Don’t paint it black: why we need to talk about how we talk about the future

Don’t paint it black: why we need to talk about how we talk about the future

Home » Don’t paint it black: why we need to talk about how we talk about the future


Paul Allen, CAT’s External Relations Director, writes about the recent Tipping Point conference he attended in Newcastle addressing how we can energise the creative response to climate change. “Through my work thinking about the communication of Zero Carbon Britain,” he writes, “I have noticed that dystopia abounds every time contempoary culture looks toward the future.”

Recently I took the train to Newcastle to join artists, scientists and creative practitioners at 2012’s Tipping Point conference. Equipped with 70 copies of our Zero Carbon Britain summary document, I set off to join 200 others for an exploration into how we talk about the future.

Set in the very welcoming arms of the Great North Museum: Hancock, this year’s Tipping Point not only pushed the barriers on what the cultural industries can achieve in helping the transition to 21st century thinking, but also built a lot of new links in the network, forming the basis of a useful way of examining how we see ourselves and our future.

Day one was themed “how do I feel about the future?” opening with a very interesting presentation from the Tyndall Centre’s Kevin Anderson, followed closely by so-called ‘Rational Optimist’ Matt Ridley. This quickly turned out to be a boxing match over data, though Matt’s use of very conservative figures for climate sensitivity multiplied by not enough emissions and selective anti-wind data was more Derren Brown than Mohamed Ali.

The second day moved on to explore “in what ways might I influence the future?” through a series of very well organized open space events, and a really clever word cloud drawn from everyone in the room’s biographies, a frenzy of networking and discussion ensued. The open space also gave me the chance to run a session to help understand why contemporary culture must always ‘paint it black’.

Through my work thinking about the communication of Zero Carbon Britain, I have noticed that dystopia abounds every time contemporary culture looks forward into the future. Children of Men, The Road, 28 Days Later – the list is endless. It was so different back when I was a lad – we had Dan Dare, Thunderbirds and Star Trek. When we thought about the future in the 1960s and 70s science and technology were going to take us up, up and away to exciting new places, we’d have labour saving gadgets, hover bikes and jet packs. But as the seventies rolled into the eighties and the wonders of technology were seen to be clearly bashing into the limits of the ecosystems. Bhopal, Chernobyl and a wide range of other catastrophes led us into a different way of seeing our future. From Blade Runner onwards the future became dark. Boys could still be heroes and lovers could walk off into the sunset, but all set against a dark dystopian background. Despite the fact that millions of people would like to imagine humanity capable of making the right choices, and rising to the climate challenge, the artists, novelists, film makers and playwriters always chose to paint it black.

Opened most ably by Welfare State’s John Fox, the final day set out to investigate, explore and develop new ways to engage people in positive, aspirational visions of the future in which we have risen to the challenges of climate change and which also addresses needs that are currently going un-satisfied.

The event taught me a great deal. Firstly, it confirmed my suspicion that there is very little out there in terms of positive visions of a 21st century future. It also helped me understand why – with little to go on in terms of hard data, there is a great fear amongst the creative industries that the critics will dismiss positive works with the all encompassing “yes, but that’s just an utopian view.” This is perhaps where robust scenarios such a Zero Carbon Britain can give confidence, as well as understanding that change is a social phenomenon just as much as a technological challenge.

21st Century challenges cannot be solved with 20th Century thinking – and how we construct our future is no different.