A guide to making sense of the inquiry: Beyond ‘energy futures’

I’ve been invited by Mike McAllum and Marcus Bussey to speak to the University of the Sunshine Coast Futures Collective next week, which was a handy prompt to bring things up to date here on recent work.

Before I get to that in a follow-up post though, I figured this also presented a timely opportunity to situate the inquiry for folks who are more deeply ensconced in the futures and foresight field, than readers who arrive here by other paths. In Marcus’s invitation email for the meeting next week, I’m billed as an “Energy Futurist”. I kind of winced and smiled at that simultaneously. I can see how what I’m doing here would naturally be seen in those terms, especially from within the futures field. At the same time, as soon as the energy descriptor gets appended, it feels like it has an unfortunate narrowing effect that the approach I’ve tried to take to this inquiry was intended to head off. An “energy futurist” sounds on face value like a person you might call up when you’re specifically interested the future(s) of [insert here something specifically related to energy supply or use, like PV technology, or oil price, or motor vehicles].

I get quite a bit of that. For example, a friend sent me a job description this week for a position with a small consultancy advising local government and businesses on implementation of renewable energy, energy efficiency and emission reduction projects, wondering if it might be up my alley. While that’s a step or two removed from the “energy futurist” type identity, point is that most people now peg what I do as being about specialist expertise in “energy systems”.

I’ve always seen the situation rather differently — though admittedly my mechanical engineering background presents a challenge to people in getting their heads around this. That background is absolutely fundamental for legitimating this inquiry and for establishing credibility, especially on technical questions. It’s a key factor in why I’d argue you should give weight to what this inquiry finds, at the very least along side, if not ahead of, pronouncements from the highly influential pundits in this area coming at things from, say, computer science or venture capital backgrounds.

The inquiry arose from the outset, though, not from the worldview of someone trained principally in engineering, but rather from that of someone who started there, and later trained specifically in futures studies and foresight. The background needs to be traced further than that however, because the particular tradition of futures inquiry is material here. I received my induction into the field via the Australian Foresight Institute (subsequently the Master of Science and then Master of Management program in Strategic Foresight) at Swinburne University of Technology, established in 1999 by Richard Slaughter.

Richard is a, if not the, leading pioneer in the transition from empirical to critical futures studies during the 1980s, and the instigator of integral futures studies from the late 1990s through 2000s. While not exclusive to the Swinburne program, the explicitly epistemic and poly-perspectival turn in futures studies that he advanced was at the core of my own education and practice, and I specifically sought out this training for what it offered in this respect. From this point of view, the particular approach was not just a peripheral attribute of a path pursued on more pragmatic or utilitarian grounds, it was the original point.

In his 2003 book Futures Beyond Dystopia: Creating Social Foresight (Routledge, London), Slaughter identifies three layers of increasing depth at which futures inquiry is conducted: pop futurism; problem-oriented; and critical & epistemological. He also characterises foresight practice in terms of three social interests: pragmatic; progressive; and civilizational. [1]

I won’t attempt to summarise each of the layers and social interests here, the main point I want to emphasise is that this inquiry explicitly and by design proceeds from a civilizational social interest grounded in the critical and epistemological layer of inquiry. I’ll quote a couple of passages from Futures Beyond Dystopia that give a flavour of what this implies. On critical and epistemological futures work, Slaughter writes:

Following the tradition established by ‘Science, Technology and Society’ (STS) studies, Critical Futures Studies (CFS) do not regard ‘new technologies’ merely as tangible, reified, items ‘out there’ in the ‘real world’. Rather, they are objectifications of various types of social relations. So both STS and CFS challenge the inevitability and taken-for-grantedness of the familiar, as well as the novel and the new. They suggest that there are, at this level, vastly more choices than have been widely understood or canvassed among affluent populations. (p. 93)

Discussing his schema of social interests in foresight practice, Slaughter later writes that civilizational foresight:

[S]eeks to clarify just what might be involved in long-term shifts towards a more balanced and sustainable world. By definition it draws on countless fields of culture and enquiry to set up notions of ‘design forward’. Such work allows us to speculate openly about such questions as: worldview design, underlying assumptions and values, civilizational myths and so on, as well as more down-to-earth matters such as infrastructure, governance and economic relations. (p. 217)

I want to emphasise also that this orientation in no way implies a rejection of the other social interests and layers of inquiry in Slaughter’s respective schemas. In fact Slaughter explicitly addresses this issue with the development of Integral Futures, and I’m entirely on board with the originating motivation and ethos there. The framing of this inquiry, as I believe even a brief scan should demonstrate, is in no way a rejection of established empirical approaches from the natural sciences and engineering disciplines. The intention is to enrich and enhance insights afforded by these knowledge traditions, not to replace or overrule them.

In the current cultural climate, this last point bears underscoring further, even at risk of belabouring a message that has already come through clearly enough for some readers. To be absolutely transparent, here is how Slaughter describes the philosophical commitments of critical and epistemological futures studies.

