13: Ethics in research for resilience and societal collapse


Research on resilience requires a future-oriented perspective, which sometimes leads to considerations about potential societal collapse. The history of civilisations tells us that societies can collapse and disappear, leaving ruins as reminders of past grandeur and hubris. People in the environmental movement have been warning for decades that the world, our global society, is heading towards the buffers in our exploitation of nature and Earth’s resources. Future studies about global issues, and the discipline of collapsology, carry responsibilities to think carefully about the consequences of research that contributes to formulating human responses to potential societal collapse. For policymaking, the term ‘foresight’ has become popular for explorations into what may happen or be needed in the future This chapter explores the ethics of research in these areas. Research in many fields contributes to possible futures, warning about climate change, of destroying biodiversity or of cyberattacks that can cripple communications and basic services such as energy or water supply. It looks at the dilemma that researching possibilities may help protect us but may open the way for exploitation and subversion; exploring possible futures has the objective of saving us and preventing societal collapse but may push some people into depression and hopelessness. Research activity ought to be within a framework of concern for what is ‘right’ and what might be the consequences. An ethical discourse is important so that research is conducted with the awareness that it has effects beyond the search for knowledge. How do we do research in future studies and how do we report on it in this high-stakes game?

In old days there were angels who came and took men by the hand and led them away from the city of destruction. We see no white-winged angels now. But yet men are led away from threatening destruction: a hand is put into theirs, which leads them forth gently towards a calm and bright land, so that they look no more backward; and the hand may be a little child’s.

George Eliot, Silas Marner (1861)


You could be forgiven for thinking that dire warnings of ‘the end of the world’ are the rantings of a tiny minority. Soothsayers and prophets have long claimed that all is about to collapse in misery and shame – usually because of a deity taking revenge on our collective lack of concern, greed and venality. The doomsters either get their dates wrong or the deity informs them of a last-minute reprieve and sets a new date. The eschatological prophesies have since shifted away from gods to nature itself, an anthropomorphised container of all life and fount of well-being. Named after a mythical goddess, Gaia, the Earth, is out to get us (Lovelock, 2006) due to the careless damage we are collectively imposing on her. We now threaten our own demise by destroying the systems of life that provide for us. Nature considers humans much like a disease, running a temperature for a short while and then recovering having eliminated the problem – us.

Thomas Malthus’s An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) predicted population growth outpacing the production of food leading to a collapse of civilisation. World population then was around one billion people; the population is now nearing eight billion people, and the first of the United Nations’ (UN’s) Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) is to attain zero hunger in the world by 2030 – confounding Malthus’s prediction. Human ingenuity, scientific advancement in understanding, and a massive exploitation of fossil fuel supplied the energy needed to increase food production.

The consumption of many other goods increased as did the expansion of our exploitation of nature and resources: so much so that we talk of peak production, which is the time when resources start the downhill path to depletion and nature gets weaker and thinner until it ceases to function for our benefit. This hollowing out of ecosystems, loss of biodiversity and depletion of mineral capital has been hidden from common knowledge behind the glamour of immediate wealth – at least for some.

Other problems were hinted at. In the late 19th century, Svante Arrhenius and colleagues suggested that human-created emissions of carbon dioxide would eventually lead to global warming. However, because of the relatively low rate of carbon dioxide production at that time, Arrhenius thought global warming would take thousands of years, and he expected it would be beneficial to humanity. When The Limits to Growth (Meadows et al, 1972) was first published, climate change was just one factor in the ‘pollution’ variable of the world model. In the same year, at the first UN environment conference, in Stockholm, climate change hardly registered on the agenda – and the global population reached about four billion people.

Over the next 50 years we saw the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) created to collate and assess the evidence (1988), the Earth Summit was held in Rio de Janeiro (1992) where governments agreed on the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change with the objective of the ‘stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system’ (UN, 1992: art 2), then in 1997 the Kyoto Protocol was agreed, when developed nations pledged to reduce emissions by an average of 5 per cent by the period 2008–12, the hockey stick graph appeared around then, and on we went through a long series of high-level meetings, pledges, targets and arguments, arriving at the Paris Accord in 2016 when 196 governments pledged to keep the world’s average temperature rise to only 2°C above what it had been before the Industrial Revolution – and preferably to keep the increase below 1.5°C. As I write, we await the next meeting, Glasgow COP26, in 2021, which will assess progress and make more pledges; and the world is waking up to the possibility of massive disruptions, severe dislocations of people and perhaps societal collapse. The concept of net-zero carbon emissions is taking centre stage, but the full consequences are still actors in the wings.

Extensive research has grown our knowledge and understanding of the world in turn throwing up a plethora of interconnected complex global issues and potential tipping points. Coterminous with climate change, the list of threats heading towards us is growing almost daily – biodiversity loss, eutrophication of seas, plastic pollution, novel entities in the environment and, of course, new diseases crossing over from animals to humans. Research into these potentially existential threats has generated intense interest in thinking about the future.

Future studies have expanded, especially as many of these threats and trends have a sensational presentation – the end of the world. ‘Sustainability’ became the watchword of the first phase of social and environmental concerns but then ‘resilience’ joined in. Surviving indefinitely was not enough – ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (UN General Assembly, 1987: para 27) – is not sufficient to prepare for the shocks and sudden changes that we might create to our fragile systems. It became important to scan the horizon, have foresight and invest in future studies. But there are consequences, so: what are the ethical considerations around future studies? And what are the ethics of research that shape the thoughts and opinions about the future?

This enquiry was triggered by a request to draw up a policy for working with people on deep questions about the survival of humanity and the fear that the consequences of this work might lead to extreme pessimism, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. How do we ethically conduct action research generating ideas about futures that might push some people into severe depression and existential questioning? This work also exposed another concern that asking how humanity will survive the next decade might lead some people to conclude that a violent response is the only answer. The urgency of the problem might stimulate some to think that we cannot wait for normal, slow political processes but instead we must force the issue. For those organising this work, non-violent methods are a basic tenet, so this was a significant wake-up call.

