Archive page from 1996/97: re-published on July 2004.

... because we humans can only work for a future we can imagine.



by Merrill Findlay for Imagine The Future Inc

presented in Brisbane, November 14, 1994,
at a workshop on the future of work hosted by Australian Institute of Human Resources

A few weeks back I took an early morning canter into cyberspace on the back of my clunky old ISP horse, Pegasus, and found the following electronic mail message waiting for me:

Subject: What's your opinion?
I would like your opinion about the prospects for our future.
There seems to be growing consensus that sometime during the
first two decades of the 21st century, our social "systems"
will become "chaotic." At that point, the future of our
civilization is, in principal, "unpredictable."

I tend to agree with this apocalyptic scenario because of the
powerful interlocking nature of our economic, mass
communication, and political systems.

I see these systems as "gigantic autonomous machines" that follow their own mechanistic logic and are, for practical purposes, beyond human control.

What do you think?

If you have time to send me a few lines, I would be grateful.

Jay Hanson
Kailua-Kona, HI 96740

I don't know Jay Hanson but there he or she was, this total stranger, 'spamming' me and dozens of other subscribers to Pegasus and other APC subscribers around the globe (APC is the Association for Progressive Communications, the public path to the internet), with his or her personal vision of apocalypse. I have to admit I burst out laughing, not just at the message itself, but at the whole context in which I was reading it. Me sitting quietly at my computer in St Kilda Australia innocently logging onto Pegasus, all those other people sitting quietly at their machines in North America and Sweden and the UK logging onto their networks too, and Jay Hansen, whoever she or he is, in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, electronically bombarding us all with 'the end of the world as we know it'!

Naturally I wanted to share my amusement with someone else so I 'pegged' a note to a friend in Wollongong, a physicist. Within an hour or two, he'd logged onto his network, read what I'd sent him and keyed me a half serious warning about the dangers of being caught in a 'web node.' Plus a nonsense ditty he'd composed to the tune of Don't cry for me Argentina about playing the flute in a production of Evita . Plus a complaint about a pulled muscle in his back! The sort of personal chatter that nurtures friendships, 'virtual' or otherwise, across time and space. But perhaps not surprisingly, he made no reference to the 'chaotic' behaviour of our social systems which was the content of Jay Hanson's message. It was too early in the day for that!

That same morning I picked up what was then the latest issue of New Scientist, bright red and yellow number called 'The Future: into the unknown' and wandered with it across the road to one of my favourite 'offices', a cafe owned by a bloke called Angelo. It's almost a daily habit when I'm at home, this wandering across the road to Angelo's cafe. Or to the George. Or Leo's. Or any other of the dozens of cafes near where I live.

Angelo saw me coming and was already at the espresso machine making my usual, a weak caffe latte, as I pulled a chair out from under my favourite table. Sometimes we have a chat, Angelo and me, and sometimes we don't. On this day I had this 'research' to do -- that's what I call it when I take magazines or books across the road to read -- so we didn't. Angelo understands. Sometimes he lends me a biro if I've forgotten mine. For notes I say. And almost always I just hold it in my hand for the next hour, sip my milk coffee and stare out the window!

By now you might be wondering what all this has to do with 'the future of work', but please be patient. There is (perhaps) method in my madness as I hope you might soon see.

So there I am on a Thursday morning sipping weak caffe latte at Angelo's cafe and reading New Scientist magazine while everyone else is rushing off to their 'proper' jobs in 'proper' offices. There's only one other customer in the cafe at this time of the morning, a pale faced young man with beautiful wavy dark hair down to his waist and a full moustache. Another local, so we smile at one another, and would you believe it, he's reading New Scientist too!! The same issue as me. The one about the future. We note the co-incidence and laugh. Has anyone else read this particular issue, Number 1947 of 15 October 1994? I mention it because it's a very accessible science mag. for non scientists like me. And because one of your other guests today, Ian Lowe, writes a regular column for it. In this particular issue he was writing about, amongst other things, 'the future of work' in the timber industry. A piece called 'When the chips are down, small is better'.

In the supplement to this issue of New Scientist, writer Fred Pearce takes us on 'A Postenvironmental Adventure' of Planet Earth in the year 2045. In Fred's imagined future, one of the world's largest nations is or was a sprinkle of tropical atolls across the Pacific Ocean. This island state is called Kiribati and its resource base includes Earth's last tuna fishery plus inestimable deposits of manganese nodules and other submarine minerals waiting to be vacuumed off the ocean floor. With such valuable resources within their territorial waters, you'd think the Kiribatians would be a wealthy people. They're not, or not in Fred Pearce's future. They're all living in shanty ghettos in Wellington, New Zealand, because their island homes homes have been swamped by the rising sea. The Greenhouse Effect has turned them into refugees.

