Andrew Merrie and Pat Keys in conversation with Jo Lindsay Walton (and briefly Polina Levontin) about science fiction prototyping and the Radical Ocean Futures project.
JW: We’re lucky enough to be joined by Andrew Merrie and Pat Keys. Andrew is a Research Liaison Officer at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University (Sweden) and the Head of Futures at Planethon. Pat is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University (USA).
We want to find out more about your very intriguing Radical Ocean Futures project, and Science Fiction Prototyping in general—as well as adjacent ideas like applied science fiction, critical design fiction, diegetic prototyping, speculative design, all part of the theme of this special issue. But I guess let’s start with the high seas themselves. How do we define the high seas? What are some of the issues that arise in their governance? Surely mighty Poseidon is ungovernable? To me, those words already feel strange in a sentence together: ‘governing the high seas.’
AM: The high seas are areas of the ocean that are not managed by any single authority. In some ways they represent this largely unexplored ‘wild west’ of the global ocean. When you’re trying to think about how to govern the high seas, you are thinking about things like climate change, overfishing, deep sea mining, genetic resources and so on. But you also have to contend with the pace of change. The ecosystems are changing, and the technology is changing, and companies and other kinds of actors can basically take advantage of these gaps or delays in regulation, and sort of do what they want in this ocean space. Interestingly enough, just a few weeks before this issue of Vector went live, a historic deal was made, after nearly 20 years of talks to put in place a legal framework, the UN High Seas Treaty. That said, monumental governance challenges remain and though very consequential, this is really the start of another 20 years of work.
JW: In this context, does ‘governance’ refer to international law?
AM: Partly. Governance is actually broader than that. It refers to a variety of laws, regulations, institutions, certifications, norms and so on. It’s everything that is relevant to how we look after the oceans, or fail to look after them. For example, for the governance of marine ecosystems, computer modelling is very important. But you can’t just look at a model and go, ‘OK, here is what will happen, if we follow this management strategy.’ There are all kinds of questions about what is possible or plausible. About what models to use, what their assumptions are, how you should interpret and use their outputs. All that could be part of governance.
JW: OK. And these questions are more than technical questions, right? They quickly get us into the realm of politics and ethics. But sticking with ocean ecology for a moment. Honestly, when I think of the ocean, I mostly think, ‘I have no idea what’s going on in there.’ I want to quote a 2016 WIRED article about your project. ‘Earth’s oceans are having a rough time right now. They’re oily, hot, acidic, full of dead fish—and their levels are rising.’ Can you tell us a bit more?
AM: Sure. Yeah, things are not great and yet we are only beginning to see the changes that are happening that could have major impacts. Because the ocean is so vast, it has been able to buffer a gigantic amount of human impacts, for example, the ocean has absorbed around 50% of all human caused carbon emissions but it is starting to hit limits in a number of ways. this is both in terms of specific ecosystems that are under immense stress such as coral reefs, seagrasses and mangroves as well as the entire ocean, for example there is increasingly strong evidence that parts of the oceans heat transport system (the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation), which is a very important part of the global climate system is starting to slow down. This could have huge impacts. Whatever scale you look at it, the ocean is changing, and fast. We take the ocean for granted, without understanding how vulnerable it actually is. What is important to remember however is that the ocean is not like the land. The global ocean is still extremely bountiful, possesses immense productivity and is incredibly diverse. We are sitting on a precipice, which is why envisioning and exploring alternate futures is so critical in terms of what kind of future ocean we are shaping by our actions and inaction in the present.
JW: And how about the sea levels rising?
PK: On that note, I just had a guest lecturer for my sea level rise class recently. He’s a world renowned glaciologist, ice scientist, right? We were talking about this glacier in Antarctica called Thwaites glacier. It’s this glacier that if it were to break apart, the flow of the ice from that glacier could lead to the eventual collapse of the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which would be catastrophic. Now the glacier is held back by an ice shelf, think of a floating buttress that functions like a cork in the bottle of Thwaites. Up until, probably the last decade, scientists would have talked about this ice shelf, this cork, as something we need to keep an eye on. Then, in the last few years, the ice science community said, ‘Yeah, actually we need to keep an eye on Thwaites ice shelf itself, because it’s changing really fast.’ And then some months ago at the 2021 American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting there was a research presentation that said, ‘major ice loss is possible within several decades’— that’s within our lifetimes.
JW: That escalated fast.
PK: Yes. In my mind, this is one of those things where it’s like, okay, so at what point did we start to entertain these possibilities? Are we waiting until the Earth system breaks apart to tell us that a thing is ‘possible’ or ‘plausible’? Because if that’s the case, well, that seems backwards to me. We should be thinking about this in a different way.
JW: So that’s part of the Radical Ocean Futures project, right? At its heart is a set of science fiction short stories, about potential ocean futures. As well as a reflective essay, images, music, and other associated outputs. In brief, it’s all about using narrative and imaginative methods to complement what the models are telling us, but also maybe to challenge what they are telling us.
AM: There’s a lot of things we know about what’s happening in the oceans, a lot of linear change. But there’s also a lot we don’t know, a lot of changes that are taking us by surprise. Some uncertainties you can remove by gathering more data, by doing more research and modelling. But there will always be some uncertainties that you can’t deal with in that way.
JW: So instead, you turn to narrative methods.
AM: Yes and no. Sure, Science Fiction Prototyping might be helpful with all these other uncertainties, where there is no well-established and reliable method of dealing with them. But we go further than that. I want to pick up on something that has been helpful in this project, which is about deconstructing the cult of plausibility, when it comes to the way many approach scenarios and the whole enterprise of envisioning different futures. I think one of my major insights has been that a lot more is plausible than people generally think. The cliche is true. Reality is stranger than fiction. Technology, economics, environmental change, all are moving faster and faster. When starting out with this work there is the really powerful idea of ‘no, you can’t say that because it’s not plausible.’ Who decides what’s plausible? Just because there is not a piece of quantitative analytical evidence or a specific kind of variable that says that something is plausible, doesn’t mean it is not plausible.
JW: Right, that is interesting. It’s not just about reluctantly resorting to narrative methods, because we can’t create a model that works. Even when the models are ‘working,’ at least on their own terms, it is still worth poking at them, disrupting them, using storytelling.
AM: If there’s anything that we should learn from human history and our history inhabiting this planet, it is that many, many things are plausible. Plausibility is itself a social construction often used by others to shut down more radical discussions or imaginings of alternative futures, alternate possibilities. Saying ‘that’s implausible’ is often a way of cutting people out of the conversation or a power play to preserve or reify the status quo. So for me, a lot of these adventures were about thinking creatively about what we even mean by plausible and who decides.
PK: Right, and, if our modelling tools are not properly equipped, if the way we’re defining ‘plausibility’ is limited to what is contained within our existing modelling tools, that’s a problem. Because the system is moving faster than many modelling tools can incorporate new information. To be clear, that’s not a disparagement of the ice modelling community, they’re doing tremendous work trying to understand the cryosphere.
JW: But it’s about that plurality of methods.