Future studies

Appropriately labelling the different studies of the future is a problem. Italian artists of the Futurism movement in the early 20th century glorified modernity and war – aiming to liberate Italy from the weight of its past, endowing the term ‘futurism’ with a dictatorial meaning. Other terms used for these studies are futures research, futuristics, futures thinking, futuring and futurology. Foresight (the ability to predict what will happen or be needed in the future) became a popular word in policymaking areas as a description of working with the future. The UK government established a set of foresight projects (Foresight, 2019) to give evidence to create policies that are more resilient to the future. The term future studies is used in an academic context, and the term foresight in a practical context when applying future studies.

Future studies appear to be dominated by the needs of businesses to understand market trends and shifting fashions, and all governments have foresight units that are horizon scanning, predicting the future and looking out for changes, political potholes and stumbling blocks. Globally, think tanks are involved in foresight in one way or another – looking out for security issues and geopolitical stresses or predicting financial markets or seeking new technologies. Many of these efforts are large scale and involve considerable investment. The World Economic Forum has recently launched a digital ‘strategic intelligence’ service to play with around 200 interacting megatrends.1

Economics contains a large component of forecasting, comprising statistical projections and business cycle analysis. Projections of trends in finance and economic activity are a key part of the ‘dismal science’, being major factors in government decision-making. The expectations of borrowing requirements, inflation, tax receipts, employment and, of course, public opinion are all about looking to the future. These actions are driven largely by the underlying desire to control the direction of travel, controlling the minds of people in the present without letting them know all that is going on.

Studying the future affords power and control, or influence over others. This requires decisions about how to use that power and that leads us into the world of morality and ethics. What is the right way to use this power? Since the future is uncertain, we do not have assured knowledge: we only have plausible stories to which we might attach probability estimates, and from among the plausible stories we decide the one story that we prefer and promote that to our advantage over others. Any dilemmas that arise in choosing a course of action must be expressed with the caution that the future will unfold in its own way and in its own time; it will emerge from the complexity of our systems and what we base our decisions on may turn out to be substantially different from what we proclaim.

Societal collapse and apocalypse

The truth is that beyond our opinions, the facts matter. And the fact is that we live in an age of a choice of ruin. Climate change. Inequality. Fascism. Extremism. Mass extinction. Countries fracturing. Societies breaking down. None of these things are up for debate – and the question isn’t even whether you’re deeply and profoundly concerned by them – it’s why you aren’t.

Umair Haque in Eudaimonia

Umair Haque’s (2022) quote offers an example of how messages like this are broadcast; strictly, it was a narrow cast as this article first appeared in 2021 on Medium, which is an online blog channel, but the readership is substantial and consists of the ‘informed public’.2 It was submitted into popular culture, into a channel that has an air of authority and believability and where research work often gets interpreted for mass consumption. The blog piece illustrates that some people are certain about where the world is going and are keen to persuade others to their point of view: that the world is facing catastrophe. The apocalyptic narrative is powerful and seductive, a useful tool for those who wish to change the world. It is the consequences of their interpretations that concerns us.

‘Our current global system is on the brink of collapse’, began an email I received, not from some frantic activist but from the Head of US Operations, Sustainable Business, Reuters Events. Obviously, it was a hyperbole to get my attention because if they genuinely believed it then what are they doing just organising events for businesses to have a get-together. Apocalypse and collapse are now common currency and their meanings have shifted – and debased.

Is society about to collapse or is it already collapsing, and we are running in mid-air over the cliff edge with seconds before we plunge into the depths?

The considerable literature on collapse probably begins with Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Gibbon, 1776–89). Written in the latter part of 18th century, it traces more than 1,500 years of history and places the reason for that collapse on barbarian invasions and the slow erosion of civic virtue and ethics among its citizens – Rome became decadent. In his A Study of History (1934–39), Arnold Toynbee considers the growth and decline of civilisations, and their disintegration. He points out the evidence for this happening many times – the cyclical nature of expansion and contraction of civilisations. Joseph Tainter published The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988), in which he applies systems and complexity sciences to explain how collapse happens – societies often failing, in some sense, under their own weight. In Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive (2005) Jared Diamond uses the evidence from previous civilisations to compare and extrapolate to the issues we face today.

More recent ‘apocalyptic’ books take on more of this tone, towards the complete global collapse of civilisation. The main driver of this is seen as climate change. In The Uninhabitable Earth (2019) David Wallace-Wells describes his frightening story of the future – the fly leaf of the book starts off: ‘It is worse, much worse, than you think’.

There is something alluring about societal collapse, it makes great Hollywood movies, and the adrenaline flows while we scare ourselves. The dystopian, post-apocalyptic genre is full of bad news – from the earliest H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, through Mad Max, Blade Runner, The Hunger Games, Interstellar, The Handmaid’s Tale, Black Mirror and many more. Societies collapse in these movies, and we are entertained to examine what life might be like if circumstances suddenly change and we are thrown out of our comfort zone to scratch an existence, which is ‘worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ (Hobbes, 1651: Part 1, Ch 13). We should remember Orson Welles’s radio production of The War of the Worlds, which many people believed. There were rumours of suicide – none were confirmed, thank goodness. It is interesting to note that far-right reading material has always used collapse, as in apocalyptic visions, which tend nicely to the ideology of a rebirth of a ‘pure’ order – under their control of course.

The concept of society collapsing has spawned a new discipline of collapsology. This neologism is gradually gaining usage as the study of how societies and civilisations come to an end (and potentially transform). It primarily explores issues like climate change as caused by human economic and geopolitical systems. It is not in line with the idea of a cosmic, apocalyptic ‘end of the world’, but makes the hypothesis of the end of the current world, how systems degrade, fail and disintegrate, how they lose values and often revert to earlier forms.