Pearce reports that by the early decades of the twenty first century, hundreds of icebergs the size of small nations were breaking off Antarctica because of global warming. Scientists warned that if the whole Antarctic ice cap should break up and melt, sea levels would rise by around 7 metres which would threaten even the more industrialised nations of the world!

The oil industry, one of the major producers of greenhouse gases, interpreted this to mean 'business as usual' but with a few cosmetic changes around the edges. Their 'solution' was an 'end of pipeline' waste disposal service to collect CO2, the primary greenhouse gas, in liquified form from the consumers of fossil fuels and dump it on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. They called their technofix the CarbonNet and in Pearce's story, you can still see its rusting pipelines littering the whole of western Europe. Pearce even suggests the infrastructure and maintenance costs of the CarbonNet and the associated short sighted thinking precipitated the collapse of Europe's industrial base.

By 2045, a new generation of corporate scientists were claiming the ultimate eco-techno fix to global warming. Photoplankton. Little floating things, as you know, that manufacture carbohydrates from carbon dioxide and water using the energy of the sun, and emit oxygen as their only 'externality'. What we call photsynthesis as in what trees do. But it seems there aren't enough trees to absorb all the CO2 in 2045. So then plankton, great heavily fertilised farms of it in the Southern Ocean off the coast of Antarctica.

These marine farms are collectively called the Carbon Sink Facility (because isn't nature just a sink for us humans to pour all our crap into?) owned by a corporate giant called AntarctiCorp. 'We are building a highly tuned global thermostat down here' one of AntarctiCorp's scientists told Pearce in his imagined future. And the next step? Control of the world's climate of course. No single corporation has ever wielded such power.

Fred Pearce covers the whole globe with his dystopic extrapolations from the present to a date fifty years hence: giant airtrains blasting manufactured ozone into the atmosphere to fill in the 'holes'; privatised remnants of Amazonian rainforests fenced off for wealthy ecotourists; indigenous peoples who once lived in the forests being forced into prostitution just to feed and clothe themselves; the tropical forests of central Africa woodchipped into extinction; zoos and nature reserves being funded by members of new animist religions who worshipped the planet's last 'wild' creatures; local cooling known as the 'Aerosol Effect' over the megacities of China, where the sun never breaks through the toxic clouds of pollution; in the Arctic circle, mass poisonings of birds and polar bears from organo-chlorine compounds developed in the twentieth century; loss of male fertility in indigenous human Canadian and Siberian peoples caused by the same chlorinated compounds; methane pouring out of the melting Siberian tundra to exacerbate the Greenhouse Effect; and on and on it goes. Environmental disasters, conflict, sabotage, short sighted technofixes ... until it seems like the only positive news in this post-nuclear comedy is what Fred Pearce describes as a pan-African agricultural revival which, he says is nurtured by Islamic fundamentalism and the demise of the World Bank!

At this point, Angelo was passing my table so I caught his eye and ordered another caffe latte, then resumed the serious business of staring out the cafe window! Another man called Fred came to mind. Fred Polak, a Dutch sociologist who, in the late '40s, wrote a book about how we humans simultaneously live in the present and that Other place, the future. About how we imagine that mythic Other Place to explain our present and how our images of that place, the future, then 'act as magnets on our behaviour in the present.' to precipitate social change.

Polak's book was translated into English by Elise Boulding in 1961, as 'The image of the future'. As Boulding explains:

At the macrohistorical level, the rise and fall of images of the future precede or accompany the rise and fall of cultures. The rise and fall effect comes because images of the future are like time-bombs which explode and spend their strength at certain points in history, so that new ones must be created. ... He (Pollak) conceives of certain images as having had unusual potency and containing in fact, triple charges. Each explosion creates a breach in time, a sharp discontinuity, by producing a vision for the particular culture in which the explosion takes place, of a totally new possibility. The society then begins to mobilise its energies for a response to that vision.

Polak sifted through many cultures' images of tomorrow and found that, in most of them, the future was a positive place where the problems of the present had been solved. It was a place for people to look forward to. He suggests these positive visions were what mobilised Europe towards those great periods of social transformation we now call 'the Renaissance', 'the Reformation', 'the Enlightenment' And in more down to earth terms, such images of a better world mobilised us towards the abolition of slavery and child labour in most parts of the world, the emancipation of women, towards parliamentary democracy, universal suffrage, the eight hour working day ... all those milestones which we in the 'West' now hold sacred, but which were once considered by conservative forces, as 'impossible'.

Then came the twentieth century and the future changed. That Other Place we live in became Aldous Huxley's 'Brave New World' (published in 1932) or George Orwell's '1984' (published of course, in 1948). A scientifically rational place, more totalitarian even than Plato's imagined Republic. From the middle of the twentieth century, our future, that Other Place we live in simultaneously with the present, had become a mushroom cloud, a Silent Spring or Coca Cola consumerism. Or more recently, this New Scientist's 'postenvironmental adventure' and Jay Hanson's apocalyptic millenium.

