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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