policies, tools, research and technical help from the national level empowering homeowners, businesses and neighborhoods to design the post-carbon futures that best fit their culture, tastes, challenges, aspirations and assets.

Given the urgency of the energy and climate issues and the fact that our resources are limited, regional and national planning exercises like those I mentioned earlier might benefit from collaboration, even if it’s only to share information and lessons. If you are aware of other projects to envision a post-carbon future, please let me know by commenting on this post.

We could also benefit from a 21st century version of Futurama 1939 using today’s infinitely more powerful and pervasive communications and visioning technologies. A 21st century Futurama project – conceptualizing our transformation to a post-carbon society by 2020, 2030 and 2050 – could be the spark that ignites an international visioning initiative that builds worldwide support for a new global energy economy, a useful run-up to December’s climate conference in Copenhagen.

Visioning isn’t easy. In some nations, people prefer central planning. In democratic societies like ours, visioning is a messy process. People argue and vent. Values and vested interests conflict. But it is a blessed mess, a far better variety than the mess we are creating with business as usual.

This is a perfect time for vision, a teachable moment in which we can begin transforming the old order rather than trying in vain to patch its leaks. Barack Obama seems to understand this. “In political terms,” he said recently, “we may be in one of those moments where we can get a seismic shift in how the country views itself and our future. And we have to take advantage of that.”

Yes we do.


Blogger’s note: This report is based in part on the discussion that took place April 13-15, 2009, at the Rockefeller Brothers Conference Center at Pocantico. However, it reflects my views and not necessary those of other conference participants or the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.