But if Polak's hypothesis about our visions of the future 'act(ing) as magnets on our behaviour in the present' to precipitate social change is correct, then what sort of future are these twentieth century images drawing us towards? I mean, who wants to live in Pearce's 'Postenvironmental Adventure'? Or in Huxley's 'Brave New World'? Or indeed, in any of the other hightech futures being sold to us now by mainstream interests?

Fortunately our journey through time is not a nice straight predictable line from a known past through this moment we are living now to a future that is predetermined. That we ever thought it was is just another a symptom of the way we in the 'Western world' have seen the universe these past few hundred years, like it's some great clockwork machine which runs according to nice neat straight-line laws that can be 'discovered' by 'objective' observation and experimentation. As though nature is something separate from us, something 'out there', a resource to be 'conquered', 'controlled', 'dominated', exploited for 'mankind's' benefit, but not of course, for 'womankind's'.

In this world view, we people are resources too. Human Resources that need to be 'managed' and whose 'lives' are separate from our 'work' -- and all those other dualities we suffer from: 'mind' separate from 'body', subject from object, 'them' from 'us', individual from the community, et cetera. All those old ways of seeing ourselves and rest of creation that have brought us to where we are now ...

But what else is there? Where are those collective dreams which 'act as magnets on our behaviour in the present.' to pull us somewhere new? Somewhere better?

Even New Scientist is asking that question. Let me just quote from the editorial of 15 October 1994:

The view that we are at the 'end of history' or, at least, that there are no viable alternative goals for politicians other than liberal capitalism and affluent consumer-oriented culture, suggest that fragmentation may now be a permanent feature of post-postmodern capitalism.

Is a different future possible? Is there even a way to judge whether increased diversity and individualism is to be welcomed or not? That is perhaps the one area where we could few avenues to explore.

With the end of Marx, there appears no one left with a radical alternative future. And comprehensive critiques of the way we live now are few and far between. If we are to make a completely different future, then we await someone with a new ideology. Or we may face an ecological catastrophe that will make nonsense of our postindustrial civilisation.'

And again in the October edition of the influential quarterly 'Social Alternatives' magazine (which I mention because it is produced here in Brisbane): an article by Frank Stilwell called 'Political-Economic Systems: A Fourth Way'.

Certainly, the failures of free-market economics and of centralised economic planning point to the need for a new direction. Concurrently, the corporatist alternative, exemplified by the Japanese 'miracle', seems to have run out of steam: it evidently has difficulty in re-generating dynamism and innovation in economic life and runs counter to demands for diversity and autonomy in political and social life. On an international scale, the institutions of corporate capitalism recurrently frustrate the achievement of more balanced socio-economic development and the extension of democratic principles. There seems to be no broadly acceptable model. The resulting vacuum is manifest in part in a profound cynicism about political ideals and economic institutions or, at best, in a dominant pragmatism. In these circumstances it seems appropriate for social scientists to start more seriously exploring a broader array of possibilities.

And again in Melbourne's hallowed daily, The Age. Saturday Extra, November 5. A big bold headline 'Out of order', and the question 'What's wrong with the world?' A two part feature by foreign editor Graham Barrett looking at 'why the world isn't working.' War, famine, environmental disaster' the intro blasts. 'The international system has failed to cope with the challenges of the post-Cold War era.'

Barrett continues:
At a point in history when the world should be reaping the fruits of communism's collapse and the end of an ideological rivalry held in place by the threat of an exchange of nuclear weapons, it is confronted by an apparent failure of the international system to cope with the challenges of the post-Cold War era ...

In play is not just the proliferation of civil war that is testing humanity, but the growing impression of inadequacy or vulnerability in every field of global endeavour, from trying to protect the environment and alleviating poverty in the developing world, to halting the spread of disease, ending trade disputes, combating corruption, slowing the population explosion, eliminating famine, stemming the sale of weaponry, drugs and black-market plutonium, reducing the threat of another Chernobyl-style nuclear disaster, lowering unemployment and engendering economic advance.

In one Western capital after another, in Cabinets and think-tanks, summit meetings, seminars and editorial conferences, people are agonising over why the world does not seem to be working nearly as well as it should.

In this article, Barrett quotes both President Clinton and George Shultz, a former US Secretary of State. Says Clinton: 'The reality of the post-Cold War world is that we're all searching for new arrangements that work.' Says Shultz: 'One of the problems is that everyone's just drifting.' Comforting isn't it!

So is a different future possible? Or is further 'fragmentation' all there is? Must we wait for someone else to lead us out of this dead end, as the New Scientist editorial suggests? Or is something else happening that the editors of New Scientist and all those very important people who sit in think-tanks either haven't recognised yet, or haven't been able to articulate?

