In the first episode, we jump straight into this future. What will planet Earth look like 50, 100, 1,000 years from now? How can we look ahead in time and how can we try to envisage the routes we should take and the potential outcomes that will result from our current choices, actions, and evaluations?
Foresight – Deep into the Future Planet, a podcast produced by the CMCC and FACTA.
Carolina Aragón is an artist and educator who uses public art to transform landscapes, engage communities, and teach students. She holds a Master of Landscape Architecture degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and a Bachelor of Architecture from the Savannah College of Art and Design. She is an Assistant Professor in the Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. One of her most recent projects is FutureSHORELINE, a temporary water and land based art installation that shows the imminent changing nature of Boston’s shorefront due to sea level rise.
Alex Steffen is an American futurist, award-winning writer, speaker and foresight consultant. He writes and speaks about sustainability and the future of the planet focusing on the importance of imagining persuasive, positive possible futures. Over the last ten years he has also advised some of the world’s most forward-looking institutions, investors, philanthropists and NGOs. He is the author of different publications and products, including a podcast and newsletter entitled The Snap Forward.
Carolina Aragón: “Thinking wow, this is really going to happen and this is going to be different. Can we begin to imagine it ahead of time so that we can be prepared for it or maybe have important discussions about what we want this to look like?”
Alex Steffen: “Am I an optimist or a pessimist? While I’m certainly an optimist in this sense, which is that I believe that, you know, despair is unhelpful and cynicism is obedience. So I believe that being optimistic about our capacity to make changes that we know we can make is a central aspect of being an effective person right now. But I also don’t believe that there’s any way that we get a sort of classic happy ending out of this story.”
Where does science meet imagination? Our complex, interconnected, fast-changing world makes anticipations of the future more and more difficult. But the future is being shaped by today’s ideas, solutions, and decisions. The future is now.
I am Elisabetta Tola, science journalist, and this is Foresight – Deep into the Future Planet, a podcast produced by the CMCC Euro-Mediterranean Centre on Climate Change and FACTA.
Today we jump straight into the future. How do we look ahead in time and how do we try and envisage which are the routes we should take and which are the potential outcomes that will result from our current choices, actions, evaluations? It is not a matter of applying divination abilities, we are not moving in the realm of magic. It is more a case of using science, data, models and scenarios to try anticipate what the future might be and which of the possible futures in front of us is the most desirable one and the one we wish to aim at. The real challenge, today, is the scale of the problem and the scale of the measures and solutions we have to adopt.
Alex Steffen: “There’s always change in our civilization. There’s always, you know, political change and cultural change and technological change. But what’s happening right now is a scale of change around the entire Earth that makes the world we live in today different than the world that we lived in not that long ago.”
This is Alex Steffen. Based in California, he has been an environmental journalist for many years. But his current job is one that is becoming more and more strategic and yet is not well known and recognized. He is a futurist. He helps institutions and companies anticipate the planetary future and the new insights and capacities they’ll need to thrive during the transformations ahead. But most of all, Alex Steffen imagines our future world, and tells stories about it.
Alex Steffen: “All of our expectations for how change happens were formed in that older world. But we live in this new world, which is just full of discontinuity. Right. It’s full of places where, you know, things used to be this way and now they’re suddenly that way and they’re becoming even more that way. And so when we face that kind of discontinuity, we have to start by going, okay, what is no longer true? What can we no longer assume is the way it was? And the more we ask that question, the more of the world it pertains to, right? The more we ask the question of what is no longer the way it was, the more clearly the answer becomes: everything.”
“So my work is about looking at natural systems and human systems and how each is changing and how they are changing one another over time. And of course, a lot of change has already happened, a lot more change than we’re used to thinking about. And much more is on the way. And so part of the task of understanding what we have to do now to make sensible, you know, smart, fair decisions. Part of that task is thinking ahead about what’s about to happen and really trying to understand our lives today in the context of that magnitude of change.”
Thinking ahead about what’s about to happen. Does it mean anticipating the future? Not really – it must be much more complicated than that, after all. While discussing with us, Alex explains that his work has a lot to do with collecting evidences and data to update and improve our understanding of the complexity and our ability to decipher it. It is a very methodological approach that keeps the distance from the temptation to come up with one or another prediction of a future outcome.