Each utilizes the tools of post-modern analysis and critique to ‘peel away’ the layers of received opinion and discern the foundations of social life: the social construction of reality. From this point of view, nothing stays the same because everything is in movement. All structures are provisional. They can be problematized, re-framed, reconceptualized, deconstructed and, on the other hand, re-chosen, re-conceptualized etc. The key trends at this level are not those of the outer world and are invisible to empirical/ analytic ways of knowing. Rather, they are discerned, ‘teased out’ or intuited by in-depth reflection on, and immersion in, the foundations of social contexts. Hence, the trends of interest here are those that take place at the level of underlying values, perceptions, traditions etc. (p. 91)

To be clear, these are not ideas that I have just stumbled casually on recently. I’ve sat with them and considered them very deeply for the past two decades or so. This included an initial formal introduction via my friend Frank Fisher’s application of the broad body of post-modern scholarship, from which Slaughter’s work is also derived, to the development of a systems approach to environmental science based on the second-order cybernetics turn in the systems sciences. I’ve discussed this previously at Beyond this Brief Anomaly, but very briefly, the central insight of second-order cybernetics is that in order to adequately investigate some situation of interest, the investigator employing systems principles and methodologies for the research task must be included within the boundary of the investigation. Within this approach, the idea of the neutral, disembodied and perfectly objective observer is rejected, or at least made highly problematic.

I have always maintained a strong connection with my science and engineering background, and I remain deeply appreciative of the intellectual skills that this affords. I believe this has only been strengthened by my exposure to post-modern scholarship. At the same time, I appreciate and share to a large degree the alarm with which quite a number of far more accomplished thinkers than me view the influence that deconstructive post-modernism is now having on the institutional foundations of liberal democracies (the most comprehensive and accessible overview of this concern that I’m aware of is probably David Fuller’s Rebel Wisdom interview series).

I don’t think it is going too far to view growing public demands to overturn institutions as fundamental as science and mathematics as posing a legitimate danger to the viable functioning of contemporary societies. Messing arbitrarily with these institutions poses a potential threat not only to the well-being, but to the very survival of billions of people. That such calls draw on a version of post-modern cultural theory to establish their bona fides is to my mind entirely valid grounds for seeing post-modernism as having over-reached its scope for legitimate knowledge claims. I understand why some commentators — at least, those who are still courageous enough to risk their necks in speaking out — are sufficiently concerned that they take the blunt approach of writing off post-modern thinking and ideas altogether.

The problem as I see it though is that the people now taking this approach are combating a grotesquely distorted caricature [2] of what post-modernism originally had (and I would argue, still has) the potential to be. When I first encountered these ideas, it was in the context of strengthening and enhancing established disciplines and knowledge traditions, especially those grounded in empiricism, not tearing them to shreds and grinding them into the dust. This is the context in which I understand that Richard Slaughter developed critical and epistemological futures studies, and Frank Fisher pioneered his social constructivist environmental science. The intention here was ‘more inclusive methods’ and adding ‘a whole new layer of capability’ (Slaugher, 2003, p. 87). Worlds apart from the wielding of post-modernism as a battle axe to attack bedrock institutions now being made scapegoats for wide-ranging identity-based grievances with equally wide-ranging bases for legitimacy. I have the sense that underlying these attacks is the increasing sense amongst people that all of our futures are in peril — due not though to identity-based micro-aggressions, but rather, in line with the broad findings of this inquiry, perhaps flowing from much deeper-seated and longer term dynamics associated with humans going all-in on the experiment with large-scale civic societies. The foundational institutions now under attack in liberal democracies are without question flawed and imperfect; this is the nature of institutional orders, always and everywhere. Many can indeed be linked with the deep macro-historical basis for conditions leading to a growing sense of dis-ease even among the planet’s more ostensibly prosperous citizens. Any idea though that we would be collectively better off by just abandoning or destroying them seems delusional folly.

This may appear to have gone a little tangential to the original intent, being to situate the inquiry as clearly as possible for those in the futures and foresight field. I hope though that it illustrates how this inquiry is about much more than ‘energy futures’ in the narrow sense. The attention to energy issues is contextual only. The contention here is that to make useful sense of the futures for contemporary societies, energetic questions need to be given adequate and sufficient treatment. Leave this out, or deal with it in a slip-shod way, and all sense-making that gets built on top of it is going to be compromised. It’s really as straightforward as that. Deal with it well enough, and then move on to the really interesting questions, around how on earth we humans get to grips with living well together in light of the adverse co-consequences of our material and technological prowess.

And if I’m successful in convincing colleagues of all this, then I might even even get the odd call out on questions that don’t require answers formatted in scientific notation and SI units :-).

I’ll follow this post with a catalogue of other work not yet reported on at Beyond this Brief Anomaly that has been taking the inquiry forward over the past few years.


[1] These schemas were originally introduced in earlier journal articles, and the social interest schema was covered in Slaughter’s 1999 book Futures for the Third Millennium: Enabling the Forward View (Prospect Media, St Leonards, NSW). The characterisation as “social interests” actually comes from Jose Ramos (2004, “Foresight practice in Australia: a meta-scan of practitioners and organisations”, in R. A. Slaughter (Ed.), AFI Monograph Series (Vol. 7). Hawthorn: Australian Foresight Institute). Futures Beyond Dystopia provides a comprehensive treatment of the ideas in central source.

[2] Not, it must be emphasised, a strawman caricature of the combatants’ making, but resulting rather from distortions perpetrated by those who claim to be acting from positions informed by post-modern analysis.

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