Visions and Fantasies of the Sustainable Future – How to Understand Narratives of the Low Carbon Transition

Thinking & Analysis

This is a guest post, republished with permission from the Sussex Energy Group Blog.

How do we construct narratives of a low carbon future? A new paper co-authored by Sussex Energy Group researchers, Imagining sustainable energy and mobility transitions: Valence, temporality, and radicalism in 38 visions of a low-carbon future, unpacks the rhetoric behind a range of possible futures available to seven innovation case studies including automated mobility, electric vehicles (EVs) and smart meters.

This blog explains how their researchers identified the characteristics of these powerful messages using tools from the analysis of rhetoric and folktales, and summarises some findings on the role these visions play in determining the shape of low carbon transition to come.

The paper draws on the work of the Centre on Innovation and Energy Demand (CIED) and the Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions (CREDS). The ‘visions’ were developed from a synthesis of the work conducted by the End Use Energy Demand (EUED) Centres over five years.

What is a vision, and why does it matter?

Talk of visions and fantasies may sound detached from reality at first glance. Yet these imaginative processes play a valuable role as descriptions of a possible future, offering a coherent narrative or even a performance that can be developed or contrasted with alternative perspectives. As the paper defines them, they are no less than capable of revealing “fundamental patterns of human reasoning, and how humans communicate their thinking to others, in a future oriented context”. Alongside this, they can map out a possibility space, provide a framework to understand the issues to be resolved, and produce powerful symbols that draw disparate groups into unified coalitions capable of focused action.

Some of the terms used throughout the paper’s analysis of imagined futures

The many possible futures of freight trucking

Trucking’s future may take it far from what we think of it as today

One of the most vivid examples of the varied possibilities a single subject can generate is that of the uptake of a new innovation, automated mobility, and its application to the freight industry. The paper identifies seven distinct futures for the sector:

  • Effortless freight: The introduction of AI driving removes obstacles to maximum productivity, leading to quadrupled profits in a new world of computers replacing the antiquated human drivers at the (now metaphorical) wheel.
  • The educated trucker: Instead of widespread layoffs ejecting large numbers of unprepared truckers into a high-tech job market, truck driving is instead reimagined as a “highly skilled position akin to a ship’s captain or an airplane’s pilot” with opportunities to upskill.
  • Entrenched automobility: Noting the incremental nature of any automated driving revolution, this vision frames now commonplace features like lane assist, cruise control and automated braking as continuous developments towards a more normalised automated vehicle future.
  • Transformers: This vision emphasises the radical departure from the present a high-tech future represents. This vision heralds an imminent, pop culture infused future with breathlessly excited slogans like “science has well and truly caught up with fiction” “more Optimus Prime than human”, “R2D2-like”, and resembling “a scene from Blade Runner”
  • A perilous distraction: Does focusing on flashy technological advancements over uncertain timeframes draw attention away from issues we could solve now? This vision brings us back to the present, arguing many freight industry issues can be resolved through the mundane methods of improved pay and respect for workers.
  • Infrastructural overhaul: It is possible to take a broader approach, as this narrative does by acknowledging that the development of an automated vehicle is just one advance necessary before their widespread introduction to everyday life. Widespread infrastructural and legislative changes are needed before the road system is ready for the advent of automated freight fleets.
  • Mass unemployment: This bleak vision imagines a world where driverless freighting causes mass layoffs for truckers and related workers with the associated drop in social status, one participant fearing “the long-haul driver becomes more akin to cartoon buffoon Homer Simpson”.

These visions illustrate the dizzying number of possible futures that could lie ahead for a single industry. Truck drivers can be variously imagined here as elevated professionals, discarded entirely, ignored in favour of robotic novelties, or beneficiaries of incremental improvements in an otherwise not dissimilar industry.

Beyond the rhetorical tug of war over the nature of employment, vehicles and road infrastructure, this example can also illustrate the other factors at play. These differing narratives can be plotted at various points on a graph by their temporality, defining the range of timeframes these developments are anticipated to happen over, and by their radicalism, which determines to what extent they differ from the world as seen today.

Utopia or dystopia?

