Facing the Strategic Sublime: Scenario Planning as Gothic Narrative

By Matt Finch and Marie Mahon.

Scenario planning refers to methods used by decision-makers to enhance their strategic thinking, especially in situations characterised by turbulence, uncertainty, novelty, and ambiguity. Scenario planning is therefore particularly relevant in the context of climate change, which is complex, unprecedented, and potentially presents us with difficult-to-predict risk cascades and tipping points. Climate change may also present us with “feral futures”, in which our own interventions cause or exacerbate severe turbulence within a system or situation. In the face of such uncertainty, scenario planning enables users to generate new ideas, develop or test strategic options, establish monitoring and early warning processes for emergent issues, and enhance decision-making. 

Scenarios are not forecasts that predict likely futures, but spaces in which unexamined assumptions can be confronted and potentially suspended or transformed. They are aesthetic depictions of plausible futures that enable us to re-examine our current understanding of our environment, appreciating the power of uncertainty and its capacity to inspire fear and wonder. 

The affinity between scenario planning and science fiction has been widely remarked on in the literature, but in this paper we draw a novel connection between scenario planning and Gothic literature. In particular, we examine how scenarios, as Gothic narratives, provide conceptual resources to make sense of the experience of the “strategic sublime”: that which has been excluded from our frame of understanding. The art of scenario planning, like that of Gothic literature, lies in balancing anxiety, insight, and agency in our encounter with that which had previously seemed beyond discussion. 

Facing the Strategic Sublime: Scenario Planning as Gothic Narrative

The earth is split open. A vast, blazing pit disgorges luminous gas over a barren landscape. The sky is deep blue, pale at the horizon; it could be dawn or dusk. From our vantage point, the fire could be bottomless. Look carefully: at the edge of the pit, a tiny human figure stands, palms raised to the heat.

Julian Bell, Darvaza, 2010

The earth is split open. A vast, blazing pit disgorges luminous gas over a barren landscap
From Bell, Julian. (2013). Contemporary Art and the Sublime. Tate Gallery

This is Julian Bell’s 2010 painting Darvaza. It depicts a site the artist visited in Turkmenistan; its name, in Persian, means “the door to hell” (Garzemi & Garsanti, 2019). As Bell (2013) recounts, the blazing pit was inadvertently created by Soviet engineers in 1971 while seeking oil drilling sites. Striking a gas-filled cavity, the engineers chose to burn off its contents, only to find the resulting inferno beyond their control. It has burned ever since.

Bell locates his painting in a tradition of artists seeking to convey a sense of the sublime, an intense aesthetic experience in which “the self becomes a mere ingredient in the landscape, feeling insignificant, overwhelmed and humbled by nature” (Brady, 2013, p.199). 

Yet, in Bell’s account, this hellish phenomenon was created by human, technocratic actions, and his story of Darvaza also serves as an example of what Ramírez and Ravetz (2011) have called “feral futures”. Drawing an analogy to domesticated animals that revert to the wild, Ramírez and Ravetz describe how “human intervention create[s] an unwanted unfolding situation that could not have occurred in the wild” (p.480), offering examples such as the nuclear incident at Three Mile Island and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The idea of the “feral future” is useful in helping us understand how wicked, complex problems can stem from our own actions. In the Anthropocene, feral futures are increasingly prevalent. Even the impact of something as apparently “wild” as COVID-19 has feral aspects, as the ways in which the pandemic has played out are entwined with globalisation, climate change, urbanisation, and wide variations in responses by governments, institutions, and communities.

In this paper, we explore scenario planning as a tool for coping with the “strategic sublime” in feral situations characterised by turbulence, uncertainty, novelty, and ambiguity. Scenarios are not forecasts, but plausible stories of the futures which we may face (Spaniol & Rowland, 2019). We follow Ramírez and Wilkinson (2016) in understanding them as assessments of the future context for a given question or issue, designed to contrast with the way that context is currently being framed. As a brief case study, we include the four IMAJINE scenarios exploring the future of European regional inequalities.