Which brings me, in some unpredictable, nonlinear sort of way, to butterflies. To the gentle flutterings of their wings. Because once upon a time, in the days when computers were still noisy things made from long wires and vacuum tubes, there lived in Cambridge Massachussets, a young meteorologist called Edward Lorenz, or so the story goes (James Gleick, Chaos: making a new science, Cardinal, 1988). Lorenz wanted to understand the physical laws that governed the universe, as Newton had three hundred years before. More specifically, he wanted to understand the laws that made our weather what it is. So he spent his days feeding equations into a big computer then watching it excrete row upon row of digits onto blank sheets of paper. The numbers repeated themselves in quite predictable patterns which Lorenz interpreted as west winds swinging to the north and cyclones spinning around the planet and such. Then one day he took a short cut. He fed his machine a number rounded off to three decimal places instead of his usual six, a difference of only one in a thousand, and went away for a cup of coffee. By the time he got back to his computer, his printout had gone crazy. That very small difference in input (one in a thousand) had produced a completely unpredictable output.

At the time, Lorenz couldn't understand why this new set of patterns was so different from anything he'd ever seen before, but he had a hunch he was 'onto something'. Other people in other disciplines were observing similar nonlinearities and were intuiting that they were 'onto something' too. Soon that 'something' was given a name: Chaos. Or 'the sensitive dependence on initial conditions'. And so another cog was smashed in those old mechanistic, reductionist ways of seeing the world. To quote Stanford economist Brian Arthur, 'We're finally beginning to recover from Newton.'

Chaos is about complex, unpredictable systems in which 'everything affects everything else' . As James Gleik notes in his 'Chaos: making a new science',

this translates into what is only half jokingly known as the Butterfly Effect the notion that a butterfly stirring the air today in Peking can transform storm systems next month in New York.

Which is why I want to talk with you about butterflies, about the gentle flutterings of their wings. All those tentative present day thoughts and actions that might one day transform this great complex and unpredictable system we live in, but which are yet invisible to many people's eyes. And please note, these are the reflections of a writer, an artsworker, not a scientist -- and I probably take extreme liberties with the science of chaos, and even misinterpret it! My apologies to all scientists. But this is my response to Jay Hanson's spam.

When you are consciously looking for butterflies, you see them everywhere: all those questionings of patriarchal, hierarchical ways of doing things; all those rediscoverings, reinterpretings of our pasts that give us a fuller understanding of who we are; all that hungering for a sense of community and the re-emergence of cafes and other local venues where we can enjoy being with other people and get to know one another deeper; all those challenges to centralised, anonymous government; all those new grassroots movements like Landcare that ignore fences and shire boundaries and other human barriers to repairing the damage done to the biosphere over the last few hundred years; all those dialogues in cyberspace that challenge institutional and political boundaries; all the young women in universities who are now outnumbering young men in many traditionally nonfemale disciplines; all the interdisciplinary research programs that look at whole systems rather ever smaller bits and pieces of parts; all those indigenous peoples who have refused to let their cultures die and are now demanding the right to determine their own destiny in their own terms (... and not just here in Queensland where some of the country's most innovative land, marine and community management programs are being developed by indigenous groups); all those small rural communities, too few of them still, that are growing rather than fading away; all those men who are rethinking what it is to be men, as us women have had to rethink ourselves in decades past; all those New Age borrowings from other cultures in other times and other places that put fresh meaning into our denuded western lives; all those new syntheses from modern science Relativity, the Uncertainty Principle, Gaia, the Big Bang, Complexity which like that nonlinear phenomenon we now call Chaos, help us transcend the old dualisms of the past; all those challenges from philosophy and the social sciences to the notion of the 'individual' as the primary unit of society; all those questionings of the capacity of both free market capitalism and socialist centralised economic planning to provide all six billion of us citizens of Earth with opportunities to live rich and fulfilling lives; all those celebrations of diversity and pluralism when it is still so easy to fall prey to intolerance and dogmatism and prejudice and sexism and racism and xenophobia; and all those peaceful resolutions of conflict that could have very easily turned violent; and all those 'shift(s) from material growth to inner growth' which are promoted by many contemporary social movements.

These are some of the fragile, precious flutterings of butterflies' wings from which the future might be created. These and the daily choices you and I make or encounter in our everyday present. Like getting to know our neighbours and chatting about more than just the weather; like shopping at local stores and knowing the names of the people behind the tills; like telecommuting for part of the week or just plain working from home so we can spend more time with the people we love; like putting relationships with family and friends and colleagues and the rest of nature at the top of our list of priorities; like making time for long, slow, caring conversations; like 'taking a package' and setting up your own small business based on values that are important to you; like moving into an inner city apartment so you don't need a car to get around, or riding a bicycle or walking wherever you can; like committing yourself to voluntary simplicity instead of mindless consumerism; like transferring your savings to an ethical investment fund; like growing your own fruit and vegetables or buying locally produced food; like composting all your organic waste and recycling the rest; like volunteering to revegetate degraded land, or nurse someone with AIDS, or be a surrogate grandparent or aunt or uncle; like being socially and politically engaged to make our institutional structures more democratic and sensitive to the full range of human needs and to the needs of other species; like installing a solar power system and a rainwater tank and/or recycling your grey water; like making responsible consumer choices, like not buying products produced by companies that pollute the natural environment or exploit other human beings for example; like withdrawing your labour from these companies or working from within (or without) to change them. All those individual actions, small and tentative though they might seem now, but which when multiplied by a hundred, a thousand, a million, a hundred million people, have the power to transform whole societies, whole nations, the whole world. Because that's how I reckon social change happens ....

