Rural Futures: Looking Down the Road

By: William Ashton
Published: May 3th, 2020

There is no crystal ball for the future and – spoiler alert – there is no single future. Yet we are finding ways to collaborate on a global scale for good, across government and corporate boundaries, they were impenetrable only eight weeks ago. Are we seeing a rise of the public good again?

It would be a mistake to proceed in thinking there is one way of looking at futures, and this would be particularly limiting when speaking about rural futures. So let’s build something incrementally. Let’s look at what some of the world’s most inquiring minds predict will be happening in the future. A good start is hearing from an environmentalist, a diplomat, an author, and a historian, all corralled by the Globe and Mail on the eve of 2020 (December 28, 2019). Here’s a summary of their opinions on the future with some comments of mine.

In his article “The unforeseeable future”, Cory Doctorow, a science fiction writer and co-editor of blogs on Boing Boing, outlines assumptions and practices behind our collective ‘failure of imagination’. 

  • He questions the market orthodoxy that businesses can expand infinitely in a finite world through efficiencies – meaning it matters not what you produce with what resources, as long as it is done efficiently (and makes money). 
  • He cites an assumption that is a close cousin of “There is no alternative” (TINA) to the market mechanism. He contends that when crises arrive, panic induces tunnel vision, and we picture what is most easily achieved to be the most likely, where mistrust can turn a disaster into catastrophe. 
  • Third, what if we imagine mobilizing expertise and resources for the good? Sounds much like what many in the world are doing for COVID-19. Humans have mobilized millions of bodies for war, gold rushes, Beanie Babies, and Beatlemania. So there seems no reason we cannot mobilize comparable efforts for a massive adaptation for climate change.
  • Fourth, we must confront the past, including the contribution its elites made in self-interest, with further concentrations of wealth that transform ordinary human greed into an existential threat to our species.

Noting a handful of assumptions about our lives today enables Doctorow to see a new normal emerge over several decades.

With assumptions declared, Doctorow goes on to imagine a hopeful and inspiring future, not a perfect future, and never free from strife, tension, and downturns, but rather a future filled with human enterprise and achievements. He imagines a future with full employment, many working on climate remediation toward a low-carbon lifestyle of adapted work and leisure in a circular economy. Here our new materials, new energy, new power storage, and the digital nervous system are directed away from pure profit or power for use in just surveillance to assist in better coordinated use of renewables and to avoid maxing out raw non-renewable materials (largely in rural areas). 

In this imagined future that writer Bill McKibben, founder of the environmental non-profit, sees the inexorable math of the climate crisis becoming more and more obvious. He forecasts that keeping Alberta’s oil underground is going to become as crucial a global priority as keeping the Amazon rainforest standing tall. As an antidote to despair, British historian Lucy Moore offers the thought that we have to replace disenchanted words of too many generations that ‘tomorrow we die’ with energy and commitment to change.

Such images seem reminiscent of the ‘conserve society’, a notion and ethos from the UK that was suitable for post-secondary classrooms in Canada’s top universities, including Waterloo. It swept across much of the G20 world, as a philosophy of action beginning in the mid 1960s and extending well into the 1980s. 

Doctorow imagines a journey where society eliminates the ‘settler’ and replaces it with co-equals, calling it the ‘Canadian miracle’. It becomes a global inspiration, where we export transformative ideas about work, leisure, fairness, public health, and resource use, all branded with the Canadian ‘blue helmets’ (a throwback to Canada’s peace-keeping days). In this imagined world, no politicians would dare vow to extract and burn 173 billion barrels of oil, for the sake of the country. He concludes with this conceptual contrast: Predictions tell us that the future is inevitable. Stories tell us that the future is up for grabs. 

Sensible diplomats know not to make predictions, but British ambassador to Lebonon, Tom Fletcher makes one anyway, where the abnormal remains the new normal. While he is clear that there remain weaknesses of global leadership while big questions about our future are likely to remain unanswered in the short term, he nonetheless sees many critical upsides. Among them is the urgent resuscitation of the United Nations. The world has not yet come up with a better idea for managing global co-existence. Also, there is clear evidence of working across borders for global good, including the G20 finding ways to reverse the 2008/09 global economic crisis. 

