Using storytelling and imagination to govern in the long term

Webinar focuses on how we can use sci-fi to contend with the problems of the 21st century

American flag textured

Democracies have been getting worse at governing for our long-term interest, or so concluded two-thirds of the audience for “Governing for the Future,” a recent Future Tense webinar focused on how we can use science fiction, storytelling and imagination to contend with the problems of the 21st century and plan for the long term.

Science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson, Peter Schlosser, vice president and vice provost of Arizona State University's Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory, and humanitarian worker Malka Older joined moderators Ed Finn, director of ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination, and Alexandra Zapata, a Future Tense fellow, on Nov. 10 to offer their perspective on how democracies can be more responsive to the concerns of the governed.

“What a great moment to be having this conversation,” Finn said. “As we are reflecting on the question of democracy and the transition of power in the United States, we continue to reflect on the broader and global context of the challenges we're facing in terms of climate change, good governance and constitutions, and in terms of just getting along and fundamental forms of cooperation.”

Decision-making is often myopic and localized, and decision-making that focuses on small parts of enormous problems will prove insufficient for solving global challenges. Solving these long-term problems on a global scale will require new governance strategies.

“I think it is imperative that we start to make changes in the ways that our systems and democracies work,” Older said. “The nation-state system is far from ideal for dealing with global problems. And more and more all the problems that we are facing are global to one extent or another because we are so interconnected. We really need to start looking at how we govern ourselves differently.”

The imagination can be a catalyst for this kind of systemic change, because imagining disastrous consequences can help people better understand why governing should account for the interests of future generations.

“We are constantly toggling between effective and rational decision-making,” Schlosser said. “We are constantly pinged with immediate decisions that we have to make in our daily life that are urgent. That often wins out over long-term decision-making, which often has to rely on somewhat more abstract effects and features that we can take in and react to momentarily. But then we are distracted again by the immediate concerns. I think that is where we are really struggling to figure out how to address that and how to get into people’s minds that things will play out the way we project.”

People usually believe they are insulated from catastrophe if they are not personally experiencing any effects. Approaching governance as a storyteller — for example, explaining how worsening natural disasters from climate change will personally affect people’s everyday lives — is essential for eliciting change and governing for the future. But that will also require some rethinking of traditional storytelling devices, which may not be up to the task.

“You have to throw caution to the wind,” Robinson said. “You have to throw the ordinary novel of a protagonist, an antagonist, and 50 dramatized scenes in a row and you have to throw that overboard for a while. Get bold with structure. If storytelling itself is going to be adequate to this global situation that is beyond any one individual’s comprehension, then you have to just throw caution to the wind. Make up new forums and tell stories that actually reflect this dynamic moment that we are in.”

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and ASU that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society. The Nov. 10 event was part of “Us in Flux,” a new series of short stories and virtual gatherings convened by ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination that explore themes of community, collaboration and collective imagination as a response to transformative events.

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