It’s a common misunderstanding that in research, there is room only for facts. Quite the contrary – it all begins with human imagination.
If you were suddenly whisked by a time machine to dine with the Godwin family in the 1820´s, you might be surprised by the familiarity of the discussion. Especially, if you, like me, are well versed in the two main narratives regarding the future of mankind.
Father William is a staunch believer in Enlightenment. Whatever problems we as humanity encounter, we surpass with the aid of scientific acumen, technological ingenuity and everlasting progress the mankind is fated to make. Daughter Mary is more skeptical – even to the point of seeing little else but manmade doom and gloom looming in the horizon. For a contemporary follower of media, it would be very easy to join the dinner table debate on either side.
You could tell the Godwins about the technological marvels in energy, communications, medicine; the material wealth and comfort in which we in the West live. You could share the developments in artificial intelligence, in datafication, in the vast global supply chains that provide you with every delight from the other end of the world by the mere touch of a miraculous device we all keep at hand all the time. You could gloss over the “negative externalities” of environmental issues by pointing out the nigh magical advances in technology: if it is possible to fly to the moon or crack the atom, surely the same minds can overcome any possible hurdles referred to as sustainability?
Or you could take the side of Mary. First, it would be polite to thank her for the genre of science fiction, especially as it comes to its dystopian side. The mother of Frankenstein and The Last Man would have perked up at the mention of the environmental problems and the issues of sustainability. To her, your tidings prove the likelihood of human hubris to result in an end of the world of some sort, and after questioning you about the population of the globe and the distribution of material wealth, she would look pointedly at her father and say: “Malthus was right, after all”.
The third narrative
In Biodiful, we aim at developing and mainstreaming biodiversity respectful leadership. That is our way of saying that in order to continue having a globe that can support human life, we need to take care of all types of life. One of the key beliefs we share in our community, is the need for a third narrative.
In the two centuries since the Godwins, humanity has accomplished a lot. At the same time, the attitudinal trenches dug already in the early phases of Enlightenment, have grown only deeper. Both sides have ample evidence: science and technology have indeed achieved astonishing feats, and at the same time, we have entered Anthropocene, a geological era where human wrought problems threaten the whole biosphere starting with the climate change and not ending with the biodiversity loss.
However, both, by themselves valid narratives share a common problem.
If you believe that the technology has messianic qualities that lurk just around the corner awaiting to deliver us from all harm, there is little reason to take matters into your own hands. Why bother – you’re not the AI expert or quantum physics genie who will figure it all out.
If you believe that what lurks around the same corner is instead a manmade apocalypse, there is equally little motivation for wasting effort on trying to make a difference. Why bother – you might as well just enjoy it while it lasts.
What we now need is a third narrative. Something that motivates us to strive for better, something that makes us believe that we all can make a difference. Something that awakens the environmentally respectful agency in all of us.
Empowering and inspiring future visions
A friend of mine once quipped that “the strategy of avoidance is good when you’re trying to walk without stepping on dog poo. However, it really doesn’t help in getting you anywhere.” In the context of environmental sustainability, if all that is suggested is based on what we should NOT do, it easily leads to a situation where we are too scared to move, to act at all. We need the desirable and inspirational third narrative to give us direction, maybe even a goal towards which we all want to proceed.
One of the ways in which we in Biodiful attempt to create such can be found in our second work package. The team will create concrete future landscapes positioned in real locations highlighting how that specific place could in the future look like if it was taken care of in an environmentally respectful way. These actionable examples provide some starting points for drafting the third narrative: they show both what is possible and how to get there.
Another element in the making of the third narrative is our focus area of leadership. For us, leadership is not the sole property of formal leaders, but a superpower we all possess in one way or another. Even though I don’t have employees or political mandate, I can lead myself towards acting more respectfully. As a mother I can take a lead in what my family buys from the grocery store, as a friend I can lead by example. As a researcher I can provide food for thought for formal leaders, as a citizen I can become an opinion leader.
In the third narrative we are not merely cast in the side roles of bystanders, blown this and that way by the mightier powers. In it, we are all heroes. Imperfect, as all heroes are at the beginning of the story, but with the might and wisdom to move mountains just waiting to awaken.
The power of stories
Like both Mary Shelley (née Godwin) and her father William would agree, words have the power of creation. The writings of Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, published posthumously by William, had a notable impact on the subsequent development of feminism and women rights. While not the sole creator of science fiction (the debated origins of which can be traced to Gilgamesh, One Thousand and One Nights, or later of course to Jules Verne and H.G Wells writing a few decades after Mary), Mary’s Frankenstein however remains one of the most famous creatures to ever represent the perils of overgrown scientific ambitions.
So far, we have stopped just shy of attempting to create an artificial human (after the discussion of the (in)famous Dolly the clone-sheep), but many of the inventions first existing only in the minds of the authors like Jules Verne or H.G. Wells have since become commonplace (think of the miracle of our currently run-of-the-mill mobile phones). It seems that human ingenuity truly is such that almost anything one (wo)man can envision, another can later realize.
But there is another side to the coin. How can we realize something none can imagine?
We are short of stories that imagine a future where humanity lives in harmony with the rest of the nature. To realize such a future, we first need to envision it – there is little useful research that doesn’t begin with imagination. The third narrative we strive at creating is all about that: to figure out the facts of what to do, we need fiction to show us where to go .