Sustainable open futures

What is sustainability?

In the dominant climate change and environmental discourses, ecological sustainability has essentially become a synonym of ‘no CO2 emissions’, meaning most often ‘net zero CO2 emissions’ (i.e. compensating CO2 emissions via carbon markets). Thus in the arts, quite logically, the current discourse around sustainability most often revolves around reducing and/or compensating for flying, as well as recycling and reusing material or consciously producing it. But focusing on CO2 emissions obscures and distracts from the fact that flying and material production are both merely symptoms of a project-based system which constrains artists into an accumulation of projects and touring dates as a matter of ‘bankability’. Here actually lies a (the?) deeply capitalistic nature of the artistic product(ion)-oriented system, which operates on the basis of names & labels accumulation as base currency, constantly exchanged among artists and institutions, who both thrive on artistic legitimation1 (a trend which the pandemic could also reinforce, privileging established names over more precarious artistic positions). This is what is fundamentally unsustainable in the (performing) arts context.

Sustainability, thus, pertains in fact to the nature and structure of relations within a given ecosystem, and is not definable in itself. Rather than a matter of reducing CO2 emissions, sustainability should therefore be considered as a question which can only be met with situated, contextual – i.e. relational – answers. In doing so, we can reopen space for debate and conflict around what is sustainability, maintaining its openness and relevancy to new situations and viewpoints. Once sustainability becomes relational – or said differently once the universal all-encompassing standpoint is abandoned to the benefit of ‘situated’2, multiple viewpoints and interrelations, sustainability can be reconstructed as a process, i.e. a practice, or rather practices, of sustaining a continuous debate and negotiation about what might eco-socially beneficial relationships mean here and now. Sustainability becomes here a shared responsibility which in turn transforms how we as humans relate to each other and to the wider supporting ecosystem. In this way, sustainability can be made a site of empowerment, where awareness for present needs, purposes, and opportunities, replaces setting predetermined targets (such as that of reaching net zero CO2 emissions). Importantly for the arts, and society at large, this is the only way to ensure that (transcontinental) cultural and artistic diversity is not thrown away in the name of a strict reduction in mobility-related CO2 emissions.

A change of future paradigm: from ‘target-oriented future’ to ‘futures as processes in the making

Considering sustainability as a question rather than a predetermined target represents nothing else but a change of future paradigm, i.e. a shift from a future envisioned as a target to be reached in a more or less distant time-space (i.e. the naturalized way of thinking about the future in terms of making plans, i.e. forecasting or foresight), to futures envisioned as open-ended processes in the making. Rather than finding orientation for the future (as conventional futures studies typically do), the aim then becomes that of keeping futures open. Just as we wouldn’t like the present to be determined by our grandparents’ values and visions, we shouldn’t determine today values and futures for subsequent generations (Riel Miller 2007).

In order to better grasp this reversal, I often rely as a matter of illustration on Swiss travel writer Nicolas Bouvier. At the outset of his travelogue The Way of the World (2009/1963), he writes: “Traveling outgrows its motives. It soon proves sufficient in itself. You think you are making a trip, but soon it is making you – or unmaking you.” (2009/1963). It is not the traveller who is making a journey, but rather the journey which is (un)making the traveller. Bouvier qualifies it as a matter of letting oneself drift (dériver) in the world without predetermined goals, which allows to experience again the present moment, to make the journey for its own sake, available to and curious of what may come. The German proverb “Der Weg ist das Ziel” (the journey is the aim) transmits this same reversal from an enclosed target-oriented future, to futures as open processes in the making.

Working with the uncertainty of the future, or “dancing on the unknown

In trying to reach set goals and instrumentalize the present for the sake of the future, we indeed close ourselves off from what is underway here and now, discarding the potential of the present for elusive futures. By doing so, we also entertain an illusion of determinism, i.e. that the world won’t change in surprizing, unforeseeable ways. Moreover, we forget that in the meantime we ourselves will change, so that desired goals, when reached, sometimes do not meet our needs or aspirations anymore. Making predetermined plans for the future is thus always about denying ourselves and the living world an essential disposition for change, for becoming different, in unpredictable ways. Acknowledging uncertainty, due in particular to human and living systems’ “unpredictable” agency (Arendt, Human Condition 1958), thus means giving up ‘colonizing’ the future for ultimately disappointing ends.

