#15 What’s the best that can happen?

Hello!

Welcome to The Makers and a very warm welcome to new subscribers joining us this week.

Here you can watch the video associated with this issue:

You can read all previous issues here (scroll to bottom of the page) and subscribe to the accompanying YouTube channel Ours For The Making here.

This is the final part of a four-part series on ways you can try and make sense of the climate crisis through a long term lens.

If you missed them, you can read them in full here:

Next week, The Makers will return to how you can escape short-term thinking and get ‘future-fit’ in this age of uncertainty.

1. This week’s introduction 📽️ 

New video: How to think about the future (5 simple ways)

It’s easy to overlook this simple reality: what you do today shapes your tomorrow (and the many days after that). 

Put more bluntly: your future-self is entirely dependent on you.

In this video we’ll look at 5 ways you can improve how you imagine, shape and prepare for the future.

2. Future jam today 😋

In the run up to the UN Climate Conference in Glasgow, The Makers is teaming up with The Global Tiller newsletter with its coverage of COP26. You can read it here.

3. What’s the best that can happen? 

Making the abstract more concrete

I feel like my ability to think about the future is only as good as my thought experiments. 

Future-gazing is often about trying to make out the fuzzy outlines of what could happen and, if possible, add a bit of colour and shade to those abstract ideas to make them feel a bit more real. 

This past month I’ve shared with you a number of thought experiments. Each aims to cast new light on some of the questions delegates in Glasgow will be grappling with. 

How we balance the future against our lives in the present is not straightforward. But there is one central theme that runs through a lot of what we discuss in The Makers. That is: how to make the future look and feel a bit more concrete. 

The future’s perpetual disadvantage is that it must compete with a very visible and tangible present. When the future appears fuzzy, it appears even more remote and less important than the here and now.

So, taking a few deliberate steps to sharpen the clarity of our images of what’s up the path can perhaps help redress this imbalance a little.

Hanging a number on the future

When we wish to put flesh on our future thoughts, our first instinct is often to try and add numbers. Numbers to describe size and scale of change, mark the temperature, count the volume of rainfall, tally the number of people.

Earlier this month, we imagined a set of scales. On one side sits everyone alive today – some 7.7. billion people. On the other sits everyone yet to be born – one count puts this figure at 6.75 trillion over the next 50,000 years.

Then we considered this imbalance through the lens of a thought experiment: the cataclysmic event. We considered two scenarios: In the first, a cataclysmic event dispatches 90 per cent of humanity. In the second, 100 per cent of humanity perishes.

Derek Parfit, the English philosopher who wrote this scenario, asks us to consider how much worse is scenario two than scenario one? He suggests that the second is significantly worse on account that it forecloses not only the lives of those living in the present, but the entire human project of the future.

And so, we begin to be drawn into big, big numbers of ‘possible people’. It challenges us to consider the needs of those who may live many thousands of years from now in the decisions we take today. It also needles at the limits of our ethical obligation to these possible people. Is our obligation to the people of the future unbounded and infinite? Should it be?

Valuing the future

Next, we moved on to quantifying the value of the future. We looked at a little number that matters a lot

The discount rate is a way to count – or more accurately dis-count – the future. How high, or how low, you set this single number has profound consequences for how much of the future you consider and how much that piece of the future is ‘worth’ to you to try and preserve or protect.

So, we tot up the costs. We sum up the benefits. We apply suitable discounts. We arrive at yet more sophisticated numbers. But ultimately, when it comes to deciding how we should act in the present, it’s hard to duck the fundamental ethical question of what is our obligation to future generations?

One way to test this is to ask, what legacy are we leaving to future generations? Are we handing them problems from our time that money alone can’t fix in their time? If we suspect we are, I find that this framing brings our obligations to them into even sharper focus.

We simply do not know

Even if we can settle our sense of obligations to future generations – and perhaps how far into the future our obligations should reach – we still need to contend with uncertainty.

We still need to confront the fact that, as John Maynard Keynes wrote in 1936, “we simply do not know” what the future holds in certain situations.

We are being constantly asked to act in the absence of important information. We can’t be sure we’re doing the right thing. 

It’s dark; we’re fumbling.

But act we must. To stall and sit on our hands is also to act. But, waiting until that elusive piece of critical information becomes available could be one delay too many.

What’s the best that could happen?