But what is mobilising us, or some of us, to voluntarily change our behaviour in these small but flutteringly significant ways? Are we responding to some shared image of the future, some collective vision of a world that is better than the present, as Fred Polak would suggest?

I rather suspect we might be, even though our images of this future are still very fuzzy, very poorly defined. And I think we've already given it a name: 'global sustainablity'. Or a 'sustainable society.'

A 'sustainable society' was certainly the vision my organisation, Imagine The Future, was founded upon. We talk very generally now about 'a society in which we live more harmoniously with ourselves, with one another, and with the other species we share the planet with' but clearly there are a few fairly basic 'bottom lines' to sustainability and it will take much more than a few business-as-usual clichés about 'sustainable development' from our business and political leaders to get us there. As Lester Brown of the World Watch Institute writes (it just happens that I'm quoting Brown but many other people are writing such analyses):

Among the principles of sustainability are the following: Over the long term, species extinction cannot exceed species evolution; soil erosion cannot exceed soil formation; forest destruction cannot exceed forest regeneration; carbon emissions cannot exceed carbon fixation; fish catches cannot exceed the regenerative capacity of fisheries; and human births cannot exceed human deaths.

The consequences of violating these principles are generally self-evident. If species extinction exceeds species evolution, for example, ecosystems eventually collapse. If the catch from a fishery exceeds its regenerative capacity, the fishery will be destroyed. .... if pollutants exceed the capacity of the system to absorb them, then the system is altered. With chorofluorocarbons (CFCs) this translates into stratospheric ozone depletion. With carbon emissions, it means a build up of atmospheric carbon dioxide and alterations to the earth's heat balance. With sulfur emissions, it means acid rain and damage to forests, lakes and crops.
Other people associated with the World Resources Institute, a Washington based environmental think-tank, argue that if we are to transform our unsustainable present into a globally sustainable future, we'll have to make at least six fundamental transitions 'within a very few decades.'

1. A demographic transition to a roughly stable world population.
2. A technological transition to a minimal environmental impact per person.
3. An economic transition to a world in which serious attempts are made to charge the real costs of goods and services including environmental costs so that there are incentives for the world economy to live off nature's 'income' rather than depleting its 'capital'.
4. A social transition to a broader sharing of that income, along with increased opportunities for nondestructive employment for the poor families of the world.
5. An institutional transition to a set of supranational alliances that facilitate a global attack on global problems and allow various aspects of policy to be integrated with one another.
6. An informational transition to a world in which scientific research, education, and global monitoring allow large numbers of people to understand the nature of the challenges they face.
These are transitions that present us with formidable challenges but they're not impossible. Indeed I've been watching with great interest lately how various sectors are mobilising to meet the challenges. At the World Congress of Architects in Chicago last June, for example, the International Union of Architects ratified a Declaration of Interdependence for a Sustainable Future. Much of the work for this document was done by one of Imagine The Future's supporters, Allan Rodgers of the Architecture Department at Melbourne University. I give it to you because it serves as a useful model for other professional groups who might want to make a similar commitment to transforming their own professions.

Declaration of Interdependence for a Sustainable Future

UIA/AIA World Congress of Architects Chicago, 18-21 June 1993

Recognising that:

A sustainable society restores, preserves, and enhances nature and culture for the benefit of all life, present and future; a diverse and healthy environment is intrinsically valuable and essential to a healthy society; today's society is seriously degrading the environment and is not sustainable;

We are ecologically interdependent with the whole of the natural environment; we are socially, culturally, and economically interdependent with all of humanity; sustainability in the context of this interdependence, requires partnership, equity, and balance among all parties;

Buildings and the built environment play a major role in the human impact on the natural environment and on the quality of life; sustainable design integrates consideration of resource and energy efficiency, healthy buildings and materials, ecologically and socially sensitive land-use, and an aesthetic sensitivity that inspires, affirms, and ennobles; sustainable design can significantly reduce adverse human impacts on the natural environment while simultaneously improving quality of life and economic well being;

We commit ourselves,

as members of the world's architectural and building-design professions, individually and through our professional organisations, to:

Place environmental and social sustainability at the core of our practices and professional responsibilities
Develop and continually improve practices, procedures, products, curricula, services, and standards that will enable the implementation of sustainable design
Educate our fellow professionals, the building industry, clients, students and the general public about the critical importance and substantial opportunities of sustainable design
Establish policies, regulations, and pratices in government and business that ensure sustainable design becomes normal pratice
Bring all existing and future elements of the built environment their design, production and eventual reuse up to sustainable design standards.