The truth is that we are being transformed by the world as much as we are transforming it – here lies the complex relationality of our transformative ‘journey’ with(in) the world. This is to say, in this living, changing world there is no future for immovable targets. In fact, if we could know the future, it would mean that the future would be ‘written’ (by the divine) or predetermined (by scientific laws). The uncertainty of the future therefore is the primary condition to free, meaningful agency.

Against this background, what becomes essential is ‘de-ideologizing’ the future, i.e. giving up this willingness to know and control what we call ‘the future’, which manifests in deep-rooted beliefs, in rationalistic habits of thoughts and mechanistic understandings of causes and effects, all of which forecloses an authentic confrontation (awareness) with the here and now in its complexity, in its incompleteness and potentiality. “Staying with the trouble” says Donna Haraway. “Dancing on the unknown” writes future researcher Riel Miller (2007).

All of this is highly relevant to the (performing) art world whose project-based (funding) system tends to foreclose a genuine and open approach to artistic work, such as that of practice-based artistic research. More importantly now, the current pandemic offers a defining metaphor of this ‘journey’ where the inherent contingency of our biological (social, cultural) condition humbles us to work with open-ended processes (i.e. practices) rather than clear set goals (i.e. projects). Now that the uncertainty of the future – as inherent condition of the living – is obvious, it becomes then unavoidable to recognize that a project-based artistic system that colonizes the future is detrimental to the relevancy of produced works. This is now evidenced by artistic projects that have been developed prior to the pandemic and that now prove to be more or less irrelevant or unpracticable in the current context. As uncertainty is growing, the future (of the arts) does not lie in making plans, but much rather in finding ways for transformative – or, as is it now sometimes named, regenerative – and sustainable (artistic) practices.

Expanded awareness for what is? and what if?

Once we reach this mindset, we can turn ourselves to the present and work towards deepening our awareness for processes underway, as many possibilities offered here and now. For if the future is fundamentally indeterminate, this is because the present contains the seeds for countless possible futures. Thus, the possibilities lie in the present – as evidenced by chaos theory with the so-called butterfly effect3 (Edward Lorenz 1972): small changes in initial conditions can lead to greatly different outcomes.

Seeds of the futures are what Anticipation4 (Poli 2017) calls ‘latents’ and ‘dispositions’. ‘Latents’ are those indistinct realities underway that have not yet emerged as facts, at least not to our conventional reality-filters, such as not yet perceptible processes of climate and environmental change. ‘Dispositions’ are possibilities existing in potentiality, not yet triggered, such as that of sugar to melt in water. But more than physical dispositions, the most interesting dispositions are those of human and living systems to change, to become different (Poli 2017).

Latents and dispositions are where ‘what is (less visible)?’ meets ‘what if?’, where futures to come are again connected to the present (and the past), arising from it, as processes in the making. Any future thinking should thus confront itself with a deeper understanding of both what is in actuality, through expanded sense making and making sense of the less visible (‘latents’), as well as of what if? as the sum of potentialities (‘dispositions’) and speculation. Here one can use for instance Riel Miller’s (2007) ‘rigorous imagination,’5 tapping into potentialities beyond probable and normative future thinking, or work potential or speculative stories alongside the Panarchy theory based on ecosystems lifecycles, or dive into counter-intuitive speculation, such as Haraway’s ‘speculative fabulation’6 or Afrofuturism. Thinking futures with both ‘what is (less visible)?’ and ‘what if?’ is what I coin ‘futures as processes in the making’7.

Thinking futures as processes in the making, as an expanded awareness for what is happening in and around us, in actuality and in (speculative) potentiality, is about reconciling our space of experiences (‘what is?’) with our space of expectations (‘what if?’). This is what Hartmut Rosa (2016) calls ‘Resonanz’ (by opposition with alienation) as the capacity of being both affected by the real and of responding to it. Rosa writes that it is by being in Resonanz with one’s surroundings that one can find a sense of self-efficacy, of meaningful agency.

In making ourselves available to the real in its complexity and interconnectedness, we can indeed reconstruct another appreciation of (collective) possibility, thus other expectations, from which can then arise another sense of self and collective efficacy and agency. Through engaging and learning with(in) the here and now, we thus open pathways to many stories of the futures, away from socioeconomic “future imperatives”8 imposed upon us by target-oriented future thinking. This is precisely the emancipatory work undertaken by social movements, which sense anew and reinvent the categories of the real (e.g. making visible women’s reproductive work) as a prerequisite to reclaiming alternative, sustainable futures for themselves. Cultural anthropologist Appadurai (2013) calls this the “capacity to aspire,” envisioned as a matter of participating in the definition of these very aspirations, and eventually transform it for oneself and others. Without a “capacity to aspire,” actually no emancipatory agency is possible. In fact, empowerment is about the future.