By offering thought-provoking future contexts, such scenarios enable their users to generate new ideas, develop or test strategic options, establish monitoring and early warning processes for emergent issues, and enhance decision-making. Ramírez and Wilkinson argue that, by challenging current assumptions and offering alternative framings from the vantage point of multiple imagined futures, scenarios support good judgement across the three areas identified by Geoffrey Vickers (1965): What is really going on around us? What are we able to do about it? And what does the issue mean for us?

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Vector editors at COP26

Vector editors are bringing their Communicating Climate Risk: A Toolkit to COP26 in Glasgow. You can register here to watch Jo Lindsay Walton at the launch, live-streamed from the Science Pavilion. We talk about science fiction in a chapter on communicating around the tipping points.

Below is an excerpt from Chapter 3 of Communicating Climate Risk: A Toolkit written by Vector editors, Jo Lindsay Walton and Polina Levontin.

From the film The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

The many emotions of apocalypse

The science of tipping points can lend itself to apocalyptic storytelling. What are some of the pros and cons?

“Are you getting this on camera, that this tornado just came and erased the Hollywood sign? The Hollywood sign is gone, it’s just shredded.”

— Character in The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

From the perspective of climate risk communication, tipping points can be associated with apocalyptic and cataclysmic narratives. The tipping points session at the COP26 Universities Network Climate Risk Summit, late 2021, provides an illustration (Mackie 2021). The session opened with a slide alluding to the 2004 Hollywood blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow. Of course, this movie stretches science in ways that are regrettably familiar. “Scenarios that take place over a few days or weeks in the movie would actually require centuries to occur” (National Snow & Ice Data Center 2004). Nonetheless, The Day After Tomorrow does represent a real tipping element: the potential shutdown of AMOC, a large system of ocean currents that conveys warm water from the tropics northwards, which is responsible for the relative warmth of the North Hemisphere. 

Movies like The Day After Tomorrow vividly communicate the fragility of human lives — as tornadoes tear apart the Los Angeles skyline and toss cars through the air, as New Yorkers scramble down narrow streets from oncoming tsunami-like waves — in ways that are not always captured by terminology such as “extreme weather events.” In the broader context of climate action, is it useful to tug on the heartstrings in this way? Much of the literature on catastrophic narratives and climate storytelling focuses on a distinction between fear and hope. An overreliance on fear has been quite widely criticised.

[…] some studies suggest that there are better chances to engage an audience by including positive messages in film narratives about environmental risks, especially climate change, rather than adopting the strategy of fear, which would instead distance and disengage them, making them feel overwhelmed and helpless […] 

(Leal Filho et al. 2017)

However, one thing we should remember is that apocalypses are about many more emotions than fear and hope. A movie like The Day After Tomorrow showcases a range of emotions including exhilaration, confusion, companionship, desire, curiosity, anger, encounters with the sublime, and even moments of humour, both grim and sweet. As many scriptwriters will tell you, an immersive narrative needs emotional variety, or the audience will introduce variety of their own — they will daydream, feel bored, pick holes in the plot, or find their own things to laugh about. Apocalyptic hearts are full hearts: there is probably no human emotion that cannot find some niche in narratives of disaster and collapse. Indeed, the end of the world can feel alluring. The more dissatisfied people are with their existing lives, the more alluring it may feel. As the recent ASU Apocalyptic Narratives and Climate Change project describes (focusing on the US context):

From infectious disease to war, a broad swath of the public has long interpreted social and environmental crisis through the prism of apocalypse, casting potential catastrophes and their causes in religious and moral terms. These apocalyptic visions are often narrated from the point of view of the survivors (the “elect”), thus reinforcing a sense that the end times need to be survived by remaining among the elect, rather than prevented through pragmatic action. 