PK: If we only rely on models, then we are probably going to be in a very bad place. We may be well behind where the system is changing. We may have to say, okay, we’ll be back when we have enough data to incorporate into our models. But at that point, things may be cooked. So, despite being a modeller I agree with Andrew that exploring, exposing, surfacing a lot of these assumptions about what possibility and plausibility actually mean is critical. I think this particular approach of thinking about the future permits a different way of thinking about what counts, what do we get to talk about, and who gets to do the talking.
JW: One question then is, how do these methods interact? How do models mix with stories? How do you combine knowledge from physical sciences, social sciences, arts and humanities?
AM: To go back a bit, before Radical Ocean Futures, I was selected as a PhD candidate within what was known as the ‘Nereus programme’. That was organised around the not so humble idea of ‘predicting the future ocean.’ The ambition of the program was to bring together scientists from leading scientific institutions around the world. From people doing ocean climate modelling, modelling how habitats were changing under human pressure on the oceans, to others who were looking at how, as the oceans are warming and becoming more acidic, how entire species are shifting, sometimes hundreds or even thousands of kilometres. Sometimes it was like, ‘Can you give us the governance variable to feed into the models? Can you sort of tell us about the sort of ideal, archetypical kind of human that we can insert?’
PK: Did they want one variable?
AM: I am exaggerating, but you get the idea. I was for sure facing what I think is a perennial challenge for social scientists. Natural scientists, because they can often do very sophisticated things with numbers and calculations and analytical models, they assume that, well, if you’re just using words, that’s much less powerful. There is an assumption (often driven by insecurity) that they can easily understand what you’re doing, but because you can’t understand the models or do the mathematics, therefore, you don’t have as much of a say, or can’t understand the implications of what’s coming out of those models.
JW: My background is more in humanities than social sciences. When I have worked with natural scientists, I feel like they often want to value the humanities, but they really aren’t sure how. They have all these intellectual habits, which help them to navigate their own scientific work. You know, instincts about when something is plausible or implausible, or what questions to ask, or whether to keep following a line of thought or to abandon it. But in the context of the humanities, all those heuristics mysteriously let them down. Everything starts to look samey and vague.
So that can lead to, ‘You study human systems, why can’t you just supply us with the best data so we can expand our models?’ But I think what you described, Andrew, goes even further. ‘Unless you can put your knowledge in a form that is easily used by my kind of science, I am going to assume everything you are saying is obvious and trivial!’ Was that your experience?
AM: There was definitely a sense of imposter syndrome and insecurity and wondering, if I can’t do this kind of quantitative analytical work, what is my place here? What value do I provide? So, honestly, there was very much a sense of feeling constantly on edge, feeling really insecure about what I could really bring to the programme and the value of my perspective. That was a very difficult space to be in mentally. So the very, very, in the back of my mind origin for this project was sort of navigating that insecurity and accepting who I was and what I had to offer. It was about trying to find an anchor point for the scientific validation of my work. I wasn’t the only one who felt this. A number of my PhD colleagues went on to write a paper together that explored what exactly this was all about, what is weird and challenging and exciting about doing interdisciplinary science which we called; The Undisciplinary Journey.
JW: Before we start talking about Science Fiction Prototyping, Polina, can we also hear from you? As well as editing Vector, you just happen to do the sort of modelling we are discussing. You and I have talked before about the complexity of managing fisheries, in terms of the science, the politics, the communication. Before we turn to the topic of science fiction, what important contexts have we not yet mentioned?
PL: In my experience, in the context of providing advice to policymakers, the greatest obstacles are institutional and political—as a scientist, including various sources of uncertainty into your models comes with a risk of getting your advice rejected or neglected by decision-makers. This includes basic things like economic uncertainty, ecological relationships among species, and climate change. There is something of an inherent trade-off: more uncertainty in the model, with the same risk tolerance levels, often means lower allowed catches, e.g. less money for the country, less food, fewer jobs. These are the things that in international fisheries negotiations the national delegations come to secure. Stability is highly valued, especially with high sea species such as tunas. That’s another reason why more speculative (less plausible) scenarios for which there may not be any robust and economically viable management procedure are very difficult to bring to decision-making forums.
JW: And certification is part of that story too, right? They want the food, the money, the jobs, but they also want to be certified as sustainable.
PL: Yes, and sustainability is increasingly defined in a risk-based way, covering many uncertainties around the impacts on habitats, other species, as well as coastal communities. Certifications (e.g. by Marine Stewardship Council) are only partially model-based, and rely on both expert and stakeholder inputs. Bayesian modelling methods, which are gaining use, integrate both data and prior beliefs and so can accommodate many forms of knowledge. And there is evidence that fisheries that are managed with existing modelling methods tend to be either stable or recovering—FAO in 2022 classified ⅘ (82.5%) of all aquatic landings as ‘biologically sustainable’, an increase since 2017. It’s the less commercially important species, the ones that are data-poor and unmodelled, that tend to be in trouble. This is why modelling is becoming a prerequisite for many fisheries to be certified as ‘sustainable’.
JW: Okay, I think we’ve got a good sense of why governance of the high seas is so challenging. So my next question is, how does this connect with science fiction? How did you first start making that connection, Andrew?
AM: When I was near to finishing this high seas paper, I really felt like the one thing that had really energised me was thinking more wildly or radically about the future of the ocean. During the high seas work, I started thinking a lot about the real deep uncertainty and novel, surprising things that were emerging.
JW: Andrew and Polina, you’ve both mentioned uncertainty. Maybe it’s worth nuancing that word here. ‘Deep uncertainty’ can just mean ‘a lot of uncertainty’ but it can also be a more technical term. Some types of uncertainty can be quantified, for instance if you have a model that is seldom perfectly accurate, but its predictions are never wrong by more than a certain amount. But then, many types of uncertainty can’t be quantified, either because it would be silly even to try, or because there is no strong consensus on how to do so. That kind of uncertainty is sometimes called ‘deep uncertainty.’ But crucially, terminology isn’t used consistently. Another popular approach is to call it ‘risk’ when it is quantified, and ‘uncertainty’ when it can’t be quantified … for those people, ‘quantified uncertainty’ would be a contradiction in terms. In other words, there is even uncertainty about the words we use to describe uncertainty! Apologies, please continue!
AM: No apology necessary, I appreciate the effort to clarify. In this case, either sense of deep uncertainty would be relevant. So at that point, I was really unsure about what came next. But even though I was feeling lost, I was really, really fired up about these large corporations, what I termed ‘exploitation entrepreneurs,’ moving out into the ocean, and relentlessly taking advantage of the gaps in governance. There are these really strong imaginaries that the global ocean is the next frontier of untapped economic opportunity, the next exploitation frontier of hypercapitalism. So that’s how the very first sci-fi ocean future emerged. Out of that lack of direction, that frustration, that yearning to say something myself about the future.
JW: I like the term ‘exploitation entrepreneurs.’ I wonder if some of them would justify their actions by saying, ‘Well, by exploiting these loopholes, I will force governance to improve in the long term.’ It’s not a convincing argument, because as you’ve suggested, governance just isn’t rapidly responsive like that. But I wonder if it might be part of the psychology of it, easier than thinking, ‘Well, I guess I’m just evil!’ It’s very interesting to hear about what drew you to narratives. But it wasn’t just, like, a cool, detached intellectual exercise.
