Imagining a Way Forward
In a time of social, political, and environmental uncertainty, how do we imagine the future?
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution. It is, strictly speaking, a real factor in scientific research.”
— Albert Einstein, Cosmic Religion and Other Opinions and Aphorisms
Imagine what the city you live in will be like in 50 years. How will it have changed? What burgeoning trends will have begun to flower? Now imagine your city 125 years from the present. How do people move from place to place? What do buildings look like? In 125 years has your city’s population grown or shrunk? And how will people in your imagined future produce and use energy? Now make a giant leap forward to imagine your city 300 years in the future. Will it still exist?
Did you take climate change into account when imagining your futures? If not, then you may want to reimagine them.
The future of course remains unknown. But the past can help us anticipate what’s to come. For decades scientists have predicted that humanity’s actions would accelerate and intensify the impacts of climate change. Today, because of Earth’s warming atmosphere, cities are battered by powerful storms, dry and diseased forests ignite in enormous fires, and acidizing oceans kill swaths of marine habitat—all while global demand for energy escalates. Energy in this context includes the electricity that turns on lights, the fuel that powers our cars, even the food we eat to power our bodies and minds. The methods we use to produce and use energy have been and remain the primary cause behind climate change.
What, then, will the future hold? And how do our personal histories shape the way we imagine the future?
These questions were central to the Science History Institute project “Imagining Philadelphia’s Energy Futures.” As a research fellow in the Institute’s Center for Oral History, I designed and led this project in collaboration with local environmental organizations: PennFuture, PennEnvironment, Energy Coordinating Agency, Citizens Climate Lobby, and Planet Philadelphia on Germantown Radio. Philadelphia’s Climate and Urban Systems Partnership provided supplemental funding and support.
This oral history and public education project emerged from uncertainty and anxiety about the future. In 2016 deliberations in Philadelphia between environmental activists and business leaders affiliated with the city’s large oil refinery collapsed after failure to draft a shared vision of Philadelphia as North America’s next great “energy hub.” The opposing groups imagined different futures for Philadelphia’s production and use of energy. Not long after these meetings, at the start of 2017, Donald Trump became president of the United States. Millions of people, myself included, poured into city streets to protest when recent climate accords and atomic agreements were rescinded; when existing environmental protections headed for the chopping block; and when social norms and advances in social, legal, and economic equity appeared under threat. Amid these apprehensions my wife and I struggled to start a family as the end to my fellowship in Philadelphia approached. The future felt more uncertain than ever.
I considered ways to combine my new social and environmental activism in Philadelphia with my academic research in oral history to produce something that reached beyond the academy. I wondered, did others feel equally anxious about the future—both locally and globally, both personally and collectively? If so, how might oral histories be used to confront the challenges of climate change, empower just communities, and imagine new decarbonized urban futures? How could we harness the power of personal narratives to learn from diverse experiences, imagine a more sustainable future for the city I called home, and share that collected knowledge?
Imagine globally and interview locally. That is what my research in oral history, on the history of energy transitions, and sociological studies about the future suggested as a solution to my anxious questions.
Oral historians such as Sujatha Fernandes have shown how sharing personal narratives can help people build collective frames of reference that encourage collective action. Similarly, research on ways to help societies manage complex transitions in their energy use have shown how narrative and storytelling helps improve community engagement and decision-making among diverse groups. Scholars who study ideas about the future have learned that sharing visions of the future can help individuals and groups create meaningful stories about the current challenges they confront, identify potential solutions to those challenges, and reflect on how these might influence themselves and their community as a whole. And environmentalists have long encouraged us to “think globally and act locally.”
The interviews I conducted for “Imagining Philadelphia’s Energy Futures” extended these frameworks to record and share participants’ visions of the future—particularly around energy use—as a way of increasing civic engagement and educating participants on the challenges associated with global climate change. Imagining and discussing Philadelphia’s energy futures allowed a small but diverse group of city residents to imagine multiple, alternate visions of the future that could result from choices made today. Content from those interviews aired on the Planet Philadelphia radio show and provided the basis for an interactive game involving further storytelling, future visioning, and deliberation at a free public workshop held in downtown Philadelphia. Interview transcripts and recordings, as well as the interactive game, all exist online for future educators to use. I encourage you to explore the stories, histories, and visions recorded in this project. And in your own community I hope you will listen to, contribute to, and share your personal reflections and visions of the future you imagine.
“Imagining Philadelphia’s Energy Futures” emerged from uncertainty. And of course the future remains unknown. But sharing our personal perspectives and our future visions offers one way we might move forward to create a better tomorrow together.