Susan A. Maxman, President
Olufemi Majekodunmi, President
International Union of Architects American Institute of Architects


But let's just put a little flesh onto the bones of this possible world -- and I'll use my own community, St Kilda to do this. So let's just rewind ... I'm there at my computer again taking another early morning canter into cyberspace aboard my super efficient set of twenty first century chips (or whatever they're called by then) for a face-to-face chat with a few colleagues. My old friend in Wollongong of course, plus some fellow global villagers who live in Altamira on the Xingu River in the deepy forested Amazon Basin, Llasa in now-independent Tibet, and Aral'sk, a sustainable fishing town on the banks of the once-again wide blue Aral Sea. (You might remember that by the 1990s, the Aral Sea had been considered one of the world's greatest ecological and social disasters. Some authorities even predicted it would cease to exist by the end of the century because of the damage done by some mad megascheme to irrigate cotton and rice. )

Anyway the four of us are working together and have become very close friends in the process. While our meetings in cyberspace are very rewarding, they're not quite the same as being able to chat over a cafe table so I log out and cross the road to Angelo's cafe. Angelo sees me coming and is already at the espresso machine making my usual as I pull a chair out from under my favourite table. It's almost a daily ritual this, when I'm at home. Sometimes we have a chat, Angelo and me, and sometimes we don't. Sometimes I just sip my coffee and stare out the window! Angelo understands.

I used to have such moral dilemmas about drinking coffee at Angelo's though. I mean, there were such problems with how coffee was produced! Indeed there were problems with how all our food was produced. Usually it was by broadacre monocultural practices that were heavily dependent upon artificial fertilisers and insecticides, and more often than not, resulted in both soil erosion and salinisation. And then all the energy that was expended in production, packaging and distribution of what we ate and drank. And all the people in southeast Asia, South America and Africa who were exploited intolerably so you and I could enjoy cheap tea and coffee.

Now all those issues are problems of the past. Most of the food Angelo serves in his cafe is organically grown within our own bioregion now. Much of it, indeed, is sharecropped in what were once suburban back yards, but have now become small permaculture farms. In Melbourne we still have to import coffee to sip in our cafes, but much of that is produced by indigenous landowners according to their traditional agricultural practices in New Guinea and in independent East Timor.

In the last few decades, Melbourne has become one of the major manufacturing centres of the Pacific Rim though if you still think in terms of those old smoke stacks and pipes spewing out 'externalities', you'd never recognise it as such. Those old days of air pollution are well and truly gone. Manufacturing is all closed system production now. Hardly any emissions. Any 'waste' you create in one manufacturing process, you use as as a raw resource for another. Even our sewage one of the most valuable raw resources we produce. In the early stages of filtration, it is used to generate methane gas. Later the solids are collected and turned into fertiliser while the liquid is filtered through reed beds in local wetlands and used to irrigate city forests and gardens. We no longer have to worry about fecal contamination of our beaches and waterways as we did in the 1990s when sewage and other 'waste water' was just poured into our oceans and rivers. The wetlands attract the most prolific wildlife, especially birds, and have become a central focus of community life.

Most of the energy we need is generated from renewables, primarily solar and wind power. The range of new technologies and improvements on old ones that have emerged over the last few decades would have been impossible to even imagine in the '90s. These innovations mean that most communities can produce their energy requirements locally. Many households and businesses, for example, produce more solar power from their rooftops than they can consume in a day and so feed their excess into the local grid. Per capita energy consumption has dropped by over 80% in the last few decades because of good solar design, extraordinarily energy efficient appliances and the assistance regional authorities have given in retrofitting older buildings with new insulating materials and solar panels.

The integrated and consultative approach to local and regional planning instituted in the 1990s has meant that waste management, transport, energy, and water systems have been relatively painlessly transformed to serve the needs of our region's people. One of the nicest things is that we are no longer dependent upon cars. Those who need or want one can lease them from the manufacturers who now have a legal obligation to recycle the parts once the lease expires. We're all so well serviced by public transport now that cars are considered an unnecessary luxury by most people.

Melburnians grew to love their tram system last century and, for sentimental reasons, we've kept some of the antique rolling stock. Those old trams used to run on electricity produced by burning fossil fuels. In particular, brown coal. As you might remember, the combustion of fossil fuels was one of the primary sources of greenhouse gases. Neither the coal nor oil industry have survived the transition to a sustainable economy but many other industries have grown or emerged to replace them including the labour intensive industries associated with renewable energies as I've mentioned, plus those associated with waste collecting, sorting, recycling and composting.

But people want much more than good public transport, efficient waste management, clean water, clean power and 'jobs'. We want to live in communities that guarantee us rich personal lives. This demand for diversity and complexity and intimacy in community life on top of all the other environmental, aesthetic and safety concerns, presented our older urban planners, architects and engineers with challenges they had never been forced to consider before. But they coped!