AM: Yes, it came out of me being pissed off about a lot of what companies and industry actors were doing in the ocean, rushing to claim the future ocean as they were exploiting it in the present. I also felt kind of academically lost, not sure what my next thing was. So rather than trying to just struggle along, I thought I should try and do my own thing. I have always loved science fiction, it’s been part of my life since I was really young. It’s given me a lot of energy and helped me to see the world in new ways. Out of that came the story of a CEO, Astrid Amundsen who led this mega fisheries and aquaculture company, Fish Inc. We took that initial idea about production systems and fisheries companies and things and wrote it from the perspective of the CEO … well, sort of …
PK: Well, it is not just from her perspective. The story is an obituary. Part of the genius of the obituary form is that you can tell the story of an individual, and the world they inhabited at the same time. Often what is missing from futures thinking is space for emotional connection. You never inhabit the world in quite the same way as when you have a character that guides you through. So, Andrew tried to get this future obituary published in Nature Futures. They came back to him with a rejection and some feedback.
This is where I initially found out about the project and its aims. Andrew shared the feedback which said, for a standalone story it needs to be as sharp and crisp as an Isaac Asimov short story, or it needs to be more fleshed out methodologically and submitted somewhere else.
AM: Yes, so I started looking more explicitly at how science fiction had actually been used as a method. That was when I came across a couple of papers where they’d written up such an approach. There was something called Science Fiction Prototyping, which had been developed by Brian David Johnson.
JW: The Intel futurist.
AM: Yes, their first futurist, who had developed the method to use with Intel engineers. Science Fiction Prototyping supported engineers in thinking more humanistically about the possible implications of the technology that they were developing. When I found that, I had an ‘Aha’ moment. This, I thought, could be an approach which could really help me because it’s about this knife edge balance between creativity, narrative coherence and storytelling, and, the kind of scientific foundation and the rigour that is important for building out any kind of acceptable future scenario.
JW: I’ve noticed that Brian David Johnson gets cited a lot, but we should contextualise that a bit. Around 2010 he came up with a neat format and set of guidelines, but of course people have been doing similar things for decades. It’s not his fault—he mentions some of his inspirations and everything!—but it’s useful to hold onto that longer history. Otherwise we can’t compare different methodologies over time. We can’t get any better at applied science fiction, in its many guises.
AM: There is a longer history, for sure. Scenario planning, for example. Not to mention the long and rich legacy of science fiction itself. For me, coming across Science Fiction Prototyping, in its explicit attempt to combine science and storytelling, felt different.
JW: Yes, the differences are what’s interesting. Even in the early 19th century, with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or Félix Bodin’s Novel of the Future, some of the framing sounds remarkably modern. These are stories for thinking about the future, but not in a naive prophetic way. Percy Bysshe Shelley said that Frankenstein offers insights into human nature precisely because it is impossible. Bodin has this vibe we might today call accelerationist: he thinks a true Novel of the Future will hasten humankind’s progress, and it will do it in ways that are spiritual and emotional as much as it is kind of coolly cognitive. And then classic utopian narratives of the 19th and 20th century. Nowadays something like Bellamy’s Looking Backward gets roasted for being so essayistic and didactic. But of course, what was it setting out to do? It is delivering a complex and precise speculative scenario, with just enough narrative entertainment to bring it to life for purposes of debate and analysis. It does that marvellously.
There was Herman Kahn at the RAND Corporation in the 1960s, and Pierre Wack at Royal Dutch Shell in the 1970s, who were messing around with imaginary scenarios. In the 1980s you have Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven and a bunch of mostly right-wing science fiction writers in the Citizen’s Advisory Council on National Space Policy. And West Coast techno-culture in the 1990s was definitely using science fiction in an extremely applied way. In fact, maybe there is an incentive to downplay this longer history? Because that magic aura of novelty isn’t just incidental, it’s actually a functional part of the process? I don’t know, what do you think?
AM: What I think has worked best with the approach is its inherent flexibility. It doesn’t have to be one thing. I’m never especially convinced when people try to circumscribe or lay claim to an approach and say, you have to do it exactly this way. All of our adventures so far share the same philosophy, we don’t own it, we didn’t come up with the idea. We have had a willingness to lose control of it, to put the approach into other people’s hands and see what comes out of it, to start to mash it up and see what happens when you push it up against other approaches. The shared idea then is that there is so much science being produced, which is saying so many important things about the state of the planet, what’s changing, and where things are heading, that is falling into a giant black hole, that no one reads. Misinformation is rampant. There is so much wasted energy with so much potential to contribute to radical change.
PK: I think another thing that’s been really powerful, from my perspective, is what happens when you’re not preoccupied with claiming ‘This is my method!’ or ‘This is the best method!’ There’s a large community of people out there in this undisciplined future space, they’re welcoming, they want to lift you up, they listen, they encourage new ideas, new approaches, that sort of thing. For me, that’s been one of the most rewarding things about the this whole experiment, this whole set of adventures, is to see a community of people who are less preoccupied with disciplinary or methodological purity, and saying, at the end of the day, what we care about is coming up with authentic, possible ideas about the future that are going to help us to navigate towards something better. Now, maybe that thing that helps us navigate in that direction is a dystopian story, okay, maybe it’s something audaciously utopian, or maybe it’s something that’s far more complex, like the world in which we live. But the methods that we bring to bear are less important than the purpose and whether you’re here to actually kind of authentically participate in that. That’s been an amazing feature of these adventures. One of the things then, that makes it work for me, is that community of encouraging, authentic and undisciplined futures people. I can run down a list, we don’t need to go through a list of the people that I want to name, but they are all awesome.
AM: What’s been so powerful after a number of adventures is that the approach gives a structure and a toolkit for creative sensemaking. In some of the adventures, there’s been a much more robust and systematic way of bringing the evidence together and then creating narratives out of it. Other times, it’s a more sort of ad hoc, creative, wildly mashing things together and seeing what comes out of it. There are different kinds of equally valid ways of using this but all of them are about making sense of complex information in a really fast changing world and telling compelling stories that embrace that complexity.
JW: I’m interested in how these encounters occur again and again in different forms. Because it didn’t necessarily have to happen that way. You could imagine scientists and futurists going, ‘OK, we have identified which aspects of science fiction are useful to us. Now we will extract these and systematise them, and create our own robust efficient methods for using narrative. Once this is done, we will have no further use for these wishy-washy arty types.’ But that is not what has happened. Instead there is this kind of endless dance between science and literature. Your project sounds like it is part of that. And for you Science Fiction Prototyping was a turning point, in that respect.
AM: In the sense that the approach valued both the scientific foundation and the narrative quality, as opposed to just being about one or the other. Also, I think there have been attempts that reflect what you describe but they are often sucked dry of any magic, weirdness or storytelling so they just fall flat and end up not having any real impact, they become husks.
JW: Yes, absolutely.
AM: This whole project is really a story of building something out of failure, because not only was I rejected twice, by Nature Futures and Fish and Fisheries, the project is also built on the bones of two dead manuscripts, which to this day, I have not managed to raise from the dead, despite my proficiency as a necromancer. For one, I gathered hundreds of papers and with help, did this analysis of these hundreds of papers and in the end, my colleague Marc Metian and I built a whole spreadsheet for analysis but we abandoned the work. The other project was to analyse over ten years worth of newspapers about the global fishing industry.