Fletcher calls for more women in prominent global leadership roles, drawing inspiration from Prime Minister Jacinda Arden of New Zealand, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, and Swedish youngster Greta Thunberg on climate change. As the world becomes more digitally interconnected, Fletcher imagines the idea of a foreign embassy as one that connects people, and not a building that keeps them out. Effective diplomacy is based on skills, networks, and real-world outcomes for people. True diplomats model the way for citizen diplomats to be more kind, curious, and brave than members of different societies have been to each other over our histories. 

Among the greatest challenges on the world stage is the assault of national leaders on the international rule-based system and the orphaning of structures for global co-operation by initiating crises of confidence. In many ways this is the result of erratic approaches of Russia, Israel, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and the United States as they press their advantages for their domestic economy. Without a renewal and recommitment to international diplomacy, Fletcher sees more politicians weaponizing intolerance, making hatred of difference normal, and more policy by media cycles, only to stoke inequality of opportunity where extremism and anger fester. 

When diplomacy fails, the world is less safe. The international system of connections is a scaffolding built with immense sacrifice and patience over multiple generations that serves to protect us from our worst instincts. Fletcher states: “It is the evolution of reason over craziness, community over tyranny, honesty over lies, and restraint of the dangerous individual who believes he – normally he – alone has the answers.” 

For Fletcher, big questions remain unanswered in this abnormal new normal: How do we ensure more winners from globalization and technology, while better protecting those left behind? How do we prepare for an age of massive mitigation? How can we manage the next transition between the empires of the US and China more peacefully than history predicts?

In conclusion, what does this Note say about public policy, futures, and rural life? Environmentalist Bill McKibben emphasizes that climate science, while not an exact science, has been right more often than it has been wrong. Moreover, such science and the associated models have brought attention to the impending crisis, which is equally global and local, especially for sea-level communities. Yet these scientists still struggle to influence political and corporate decision-makers with validated evidence. This suggests, among many things, that public policy is hard to influence with evidence alone. Greta Thunberg shows the world that our youth want a different future, one where their voice is heard, even if they have to generate their own international stage, be it at the country level or on the floor of the United Nations’ meetings. To nay-sayers, historian Lucy Moore advocates replacing such disenchanted voices with words that speak of commitment and actions that bring change about, even if the change is not engaging an entire society. This speaks of policy as action, aiming for and bringing about a future that differs from business-as-usual, and invites and involves people in rural and urban areas alike. 

In the imagined future of science fiction writer Cory Doctorow, people are mobilized toward doing good. Full employment is the goal, which means wealth is no longer being concentrated in the hands of just a few. Such a future requires public policies that advance living wages and life-cycle costing where individuals are not worse off and society is better off – not unlike the conserver society of the past and the libertarian views of the present. Doctorow goes further to suggest that the Canadian miracle can be exported to other countries. In talking about other countries, British diplomat Tom Fletcher makes clear that public policy is made possible with the efforts of diplomats around the world and their networks, and a shared if unspoken goodwill. Fletcher reminds us that public policy has a context and organizational structures, like the United Nations. One such organization that I work with on public policy is composed of similar developed countries to Canada who are members of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. These more global-looking organizations serve to remind us local, provincial, and national policy efforts and future visions are all influenced by people dwelling beyond our borders, and we can be an influencer to others as well. 

References Cited:

Doctorow, C. (2020). Science fiction doesn’t predict, but it can influence. Globe and Mail, O6-7. December 28, 2019.

Fletcher, T. (2020). In the 2020s, abnormal will remain the new normal. Globe and Mail, O8. December 28, 2019.

McKibben, B. (2020). Our climate-change bill is coming due. Globe and Mail, O8. December 28, 2019.

Moore, L. (2020). The shape of things to come. Globe and Mail, O4. December 28, 2019.