Tag Archives: futures

Resist ‘realistic’. Be visionary. A story from environmental planning.

Why is it that our culture seems to accept (even expect) passion and emotion in a CEO’s visioning work and leadership, but those who are working for social justice, peace or environmental well-being  are expected to be ‘realistic’ within the structures and situations of today.  On a number of occasions during my career as a strategic and environmental planner my visions for ecological change and community health were belittled and referred to as being naïve, idealistic or unrealistic and I was told to tone down my passion for protecting watersheds and community shared decision-making. Luckily, I don’t give in to such limiting direction (well, at least not for long, it is easy to get thrown off one’s vision temporarily). Whenever your ideas are challenged and you are told to be ‘realistic’ — resist! —  we won’t create sustainable and just futures without vision and daring goals.

An example of how a daring and positive vision can directly affect ecological health can be found in a Canadian policy regarding toxic substances.  For a brief time, years ago, Canada had an official government vision of the elimination of persistent toxic substances to aquatic ecosystems, including marine ecosystems, with a goal of “Zero Discharge of Persistent Toxic Substances” in the Strategic Plan for Inland Waters Directorate.  I was part of the strategic planning team that was successful in a collaboration with senior management to support zero discharge and put this vision into our agency’s strategic plan. We envisioned this goal being supported by “the coordination of policy with state-of-the-art hydrological, scientific and technical knowledge… and research”.  We knew the technical ability to reach zero discharge of persistent toxic substances was not yet in place, but we envisioned Canadian research and development teams leading the world in creating the non-polluting technologies that would be required to reach this vision.  It was a BHAG  (big hairy audacious goals – Collins and Porras, 1996). It didn’t have a guarantee of success; it required more than present capabilities; it would have required extraordinary effort; it was visionary.  But shortly after this strategic plan was published, efforts began on Canada’s Green Plan (Environment Canada, 1992). As result of industry interference, and scientists who were “realistic”, our vision was compromised to a goal of “Virtual elimination of persistent toxic substances”.  Wiggle words like virtual, consider, encourage are poison to innovation. Once the commitment to zero discharge was replaced, when elimination became virtual elimination, the government, industry, and academic institutions became distracted by, and focused on, just how much virtual meant.  How much toxic discharge could they get away with – not how to end toxic discharges.  As a result little new knowledge or innovative technology and processes have resulted, whereas the brave, visionary stance of zero discharge would have forced the creation of new, non-polluting methods of production.

So being visionary isn’t flakey. It is necessary to guide and motivate our actions towards a better world.


Who are you to be thinking about the future?

You are the perfect person to be thinking about the future. At least the futures of your community.

Envisioning our futures is not just the job of those with the conventional roles accompanied by institutional privilege or power. It is true, that we will need the politicians, the designers of buildings and cities, automobile and highway engineers, the technology wizards, filmmakers and the media — those who normally get a voice in futures thinking. BUT, if we are to create sustainable and just futures we need to involve a diversity of voices, and especially nurture the voices of women, and children, who are often not included in discussions of futures.

So often thinking about the future falls to those ‘experts’ in what we think of as ‘the’ future – those folks, usually men, who work with technology. But creating sustainable and just futures requires that we all get involved. Diverse futures based in ecological and social diversity, caring for one another, and where justice for all people and beings is honoured, will require all of our talents.  Sustainable and just futures will also demand that we have a strong sense of our community, our home place, including where our water and food comes from,  the natural spaces that require protection or restoration as well as the human assets and the parts of our human community that need attention and compassion.

Creating sustainable and just futures requires many things. As Donella Meadows argued creating sustainable communities begins with envisioning what we truly want, and desire, for our communities.  This visioning demands from us that we take a long, deep look at what is working in our communities — as well as what is not working.  Our vision then guides us in how to protect what is working, create more of that,  and begin actions to change or dismantle what is not working (or at least stop propping it up).

Our diverse futures will not just about high tech wonders, but for some people that will be their life, as it is now. There will also be children and elders to care for, food to be grown in healthy soil, festivals to be planned, beauty to be created, streams and wetlands to be restored, meals to be prepared, learning to happen, buildings to be built, new non-polluting processes to be invented, music to be made, healing to happen, conflicts to be solved using non-violence, democracy to support, and play of all sorts. We will all have a place in creating ecologically sound and socially just futures.

There is a lack of spaces to discuss ideas about the future, especially diverse, just and ecologically sound futures.  I will provide some of my thoughts here, as well as introduce some of the innovative futures thinkers and visionaries who provide pathways to flourishing futures. And I hope that you will contribute some of your ideas (no flying cars, please).


Karen Hurley, PhD is the lead writer on this blog, but the hope is that others will join in the conversation about futures, and what we want them to be, based on love for humans and all beings, and the Earth, including the trees, plants, water, soil, rocks, air.  We shall also keep in front of us,  Dr. Elise Boulding’s, vision for a world without weapons.