In a different context, we have seen the rise of mass movements such as Extinction Rebellion and Deep Adaptation Forum following decades of doom predictions about the limits to growth and the headlong rush of humanity past the boundaries of the planet.

At one end of a collapse spectrum, people are concerned about the future, they wish to be prepared for opportunity or disaster and recovery (they see a graceful degradation within business as usual); in the middle ground we have those who are certain of collapse of some kind and wish to cope with what that means, in a sense of rebirth; at the far end we have the die-hards who will survive an apocalyptic collapse in their redoubts until it’s all over ready to emerge into a barren, purged world or else they will somehow flee to another planet to find a brand new barren world.

Limits to growth and research into possible collapse

In 1972 the Club of Rome (a small international group of influential people from academia, civil society, diplomacy and industry) published the results of a study modelling the world’s population, food production, industrialisation, pollution and consumption of non-renewable natural resources. The model predicted that on the present course the limits to growth on earth would become evident by 2072, leading to ‘sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity’ (Meadows et al, 1972: 23). This meant societal or civilisation collapse was inevitable without a substantial change in consumption and pollution.

In 2004, an update was published called Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. The authors observed that:

it is a sad fact that humanity has largely squandered the past 30 years in futile debates and well-intentioned, but halfhearted, responses to the global ecological challenge. We do not have another 30 years to dither. Much will have to change if the ongoing overshoot is not to be followed by collapse during the twenty-first century. (Meadows et al, 2004: xvi)

In 2009, a group of Earth system scientists produce a framework called Planetary Boundaries that defines a ‘safe operating space for humanity’. The framework is based on scientific evidence that human actions since the industrial revolution have become the main driver of global environmental change. They identified nine ‘planetary life support systems’ essential for human survival and evaluated how far these systems have been pushed already. They estimated how much further humans can go before planetary habitability is threatened. Their conclusion was that ‘transgressing one or more planetary boundaries may be deleterious or even catastrophic due to the risk of crossing thresholds that will trigger non-linear, abrupt environmental change within continental-scale to planetary-scale systems’ (Rockström et al, 2009).

The planetary boundaries mark the safe zone for the planet. As of 2009, two boundaries had already been crossed, while others were in imminent danger of being breached and there are two that we do not even know how to measure.

Climate change modelling is happening on an extensive scale by many teams across the world. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was created to provide policymakers with regular scientific assessments on climate change, its implications and potential future risks. Without a massive response to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a significant warming of the atmosphere will happen with catastrophic consequences: it will be a global civilisation collapse.

Extinction Rebellion

Extinction Rebellion (XR) was established in the UK in May 2018. It is a global environmental movement with the aim of using non-violent, civil disobedience to compel government action to avoid tipping points in the climate system, biodiversity loss, and the risk of social and ecological collapse. Although criticised for its lack of diversity (mainly white and middle class) and even considered a threat alongside terrorist groups, it is a grassroots response to a sense (a paradigm) that we are heading towards extinction as a species.

The three demands of government that XR make, are quite simple to state: Tell the Truth, Act Now, Go Beyond Politics. The first of these: ‘Government must tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency, working with other institutions to communicate the urgency for change’,3 contains a presumption that there is a truth out there, and that sufficient research evidence supports the prediction of grave danger and collapse unless action is taken. A second presumption is that government is not telling this truth and by denying it they are behaving unethically.

Deep Adaptation Forum (DAF)

The Deep Adaptation Forum was established in 2018 following the publication of a paper by Professor Jem Bendell. It explores how we prepare for and live with the idea of societal disruption and collapse. It assumes that we do not have sufficient resilience in our systems to cope with the changes arising from hitting the limits to growth and the effects of climate change and biodiversity loss.

Societal collapse means ‘the uneven ending to our current means of sustenance, shelter, security, pleasure, identity and meaning’ (Bendell, 2019).

People who consider that societal collapse is either inevitable, likely, or already unfolding, are using the term ‘deep adaptation’ to explore responses. This is a way of framing the current global situation that might refocus on what is important in life as collapse proceeds: ‘we are finding new ways of being with ourselves and being together, no matter what happens’ (Deep Adaptation Forum, 2022).

DAF encourages people to explore the emotional implications of collapse before looking outwards and acting in the world. They offer support to those who turn inward in grief at the coming loss. This movement is treading into an area of substantial, ethical debate – it is aware that some people may find this disturbing. The acceptance of the inevitability of collapse may be a tipping point for some people – but which way will they tip?

Prepper movement, delinkers and escape to Mars

The world is reeling from multiple ongoing calamities, and only a tiny fraction has the luxury of retreating from it all. Those who lack that luxury are not going to be exactly happy about it. One way or the other, you will eventually have to pay for retreating from the world.

Venkatesh Rao on Ribbonfarm

Survivalists have long considered the collapse of society as inevitable, but they are determined to survive it. Survivalism emerged in the 1980s and is now often called the Prepper movement. They are people who prepare for emergencies, including natural disasters, as well as disruptions to the social, political or economic order. The idea is to construct hardened shelters, stocked with food, goods and equipment (guns) to ride out the collapse. They are ready to defend themselves.

This drive for self-sufficiency is also a feature of some intentional communities, or eco-communities. These are planned to have a high degree of social cohesion and teamwork. The members of an intentional community typically hold a common social, political, religious or spiritual vision and often follow an alternative lifestyle. This is an expression of what is called ‘delinking to relink later’. In a sense it means to set up a separate, independent community (delinking), to wait out a collapse in society, and then emerge to offer the world a new, better way without all the bad things that created the troubles we had (relinking).

For the wealthy, survivalism means escape to somewhere that will not be affected and where life can be lived out isolated from the troubles of Earth. There are stories of armed, gated compounds – robot-served, self-sufficient redoubts in places like New Zealand, sufficiently far away and difficult for the hordes to reach. And some rich people are even thinking of escaping to Mars to ensure the survival of humanity.