Alex Steffen: “In futurism circles, as in science circles, we generally talk about probabilities rather than predictions. We generally talk about what is a plausible outcome here, what is the evidence say, rather than this is the way it will be. I think it is even more wise to avoid prediction right now because our sense of the probabilities of outcomes are all in upheaval. Part of the nature of so many systems changing so much at the same time is that all of our models for how we understand change in the world are outdated, and our ability to say this will happen at this time has never been, at least in the scientific era, never been so low. And so what we have to do, in a sense, is look at the entire landscape around us and not try and predict what’s happening, but try and understand what the range of the possible is. And try and formulate a set of, you know, approaches or strategies or responses to that range of possible outcomes that allow us to be flexible as we move forward, that allow us to be attuned to the changes we can’t yet see. I call this hedging the landscape, but, you know, that’s just my jargon term for it.”
According to Alex Steffen, we have to hedge against not just uncertainty, but also against the very strong possibility that we don’t yet see what’s happening. This is not the way that we have generally been trained to think.
“Now I’m spending time relearning what I thought I knew”. This is how Alex Steffen described his reasons that led him to kick off his own project of climate futurism, a piece of work called “The Snap Forward”.
Alex Steffen: “What I have found is the most vital thing to relearn is the sense of tempo. We have all grown up in a world where change has felt like it’s going fast but was still understandable, was still manageable. And we have a certain idea of how fast things can change, how rapidly they can move from one state to another that’s completely out of date. And especially for somebody who, you know, is an expert who has made my living through the sale of professional acumen… It’s very hard to acknowledge that something as basic as my understanding of the tempo of change is out of date and needs to be relearned, rethought. But that’s the state we’re all in, we find ourselves facing tempos of change that are unprecedented in the history of civilization.”
“So I came to doing the work that I’m doing now, ‘The Snap Forward’ – which is a work of climate journalism, but also climate futurism – I came to doing this work from the realization that I had that I myself, despite having spent, you know, 25 years working in the field, was not really ready. You know, I’m not really ready for what is happening around us. And the more that I thought about that, about how different the world is than the world we still discuss in our public debates and in our culture. The more I thought about that difference, the more clear it became to me that I wasn’t the only one who wasn’t ready, and that, in fact, unreadiness for the magnitude of change we face is the most defining aspect of our civilization.”
We are not ready and yet, we need to be prepared to face what is happening around us. Changes due to the climate crisis are already very visible in many parts of the world. And sometimes they become suddenly real, concrete, also in areas and regions where people do not think there will be a real impact. The need to be ready is one of the many triggers of the artistic work developed by Carolina Aragón. Originally from Colombia, Carolina Aragón is an artist and educator based in the US, at the University of Massachussets Amherst, who uses public art to transform landscapes and engage communities.
Carolina Aragón: “So I teach in the Landscape Architecture Program, which in general is concerned with our experience outdoors. My particular niche has to do more about the role that public art and temporary installations have to do with our understanding of our landscapes, our connection to our landscapes, and the way we feel, perceive and question the future as it relates to the sort of shared spaces and shared world. So what I do is a subset of what a much greater profession is concerned, right? And if you can imagine that in an ecological system there are trees or rocks, rocks that have been for millions of years. Right. Trees that have lived for hundreds of years. Landscapes that have been for decades. What I do as a very short life span of perhaps a couple of months, maybe a year, but it serves a particular function, just like there are animals and little plants that have short lives but perform in a particular way. You imagine how a flower blooms for a short time yet it’s very impressive. Or it causes a memory. My work sort of fits that category of the ephemeral, the temporary. Yet that it has creates a memory. It creates almost a spectacle, a moment to see things in a different light and hopefully events that can be remembered at a later date.
When it comes to landscape transformation, the climate crisis we are facing is taking center stage. Again, the scale of change, and the scale of our due response, is dramatically different. And Carolina Aragón knows that very well.
Carolina Aragón: “I think as artists or I feel as my personal experience with the severity of climate change has a direct impact in my work. Because I remember when this was not such a big deal and then it became is like there was a light switch that went on. My work has been essentially a way to process the sadness and the worry and the concern about this. And to me as an artist, I feel that I have unprecedented access to information about the impacts. And I am shocked when I have conversations with planning officials and I continuously ask, okay, so what would be helpful for me as an artist? I want to have more impact. I want you to tell me what would be helpful to you? And last year, I heard, well, we just need to get people prepared for extreme conditions, extreme weather events. So we’ve gone from not talking about to wanting to let people sort of know what’s going on to now I’m being told we just need to prepare for the really extreme weather events or like extreme problems and. Oh, my goodness, that is a big, big leap! This has happened very fast! And so in my work and to go back to your question, I think that the most efficient pieces, or not efficient, more effective are pieces that have a heart, pieces that not only inform you of the severity and the reality of a problem like there is honest and there’s truth or their science behind them. Right. But also ideally and this is my hope for my work, which I have yet to do, but I need to do this better, connect me directly with something that I could do right at any scale, but give me something that I can do so that I can not just be devastated.”