PK: I don’t think I’ve appreciated how much of a graveyard there was …
AM: Yeah I was looting dead bodies to find shiny things to use in the ocean futures stories. Out of that, I was able to build an evidence base, which is an important foundational step in Science Fiction Prototyping. I built this based on the materials that I just referenced as well as an analysis of emerging marine and related technologies, ecosystem and earth system changes and shifts in marine policy, management and governance. After a solid year of analysis, I could see how the different disparate pieces clustered together.
JW: I think Resurrect Paper is a Level 8 Necromancy spell, so you must be close by now. So tell me, what stories were written by this stage?
AM: There were three. The story of Fish Inc. and Astrid, came out of this initial sense of anger, lack of direction and frustration. The next narrative was Rime of the Last Fisherman. This was also an emotional process, but a different one. It was partly about me trying to work through a lot of anxiety about what I was reading about how ocean ecosystems were changing, the existence of tipping points, and how so many human-environmental problems are so deeply interwoven.
JW: Maybe we should clarify what a tipping point is? Sometimes a system crosses a threshold that triggers rapid reorganisation which is difficult or impossible to reverse. The currents that carry warmth to the northern hemisphere, for example, just shutting down. In terms of global warming, some policymakers are now emphasising ‘overshoot,’ like, ‘Oh, don’t worry, we’ll miss our climate targets, but then we’ll cool back down again with massive carbon removals.’ But that’s not much comfort if the cat is already out of the bag, and won’t just get back in! Is that an OK description?
PK: That’s pretty good. I’d add that the science on these tipping points is changing all the time, and there is substantial scientific debate regarding the existence and potential dynamics of Earth system tipping points.
JW: Yes, absolutely. So these tipping point thresholds are very hard to recognise ahead of time, but there is evidence that the climate is teetering on the edge of several brinks. So eco-anxiety, eco-grief, are very natural responses and becoming really widespread. How do we help one another with these intense emotions and psychological impacts? Rime of the Last Fisherman is partly a response to Coleridge, and I’m reminded of the argument in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads—really it’s his collaborator Wordsworth’s argument. He says that poetic metre helps to ease the ‘undue proportion of pain’ associated with some difficult ideas. You could make the same argument about art and literature generally. Maybe it sometimes lets us face things we otherwise couldn’t face, but that we want to and need to.
PK: Absolutely. ‘Rime of the Last Fisherman’ is inspired by and includes excerpts from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It toggles between a ship’s log, and almost like the personal reflections of the character who’s writing it. To me, it’s another cool way that you, Andrew were able to play with the voice of the character, which transcends the challenges of a lot of these narrative scenarios, which is that it’s not a description anymore. You’re forcing people to become this fisherman, and to use their eyes to see the world. Let’s pivot then to the third story, which is, you could say the positive twin of that.
AM: ‘Oceans Back from the Brink’ explores what kind of combination of ecological restoration, collective action, socio-economic changes and technological developments could come together to, well, bring the oceans back from the brink of collapse. In this future (all of these futures were set somewhere between 2050 and 2070), we examine what it would mean to have flourishing coral reefs. This is almost unimaginable right now from a scientific standpoint because one of the strongest messages that comes out of marine science coupled to climate science is that there will be almost no tropical coral reefs, they will all largely be dead in less than fifty years. So this was about pushing against this really powerful narrative that is often present in science communications and the media that the future is already decided, we have no control and nothing we do really matters. By imagining things that seem on the edge of possibility, we can create new alternate possibility spaces that might allow for new ideas or new ways to really think about how solutions might emerge and what those solutions might be.
PK: It reminds me of this quote that I came across recently, in the context of race relations in the United States. It was Angela Davis, paraphrasing Antonio Gramsci, saying that she is; ‘a pessimist of the intellect, but an optimist of the will.’ I feel like that’s what I am also; I’m a pessimist intellectually, but then I’m optimistic as a person and as an individual.
JW: One thing that science fiction can do, and other kinds of literature and arts, is combine the intellectual and the emotional in ways that seldom occur elsewhere. Combine the intellectual, the emotional, the normative, the aesthetic, in ways that may seem contradictory or paradoxical. That’s what climate change is inviting of us, I think: that we use information that normally might be associated with disempowering fear or hopelessness, but use that information in a completely different mood and frame of mind. Hopefully not just blatant greed, like some of those exploitation entrepreneurs! Some utopian scholars also distinguish between ‘optimism’ and ‘hope’, which I think is just a different way of getting at what you’re describing there. ‘Hope’ might be something like optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect. So far we’ve talked about three stories. What happened next?
PK: At this point, we sat down, and Andrew shared those three stories. During that discussion, we drew up two axes and said, Okay, this is where these three stories fall, oh, you might have a blind spot in this fourth quadrant. And that’s where the fourth story ‘Rising Tide’ came from. This is a story of profound sea level rise, and social fragmentation above the ocean’s surface, but eventual peaceful settlement on the ocean floor. We wanted to depict a world where not everything worked out for people, but the oceans managed to thrive despite that.
JW: And can you talk about the visual art? That’s an important part of the emotional content of this project, I think.
AM: I think the origin was that somewhat early on, when my lead PhD supervisor, Professor Henrik Österblom read an early draft of the Astrid story he said ‘Oh, it would be so cool to have an artist onboard to bring this alive visually.’ I immediately was really enthusiastic but I didn’t know how we would find one, or who would be interested in doing it. I defended my PhD in April 2016, and around that time stumbled across a science communications funding call so I thought I could apply to commission a concept artist to create visuals to go along with the project. So then I started looking frantically for an artist. My first port of call was Io9, a science fiction, fantasy and video game culture blog. I looked back through the different editions of a concept art feature called ‘Fine Art,’ and there was one artist whose work immediately spoke to me, commanded my attention: Simon Stålenhag.
JW: What initially drew you to his work?
AM: The picture that drew me in was a picture of this Swedish meadow with high grass bending gently down to a lakefront. In the field, a policeman in a Swedish 1980s police uniform was standing next to a Swedish 1980s police car and then in the middle of the field was a great hulking robot, both menacing and charming. I remember thinking that this is such a great combination of a real ‘lived in’ reality and some kind of wild future. It’s both grounded in a real set of memories and experiences and it feels like a specific point in time in the past but is also very much in the future. Luckily, serendipity intervened, Simon lived in Stockholm and he had a gap in his schedule for a few months. Henrik and I met Simon and we talked about the project and shared that we wanted to commission him. But we sort of had to say, well, we don’t have any money right now…
JW: That is a problem with funding applications, isn’t it? You often find yourself approaching somebody whose work you admire saying, ‘Hey, come and work with us! Maybe! The application success rate is 5%!’
AM: If you want to work with an artist, don’t expect or say, ‘do it for free, do it for a token amount, or do it for exposure.’ That is insulting, undervalues the role of the artist in the project right from the beginning and almost guarantees that the artist will not give their best work to the project. Pay artists. Pay them what they ask for.
