Holland in the springtime. Canals, bikes, tulips and, er, Integrated Assessent Models. I’ve just spent a week at the University of Leiden’s Lorentz Centre, with an eclectic bunch of researchers and practitioners, discussing narratives of a low-carbon future.
The idea at the heart of the gathering was simple. As nearly 200 countries at last year’s Paris summit agreed, we need to reduce carbon emissions radically to avoid dangerous climate change. But working out how we do this over the coming decades is, by definition, an exercise in future-gazing – whether predictive or prescriptive. In other words, we need to tell stories about how we get from here to there. And those stories can take many forms.
Over a deliciously varied week, we heard from people who were telling these stories (and wrote some of our own). Like Detlef van Vuuren, who has, with others, shaped an IAM, or Integrated Assessment Model, which combines science-based climate scenarios with economic modelling, to compare different options for decarbonisation. Detlef might not have realised it before now, but what he is actually doing is telling a story about how the future could look. We heard from Shell about the latest version of their famous scenarios. We visited the International Architecture Bienniale Rotterdam, put together by Maarten Hajer. Then there was the film-maker Oliver Ressler, whose films document the protest movements against fossil fuel companies; and Graeme MacDonald, whose work in literary studies takes inspiration from the pre-oil era to think about how we might live without the black stuff. My contribution was to present stories from community energy projects, like the amazing Isle of Eigg – many of whom see themselves as demonstrators of future possibilities.
As someone of a practical bent, it felt quite indulgent at times to sit about storytelling when there’s real work to be done. But that would miss the point. It hadn’t really occurred to me before that when economists present models, or Shell sets out its scenarios, they are in fact stories: narrated accounts of a possible future. Just like climate fiction, or a community renewables project. That’s not to say they’re all the same, or interchangeable, or that they can be dismissed as mere discourse. But they do have a fundamental character in common: they are all telling a story about futures. And there is a politics, and a normative vision, behind all these different stories – even if their authors don’t realise it.
Thinking in this way helped me reflect on how I do my job, working with politicians or proposing policy solutions. I realise I can choose whether to use rational, instrumental stories, like models or scenarios; or more emotional, personal or place-based stories about what life might be like. What would work to try to engage decision-makers in the first place? After all, we have long known that shouting about the science is not enough. What combination of techniques would work best? How could these different authors of low-carbon stories work together? Maybe we should be asking economists to emote, and activists to help develop IAMs. And have environmental advocates, with an understandable anxiety about credibility, leaned too far toward rational modelling and forgotten about emotional and affective appeals? I came away thinking that those of us trying to steer a low-carbon future need to be more conscious about the way we present those futures – and their alternatives.
Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten the PURV lurking in the headline. PURV stands for Personal URban Vehicle, a product of my colleagues’ wilder flights of fancy, during a particularly memorable session when we were asked to design our own low-carbon interventions. The PURV, they explained, is a teeny tiny matchbox-sized car, beautifully designed and personalised, giving you everything you desire from car culture without the inconvenience, expense or pollution of an actual vehicle. And the best thing about it is that you can clip it to your handlebars when you cycle along Dutch canals looking at tulips. That’s my kind of future. I’m sold.
Decarbonized Futures: Narrating Low Carbon Societies was organised by Harriet Bulkeley, Maarten Hajer, Johannes Stripple, Rob Raven and Janet Stewart, at the University of Leiden’s Lorentz Centre. Thanks to them and my fellow participants for a memorable week.