One of Carolina Aragón’s most well-known and awarded works is called “Future Shoreline”. It is a temporary water and land based art installation that shows the projected flooding due to sea level rise in Boston. In 2021, Future Shoreline won the CMCC Climate Change Communication Award “Rebecca Ballestra”, the international competition promoted by the Euro-Mediterranean Center on Climate Change to showcase and reward the best communication initiatives that spread awareness on climate change.
Carolina Aragón: “Future Shoreline is a part of a series of artworks that have developed mostly for the city of Boston, Massachusetts, which have aimed at providing a way to not just understand the physical kind of implications of sea level rise are going to be for the city, but it’s also providing sort of a way to emotionally connect to this phenomena that is kind of scary and threatening to all of us. So Future Shoreline, as opposed to some of my previous works that only showed how much flooding was predicted in the future, is the first project where we’re also showing some of the measures that the city is considering in order to protect a vulnerable area for the city, which is to create a berm which is basically put up sort of soil, right, to raise the land and prevent water from coming in. And, you know, it’s interesting because the project did not start like that. The project started like many others, which was, oh, we have this vulnerability. This is an area that is very likely to flood. This is how much it’s going to flood. And it was quite impressive for a kind of highly populated, very central location of Boston. And I had the fortune of working and having conversations with the sort of government officials that climate-ready Boston sort of folks in at the city. And they said to me, oh, yes, it would make a lot of sense to have a project in this channel. You know, that’s a body of water that is very close to downtown Boston. But it would be really nice if we can be up to if it can be optimistic. And I remember thinking, well, yeah, that would be very nice. But, you know, you tell me. And after a couple of conversations, it came out like, well, you know, we may be building a berm to protect this piece of land. I was like, oh, well, that’s something good. And then I realized, oh, wait, this is going to be really interesting because this is one small portion of a shoreline that is going to be modified to protect the city. There’s probably hundreds of thousands of miles of coastal shorelines that are going to need to be transformed. And we need to start thinking about that and we need to start understanding what these changes are going to be. So that’s where even the title came, Future Shoreline, as a sort of moment of reckoning or thinking, wow, this is really going to happen and this is going to be different. Can we begin to imagine it ahead of time so that we can be prepared for it or maybe have important discussions about what we want this to look like? So that’s where it came from.”
The emotional side of climate change is crucial in Carolina Aragón’s work. This is something she has in common with Alex Steffen, who constantly keeps into his work both the emotional and the intellectual dimensions of thinking about the planetary future.
Alex Steffen: “The planetary crisis is as much emotional as it is intellectual. The biggest barriers to our ability to understand and grapple with the changes around us are inside our own heads right there in our own hearts. And they are, they stem from the fact that we were all raised and educated and informed by our experiences and our parents and our elders in certain attitudes about how the world works and what we can expect and what a good life is. And you know how to be savvy in your life and how to do good. And those expectations no longer map to reality. And that is a really jarring experience when you realize that I call it a personal discontinuity. You know, we’re rolling along in our lives and suddenly we go, Oh, the world is not as I thought it was. And if the world isn’t as I thought it was, then my life isn’t the life I thought I was leading. And that experience is profoundly alienating. It can trigger deep grief and deep anger.
So in this world that we find ourselves in, how do we not live in, you know, in a perpetual sort of isolation and remove? But how do we actually become at home in the world? How do we become native to this moment?
We don’t have to regard this moment as an aberration, because if it’s an aberration and we can’t reconcile ourselves with it, we’re going to live in an aberration for the rest of our lives. And I don’t think that’s helpful. But I also think it limits our ability to do what we want to do in the world, to not be willing to accept and embrace the world as it actually is. So, you know, you ask, how do we speak to people in an emotional way? How do we talk to their spirits? Well, that’s it. Right. To my mind, that’s the most important thing, is let go of the world that we no longer have embraced what’s true now and re you know, rebuild a home within that.”
Rebuild. Recreate. Find a new home, a new place to be, and make it a real home. It’s a perspective that has become and will become reality for millions of people. The current environmental and climate crisis amplifies the effects of other crises: wars and conflicts, inequalities, lack of opportunities, lack of resources. The combination of many of these factors are already triggering migrations, life changing decisions, reorganizations of local communities. Not everywhere it will be possible to adapt. Not everywhere there will be a chance to rebuild, to be resilient, to have a future and definitely to go back to the way things were before the current crisis. Change is already here, and it has to be a key component of any future plan. And therefore, we all have to work on the concept and on the process of shaping possible alternatives, of building a variety of potential futures for us and for any other human being.