(CSRC 2020)

Alternatively, an apocalyptic or eschatalogical idiom can sometimes make climate change feel like nothing special. When has the world not been ending? “For at least 3,000 years, a fluctuating proportion of the world’s population has believed that the end of the world is imminent” (Garrard 2004). Insofar as apocalyptic framings feel extreme yet in a familiar way, they can be counterproductive, especially with audiences who are already wary. This includes those who are ready to view anthropogenic climate change as a left wing conspiracy (perpetrated by charlatan scientists to secure themselves power and funding, in cahoots with governments that aim to justify increasingly authoritarian, totalitarian, and unjust policies) or as a neocolonialist agenda (perpetrated by the rich countries of the world to impose new forms of domination, indebtedness, and exploitation on the Global South). 

De Meyer et al. (2021) offer an intriguing spin on the respective merits of fear, hope, and other emotions: they suggest that current debates on climate communication have exaggerated the role of emotions altogether. Instead they advocate for a focus on practice, by storytelling (and doing other things) to create spaces where new audiences can experience agency in relation to the climate, at many different scales and in many different circumstances. People should be able to see what they can do.

Here, we propose that both place-based, localized action storytelling, and practice-based action storytelling have a role to play in expanding climate agency. As examples of the latter, for creative writers and journalists the required agency would be about knowing how to make action on climate change part of their stories; for architects, how to bring climate change into building design; for teachers, how to teach about climate action within the constraints of the curriculum; for fund managers, how to bring climate risk into their investment decisions; for health professionals, to support the creation of place-based community systems that respond to the health impacts of climate change. These examples of communities of practice provide different opportunities and challenges to expand the notions of climate action beyond the current notions of consumer choice and activism.

De Meyer et al. (2021)

Let’s summarise, then, some approaches to effective climate risk communication. One approach is to focus on information. How can information be clearly expressed and tailored for users to easily incorporate it into their decision-making? A second approach (partly in response to perceived shortcomings of the first) places more emphasis on emotion. What mixture of emotions should be appealed to in order to motivate action? This focus on emotion is also implicitly a focus on moral normativity, an appeal to the heart rather than the head (there is of course a great body of literature deriding this split between reason and emotion, which in reality are always mutually entangled). More recently we are seeing the emergence of a third approach, not strictly supplanting but rather complementing the other two, which focuses on practice

The distinction between a “practice” focus vs. a focus on “informative and tailored stories” or “stories of hope not fear” is a bit subtle. Of course the three may often overlap. It may be helpful to think about what the “practice” focus means in the longer term. In the longer term, each new representational domain of climate agency will not emerge solely through hopeful portrayals of an agent (e.g. journalist, architect, teacher, fund manager) exemplifying an orthodox version of their role-specific climate action, however cognitively and affectively well-judged. Telling these stories may certainly be the priority in the short term. But what they should hope to kickstart are diverse stories filled with diverse agents, affects, and values: stories which superficially contradict each other in many ways, but whose deeper presuppositions mesh to create fields of imaginable action that can accommodate the particularity and the creativity of real people. “Environmental activist” is a social role that is available for real people to fill precisely because it can be filled in many ways (not just one way) and because it means many contradictory things (not just one thing). The same is true of the figure of the ethical consumer.

Audiences are more likely to engage with stories about the world they live in, than about who they must be in that world. Successful rapid mitigation and adaptation entails shifting to more participatory and equitable societies. Many audiences with centrist or conservative leanings may struggle to see themselves accepted within such societies. They may reject realistic climate narratives as hoaxes, or even welcome the end times: revel in fantasies of courage, ingenuity, largesse and revenge, set amid the ruins of civilisation. More can be done to create narratives that accommodate a range of self-reported aspirational virtues across the political spectrum, in ways that are cohesive with an overall just transition. Storytelling that focuses on multiplying domains of agency also entails interventions beyond representational techniques altogether, transforming the material contexts in which people seek to exercise agency.

Continue reading “Vector editors at COP26”