Fortunately, low-carbon transitions lean towards utopias rather than dystopias

The form these future visions take can be seen as expressing ideographs (developed by rhetorical scholar Michael Calvin McGee) which place them on a spectrum between utopian and dystopian. Utopian visions, which present a positive picture of the future, have so far received more attention from academics than their dystopian counterparts – understandably so considering dystopias feature many undesirable themes such as oppression, injustice and disenfranchisement. But the dominance of these positive visions, showing the comforting triumph of a technology-enabled future that effortlessly maintains our expectations for abundant energy, consumer lifestyles and ever-growing economies contains its own risks of indulging in optimistic dreams. These effects can be seen in several of the technology-focused visions of the future of trucking, and the paper outlines this dynamic:

“The utopian elements of technological fantasies have therefore led proponents and sponsors to exaggerate potential benefits and downplay risks of many different technologies (Corn, 1986; Sturken et al., 2004). Marvin (1988) warns that technological utopianism can also promote a ‘cognitive imperialism’ where social and political relations become reduced and technologically determined. Hornsey and Fielding (2016) analyzed reactions to different messages addressing global warming and found that optimistic or utopian messages reduce the sense of risk from global warming, and its associated distress, and are less successful in motivating action than pessimistic messages.”

Heroes and villains

Some of the parallel spectrums these narratives coexist on

In order to understand the archetypal structures embedded in the narratives the researchers identified through their case studies, they turned to Russian scholar Vladimir Propp and his structural analysis of folktales. Given the brevity and technical reliance of these low carbon narratives, not all aspects of his framework apply – Cinderella has no need for EVs with the help of fairy godmothers and woodland animals. But despite the differences, the authors found two significant ways their visions conform to Propp’s findings.

Visions almost universally contained the core antagonistic tensions found in most stories. “They almost always have the presence of good versus evil in the form of heroes (kings, soldiers, unmarried bachelors, and eagles for Propp) pitted against villains (a dragon, a devil, bandits, a witch, or a stepmother for Propp).”

Another common theme was the degree of agency: the active and passive manner the actors in these stories engage with their narrative. The climate, non-human species, society and consumer groups can all be characterised, rightly or wrongly, as passive agents responding to more active agents including fossil fuel conglomerates, dictators and smart-grind hackers. And of course, actors are not fixed in either category, or even remain discrete actors, always at risk of conflation with others. One institute can be a laudable champion in one narrative, and a despised enemy in another; EV narratives can see consumers as a solution to a problem, or place them as the problem itself to be solved.

The case studies found “‘robots’ repeatedly mentioned in visions of automated automobility, ‘Big Brother’ and ‘spies’ mentioned frequently in smart meter visions, and shale gas constantly heralded as a ‘bridge’”. The recurrent themes and characters in these narratives are valuable indications of cues, providing a “cognitive convergence” to groups by invoking a range of shared meanings.

Robots often feature heavily in narratives of our low carbon future

Can stories form solutions?

Ideographs may be persuasive, the “provocative force of fantasy” having many beneficial applications, but that is not to say that either themselves or the decisions they influence are necessarily rational. Powerful actors can draw on these visions’ energising power to cloud judgement and focus on a spectacular distant future, ignoring the unglamorous options available today, as we saw in the freight industry example’s relatively light emphasis on improving current working conditions. The motives of powerful actors drawing on these techniques deserve some degree of scrutiny.

These actors’ habits of rotating across multiple axes make for a complex dynamic to analyse. However, the shifting roles of these actors (across utopia/dystopia, good/bad, passive/active, proximal/distant and incremental/transformative) can actually provide a rhetorical strength, allowing a narrative’s message to connect with diverse groups: “They need to be broad enough to enrol actors but vague enough to withstand criticism.” And beyond their valuable ability to muster support through shared meanings, these visions present solutions to contemporary issues, “possessing a [more] functional utility than merely a symbolic one”.

Coalitions formed around these broad visions can create a motivating dynamic of “promise and requirement”, developing from a shared agenda to a firm mandate, a dynamic explained by Borup et al  as “the freedom to explore and develop combined with a societal obligation to deliver in the end(2006: 290)”. These visions have a role to play in determining what decisions are to be made for a variety of industries, but it is deeply important to understand their influences and vulnerability to co-option by interest groups, while making use of the sense of hope, purpose and direction they offer.

This blog is based on the article: Imagining sustainable energy and mobility transitions: Valence, temporality, and radicalism in 38 visions of a low-carbon future – Social Studies of Science, by Benjamin K Sovacool, Noam Bergman, Debbie Hopkins, Kirsten EH Jenkins, Sabine Hielscher, Andreas Goldthau, Brent Brossmann.

Thanks to Benjamin K Sovacool and Louise Sheridan for feedback and corrections.

Blog written by Francisco Dominguez.