In 1972 the Club of Rome, an international think tank, commissioned four scientists to use computers to model the human future. The result was the infamous Limits toGrowth that crashed into world culture like an asteroid from space. Collapse, calamity and chaos were the media take-aways from the book, even though the authors tried hard to explain they weren’t making predictions but only exploring what would happen if population and economies continued their exponential growth. People, however, wanted predictions even if the book wasn’t really offering them. That gap between the authors’ intentions and the book’s reception tells us something critical about flaws in the way we think about the long-term future. Just as important, it points to new and different ways to think about the future at this strange moment in human history, when that future is so uncertain.
The real point to emerge from the crude (by today’s standards) simulations in The Limits of Growthwas that…duh… growth had limits. Using the language of coupled non-linear differential equations, the authors modeled the interaction between population and resources on a finite planet. The stunning prediction of those models was that collapse, rather than steady state, was one very real “solution” to the system. The visual cue to this nasty future was the simple trajectory of black line on a printout of population vs. time. That was really all folks needed. Follow the line. If it leveled off things would be great. If it plummets we are, by definition, all doomed.
What happened next was a battle over the details of that line and its trajectory. Would it really plummet, and if so, when, exactly, would it do that—i.e., how many years left till collapse? Economists, environmentalists, political scientists, and politicians began duking it out over these questions, and they haven’t stopped yet. But as climate change and resource depletion began spreading from scientific journals to headlines, it became clear these kinds of fights are missing the point. For the boots-on-the-ground folks—urban planners who must start planning and building now—something very different is needed.
That is a great irony of the challenge human culture must deal with now. On the one hand we canpredict the future. Our science makes it pretty damn clear that a rapidly changing planet is in the cards over thenext 30 to 50 to 100 years. On the other hand, there is no way to accurately predict all the ways a city like New York or Seattle will be affected those changes. For folks charged with ensuring the specifics of human culture are resilient in the face of those changes, the Club of Rome-style computer models can’t deal with the way uncertainty spreads the further we look into the future. It’s hard enough to predict snowpack a year in advance; how is a city to understand and plan for changes given changing climate conditions and population levels 50 years in advance?
To make that leap we need to go beyond predicting the future and begin telling the future.
We need to begin thinking in terms of “scenarios.”