“For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
--Amanda Gorman, 22 year-old National Youth Poet Laureate.
Excerpts from the end of her presidential inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb.”
When I look back over 2021 at the crystalline moments when hope and resolve were affirmed in response to fear and resignation, I think first of Amanda Gorman.
On January 20, 2021 I was watching the U.S. presidential inauguration live streamed the same day I was scheduled to teach the first class session of “Regenerative Game Studio: Playing for the Future.” The idea of “regeneration” goes beyond “less bad” or merely sustainable. It imagines a state of thriving health and well-being, restoring past damage and replenishing Earth’s life systems. Engaging game design introduces a sense of play and possibility as students take on the serious challenges represented by the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Of the four instructors, my role that day was to inspire the students with the idea that winning the game was possible—that if we could imagine a future of a restored Earth with peace and climate justice for all, then we could possibly achieve it. This might take some convincing, I thought, since it had only been weeks since there was a violent insurrection at our nation’s capital, the pandemic was dragging on endlessly, progress on healing our country’s racism felt stalled, and news and evidence of climate doom came regularly as temperature and disaster records were surpassed.
Holding on to hope can seem foolish and futile, … until a slight but mighty young woman stands before a crowd at the U.S. Capitol and reminds you of the power of story. Channeling the strength of the human spirit in her bright yellow coat, and with her shining words, she wielded vision in the face of violence. The violence had happened at the capitol building, but also in our hearts as the symbols and stories of our country were under threat. Despite this, and steeled by it, Amanda asserted as her words summoned destiny, “we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.”
After the inauguration, in the final hour before class, I updated my slides to include Amanda’s just-delivered words of faith in our human capacity to see—and be—a light.
But, aren’t things so bad that utopian thinking is just a fairytale? Perhaps we should consider that humanity is in hospice care, and we should make ourselves comfortable, alleviate immediate suffering, and prepare for the inevitable. But even if we accept our own fate in the idea of a dying earth it is not just our own doom, but the end for all those we love. We can’t afford to give up, it is an irresponsible choice, and not ours to make. Faced with overwhelming thoughts of death I think of the words of poet, Dylan Thomas: “Do not go gentle into that good night…Old age should burn and rave at end of day, rage rage against the dying of the light.”
Part of what empowers us to resist defeatism is to remember how little we know about the future. In her book “Hope in the Dark,” Rebecca Solnit says, “Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act.” Similarly, author and futurist, Dennis Gabor says, “The future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented.” In this openness to possibility, we can imagine solving our problems, but we can do better than that. If we only plan our future by addressing our current problems, our vision will be limited. If we can invent the future, we might as well invent it starting from our boldest dreams, rather than our limited present conditions.
This brings us to the theme of backcasting. Backcasting is an essential tool for transformative work in the world, for if the game of playing for the future is going to be worthwhile and motivating, we need to work for the Epic Win, not an incremental leveling up. According to The Natural Step, “The concept of “backcasting” is central to a strategic approach for sustainable development. It is a way of planning in which a successful outcome is imagined in the future, followed by the question: “what do we need to do today to reach that successful outcome?””
An important aspect of backcasting is to be willing to start with a desired vision without knowing how to get there. The point is to imagine the solved-scenario, not how each barrier was overcome. Only after the vision is created, are the pathways reverse-engineered to the present. As Donella Meadows says, " A vision should be judged by its clarity of values, not by the clarity of its implementation path.” A vision is a beacon, or a compass, not a road map.
I repeated the backcasting lecture for the first class this year in January, recalling the story of Amanda’s words appearing in 2021, just as we needed them most. Why would we need to be “brave enough” to engage our dreams? I asked my students, “Why might it take courage to envision a bold, ideal future that we want?” One suggested that a vision requires us to change in significant ways, and change is hard. Another pointed to the fear of not succeeding. It is easier not to get our hopes up. Donella Meadows brings up another challenge to visioning that resonates with me, which is that it can be deeply painful to consider the large gap between where we are and where we want to be as a society. A year after her speech, Amanda wrote that she almost didn’t give it for lots of reasons, including fear of physical harm. Even for the rest of us, not so visible or vulnerable on a national stage, a vision can seem dangerous when those around us are cynical, or hopeless.
After touting the reasons for visioning and acknowledging its potential discomfort, I asked my students to engage in a short Backcasting vision exercise.
The year is 2050
How old are you?
Do you or your loved ones have kids? How old are they?
What life do you wish for yourself?
What life do you wish for the least wealthy and empowered?
What life do you wish for the rest of life on earth?
Create the movie scene of this future.
The details were different in the technology and policies they included, but all the visions were imbued with common values - a sense of caring and justice for people and the rest of nature. The details just made the desired futures more real. There are many ways to get there. According to Donella Meadows, visioning is an ongoing process, evolving over time, and best merged with others’ visions, to keep our dreams responsible to each other and richer in their insights. Together, our visions can create new stories about our capacity and what it means to live the good life for all.
What are we brave enough to see when we look back from the future, atop the hill we climbed together?
Image: Image effects by author based on original photo by Jason Hogan on Unsplash
Backcasting. (2008, November 1). The Natural Step Canada. https://www.naturalstep.ca/backcasting
Gabor, D. & Secker & Warburg. (1963). Inventing the future. Secker & Warburg.
Gorman, Amanda on PBS NewsHour. (2021, January 20). WATCH: Amanda Gorman reads inauguration poem, “The Hill We Climb.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LZ055ilIiN4
Gorman, A. (2022, January 20). Opinion | Amanda Gorman: Why I Almost Didn’t Read My Poem at the Inauguration. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/20/opinion/amanda-gorman-poem-inauguration.html
Meadows, D. H. Envisioning a Sustainable World (Transcript). The Academy for Systems Change. From https://donellameadows.org/archives/envisioning-a-sustainable-world/
Solnit, R. (2016). Hope in the dark: Untold histories, wild possibilities (Third edition). Haymarket Books.
Thomas, Dylan in Poets.org. Do not go gentle into that good night by Dylan Thomas — Poems | Academy of American Poets. from https://poets.org/poem/do-not-go-gentle-good-night
Tags: paradigms, backcasting, story, Amanda Gorman, positive futures