We can’t begin to confront the challenges of an uncertain future unless we first try hard to imagine them – beyond the comfortable yet dangerous certainties of the past, writes Victoria University of Wellington’s Nicholas Agar

It’s important to remind ourselves that we will eventually get through this coronavirus nightmare. Here’s a thought about how this experience could change the way we think about an essentially uncertain future.

First, a cautious forecast. Covid-19 is currently wreaking havoc globally. But I almost feel sorry for Covid-29 – a possible coronavirus first identified in humans in 2029. I expect a massive commitment to understanding and stopping these viruses. When Covid-29 takes its first tentative steps into our species there is a good chance it will be targeted by the anti-viral equivalent of a nuclear bomb.

There’s a danger in these reassuring thoughts. As we rebound from the coronavirus and contemplate other future threats, we should avoid the error of fighting the last war. France prepared for the Nazi invasion of 1940 with its Maginot Line that would have thwarted an enemy with the battle plan of 1914, but not an attacker that simply avoided the Line’s strong points.

The perils of hindsight bias

The physicist Leonard Mlodinow points to hindsight biases in the way we think about the past. Consider all the hand-wringing that followed the attacks on the United States in September 2001. How many missed opportunities were there to stop the 9/11 hijackers? With the 20/20 vision of hindsight it is just so obvious where the authorities should have looked.

In the post-coronavirus era, expect to see many recriminations and much blaming. Perhaps a total closure of Chinese wet markets with their menageries of exotic animals in 2018 would have prevented Covid-19. Perhaps we will conclude that many lives would have been saved had Jacinda sent us into lockdown one week earlier. But she is forced to act on what is understood in March 2020, not March 2021.

What’s dangerous as we proceed into an essentially uncertain future is the idea that we can predict all the bad stuff so long as we are sufficiently clever or look hard enough. We don’t learn the right lessons from history if we imaginatively credit historical actors with what is obvious to us now.

We will need a concerted effort to better combat coronaviruses and other zoonoses – pathogens that come to humans from other species. But please let’s not stop there. We can’t let Covid-19 blinker our vision of an essentially uncertain future. A potent anti-viral medication mustn’t become our Maginot Line.

We need the imagination insurance offered by young minds

I am currently teaching a course – PHIL310: How to Study the Future – that focuses on how best to approach the future’s uncertainties. It aims to make the most of one of our most precious resources to better prepare for the future. It’s odd to find this course disrupted by a calamity that so starkly demonstrates a need for it.

There is a disconnect between the educations universities currently offer and the post-millennials filling our lecture halls. Lecturers of my age are frustrated by students who don’t front up to class and seem more interested in posting to Instagram than mastering the intricacies of APA referencing.

But one of the great advantages of young minds is this disinclination to think about ideas in the orderly way I was trained to. If we give up on the idea that we should have predicted the coronavirus, then we can leverage these unruly imaginations to roam all the possibilities – both terrible and magnificent – the future could bring.

We can think of this as a kind of imaginative insurance. When you purchase travel insurance you hope it covers you for many misfortunes you didn’t imagine. We can’t begin to confront the challenges of an uncertain future unless we first try hard to imagine them.

Many of my students love science fiction. This genre is an excellent tool for imaginatively exploring the future. The sci-fi author Arthur C Clarke is famous for his successful forecasts, including internet search engines and communications satellites. But we must resist the urge to treat events that happen to turn out as someone imagined them as successful predictions. As the sci-fi scholar Eric Rabkin points out, it should be no surprise some of the “tens of thousands of visions of the future” turn out to be close to the truth. The best thing about Clarke’s stories is their imaginative reach and not their uncanny predictions. Sci-fi’s tens of thousands of visions should be an essential part of our imaginative insurance cover for the future.

The true value of zombie stories

One sci-fi trope that comes to my mind as I observe a Wellington in lockdown is the zombie story. To take one example, in Max Brooks’s novel World War Z – also a movie – a viral pandemic that originates in China turns humans into flesh-eating zombies.

Covid-19 is certainly no zombie virus. And in these anxious times perhaps it’s dangerous to even express this idea. But focusing on the zombies overlooks the true value of stories like World War Z. A theme in these stories is humans seeking novel responses to societal collapse. And if stories like these prompt us to broaden the range of our imaginations and consider ways we can preserve social order even as we face unprecedented challenges then they will have done their jobs. That’s the goal of my course – to prompt students to use their imaginations to reach beyond the comfy but dangerous certainties of the past.

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