But just as there is limited empowerment in simply claiming access to leadership positions for women, there is limited empowerment in reclaiming one future, one utopia. A deeper empowerment arises indeed from opening individual and collective futures to a wider horizon. This is why, rather than trying to make predictions and plans in order to bend the future’s fundamental unpredictability, or orient ourselves towards one utopia which predefines today’s values for later generations, our focus should shift to developing processes which maintain an openness of futures, i.e. processes and practices that generate and sustain possibilities and potentialities over time. This is precisely what democracy, conceptually9, is all about: not about defining what will be, but to be concerned with establishing the processes by which situated, democratic decisions are and will be able to take place. 

Towards sustainable open futures

A prime example of this work of reopening the future by reconciling us with the present is that of the Commons, or ‘commoning’ as I prefer to call it. It is in carrying out the work of collective management or stewardship of one common good (be it a biophysical, a social or cultural, a digital or a knowledge good) that we contribute in nurturing open futures, i.e. preserving or growing this common good into the future. Sustainability, thus, is precisely about maintaining futures open for upcoming generations. It follows that pursuing open futures comes from collective work (i.e. practices) towards the common good, reappraising in particular overlooked care and stewardship of and with the living. Working towards open futures is about being in awareness for and sustaining the common good, as a continuous journey, i.e. a practice, of co-transformation with(in) the world. Thus, considering ‘futures as processes in the making’ is an attempt to put back at the centre of our focus, and our future thinking, the collective living processes and practices of growing-learning, of maturing-caring, but also of decay and death, and then renewal-regeneration, as formulated by Panarchy theory. Rather than about setting goals, or even utopias, futures lie in transforming our collective processes and practices here and now.

In the arts, two endeavours at least follow this purpose: practice-based research and commoning (co-creation and commoning of artistic practices and product(ion)s).


  1. The ‘coproduction’ as label rather than as effective means of production is a prime example thereof.
  2. as in the central concept of feminist epistemology of ‘situated knowledges’ proposed by Donna Haraway (1988).
  3. The original metaphor of Lorenz is that of the butterfly in Mexico creating a tornado in Texas.
  4. The Discipline of Anticipation is a very recent strand of futures studies which acknowledges the complexity and impredicativity of natural systems, their ‘dispositions’ for change and their ‘latents’ underway, as well as their anticipatory abilities resulting from their own model (representation) of themselves. 
  5. “Rigorous imagination” consists in opening up a “possibility space” along a x/y axis (using two main variables relevant for the topic under consideration) and formulating possible outcomes from all points of this space, beyond the usual “limitations imposed by values and expectations when thinking about the future” (Miller 2007). Only after this exercise in “rigorous imagination” can decisions be made. In this way, values (preferred futures) and predictability (probable, plausible futures) don’t a priori enclose futures, while this approach helps uncover other ways of knowing and acting in the present.
  6. The Chapter ‘The Camille Stories: Children of Compost’ in Staying with the Trouble (2016) is a good example thereof, see here for a summary.
  7. This terminology is my original conceptualization, built on the term of ‘futures in the making’ by sociologist of the future Barbara Adam (with Chris Groves, 2007) expanded by Roberto Poli, to which I add a specific focus on practices, and the speculative approach.
  8. Ahlqvist & Rhisiart 2015
  9. Beyond its – often questionable – current stand in different countries.


Bibliography

Adam, B. & Groves, C. (2007) Future matters: action, knowledge, ethics, Boston: Brill
Ahlqvist, T. & Rhisiart, M. (2015) “Emerging pathways for critical futures research: Changing contexts and impacts of social theory”, Futures, 71: 91-104
Appadurai, A. (2013) The future as cultural fact: essays on the global condition, London; New York: Verso
Arendt, H. (1998/1958) The Human Condition, Chicago: Chicago University Press
Bouvier, N. (2009/1963) The Way of the World, translated by R. Marsack, London: Eland
Haraway, D. (1988) “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective”, Feminist Studies, 14 (3): 575–599.
Miller, R. (2007) “Futures literacy: A hybrid strategic scenario method”, Futures, 39 (2007) 341–362
Rosa, H. (2017) “Dynamic Stabilization, the Triple A. Approach to the Good Life, and the Resonance Conception”, Questions De Communication, 31 (1): 437-456
Poli, R. (2017) Introduction to Anticipation Studies, Springer Int.