JW: Definitely. Of course, there should also always be room for creative collaborations that are not monetised, for example in indie small press contexts. Or the British Science Fiction Association, for example, where all the labour is voluntary. Those are different sorts of contexts though. A project where there is funding, or could be funding, or could be a profit, needs to pay its artists and writers.
AM: Simon was open to collaborating if we got the funding. And fortunately he still had availability when we had the grant in hand. While collaborating with Simon, I was continuing to work on all four of the narratives as part of a manuscript draft, preparing my third attempt to get some iteration of this project published in the academic literature. At that point though, it was really helpful working with Simon in finding the core of each narrative. Simon is a visual storyteller and the composition and focus of each image needed to reflect the core idea of each narrative.
JW: That is interesting.
AM: So it was only through that artistic collaboration that I came to really draw out the ‘essence’ of each of the narrative scenarios. The artistic process had a second element too, where I worked with Kaitlyn Rathwell aka K. La Luna, a musician, songwriter, performer and sustainability scientist who created a matching piece of music to accompany each of the narratives and the images. That added a whole other layer when the music was written to reflect the changing emotional tonalities and the underlying scientific beats.
JW: You’ve talked about the long journey to get this project out there. In the end it appeared in some really high profile venues. It made a big splash.
AM: After the WIRED story, I got a lot of responses about the project. The most tangible thing that happened was that Radical Ocean Futures was actually selected to be the official submitted artwork of the Swedish government at the inaugural UN Oceans conference in June 2017. So there was one artwork from Fiji and one from Sweden, that were displayed in the delegates entrance area to the General Assembly Hall. As the delegates were walking into the General Assembly Hall, they would pass by physical, backlit versions of the artworks as well as a project description.
PK: At the United Nations. In New York City. At the headquarters.
AM: During the UN Oceans conference, I had the opportunity to talk through the artwork and the project with a number of nation-state delegates and the President of the General Assembly, which was really cool.
PK: That was also the time of the Reddit Science AMA.
JW: If anyone’s not familiar, that’s ‘Ask Me Anything’. It’s a question and answers session on Reddit that gets a comparatively massive public audience.
AM: I did the AMA while sitting in the entrance hall to the UN general assembly hall, quite surreal. Pat and Simon Stålenhag were both part of the conversation on Reddit.
PK: By the way, that’s probably one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. I am not kidding.
AM: Yeah, Reddit can be intimidating, but it worked out well. What was really interesting and has happened often with this project, the artwork opens the door and gets people thinking about the future ocean. This occurred with the AMA where at the start of the conversation a lot of people were asking questions about Simon’s artwork, and sharing how much they loved it because he has a really big and passionate following. As it went on, those same people started asking a bunch of really thoughtful questions about the future of the ocean and ocean science, a subject that many of them had never thought about before.
AM: So it was really gratifying that the theory of the project seemed to be turning into practice in front of our eyes. We even had comments from people in the AMA explicitly saying, ‘Well, I came here for Simon’s art, but now I’ve become really interested in the oceans, and what should I do about the challenges facing the oceans?’
JW: Polina and I recently ran a science stall at the Great Exhibition Road Festival, featuring visual artworks by Andrea Morreau and others. And I think we had a very similar experience.
PK: So I have printed out the four pieces of art, in my basement. And whenever somebody like an electrician, or a plumber comes down there to fix something, they pass this art. And they say, ‘Whoa, what is that?’ And then I have a chance to talk about marine governance. Most of the time, these are guys that have probably never said the phrase ‘marine governance.’ It’s a visual hook that makes people stop in their tracks and think, wow, what is this thing about? And it’s an opportunity to start having a conversation. Because the artwork is able to communicate the complexity of the ideas that are included in the article, including the stories, but in a way that speaks to almost anybody.
JW: I see the hook aspect. Although, what you’re describing isn’t the artwork communicating by itself, right? You are physically present in the basement making those images communicate! Definitely, my experience with the Great Exhibition Road Festival was that Andrea’s visuals would spark the interest, and provide a scaffold, but it was Polina who made it work as science communication. I don’t even think I could have done what she did, even though I had some familiarity with the content. She knew the content and she had worked with the artist, so when people said, ‘What does that mean? Why is that like that?’ her answers could blend together the science and the art.
AM: Yes that is very true. We’ve done some interesting experiments. Linnea Engström, now at the Marine Stewardship Council, was during this period, a European Member of Parliament for Sweden. She came across the project and really liked it. She started using it in her discussions at the European Parliament around ocean governance. She also ran this mentorship programme with high school and early university students, young people. She would use the images to start conversations about the ocean, because the images are so distinct.
JW: Do you know how those went?
AM: Linnea would have these groups, they would be able to start asking questions like, ‘Is this kind of an ocean future that you would want to live in? What does it represent? Who is this person? Where are things headed? What has happened?’ And so even if people never get to the science behind it, the fact that the science informed the creation of these images, means that they have depth and layers and can be used as artefacts for asking questions.
JW: And then of course there was the more traditional academic output. Or at least, ‘traditional’ in the sense that it appears in an academic journal.
AM: Yes. Our article was published in Futures, but even then, my sense was that this would have minimal impact in scientific communities. Future studies people would read about it. But my sense was that not many of my scientific colleagues outside of the Stockholm Resilience Centre would ever really respect it as a scientific project. And maybe that didn’t matter. But then, out of the blue, I was contacted by a writer for Nature asking about the project, who had read the scientific article in Futures. He had never seen the images, he was not aware of the wider science communications effort. He just came across this piece in the scientific literature. So that’s where that Nature editorial came from.
JW: For readers who may not know, Nature is a really high profile multidisciplinary scientific journal. Arguably the biggest science journal in the world, and widely read. So having the project featured there is a pretty excellent way to quell doubts about visibility. And probably not something you would have expected when you began it, as you described, in the midst of doubt and anger and frustration.
AM: That is for sure. This whole project also represents a very long and difficult mental health journey for me. I mean, when I started this, all the way back in 2014, I was in the middle of depression, I was thinking of quitting my PhD, I couldn’t really see any value in what I was doing or in myself. So personally, I was in a really, really low place. And I’m not trying to imply that creativity necessarily has to be associated with pain and desperation.
JW: It can often be the other way around.
AM: For me, it’s really important to say this project really saved me and took me on a journey. The editorial in Nature wasn’t only about scientific legitimacy, it was also the kind of end of a sort of many years-long healing process, that this project has been there with me along the way. For me to find valuable interactions with colleagues, to find value in the work I was doing, to be able to apply myself creatively when I was at a low point, has been really important. I think the interweaving of mental health, and the creative process, and then accepting myself personally, and as a scientist, has been really important. I don’t know if that’s necessarily a plot twist, but it’s sort of an underlying thread that isn’t on the surface. And it’s funny, because I often think about the fact that I make this intellectual argument that the balance between dystopia and utopia is great because it engages people. But probably the honest answer is that it reflects my mental state for a lot of that period. Half the time I was really dark, and then as things evolved, I could find more positivity and more optimism, while never kind of completely letting go of the darkness. Because I think darkness can be instructive and can be part of the healing process. When I see the project, it’s a reminder of the dark times, and what it felt like for the light to start bleeding through the dark and how sci-fi saved my life. Maybe not literally, but it kind of felt like it at the time.