Carolina Aragón: “It’s the human and emotional component of inhabiting a new land, which for many of us who are immigrants and in a way so many of us are immigrants right now because we’re you know, very few of us, at least here in North America, are living in the place where our parents and grandparents lived. Most of us, you know, and are a rapidly changing culture, are living in places that are rather new. That may not be the case so much in Europe, but in other places in the world that is very common. And so how do we take this experience of being a new person in a in a different place? How do you make that your home? What how do we define how how do we create home as a mixture of not just the physical setting, but of the human community around you is very important as well.
You know, one of the beautiful things about being a public artist is that I get to be on the street and I get to sort of see the reactions from many people. And when one is in academia or or is a scientist or is working for the government, we tend to forget that there are a lot of people that are not as aware of what’s going on as we are. And you can’t blame the general public because most people who goes home to read a planning report. No one. Right. And so it’s it’s something that is very feels very distant and inaccessible. And so but these are, as we all know, these are decisions and these are very important problems that need all of our talent and all of our attention and all of our good will. I’m a big believer, and this is where the reason for hope, not as a way of sugarcoating. Right, but is more as a way of trying to foster and generate all the human goodness that we can. And I think that that is critical because these are the types of problems that require a lot of creative thinking. It requires a lot of collaboration, and hopefully they will require a lot of caring for each other in order to be successful. So that’s at the core of what I do and why, in a way, I think that even something as simple as a literal translation of how much water we’re going to have and how tall this small soil berm is going to need to be, are important as a first step in reaching out a wide group of people.”
The environmental challenges, the fast urbanization of our world and the demographic increase make it impossible to address the complex climate crisis we are living with oversimplified solutions – “let’s plant more trees”, “let’s just invest in renewable energy”, and so on. We have to embrace complexity and yet look for real solutions, solutions that we can design and apply. What should be the right approach? Alex Steffen thinks that we need to act, and we need to act fast.
Alex Steffen: “We know that almost certainly we’re going to face a much, much worse ecological crisis, including a climate crisis. We are just simply not doing anything like enough, anything like fast enough to avoid what we would have thought of even 20 years ago as a pretty bad outcome. On the other hand, we are acting. Action is happening and it is picking up speed and more. Action is inevitable for all sorts of reasons. And because of that, we’re also probably not going to see the worst case scenarios. We’re not going to see, you know, human extinction or necessarily even like the collapse of civilization. These are less likely outcomes than they might have been at one point. Within all of that, though, there’s some really difficult challenges that we have to understand. In every scenario moving forward, we’re going to face trans apocalyptic realities. And that’s my term for describing the reality that some places will experience really dire challenges to human existence, but many other places won’t. And we tend to think in a sort of unitary vision that either humanity as a whole is doing well or it’s the end of the world. But the reality is more trans apocalyptic, as I say, it’s more that some places are experiencing the end of the world and other places are doing fine. And that’s probably how it’s going to continue to be for the rest of the lifetime of everybody listening to this.”
Carolina Aragón: “Every place is different. Every culture is different. There will be places that we can modify, there will be places where that is probably not the wisest thing to do. Would be my guess. I think. I think what I usually say on this topic is which I think you’re hinting at. Retreat. Right. Moving to other areas. Yes. That we need to actively start thinking about it from the human side, meaning to relate it to the type of work that I do. How do we create bonds with these new places that are going to be our new homes transition so that the emotional process is better, right? Because it’s all about human emotions. And, I mean, not all of it. Sure does. It kind of is another thing, but you know that the reason that we love certain places that we live that are places is because of where attached our attachment to these landscapes. Right. And so how do we create that? How do we how do we channel connection to place? Put that at the forefront of of of some of the, you know, the strategies that we’re going to be employing to, you know, will us or populations to to to other places that may be more viable for a decent existence. And that’s an important question. I think that we all need to start thinking about it. And of course, there’s no one solution for everything, right? For every place.”
Sure, there is not one solution that fits everything. Alex Steffen agrees that the more we wait the more changes and actions will have to be swift and effective. And yet there is not one single direction to take. And we cannot expect to have a single force driving the change and solving the problem for all of us. He defines the process as hodgepodge and spike, a great variety of approaches.
Alex Steffen: “As we delay action, change becomes more inevitable. And the speed of that change as it releases, as it moves forward, increases. It’s going to be a wide variety of things happening in a wide variety of settings, some with international agreement or national policy support, and some because they are profitable or necessary or vital to somebody or some group security. And that spiky landscape means that our understandings of the nature of change are out of date, right? That this is not about building one big movement of people to decide the human future and then move towards that human future. There’s nobody really in charge anymore.”