Let’s shift our focus from global issues to us as individuals. 

Too often, I find myself reading about, hearing about or watching ‘worst-case scenarios’. Whether it’s in relation to the climate crisis, the economy, the use of technology, the state of democracy and so on.

(I accept my fair share of guilt here: I did dedicate much of last week’s newsletter to worst-worst-case scenarios.)

Even when discussions eventually turn to finding solutions, it’s too often limited to avoiding or lessening those worse-case scenarios.

This catastrophising mindset can easily overspill into our thinking in everyday life.

It’s seldom about what a best-case scenario might look like.

So, this made me curious. Can we use best-case scenarios as a method to construct and assemble our expectations of the future in a more positive way?

The “Pygmalion effect”

Research suggests that your expectations matter.

Take this one famous study examining teacher expectations of their students conducted by Rosenthal and Jacobsen in 1968. Teachers in a Californian elementary school were told at the start of a school year that roughly 1 in 5 pupils were “intellectual bloomers” and academically more gifted than their classmates. 

This was not necessarily correct; these pupils had been selected at random. 

With expectations set, the authors tracked educational attainment and their findings suggested that teacher expectations had positively uplifted the IQ of those “intellectual bloomers”. 

This came to be known as the “Pygmalion effect” after the Greek myth in which a sculptor falls in love with a statue that he has carved. 

This study and its findings was not without its critiques. But, is there something more intuitive and mundane going on when we think about (and set) expectations?

The red pullover phenomenon

Have you ever experienced something like this before… 

Have you ever bought a new item of clothing, say a red pullover, and now you can’t stop seeing other people in the street, on the train, on the TV wearing red pullovers?

(You can substitute the red pullover for anything: a new VW car, a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles…)

Were all these red pullovers in the world around you all along? Of course they were, you reason. But then why did you not notice them? 

Quite simply, you’ve primed your attention to scan for red pullovers. The interesting thing is, now that you’ve noticed that you’ve noticed so many red pullovers, the next time you leave your house, you’ll probably see multiple red pullovers and you won’t be in the least bit surprised by the number you see. After all, you now expect to see that many.

So, what does the red pullover phenomenon tell you about your expectations?

It tells you that through the power of suggestion and intention your attention could be directed away from negative, undesirable futures to more positive, desirable scenarios. You can recalibrate your expectations.

And if this is possible, why not focus on the very best-case scenario? 

Think of it as a way for you to pump-prime serendipity and increase the surface-area of fortune for your best-case scenario. Think of it as a way to direct your attention – both proactively and subconsciously – to scan your environment for opportunities related to your best-case scenario. 

Create your own best-case scenario

So how can you go about drawing up a best-case scenario?

The science-fiction author J.D. Moyer wrote a blog about his approach which I quite like. Here are a few suggestions which incorporate his experiences: 

  1. Write it down. As with most thinking in life, you make it ‘real’ when you commit it to paper. Writing down your best case-scenario is a sure-fire way to help organise and clarify your thoughts.
  2. Choose an area of your life to focus on. It’s worth bearing in mind that the purpose of this exercise is to draw up something that is relevant to you, something that is as specific as possible so you can go beyond an outline to really picture a scenario. And lastly, 
  3. Choose a time horizon. Is your best-case scenario going to be for a client meeting next week? Your health and wellness next year? Or your finances 10 years from now?
  4. Avoid goals; make it plausible. Moyer notes that he tries to avoid goal setting or highly unlikely events, but rather focuses on “outcomes that [are] highly optimistic but still plausible.” If you’re serious about this exercise, ground your scenario in a reality that doesn’t require, for instance, fabulous wealth or talent to simply drop out of the sky.

Bending the future towards your best?

As a counterpoint to futures that loom with gloom, taking the very best-case scenario is a deeply appealing idea. But more than that, if it becomes your picture of what the future could look like, and the one that you hold in mind above others, could it be more likely to come into being? 

Moyer seems to think so. He notes in a review of one of his earlier exercises: “about 70% of my best-case scenarios had materialized”.

Thanks 🙏

Thanks for reading, watching, subscribing and being a Maker. I really appreciate it.

If you’ve enjoyed this edition of The Makers, you’d be doing me a kind and generous favour by sharing it with someone who might enjoy it also. 

And if you have questions or comments, do hit reply. 

Until next time…

Best wishes,

James

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