JW: Thank you for sharing that. I think I might know what you mean about a certain kind of healing darkness. And one of the things that isn’t right about our societies, even the rich and privileged societies, is that there isn’t currently a way to be with that darkness, and to have the time and space to find what you need in it, while also being safe and cared for and guided a little bit. But yes, because there is that need, sometimes things like storytelling and creative practice can sort of partly fill the gap.
PK: Charlie Jane Anders wrote this amazing series of blog pieces over the last year and a half, two years. Essentially, about how you can use science fiction writing, the creative process itself, as a way to get through hard times. We are complex creatures, right? We have so many things going on, banging around inside our heads, that creativity can be an outlet for a lot of that, and a way to process it—not just an outlet, but a way to process it and think through it, and continue to think through it.
JW: I think the experiential and embodied aspects of all this are so important too. Sometimes the way interdisciplinary projects are talked about, it turns everybody into a part of a machine. Like you’re each going to bring your own function, the functions are going to slot together perfectly.
I think sometimes when I’ve been in a collaboration, and really way over my head, I tend to gravitate toward doing more emotional labour. Just small things. Spotting when someone in the group didn’t get listened to, or got misunderstood, and facilitating communication. Finding ways to cheer people up. Checking in on people, practising incredibly haphazard deniable group therapy. Could that be secretly part of the attraction of collaborating across the sciences and the arts? I don’t mean that writers or arts and humanities researchers are intrinsically better at that kind of emotional labour. I also don’t mean that I’m nice. But when there is a kind of implicit hierarchy of knowledge, and it prevents you from participating in everything, you kind of find things to do. When it goes too far, I have sometimes gone away from a collaboration and felt like I was a sort of very niche jester. To put it more provocatively, maybe the stuff that the arts and humanities sells itself on—expanding the imagination, questioning presuppositions, seeing and dreaming differently—is stuff anyone can do, and what you really need is a sense of safety and care and love, so you can actually do it?
Andrew, I think we talked about this in our conversation before. I have this sense—maybe this is too ‘the ocean is half empty’ but anyway—I have this sense that applied science fiction often fails to learn from its mistakes.
AM: That was something we’ve talked about. It is this weird, repeating dance that seems dynamic but is often quite static.
JW: That’s part of what we’re interested in with this issue of Vector. On the one hand, you have the overlapping fields of futures, foresight, horizon scanning, anticipatory governance, war games, risk management, all those think tank people, consultants, including some academics in the natural and social sciences, perhaps. On the other hand, you have science fiction in literature, movies, games, art, all these writers and fans and critics, including some academics in the arts and humanities. And these two broad fields sporadically collaborate. They collaborate over their shared interest in storytelling and the future, and it seems to go pretty well. But maybe one set of people is satisfied because they feel, ‘Wow, that made a change! I got to meet some of my favourite science fiction writers, how cool is that!’ And the other set of people is satisfied because they feel, ‘That was so cool, I got to pick the brains of scientists and policymakers, maybe even influence things in the real world! And got some great story ideas!’ Or something like that. These encounters feel rewarding on a personal level, but when the two worlds drift apart again, are there learnings that slip away? Instead of building up incrementally? But then, talking to you two, I do at least get the sense that your own journeys within this space have involved steady development.
PK: Over the last however many years I’ve been involved, these adventures in science fiction prototyping have become a very important part of my academic work. A significant chunk of my professional focus is thinking about how futures methods can be expanded, remixed, spread out, and shared with others through teaching, giving talks, and holding workshops. Yet the common thread for me, even though the people who have used it have found tremendous value in the approach, has been to find my own sense of legitimacy in this space.
AM: I have had the experience that when you present this approach to others, there’s almost this palpable sense of relief. ‘Here’s a way in which I can make sense of this complexity, and say something meaningful about it.’ By now it’s probably a cliche to say that storytelling is one of the fundamental elements of what makes us human. But that doesn’t make it less true. So for me what has worked is the flexibility in using the approach. It reflects a certain insight about the way that we are as humans, and the way that we speak to each other, process information, create imaginaries and take action.
JW: And if we focus on your project, what do you think hasn’t worked? Or what do you wish you could have done differently?
AM: There’s been a huge amount of energy and really excellent work over the last five years or so in terms of narratives around decolonizing futures, Indigenous futures, Afrofuturism, and Africanfuturism, distinguished by its emphasis on African stories, ideas, mythmaking in a way that is not rooted in colonialist reconstructions. There’s been this massive increase in momentum and a wellspring of critical energy that has come into futures and into design. I think when we started this a few years ago, that energy was maybe less present. Unless I just wasn’t seeing it, which could also be very likely.
PK: I think that’s a really nice reflection. Especially in thinking about that set of voices, or increasingly dominant features of the futures conversation including decolonial approaches such as explicitly authentic futures coming from Indigenous cultures, from Indigenous communities. I’m thinking of the work by Inuk artist Asinnajaq and creative stories like the graphic novel anthology This Place: 150 Years Retold.
AM: It’s also been interesting to teach some of this to some really switched-on students, and to reflect on how they read the ocean futures. A common response is that there seems to be quite an element of techno-utopianism, or even techno-fetishism. Which is interesting, because I think when we wrote the stories, we were very much like, ‘Scientific scenarios don’t take technology seriously.’ So we felt that we had to push that a lot harder to actually more seriously account for how technology might play out. But when you read them, in hindsight, it can seem a little bit now like, ‘Oh, but you know, this is much more about technology than it is about human agency, or collective action.’ Or, you’re still implying that technology can be the ultimate solution to these really complex, systemic challenges. And that’s not really what I think but I can see that reflected in the narratives.
JW: And then, not to get too scholastic about it, there is the question of what counts as technology. You know, language has been theorised as a technology, gender has been theorised as a technology, and so on. So the distinction between collective action versus technological solutions can be blurred. Likewise, technology is often depicted as developing on a kind of ladder, as though it were incontrovertible that certain things are ‘high tech’ and certain things are ‘low tech.’ But again, things are more blurred. The technology that a rapidly decarbonising planet needs may not always fit stereotypes about innovation and technological advance.
At the same time, of course I know exactly what you mean. Crudely, there are those techno-solutionists who say, ‘Oh it’s fine that oil companies are continuing to explore and extract, we will use Artificial Intelligence and speculative Negative Emissions Technologies and a big sci-fi gun to shoot the sun and it’ll all be fine, plus we’ll recreate all the lost biodiversity using VR.’ And even though technology and science are closely associated in the popular imagination, that is very out of step with what a scientific body like the IPCC is saying. I don’t think it’s exaggerating much to say that there is now a strong mainstream scientific case against capitalism.
AM: To be blunt, when you look back at something that was created a few years ago, it starts to seem a little archaic. Not to mention the fact that even while we were creating the scenarios, they already started to feel out of date in terms of how fast earth system reality was changing. I suppose the response to that is that the scenarios themselves are less important than the process and the learning and the approach that one takes to thinking about the future. For me, I think I have felt this discordance between this new kind of critical energy, and what that energy means when applied to analysing what we created. Mostly, it’s really interesting to think about the next steps in terms of harnessing that critical energy and doing things better in the future.