There are many solutions that are embraced at different levels, from emission cuts to new technologies, from more and more opportunities to produce clean energy to better buildings and so on. There are already, and there will be more and more, various kinds of solutions that work in different circumstances and for different purposes. But we need to be very aware that no matter what we do now, we will have to deal anyway with a certain degree of impact from the current climate crisis. That is Alex Steffen’s prime reason to be worried.
Alex Steffen: “The harder part in my mind comes from what I think of as response, which is which stems from the reality that no matter what we do now, in any plausible circumstance, we’re going to be dealing with a level of climate and ecological stress on our societies and a level of societal upheaval that’s almost hard to get our heads around, even in the best case scenarios. That’s true. And so we’re going to have to talk a lot more about how do we learn to live with these kinds of changes and these kinds of pressures. And, you know, in some ways, that’s like how does a, for example, coastal city adapt to rising seas? In some ways, that’s how do the wealthier parts of the world, you know, respond to the create, you know, to the reality of many, many more refugees. In some ways, it’s about something as simple as how do you make sure that, you know your own home is not in a floodplain or in a fire area? And these responses are actually bigger in magnitude in terms of the change in society and the amount of money we’re talking about in the amount of the amount of personal transformation that goes along with it than the actions that we need to take. The actions are a monumental struggle. The response, though, is a whole order of magnitude bigger. And that’s where we really need to be looking for solutions and accelerating what we’re doing right.
We need to talk a lot more about how we learn to live with these changes, says Steffen. And as we have alreayd mentioned, while we are Looking for solutions and accelerating what we’re doing right, we can definitely find some help and draw inspiration from the insights of artists like Carolina Aragon, who works in a truly interdisciplinary domain.
Carolina Aragón: “I think that that’s where my work is heading towards: the idea of almost creating a sort of set of kits. Right. Like where a lot of my projects that could be done in different, different places and they could be done by different people, too. That would be a fantastic way of expanding the impact. At the same time, because I’m an artist moving across disciplines and being able to associate with social science researchers. I am also highly aware that there is a lot that we don’t know about the impact of these artworks. And maybe sometimes I wonder, is it all of us who are so concerned about the climate, who already know about this, that think that this project is so great and maybe a random person doesn’t understand it or get it? I don’t know. Right. And I’m open to know it. And I think that’s what keeps the work. Being interesting is sort of being humble and curious. And very real about not let the story of a project become more than the project itself.
If you can think about it, here I am, I’m doing an interview with you in Italy. You have not seen this project in person, I don’t think. Right. Yeah. So that the impact. Right. Maybe you’ll be disappointed. The impact of this project. It has a different sort of range once it’s disseminated online. And that’s fascinating because potentially that can have a much greater effect. And that’s what our research sort of ended up focusing it.”
How will the Earth look like 50, 100, 1.000 years from now? Futurists like Alex Steffen and artists like Carolina Aragón can help us imagine our future planet. And yet, as he has clearly told us today, we need to change our storytelling and, ultimately, our way of thinking and acting.
Alex Steffen: “The first and most important thing we need to be communicating is that the planetary crisis is not an issue. It’s an era. This is not a thing we need to track alongside our other societal and cultural concerns. This is the you know, it is the setting for all of those concerns. But is the overarching change in reality that we face? And that’s very hard to get across. And it’s also, you know, there are many people who find that message unappealing or they feel like it downplays their concerns or their expertize. There’s resistance to that idea, but it’s true. And so that’s the first thing that as journalists we need to be talking about is that whatever else we’re thinking about, it has been redefined by the fact that we have put enormous, you know, perturbations into the biosphere and the and the climate, and that those things are the bedrock of human society. So when those things change, it can’t help but shake the whole house. And you know, we need to. Follow. I believe in the transit center because the planetary crisis is not an issue, but an era. We should be discussing more of the things we discuss in its light. We should be thinking about how do we report on the economy or on foreign affairs or on cultural change, etc., in ways that take into account this baseline, overwhelming reality of change that we’re living through. And right now, all too often, climate, the environment, nature are a side subject to journalistic inquiry. Right? It’s a subset of climate journalism, whereas, in fact, it is the central story that all journalism should be reporting right now.”
You have listened to Foresight – Deep into the Future Planet, a podcast produced by the CMCC Euro-Mediterranean Centre on Climate Change and FACTA.
The concept, interviews and writing are by Elisabetta Tola and Giulia Bonelli.
The audio editing is by Lisa Lazzarato.
The Executive Producer at CMCC is Mauro Buonocore.
Foresight – Deep into the Future Planet, available on climateforesight.eu and wherever you listen to your podcasts.