As well as rethinking our cities and towns, we've rethought those old ideas about 'work' too. It was obvious to anyone who had the eyes to see, that people have always wanted much more from life than a 'job' and 'a wage.' So we've developed systems to redistribute our collective wealth in ways that are more affirming and empowering and equitable now. We've cured those old social diseases of 'unemployment' and youth alienation and our policies to nurture social diversity within communities, means that many of the other social tensions of the past have dissipated too. Without those conflicts, our society is much more socially sustainable. Our political structures reflect our changed thinking: they are more democratic and more representative of the whole population than they used to be.

Despite the regional population growth and development, most of our significant natural ecosystems have been preserved and returned to good ecological health. We've even been able to reconstute some of the ecosystems that had been destroyed and now these too are part our urban landscape. Living so much more harmoniously with nature seems to have precipitated a kind of spiritual renaissance. Young people say they feel a special bond with the earth and so make pilgrimages to other places to help heal the damage done to the planet over the last few hundred years. They see themselves as Earth's custodians and feel part of nature not separate from it they say. It's an identity that transcends old nationalistic and class and religious divisions and is a powerful uniting force in the world

Is that the sort of future you'd like to live in? It's a very idiosyncratic and simplified image of the future of course, but it helps me integrate, at a personal level, some of the practical complexities of what sustainability is all about. And to me, this image of that Other Place we inhabit simultaneously with the present is really very appealing. Infinitely preferrable to Fred Pearce's 'Postenvironmental Adventure', or most of the other scenarios that are being imposed upon us daily don't you think? And to me, it's a future that makes you want to be there.

But are there any models from the past for such a society? Well, if there are, then I haven't found them yet. I'm beginning to believe that there are no other cultures we can turn to for help in meeting the social and ecological challenges we now face. There are however, many other cultures that have something to teach us.

For most of our existence as identifyably human beings, we have been what enthnographers, anthroprologists and archaeologists call hunters and gathers. Or more correctly, 'gatherers and hunters' since women, traditionally the 'gatherers', provide around 80% of the food in these economies.

Scholars tend to agree that when it comes to quality of life, our traditional hunting and gathering days were the best we've ever had. Archaeologists use the term 'affluent' to describe the life style of the people who lived thirty thousand years ago around Lake Mungo, a now dry lake bed in south western NSW, for example. Of course, there are still people in northern and central Australia and in many other parts of the world, who maintain hunter-gather traditions. To these people, 'work' or 'a job' or 'a career' are incomprehensible and/or extraordinarily silly concepts. And the idea that we are somehow separate from nature is simply absurd.

A great deal of fascinating ethnographic and archaeological 'work' has been done with hunter-gatherer groups by 'outsiders'. Amongst the most revealing has been with the San people, some of whom still survive in the Kalahari region of southwestern Africa. While we might call this part of the planet a desert, the Kalahari ecosystem is actually very varied and rich with 85 species of plants that humans can eat and 54 species of edible animals, although the San apparently only regularly hunt (or hunted) 17 animal species. Their most reliable food is a nut called the mongongo, an extaordinarily rich source of protein and carbohydrate which grows on a small drought resistant tree. One day an anthropologist naively suggested to a San that it might be easier to grow food rather than hunt or gather it. The San looked at this stranger in disbelief. Why should we plant when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world? this person said.

According to anthropologists, collecting mongongo nuts and other food sufficient to sustain the community, occupies on average, only 1-3 hours of a San person's day. The men might hunt for five or six consecutive days then not lift their spears for another two or three weeks. The women are the ones who make sure there's enough food for everyone to eat every day but even for them, there is plenty of time for what we might call 'leisure activities.'

In the context of this workshop, it's worth noting that a traditional San community is sustained, in terms of daily food requirement, by the labour of only 60% of the people 'working' only a few hours a day. The elders are not expected to hunt or gather, and neither are the young people, or not until they marry. Men usually undertake this important rite of passage when they are around 25 years old; women at around 20. This means that 40% of the population is what we might call 'unemployed,' a ratio that is common to most if not all hunter/gather societies. Rather than being dismissed as nonproductive and a drain on society's resources, the elders and young people are valued for all the other contributions they make to the community. Food resources are shared with them equally.

It is very difficult, however, to argue that traditional hunter-gatherer societies are, or were 'sustainable' in the contemporary sense of the word but I won't go into this here. It's worth nothing however, that, as Jared Diamond suggests in 'The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee', these cultures generally spent thousands of years getting to know their physical environments and over that time, adapted their cultures to fit. Who knows what localised disasters they precipitated before they made the appropriate adaptations.

In some parts of the world, those cultural adaptations led to radically new ways of manipulating the environment and so began the slow process of domestication that we now know as agriculture. Some of the most ancient agricultural sites anywhere in the world are, incidentally, just across the Torres Strait in Papua New Guinea, which was once joined to the Australian mainland.