PK: I can actually share an experience in terms of what to do differently. In one of my many attempts at acquiring funding, to support continued futures work, I wanted to look at futures in the Arctic. This was during the pandemic. So, I couldn’t travel there, meet folks. I could try and contact people as best I could via email and phone. But the feedback that I got on that proposal included commentary about how I had not included enough Indigenous voices, communities’ perspectives, if I wanted to talk about the Arctic.
And while the pandemic prohibited us from travelling, even reaching out we still couldn’t get people to engage. And a huge part of it is trust. A lot of these communities have no reason to trust somebody named Pat Keys from Colorado State University, just as a cold call or a cold email. And I can’t begrudge them that. In Canada for example, it takes a very substantial time to earn the trust of First Nations communities. Not just showing up, dropping in there for a week for a workshop. But spending time and trying to earn a community’s trust.
JW: Yeah. It isn’t just time and effort per se that builds trust.
PK: This points to a broader question, which is what does participation actually mean and what are the implications? The answer is different, depending on which community you’re talking with. Participatory approaches are really different for fellow academics, at your university or students at your university, versus communities that are not academically oriented, that have lots of good reasons for their distrust of organised institutional structures. That’s a very different challenge. I almost think that the more that we can share these approaches with a broader set of people —who may be better suited to do that sort of futures work in specific communities—then it could more thoughtfully expand the group of people equipped with some of these futures methods.
AM: I think the discomfort that we experience in doing this work has always been there. Many authors face this in all sorts of contexts, whether it’s somebody trying to write somebody of a different gender, or of a different ethnic group, or from a different country, or whatever it might be.
JW: And certainly within science fiction, there is useful advice out there, about how to write characters with different lived experience from your own, in ways that hopefully aren’t appropriative or exploitative. Some writers may have good intentions, but actually end up reinforcing patterns of marginalisation, because they don’t dare attempt to portray some exoticised, ineffable Other. But I don’t think that kind of writerly advice has all the answers. Sensitivity readers can help too, but again, at a systemic level there are obvious problems. Who can or can’t afford to hire sensitivity readers? Whose experience is accessible via the sensitivity reader labour market, and whose experience is missing?
AM: For me, personally, I think one of the areas of discomfort that I’ve felt most strongly in terms of Radical Ocean Futures is around the ‘Rising Tide’ story. I’m from New Zealand, I come from the Pacific, but I’m not from Micronesia, I’m not from Melanesia, or from Polynesia, I don’t have heritage. Yes, I grew up with many people from different countries in the region, and I have had some exposure to diverse pacific cultures, whether it’s Maori, or people from Tonga, Samoa, Tokelau, but I am not part of those communities. So in ‘Rising Tide,’ I tried to write about the idea of an Oceania Confederation where these nations came together to form a post sea level rise sovereign governing structure. But the entire time, I felt, do I have any right to write anything about this? Or should I just not? I think that that’s where the energy for or the need for a participatory process comes from fundamentally is like, I don’t have the right to kind of represent these perspectives in writing the futures of others.
AM: I think, a lot of really interesting academic debate about the degree to which you can authentically represent other perspectives through, you know, engagement. What does a science fiction prototyping process look like going forward that maintains the scientific value and an interesting narrative, while also being able to more authentically represent the experiences of people who are going to be part of whichever futures it is that you’re crafting? Lauren Beukes, a white South African who wrote Zoo City, has talked quite extensively about how she works with people in diverse communities and from different groups and invests a significant amount of time and energy in trying to understand and always being willing to absorb critique and accept the need for change in what she writes.
JW: What are some of the challenges of enriching the participatory dimension?
AM: I think that one of the major challenges is the balance between deep participation and strong interesting outputs. It is clear that it is important to ensure authentic and fair representation of people who are not yourself (while taking into account your own power and privilege). However, a major downside of participatory processes that I have personally experienced is that sometimes, when you bring a whole bunch of very diverse people together, it doesn’t necessarily mean that diversity is going to be reflected in the outputs of that work. Often it just means that the narrative gets watered down, lacks clarity and coherence. It can become a compromised narrative that tries to be too many things at once, pack in too many perspectives and ideas.
JW: Fiction written by a committee, no matter how great the committee is …
AM: It’s a product of groupthink. But again, if the process of thinking about the future matters more than the resulting narratives then maybe that does not matter all that much. I don’t really know what the answer is, it’s just been a journey that I’ve been on, and something that I continue to reflect on.
PK: I have a lot more data on that than I did when we started, in the form of individual student final projects for my sea level rise class. I think I now have more than a hundred individual student projects that have used science fiction prototyping.
PK: Yeah, upon reflection… it’s a lot! I can confidently say that when people work alone, even when they’re not sci-fi authors (i.e. these are students that are probably writing creatively for the first time in years), they can get really weird. Like, in a good way. So I totally see what your point is. A few times when I have had them working on a narrative in a group, unless I’m actively poking them to get weirder or make the future stranger, this just doesn’t happen. In a group there is this reversion to some collective sense of plausibility, not wanting to be the one with the crazy ideas so no one is willing to really share their crazier thoughts that could really enrich the scenario.
JW: I find that very interesting.
PK: Whereas when I give them free rein to be like, if it’s not weird, you’re not doing the assignment correctly. When I do that, then those individual stories, even though they’ve learned the method collectively together, the individual stories retain a healthy dose of the weird. I think this is a space that, you know, moving forward, is about working out how to encourage individual creation of strange futures in a collective capacity. What does it look like to sit in a diverse crowd, whether that be ethnically, culturally, from a gender perspective, from an age perspective, a class perspective, all of those things, and then have everybody see each other’s ideas, but then still feel empowered to create their own and embrace the weird, strange and uncomfortable?
JW: There are perhaps some parallels with structured expert elicitation. You know, there is a body of research on how best to draw out the knowledge of a group of experts. If you just ask them straight out, there will be groupthink, and all these cognitive biases, and social niceties, and politics, and so on. The results might not be that good. But there are frameworks you can use to counteract that. However, nothing like that exists when it comes to narrative. Unless perhaps you count things like tabletop roleplaying games, or collaborative writing exercises, which can structure the imaginative process. So perhaps that could be your next funding bid: ‘Developing an expert elicitation roleplaying game for participatory futures.’ Being asked to imagine the future raw, without structures and ingredients to help you do it … it’s not really always that empowering. People tend to reach for familiar things.
PK: Exactly. I think one of the most transformative features of these adventures in science fiction prototyping for me, is when people independently, individually, inside themselves, feel empowered to think about the future in a different way. I taught an engineering student a few years ago. And, if you know any engineers, they’re typically not, like, ‘Let’s just imagine what the world could be.’ Not to disparage engineers, they are often just very practically minded. But it turns out that a classmate of this engineering student told me that she just can’t stop walking around being like, ‘I wonder what’s gonna happen to that light pole? What’s the future of that light pole going to be?’ And I thought, that’s amazing! You know, if this person is now actively engaged and thinking about their own every-day-reality, that’s amazing! That means it’s sort of transcended or crossed across that barrier of school to an integrated approach to life. If we can get people to think about this, from a ‘this is my life perspective,’ that, to me, that’s one of the primary goals, to make it normal for people to inhabit the future—to speak for it. So it’s not something where you only get to visit on your latest Netflix binge. That’s how we’re going to change things. That’s how we can start to navigate towards something better when the future is present in the present and informs systemic sustainability decisions now.