Existential risks

The drivers of societal collapse considered so far (in Limits to Growth, for example) tend to be of the stress type, slowly building problems, rather than sudden shocks. There are many institutions that conduct research into shocks, some of which could be catastrophic and world-ending (even in minutes). These existential level events are the plots for many disaster movies, in which we tend to survive by last-minute heroism or sacrifice. Research into these possibilities is included in this ethical examination just as much as any collapse by systemic failure or outgrowth of resources. The difference is in the ‘act of god’ nature – they are not human-induced shocks. They come with no blame attached: if an asteroid has Earth’s name on it then there is no hope, if the Yellowstone National Park blows up as a super volcano, then it blows. Researching these possible natural events either induces anxiety or can reassure if the probability of occurrence is extremely low.

The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk4 (CSER) at Cambridge University has a mission to evaluate low-probability/high-impact events. Their aim is to encourage responsible innovation among technologists and a safety culture among scientists. Many of the possibilities that are studied are of the type where humanity outgrows the resources of the planet, or we have damaged and polluted so much that ecosystems collapse, or we have altered the climate. However, there is another type of possibility that could lead to collapse and that is deliberate action such as war or terrorism. Collapse could occur through nuclear warfare, something we have lived with for over 70 years, but added to that danger are such actions as engineered pandemics, cyberwarfare, rogue artificial intelligence, geoengineering, genetically new life forms and other nasties.

There are three categories of collapse activators: (1) acts of God, (2) emergent issues from the collective activity of billions of people and (3) deliberately created issues – possibly accidental but also possibly engineered as a mechanism of war or conquest. Research action is different for each category – it will be some mix of assessing the dangers and warning, mitigating the danger, adapting to changes, discovering weakness and vulnerabilities, and preventing the implementation of harmful actions. But there is also considerable research that is about the world as it is rather than as it might be. Finding new knowledge about the beingness of things is also knowledge of becomingness (the two main ideas in ontology). Is it possible to distinguish ethical concerns about research into what things are from what they might generate? How can we do that when we do not know and cannot know the consequences?

In the world of resilience thinking we often consider the spectrum of chance and the spectrum of disruption. The business world evaluates its operations and plans by using a risk assessment. It imagines as many things as possible that may go wrong or negatively impact an organisation or a project and considers the probability of these happening and the scale of the impact. We can do this for the concept of societal collapse.

Table 13.1:

Risk assessment for societal collapse

Low disruption High disruption
High chance Collapse seen as a naturally occurring cycle, and possibly beneficial for society to adjust to a resource constrained world. This is the story of those who believe the collapse is inevitable – the response is to build the fortress or work out how to cope and adapt.
Slight chance Rely on existing systems to adapt if the worse were to occur. No action needs to be taken just ‘business as usual’, with some prudence. This is the problematic space. It is the asteroid impact, or malicious global scale terrorism. How much effort should go into preparing?

In each of the quadrants in Table 13.1, the effect on society and the individual varies from just taking precautions and building resilience to escaping or resignation to fate. Research activities continue to explore these spaces to understand the mechanisms and drivers, looking for causes, to identify ways to mitigate the issues, to improve resilience and the ability to recover, to improve our measure of the probabilities and the scale of the effects – the scale of climate change damage for example. It is fertile ground for researchers and is material for future studies and foresight to build scenarios of the outcomes – some of these are quite scary.

Power and control

And always keep a-hold of Nurse

For fear of finding something worse.

Hilaire Belloc, ‘Jim’ (1907)

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

H.L. Mencken, In Defense of Women (1918)

Using fear as a mechanism for power and control has a long history, pre-dating humankind. Any social animal lives in a hierarchy and dominance is often fought over, to the death sometimes. More likely, though, is the fear of death.

The use of fear is subtle and pervasive, it affords power and control over others and is one tool in the box for political campaigning aided often by a press who are keen for any sensational story. It may lead to discrimination, marginalisation and the establishment of the ‘other’ – those to be eliminated or targeted for blame. Power and control through fear play to the ideologies of competition (for scarce resources) and conflict. And what better ways to create fear than invent scenarios of doom and gloom from which, of course, the politicians will rescue you, if you vote for them. Future studies and foresight provide the material for these scenarios and when backed up by reputable research, the fear is cemented.

The concept of what is called the future funnel or cone is a simple device to demonstrate how possibilities expand as you look further into the future; the imagined scenarios take on wider and wider ranges of possibility. The funnel, though, is often a way to demonstrate preferred scenarios or outcomes. However, the question must be asked: whose preferred outcome is it, and whose perspective is used to start looking into the future?

Disruption is also a tool of those seeking power and control. Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine (2007) suggests that a deliberate strategy of inducing shocks is part of neoliberal free-market practices. The fear of future shocks is even cleverer in that it is all in the imagination. If research from a reputable source lends weight to these fears, then all the better for shaping attitudes and behaviour.

The dilemmas of future studies

Science is properly more scrupulous than dogma. Dogma gives a charter to mistake, but the very breath of science is a contest with mistake and must keep the conscience alive.

George Eliot, Middlemarch (1871)

Much of ethical thinking is about dilemmas and paradoxes. These arise through the superposition of two (or more) possible futures that are equally desirable (or undesirable). These futures determine action in the present, often a choice must be made between which path to tread, and both routes contain hazards and evils that are incommensurate. There is no set of scales that can indicate which is the better, and who should determine what ‘better’ means.

Another superposition occurs when we imagine a distant future that could trigger more than one possible course of action in the near future. If we imagine a societal collapse due to, say, global warming sometime towards the end of the 21st century, we may induce, as we speak today, a spirit of resistance and forthright action or we may trigger a fatalistic slide into depression, despair and lethargy. If we are pressing hard the sense of inevitability of societal collapse what is our ethical and social responsibility? What are the dangers? What could go wrong?

