We can’t prepare for what we can’t imagine, writes Nicholas Agar, so we need bright young thinkers to lay out all the possibilities that might befall New Zealand

Science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel, The Ministry for the Future, is set in a near future beset by catastrophic climate change. It tracks the efforts of a variety of bureaucrats, scientists, techies and activists working for an international Ministry for the Future as it responds to escalating climate disasters.

Aotearoa New Zealand needs a Ministry for the Future. It would be staffed by graduates trained to think creatively about the diverse and often unpredictable challenges of the future. Many of them should be humanities graduates.

In Robinson’s novel, climate change denial is no longer an option even for the comparatively unaffected. The novel opens with a harrowing account of a heatwave that strikes India killing millions. The main task for Robinson’s characters is clear – forcing politicians and bankers to go beyond nice words – and act.

There’s another lesson about the future that should inform the staffing of an Aotearoa Ministry for the Future. We must trust science but we must also empower the imaginations of young people. This is the only way we can prepare for the future. Enhancing the imaginative reach of young minds should be priority number one for Aotearoa universities.

The different lessons of climate change and Covid-19

The precise timing and extent of the 2019–20 bush fires of Australia’s ‘Black Summer’ were unpredictable. But fires feature prominently on the list of disasters climate scientists have long been telling us to expect from a warmer planet.

Science’s message about climate change is obvious to all but those most determined to ignore it. But science’s message about pandemics has been more ambiguous – especially before Covid-19.

Scientists have long understood pandemics are a possibility. But before Covid-19 the message about pandemics from some vocal scientists differed significantly from the near unanimity of climate scientists on the importance of taking immediate action on climate change.

The potential threat of pandemics got caught up in a general boosterism about scientific and technological progress. Consider the Harvard scientist and best-selling author Steven Pinker. In his book Enlightenment Now – a 2018 celebration of progress, lauded by Bill Gates – Pinker assured us that, thanks to our amazing progress, humanity has become “more resilient to natural and human-made threats: disease outbreaks don’t become pandemics”.

This affirmation of progress doesn’t look so great in October 2020. I’d read Pinker’s book not long before the first reports of a Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan, China. I remember thinking, “We’ve got this … or at least our scientists surely do.”

We need to listen to scientists when they’re presenting the established science of climate change. We should also disregard them when they are acting as overconfident boosters of scientific progress as part of the marketing strategy for a book.

The humanities and the imagination

If we are to prepare for a future full of surprises, we need scientists and politicians who listen to them. But we also need young minds with the power to imagine some of the unpredictable ways the future could go wrong. Such graduates are the main mission of the humanities.

If you prime young minds with some quality science fiction such as Robinson’s novel and ask them to imagine the future, they are likely to come up with lots of ideas. Officially smart people like Pinker failed to predict Covid-19. But pandemics have been frequently imagined in science fiction. A lesson we have learned from Covid-19 is that although we might have imagined the possibility of a pandemic, we failed to imagine deeply and far enough. It’s easy to foresee busy hospitals and panicked politicians. We are now paying for our failure to imagine beyond these most immediate effects of a pandemic.

Of course, many of the scenarios imagined by young employees of the Aotearoa Ministry for the Future won’t come to pass. But if we view this as insurance against an uncertain future, we can nevertheless see these imaginative efforts as worthwhile. Health insurance can give you peace of mind when thinking about nasty diseases you hope you won’t get.

A bonus for young employees of the Aotearoa Ministry for the Future is that much of their imaginative labour – thinking about the many forms the future could take – is fun. We can feel relieved many horrible scenarios entertained by these young minds don’t come to pass. But we should feel good that they imagined them.

The future needs diversity

If we are interested in imagining the future as a form of insurance, we must do better at leveraging Aotearoa’s imaginative diversity.

In April 2019, I visited Tonga to speak about the challenges of the future. There I encountered young people with an acute awareness of climate change. The island of Tongatapu, the home of more than 70,000 Tongans, has its highest point at 65 metres above sea level. A recent assessment found Tongan seas had been rising at “6mm per year, well above the global average”. Young Tongans demonstrated an awareness of the immediacy of climate change beyond what I hear from many young New Zealanders.

I met some amazing storytellers in Tonga. Stories about the future are an excellent way for Tongans to insure against its uncertainties. The stories Tongans tell are informed by deep-felt awareness of ancestors who navigated vast stretches of ocean to arrive at the islands they now call home. You could really see this cultural legacy in the distinctive answers they gave to questions about climate change.

Here we see a failure in Aotearoa’s current attempts to imagine the future. We have a powerful need for the stories of Māori and Pasifika that are currently neglected by institutions that give first place to the stories of the colonisers. On Tongatapu, I heard ideas that challenged my Pākehā intuitions. Making the most of Aotearoa’s imaginative diversity could be an invaluable antidote to dangerous certainties about the future.

Nicholas Agar is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Australia and Adjunct Professor of philosophy at Victoria University of Wellington.

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