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Backcasting Into the Future

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Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
--Rita Mae Brown (also popularly attributed to Einstein)


It used to be that as the New Year approached and people reminisced about the passing of the old one, they would optimistically look forward to the coming year, anticipating that it would be fertile with opportunities for advancement, growth, expansion, and ever increasing prosperity. For many, our former optimism has been replaced by trepidation. The combined weight of the global financial meltdown, a changing climate, the constant threat of terrorism, the recent plateau and impending decline in world oil production, and a steadily increasing population ever harder to keep fed and employed, has settled upon our collective consciousness like a thick fog, blocking visions of a rosy future that most of once enjoyed.

It is commonly believed that Einstein defined insanity as "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." Einstein also said, "The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them." Essentially this means the same behavior and ways of thinking that got the world into its current mess will most certainly not get us out of it. It we are to avoid the collapse of our civilization along with the natural systems of our planet, it will require a new paradigm--a new level of thinking and vision that goes far beyond the limits of the old ways that got us here in the first place. The problem is that most of us stay stuck in the same old ways of thinking as we project the past into the future, seeing the future in terms of prior trends, tools, and techniques.

There is a powerful new tool that we can each use to help remove the "blinders" of the old ways that got here in the first place, and this tool is called "backcasting". We can each use this tool to discover and create the concrete actions and policies that will overcome today's seemingly insurmountable challenges, shifting our direction towards a vision of a wonderful future that most of the world desperately craves. Start the process of "backcasting" by imagining the future that you desire--regardless of whether or not you believe it is possible. I like to picture a modern renaissance, where we have created a sustainable world in which all peoples have access to clean water, clean air, abundant food, education, health care, and a life free of persecution and violence. A world in which the natural systems of our planet are no longer degrading but are recovering towards their native state of vibrancy, abundance and health. In my vision, we have halted population growth, the unsustainable fishing of the oceans, the destruction of the world's forests and ecosystems, and have weaned ourselves from dependence upon fossil fuels. Many would argue that this is an impossible dream, but I would argue that it is not an impossible dream but an imperative dream, and this is where the beauty and power of backcasting comes in.

With backcasting, you start from the vision of that which you wish to create, and work backwards. You step "back from the future", one step at a time, watching in your mind's eye how this beautiful fecund future was created, step by step, until you arrive at the present moment. Let your imagination run wild, and do not allow your vision to be limited by that nagging negative voice in the back of your mind telling you "this can't be done."

You will be surprised by this exercise! Some actions, which you may currently believe preposterous or "un-dreamed of," will be "seen" while backcasting as not only logical, but absolutely necessary steps along the path of global transformation. Collectively the peoples of this world got us into this mess, and there is no time better than the present for the peoples of the world to start shifting gears away from our current apocalyptic course and onto a new one pointed towards transformation and renaissance.

We can do this! It is time to "backcast" our way into a bright and beautiful future!

Matthew Stein is the author of When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance, Sustainability, and Surviving the Long Emergency from Chelsea Green. For more information, visit chelseagreen.com and whentechfails.com.

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