One of the first things to recognise is the paradox of future thinking. Once we have thought about the future, we make changes now, we prepare for what we imagine, which will produce a different imagined future, which we then prepare for and so on. This is a form of Zeno’s paradox where we enter an infinite regression of future thinking. What are some of the ethical questions and dilemmas of which we should be aware?

Self-fulfilling prophecy

By constantly playing the same song, people come to believe you and their actions are influenced by this belief that what you project/envision is true and that their actions then produce that future or at least sway things towards it. There is also the sense that a prediction can lead to inaction that again contributes to the prediction being realised. If a significant amount of research points towards catastrophic climate change, then the temptation is to abandon attempts to reduce carbon emission as being futile and therefore catastrophe happens, when perhaps concerted action could have reduced the impacts. Imagination prompts research and the imagined is realised.

The Cassandra Matrix

When poor Cassandra, the daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba, did not return his love, the god Apollo placed a curse on her so that no one would ever believe her true predictions. Many people who spend their lives exploring environmental issues feel like a modern-day Cassandra. They predict catastrophic global warming or the end of civilisation as we run out of energy, but nobody seems to believe them – if they do then they find a way to pretend it is not true. If Cassandra told the truth but nobody would believe her then an anti-Cassandra is someone who always tells falsehoods, but everyone does believe them. Unfortunately, as the last few years have demonstrated, we now cynically consider most politicians to be anti-Cassandras, we believe them usually because they are telling us what we want to hear.

If we consider a Cassandra Matrix of telling the truth or not against whether we are believed or not, then it would look like Table 13.2.

Table 13.2:

The Cassandra Matrix

Believe Disbelieve
True Where we want to be! Cassandra: prophesying climate change disasters
False Anti-Cassandra: politicians Spam-scams

The bottom right-hand quadrant is occupied by those strange people who tell blatant falsehoods, and nobody believes them, like the classical email scams promising bank accounts bulging with lost millions. Well, we say no one, but some do.

We want to occupy the top left-hand quadrant – where the truth is told, and everyone believes it. As a scientist though, this is a dangerous place. In this matrix, we are applying classical logic where things are either true or false when, in practice, we should use fuzzy logic where things are to a degree true and false at the same time. We live in a world where most ‘facts’ and ‘ideas’ are something like 90 per cent right and 10 per cent wrong – but sometimes the other way around. We are continually exploring the world of uncertainty and experimenting with ways to cope. We are trying, through cycles of critical learning, to move towards that top left-hand quadrant while realising that we can never get there. Indeed, it would be unwise and dangerous to assume we can have scientifically proven facts; we must learn to live with just sufficiently high degrees of probability if we wish to make decisions and act. This makes us vulnerable to those opposed to change who wield the stick of certainty.

Cassandra’s dilemma arises when she asks herself the self-fulfilling question: what if my telling the story makes it come true? She can predict the future, but should she just keep quiet because otherwise people will not believe her and so not do anything to change?

Crying wolf

This phenomenon is a combination of self-fulfilling prophecy and an exercise in how to become a Cassandra by giving false alarms repetitively so that people will always reject your predictions and calls for action even when your alarm call eventually happens to be true. In the Cassandra matrix the dynamics are that you start out in saying falsehoods that are believed but people get weary, so you move to saying falsehoods that are disbelieved but one day you say truth, but people are now fixed in disbelief of whatever you say – and the worst happens.

Parzival’s dilemma

Robert Frost wrote about ‘two roads diverg[ing] in a wood’ and taking ‘the one less travelled.’ But, in Molly’s case, both roads continued to equally devastating destinations, even if the specifics were different. Which of the two paths would you choose if one went off a cliff and the other into quicksand?

Ray Smith, The Magnolia that Bloomed Unseen (2017)
The complication in this quotation from Ray Smith lies in the assumption that we know the outcome in advance that both routes end in devastation. In future studies we can only imagine what the outcomes are – we can never be certain, and we can never measure anything to use as a choice-making instrument. This is at the heart of the ethical dilemmas in future studies.

The stakes were too high for error. If we are damned for our actions but don’t know our action’s result, then how dare we act? And yet, how dare we refrain? (Kleiner, 1996)

The story of Parzival is told well by Art Kleiner in the Age of the Heretics (Kleiner, 1996). Parzival was a young knight of King Arthur’s round table faced by a dilemma at a turning point in his life. He was brought up and trained to conform with a belief that he should refrain and hold back, it was improper to ask questions, and yet when his injured king could only be healed by the spontaneous act of a knight’s noble heart, Parzival is locked in the dilemma and does nothing – and he is damned.

The dilemma for future studies is similar. It is a double bind. To rephrase: if we are damned for our prophecies but do not know the effects of our prophecies then how dare we prophesise? And yet, how dare we keep silent?

Precautionary principle

One way out is to adopt the precautionary principle. The precautionary principle is a form of the classical Hippocratic oath, simplified to the idea of ‘first, do no harm’. If a course of action may lead to harm to humans or the environment, then we should take precautionary measures even if we do not know the full consequences. The proponent of any action should bear the responsibility to provide the proof of no harm.

The precautionary principle came to prominence in the environmental movement during the Earth Summit in 1992. Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration says: ‘In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation’.5

It is a negative approach that avoids everything not known to be safe. But should we retreat into ultra-safety and miss out on learning, sometimes, from mistakes? Better safe than sorry, as a principle, can fail us – by avoiding any potential damage, we fail to learn: a seemingly precautionary action can do more harm than good by freezing the state we are in, forbidding innovations and allows those with the worst imaginations to prevail.

In future studies the precautionary principle can become the target. Effort is placed on imagining possible damage, and research is directed towards this, with the aim of forestalling action. An example of this in climate science is geoengineering; any idea to directly affect the climate by, for example, solar radiation management, or seeding the atmosphere with chemicals, is consider a high-risk strategy. The uncertainty around the full consequences of disrupting natural systems is the focus of research. The opposite is to throw caution to the wind in the claim that we are addressing problems that are not being solved by direct means (by reducing carbon emissions) so we must adopt innovative ways – otherwise we will slide into crippling climate change and the potential collapse of societies.