So far, most agricultural practices have a very poor 'sustainability' record. Even ten thousand years ago, villages were being abandoned in southwest Asia because of land degradation associated with deforestation and inappropriate agricultural and pastoral practices.

It's worth remembering that Europe, southwest Asia and all the islands in the Mediterranian were once heavily timbered. By the sixth century BCE, only remnants of forest remained in Greece, that heartland of 'Western' civilisation, for example, and the slopes of Attica were so degraded that only olive trees, grapes and wild herbs could grow. By the fifth century BCE Athens had to import most of its grain and timber. Eventually this dependence on other people's natural resources led to war and to the collapse of Athenian imperialism. A story that has been repeated time and time again throughout history.

We can go back to the Sumerian civilization which emerged along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now Iraq as another lesson in what not to do. Writing was invented in the temples of Sumer over five thousand years ago, probably by the women priests who served a female deity, and so we are able to read contemporary accounts of how 'the earth turned white' The Sumerians probably blamed their goddess for their salinity problems rather than the irrigation systems they depended upon to produce their food. And where is Sumer now?

Another 'great civilisation', the Mayan, emerged in the lowland tropical jungles of what is now Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras. The Mayans were also literate and the texts they left behind tell a story of almost continual warfare between the large armies that supported the ruling elites. The food surplus necessary to maintain the armies and bureaucrats was intensively produced on terraced slopes and on small artificial islands in the swamps. As the population increased, more forest was cleared and the whole system became more vulnerable.

As Clive Ponting notes:

The first signs of declining food production are evident in the period before 800, when the skeletons from burials of the period show higher infant and female mortality and increasing levels of deficency diseases brought about by falling nutritional standards. A reduction in the food surplus on which the ruling elite together with the priestly class and army depended would have had major social consequences. Attempts were made to increase the amount of food taken from the peasant cultivators, leading to internal revolt. Conflict between the cities over the declining resources would have intensified, leading to more warfare. The fall in food supplies and the increasing competition for what was available led to very high death rates and a catastrophic fall in polulation, making it impossible to sustain the elaborate superstructure the Maya had built upon their limited environmental base. Within a few decades the cities were abandoned and no more stelae erected to commemorate rulers. Only a small number of peasants continued to live in the area. The deserted fields and cities, buried under dense jungle, were not found again until the nineteenth century.

Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean provides a particularly poignant case study of the rise and fall of a complex society. Pollen analysis shows that when the first Polynesians arrived with their chickens and rats and traditional subsistence crops in about 400CE the island was heavily wooded. The first arrivals immediately began clearing the forest for their gardens for fuelwood and for logs to build houses and fishing canoes. The staple food for these newcomers was sweet potato which grew very easily in these new conditions and this meant that significant time and human energy was available to develop the new society's ceremonial rituals. These rituals took place on sophisticated platforms and involved the erection of giant stone statues, some of them twenty foot high. The Islanders dragged these giants from the quarry on tracks made from the trunks of trees.

It took a thousand years for the Polynesians to completely deforest Easter Island. The collapse of the society was so sudden that many of the giant statues still lie half finished in the island quarry. People were forced to live in caves and stone shelters, or in huts made from reeds because there was not enough timber left for them to construct their traditional houses. But I'll let Clive Ponting describe what happened next:

After 1600 Easter Island society went into decline and regressed to ever more primitive conditions. Without trees, and so without canoes, the islanders were trapped in their remote home, unable to escape the consequences of their self-inflicted, environmental collapse. The social and cultural impact of deforestation was equally important. The inability to erect any more statues must have had a devastating effect on the belief systems and social organisation and called into question the foundations on which that complex society had been built. There were increasing conflicts over diminishing resources resulting in a state of almost permanent warfare. Slavery became common and as the amount of protein available fell, the population turned to cannibalism.

The Easter Islanders, aware that they were almost completely isolated from the rest of the world, must surely have realised that their very existence depended on the limited resources of a small island. After all, it was small enough for them to walk round the entire island in a day or so and see for themselves what was happening to the forests. Yet they were unable to devise a system that allowed them to find the right balance with their environment. Instead vital resources were steadlily consumed until finally there were none left.

So all those doomsday scenarios might yet prove correct. Our culture too might collapse. Melbourne, Sydney Brisbane, New York, Beijing might all be reclaimed, like the once great Mayan cities, by regrowth forest. Or instead, like the cities of Sumer, by shifting desert sands. It could happen. But then again there are those flutterings of those butterflies wings ... And you and me who can make a difference.

Copyright 1994

Painting the future real
Imagine The Future Inc

[Page history: created and first published on as part of Painting the future real (1995-97), the prototype for Redreaming the plain (1998-2002); taken off-line in 1998 and re-posted in its original form in July 2004 as a web archive. For more information contact]