AM: Yeah, definitely. Some really useful insights there. You’re right that individual creation as part of a collective is a really important way to see it, rather than just assuming that sort of automatically shifting towards a more participatory approach in the creation of narratives is inherently superior. One of the things that’s come up, I think, really strongly in the last years, since we’ve started this project, in line with decolonial perspectives, it’s not only about recognising that there has been a process of historical colonisation, but that there are different forces who have power in society today, who are attempting to colonise the future. They’re attempting to say, ‘These things are possible, these things are not possible. These kinds of technology, economic systems, social norms are what are going to be in the future. And everything else is either a pie in the sky utopia, or is never going to happen. So just give it up.’
JW: Why are there these people?
AM: Sometimes this is done with absolutely bad intentions. And other times, it’s done just through a kind of casual perpetuation of the status quo or in a way that lacks any self-awareness. But whatever the case may be, it’s really problematic, especially when you’re essentially saying to marginalised groups that don’t have power now: ‘You just have to accept that it’s always going to be this way, the future is going to look more or less like the present and you will still be invisible.’ The more people who have this individual capacity and willingness to imagine the future, the more different points of pressure there are for pushing against that colonisation of the future. And the more people who can bring up in conversations, ‘Well, actually, why are you making that assumption about this future that we are envisioning?’ So back to your earlier point about your students Pat, I think then if you rub all this individual weirdness against each other, hopefully we create more collective weirdness and not collective acceptance of the status quo.
JW: Pat, I would also love to hear a bit more about using Science Fiction Prototyping with students. What have you learned from the process, that might be useful for others using the method? What tips or advice do you have?
PK: That’s a big question! I’ve had the chance to teach science fiction prototyping in a pretty wide range of contexts—ranging from 45 minute blitz sessions with high schoolers at a climate action conference, to a four-lecture series on climate change futures for university students. It’s hard to distil this down to a few bits of advice, but here we go. First—science fiction prototyping turns out to be a very useful way for students to synthesise scientific information about the future, with questions related to ethics, policies, and culture. For example, the final project in my sea level rise class has students tell a story about a future experiencing sea level rise, and support it with a scientific supplement that explains the basis of the science, policies and ideas that they depict. Second—students are hungry to feel agency in this rapidly transforming world. They know climate change is happening, and that something has to be done—but feel pretty disoriented about what to do. One thing that can be a powerful remedy for this disorientation is agency. In my experience, students who engage in this process of creating stories about the future also strengthen their agency. There are probably more lessons learned, but that’s what I’ve got for now.
JW: So I was just half-jokingly suggesting what your next research project should be. But I want to ask you for real. What have your arcs been, coming out of the Radical Ocean Futures project? Where might they be heading?
PK: There are several projects winding through academic peer review, but I have just finished two large projects conducted mostly during the pandemic—and these represent my own journey of finding confidence in the futures space. I have published some work that blends computational text analysis and storytelling to depict future life in the Arctic (published in Earth’s Future), and I developed a learning game exploring sea level rise in 2199 in Lagos, Nigeria (published in Ecology and Society). I’m also leading a project in Colorado to use science fiction prototyping to explore the future of climate change and water resources with local stakeholders But, I know that the Radical Ocean Futures work continues to make changes in the ocean governance space, right Andrew?
AM: Yeah. So going back to the governance of the high seas, that was really the starting point for thinking like, okay, maybe science fiction is actually useful here to get ahead of what is actually happening. Any kind of very formal approach is going to be too slow for getting a handle on what’s actually going on. We need to build the capacity to anticipate change. So I started there, but I never actually explicitly went through a process of working with other high seas scientists to kind of come up with a set of prototypes.
So I think that one of the things that’s really cool is ‘The Living Infinite,’ one of the other papers in this Vector special issue that Pat and I are both co-authors on, is specifically about applying an adapted science fiction prototyping approach to the future of the high seas, to directly inform the policy process around creating a new instrument for protecting biodiversity beyond the national jurisdiction of countries. Even now that such an agreement has been signed, there is still so much space and need for this imagination-led work, as proven by the current heated discussions around the International Seabed Authority considering moving ahead on allowing deep sea mining.
Fundamentally, the starting point for what I wanted to do with this project was to engage policymakers and others who are actually engaged in making decisions now that will affect the future of our ocean, or our forests, our entire planet. I wanted to make the case that these kinds of imagination-led approaches have value from a policy perspective. So now to be able to be part of a process that is specifically focusing on the Nature Futures Framework developed by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), and looking at the high seas, it feels like closing of the circle. So it’ll be really interesting to see whether it actually has an impact or not, whether those that are making decisions have the capacity to even absorb this kind of approach, or whether it’s too scary for them. But I think that at some point, hopefully the way that the world is going to be changing is more scary to people than writing stories about the future.
JW: Thank you so much for this fascinating conversation. Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to leave us with?
PK: Something that I’ve learned is that the more we can use this approach to widen who gets to be thinking about the future the better. It is about widening what gets to be counted as legitimate possible futures. I think the more open that can be, the more equipped we will be to handle the changes that are hurtling towards us, and that are already here. I think Andrew and I share this—at the end of the day, we’re both interested in this, because everything is changing very fast. Everything is changing faster than we can really comprehend. I loved the phrase that you used earlier Andrew, ‘sensemaking.’ This is 100% a sensemaking tool. Sometimes it operates on an individual basis. Sometimes it operates on a group basis. Hopefully, it can start to operate on more of a collective basis. I hope that’s where my next adventure keeps taking me. I also hope they keep taking you there because the future needs all of us, right? And not just you, Andrew, but the collective you, all billions of you out in the world!
AM: By way of final words, one of my pet frustrations is that many ‘serious’ people see imagination as being for children, something that one should grow out of or repress when one becomes an adult. This upsets me because imagination is one of our most fundamentally powerful capacities for navigating our way towards a highly uncertain future. So many people need a way of transforming anxiety into action. Conspiracy theories, mistrust and disinformation thrive in a world where people feel helpless to take action in the present and imagine a better future. The way things are going, for most people, living in our world is not going to get easier, it’s not going to get less anxiety inducing, it’s not going to get less scary. But our imagination doesn’t have to lead us to nightmares and endless versions of Zombie Apocalypses. It can lead us to really realistic journeys that we must go through together as a species that involve real, extreme hardships to change the world in ways we don’t even understand. But, we can use our imaginations to go through things so that we can come out the other side, bruised, battered but better and more able to evolve into whatever the next phase for us is, as a species. We are a planetary species for the first time in humanity’s history, and that comes with a lot of responsibility, that comes with a lot of power. We have to look into the eye of Sauron. We can’t look away from it because it can see us no matter what, whichever direction. We must use our individual and collective imaginations to face injustice and suffering and create a better world together.
This article first appeared in Vector: Futures, a publication in part supported by the PASTRES programme (Pastoralism, Uncertainty, Resilience: Global Lessons from the Margins, www.pastres.org), funded by the European Research Council (ERC) (Grant No. 70432). PASTRES is co-hosted by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) and the European University Institute (EUI).