The ideology of violation or security through obscurity

Should we tell?

Our third category of societal collapse activators (deliberately created issues – possibly accidental but also possibly deliberate, such as cyberwarfare) opens another horizon for dilemma. If, in our studies of the future and research, we discover or imagine and articulate a possible way to attack society, to disable vital systems, should we keep quiet or should we broadcast the idea?

The ideology of violation is a term devised by Jaron Lanier to describe the belief that discovering, and making public, ways to attack society will make society safer (Lanier, 2010). He proposes that we should indeed tell, but more than that, we should deliberately research into all possible ways to damage, disable or destroy our systems – we should violate what we consider holy to expose its vulnerabilities. The example he uses (2010: 65) is of a research team’s efforts to use mobile phone technology to hack into a heart pacemaker to turn it off by remote control, to murder someone. Having discovered a way to do this, should it become public knowledge, or should this knowledge be controlled? A similar example of this dilemma is about publishing the 3D printing program to make a gun, having proved the point that this could be done – should we tell?

Those who disagree with the ideology of violation are said to subscribe to a ‘fallacious’ idea known as ‘security through obscurity’. Society is safer if we do not tell and safer still if we do not imagine these possibilities and we do not conduct research into them.

What are the ethics of research to find vulnerabilities? Is uncovering vulnerabilities doing more harm than good? This is at the heart of resilience thinking. The concept of horizon scanning, and scenario development, is to dream up possibilities and to extrapolate weak signals to push the boundaries of possibility so that, through imagination, society can be better prepared for change than it is now.

Some arguments against the ideology of violation are:

  • The diversion of effort: we are wasting resources looking for more ways that society might collapse when we should be researching into avoidance mechanisms for those concerns that we are sure about.

  • Creation of division: having discovered or imagined a threat, we need new laws and controls, and these can lead to discrimination, marginalisation, conflict and polarisation in society.

  • The arms race of looking for vulnerabilities: a technical term for this is ‘schismogenesis’ where our published discovery incites others to look for the vulnerabilities in our discovery, to look for new vulnerabilities, deeper and subtler in a never-ending battle of hacker versus protector.

This last argument comes from the world of software and system protection from viruses and their ilk. However, contrast this looking for holes in software with the aim of improving the system against looking for, or creating, novel lifeforms or diseases just so we can understand what some malicious agency might do, what they might create and how we might counter them or detect them doing it. In our pursuit of knowledge of what others might maliciously do, we may discover some new and highly dangerous knowledge or even technologies. If these get out – then what?

Adopt conspiracy?

Should we lie? The researcher and futurist can affect change by what they say. If they believe strongly enough that their work points to collapse and disintegration of society and that telling people so will make it happen or accelerate the process, then they could manipulate the message. Is it right to bend the truth or conspire to lose certain parts of the story for fear of alarm and shock? Or should the principles of honesty and truthfulness always prevail otherwise we descend into an assault on integrity and democracy, we enter the world of fake news, social media manipulations, constant lying and loss of trust.

From a deontological ethical perspective, we have this from Immanuel Kant, writing in 1797:

Hence a lie defined merely as an intentionally untruthful declaration to another man does not require the additional condition that it must do harm to another … For a lie always harms another; if not some human being, then it nevertheless does harm to humanity in general, since it vitiates the very source of right. … All practical principles of right must contain rigorous truth. … This is because such exceptions would destroy the universality on account of which alone, they bear the name of principles. (Kant, 1898)

A consequential ethical position might argue differently, especially given the enormity of what societal collapse means.

Optimism and the Evel Knievel dilemma

Should the tone for future studies be pessimism (stop doing and retreat) or optimism (keep doing because we must get through this, we will get through this)?

In the face of societal collapse, and so that we can build resilience into our systems, there is a strong argument for an optimistic framework, otherwise we fall into the self-fulfilment of a negative story where we are looking to escape rather than looking for solutions. There is a growing school of positivity, seen in recent books by authors such as Stephen Pinker, Hans Rosling, Matt Ridley and Rutger Bregman. Their argument is that we are far better off materially and more equal and longer-lived than in any previous generation. This is due to trade, science and innovations that always seem to arise to overcome obstacles. Everything that seems to be driving us to the edge of the cliff is also making things better. Can that ‘better’ save us?

Optimism is not about blindly ignoring the realities that surround us, that’s foolishness. It is also not a naive faith that everything will take care of itself, even if we do nothing. That is irresponsibility. The optimism I am speaking of is not the result of an achievement, it is the necessary input to meeting a challenge. It is, in fact, the only way to increase our chance of success. (Figueres, 2020)

Perhaps we are facing what is called the Evel Knievel dilemma. Robert Craig Knievel (born 1938) professionally known as Evel Knievel, was an American stunt performer famous for ramp-to-ramp motorcycle jumps. One of his stunts was an attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon on a rocket-powered motorcycle. Imagine if he were halfway across and the thought occurred to him: ‘this is polluting the atmosphere, I should stop this’ and so he turns off the rocket engine. The analogy is that our drive for knowledge and innovation, although polluting as we go on, will get us to the other side where we have sufficient sophistication and technical abilities to build our utopia; but if we stop now, we will fail to construct what is necessary to survive and instead plunge into societal collapse.

Future generations

We have a duty to future generations that exist now or are most likely to exist – those born in, say, the next few decades. Do we have a duty to more distant, unborn, future generations? A belief in the inevitability of the collapse of civilisation would preclude concern for future generations in the sense of those who might have been born if collapse did not occur. The Deep Adaptation Forum concern is a compassionate one for those future generations that will be born before and during the collapse.

Thinking about ‘future generations’ stimulates thinking about intergenerational equity. The sustainability and climate action movements have long argued for considering future generations to embed the principles of long-term thinking into law. The 1997 UNESCO Declaration on the Responsibilities of the Present Generations Towards Future Generations is an international agreement which includes provisions related to the common heritage of humankind. Article 4 states:

The present generations have the responsibility to bequeath to future generations an Earth which will not one day be irreversibly damaged by human activity. Each generation inheriting the Earth temporarily should take care to use natural resources reasonably and ensure that life is not prejudiced by harmful modifications of the ecosystems and that scientific and technological progress in all fields does not harm life on Earth.6

This declaration places a significant responsibility on researchers in future studies to fully explore and imagine the possibilities that might lead to harm to future generations. Thinking about the yet-to-be-born, the future of humanity and our purpose on this planet creates an immense context for ethical thinking. When we consider who is affected, who is neglected and who is rejected we must expand the framing of questions to include those who are yet to be conceived as far out as we possibly can.

The effect on the individual

The brains of humans … contain a mechanism that is designed to give priority to bad news.

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (2012)

The World Future Society recently asked their members a question: how does a futurist mindset help us get through the day? It requires time to reflect on this negative question, especially on those deep existential enquiries that are with us always, never resolved and never clearly formulated – who am I, why am I here, why is anything here? We see our life as following one path, the only path we believe. We cut a singular track, a channel – canalised – the further we travel the harder it gets to escape; the more we want to escape the faster we travel. A reinforcing feedback that ends in a scream of despair.

The presumption in the question is that by thinking about the future we can somehow set a wider and longer context for our lives and perhaps see that we are in a rut. This view beyond and from above might offer ways to escape and reset our lives or at least direct ourselves away from the channel of hopelessness. It sounds appealing, it may work for some, not for others, and in certain cases it could lead the other way. Like the unknowns around the springtime suicide peak, there is a fear that encouraging a futurist mindset may just be one more unknown as to possible remedies for the trials of getting through the day and through one’s life. It could be a powerful tool in some cases by removing the blinkers and the vision of just the ground in front – doing this with others by having future conversations is vital, doing it alone is nigh on impossible.

Should we have conversations that look forward and explore the future, develop a sense of ‘wanting to know what happens next’ – emotional messages to support rational arguments? It will not necessarily work and it may make things worse, but that is the condition with all attempts to help with existential crises.

There is no knowing. A future conversation framed by optimism, with a sense of conquering problems, can work for some; but for others it may push them further into depression if it reinforces their isolation from those who are building a bright future. Apocalyptic thinking shuts down initiatives and reduces the ability to think beyond the narrow horizon of horrific problems when what is needed is a trust that there are alternatives, nothing is certain and good outcomes can occur. Without some positive drivers we are condemned to a life of doom scrolling (searching ceaselessly on the social media sites for bad news coming towards us) – it is a downward spiral of negative thoughts leading to depression, anxiety, distress, suicidal thoughts, hopelessness.

For the individual, thinking about the future can bring great hope by transcending the noise of the bad news, driven by sensationalist media, to see the game from the outside rather than being caught up in a crossfire of fear and despair. It is the role of future studies and foresight (and the research that drives these) to take up the responsibility to present this game. The influence on the collective consciousness of future thinking could easily push societies down a pathway to Balkanisation, to ghettos, lack of action to mitigate – instead of stimulating action to adapt and protect, we withdraw as a group to erect the fortress. We polarise our communities as we protect ‘us’ by rejecting the ‘other’.

Research, knowledge and future studies

Bad news sells because the amygdala is always looking for something to fear.

Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler, Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think (2012)

Many research projects produce results that are used as evidence to support prediction and to suggest change based on those predictions. The need for future projections can drive the research agenda. There are consequences, and ethical questions arise at many different levels. In the field of resilience, we need to shift our thinking from stasis to rhesis. We need to replace the idea of returning to a prior condition after a shock (homeostasis) with the idea of returning to the same processes or function (homeorhesis). The COVID-19 pandemic illustrates this in that health systems will not return to exactly what they were before but instead return to providing the services of healthcare – its function – with all kinds of new procedures and practices from what was learned in this awful period. The overall process of healthcare will return to what it was; the organisation and structures will be different.

When addressing societal challenges or issues of resilience, researchers need to think not only about problems – the knowledge of what the issues are – but also knowledge about how to overcome those problems. The concept of ‘three types of knowledge’ is used to formulate research questions and develop action plans. The concept first appeared in the 1990s and is explained by Buser and Schneider (2021). This has developed into a core underpinning of transdisciplinary research:

  1. 1.Systems knowledge, which is usually defined as knowledge about the current system or problem situation. It is propositional – analytical and descriptive – but also includes experiential and practical knowledge from our history.
  2. 2.Target knowledge, which is knowledge about the desired future and the values that determine the directions for action; this is now more presentational knowledge gained through describing possibilities and preferences – it talks about us, researchers, as well, in reflection.
  3. 3.Transformational knowledge, which is the process of change from the current to the desired situation. This is knowledge gained from experience and practice.

The ethics we are a concerned with are mostly in the target and transformational types of knowledge. It is about the rights and wrongs of what we are aiming to create and how we go about creating.

The three horizons model developed by Bill Sharpe (2013) delves deeper into the transformation process and can be applied to the issues we are looking at – such as societal collapse (see Figure 13.1). Where we are today is described as horizon one (H1); it is the prevalent system, sometimes called ‘business as usual’. It contains many serious problems and, as shown by exercises like the limits to growth, it is seemingly destined to fail. But it is where we live, and we need to keep it going. In contrast, horizon three (H3) is the imagined, target future – the one that we should desire, our preferred future out of many possibilities.

Horizon two (H2) is the transformation process, the disruptions that are necessary to shift systems that often have a huge momentum – business as usual is like a supertanker. H2 contains enabling mechanisms, innovations that allows H3 to emerge, these are called H2+ (plus). However, it can also contain blocking and stalling processes that try to prevent change and maintain the status quo; these are called H2− (minus) processes.

Figure 13.1:
Figure 13.1:

The three horizons model

Source: International Futures Forum (www.iffpraxis.com) and H3Uni (H3Uni.org)

The third horizon is the long-term successor to business as usual, the danger that we are considering is that H2 activities cause a collapse of H1 with no chance of reaching H3. Perhaps we should call this horizon zero (H0).

‘Three horizons’ is an extremely rich model onto which we can layer ethical thinking about research work. Working with just an H1 perspective is about how to improve systems, in the existing paradigm of continuity and gradual change ‘it is about fixing the failing system, innovating to maintain it, “keeping the lights on”’ (Sharp, 2013). Research that extrapolates from this present and points out the failings and the potential for collapse highlight the possibilities of H0 – the obvious example is carbon emissions and consequent severe climate change leading to global societal breakdown.

Researcher as expert

The naive approach to research into the complex global issues – that might lead to collapse or generate action to improve resilience – would assume that clearly presented evidence, and its projection into the future, by itself would persuade people to act and make appropriate changes to forestall events or to adapt to them. That might work if the evidence fits existing world views but for many people it does not and, even more, the changes that are suggested as necessary are certainly not desirable. The evidence is rejected, and great efforts are made to rationalise why the evidence is wrong. Logic and rationality are not the most persuasive arguments. Exhorting people to ‘listen to the science’ is often counterproductive. Logos, persuading using reasoning, is limited to a conducive audience.

Complex global issues are transdisciplinary; they manifest as emergent problems created by the interconnection of many factors. It is impossible to simplify and present an argument like ‘this cause produced that effect’. Reducing complexity in this way does a disservice – it denies the complexity and is open to shifting simplifications as fashions change. People feel unsure what ‘science’ really means, especially as science is built on a framework of contingent knowledge, it proclaims uncertainty and openness to refutation. Yet we all seek certainty and believe what science says and then lose faith when the ground shifts and something different is announced.

Pushing this ‘listen to the science’ message is not only counterproductive; it also opens the door to what is called ‘SONKing’ (the scientification of non-knowledge), where a simple claim about some complicated policy issues or moral question is made to appear scientific just to borrow the gravitas to make a point.

Science describes what the situation is and what might happen … but it still does not tell us what we should do. It is our values and what we care about that tell us what we should do. Ethos, persuading using ethics, is limited to those who care about values, especially honesty, truth and integrity. Science cannot be untangled from culture and politics, and it is directed towards benefit to society. It is not disinterested; it does not sit apart from the world. It comes as a surprise to some people when they discover that scientists are not detached but hoping to improve the world with their work.

Society does not benefit when people with questions about science get shut down too quickly. People have genuine concerns, and the most important thing is to hear them out. Scepticism over science increases whenever people feel they have been shut down when they tried to express a concern or have their say. Listening and finding common ground is a way to reduce polarisation of opinions. Pathos, persuading using emotion, is limited to those who have an emotional response – those with passion are more likely to understand if they are listened to and they see passion in science.

Research ethics

The UK’s Economic and Social Research Council describes research ethics as: ‘the moral principles and actions guiding and shaping research from its inception through to completion, the dissemination of findings and the archiving, future use, sharing and linking of data’.7

There is a long history of thought about ethics in research work of all kinds. The naive view of research as an activity conducted by men (sic) in white coats in a laboratory with test tubes and Bunsen burners barely suggests that we should ask what are they doing, why are they doing it, who is affected, is it good, fair, transparent? Yet these questions come into sharp focus when research is about people, nature and the environment – that is, when it is about us.

In the social sciences, ethics in research originated in ‘protect the person’ issues in medical practice but expanded to the benefits, risks and harms to all stakeholders affected by research and then to the social and environmental responsibilities of researchers. One approach to ethical thinking about conducting research on these issues is to consider seven categories:

1. Respect for persons – protecting those with diminished autonomy

  1. 2.Informed consent – openness
  2. 3.Confidentiality and data protection – personal security
  3. 4.Conflict of interest – no exploitation
  4. 5.Justice – fair and unbiased behaviour
  5. 6.Integrity and trust – a sense of reliability
  6. 7.Beneficence and non-maleficence – providing benefit

The first four of these are inner principles and are about how to research with people who are involved or directly affected by research activity. There is pressure to expand those affected beyond people to include non-human actors, animals obviously but also parts of nature such as river catchments, forests, marine reserves and more – to treat these as ‘persons’ with rights both moral and legal (de Toledo, 2020). The attempt to create a crime of ecocide is active and growing.8

The three last categories on the list are about doing good or at least not doing harm. These are outer principles directed at people generally and towards non-human actors and nature. This is where the distinction between ethics and morality gets blurred.

This virtue ethics approach, of not doing harm as a character trait, regardless of whether you might harm humans, animals or the environment, is encouraged by the concepts of justice and integrity and of course on adhering to the first four principles of correct professional behaviour.

The seventh principle is what is called the intersubjective community assessment of what is good, right or just for all. This morality principle covers societal norms about right and wrong. Applied to research this directs us to consider the outcomes and the consequences of our activity: the use of the knowledge created. Future studies add in the complications that so much is uncertain – there are multiple pathways forward all with different consequences.

Setting the research agenda

Research is not context free. It feeds into ideologies, and ideologies feed the agenda of those with power (money), and then research feeds off those with money. It is a self-reinforcing loop, that generates confirmation bias and the echo chambers of research. Where in this loop does responsibility lie? Where does ethics play a role?

The common perception of research is that:

  • researchers are morally responsible for the consequences of the application of the knowledge or inventions that they produce; and

  • researchers, individually and collectively, have a greater responsibility than other people for the use of knowledge – because they should have a better understanding of possible consequences.

But these responsibilities cannot all be laid at the doorstep of the researcher – they may not be able to appreciate what the consequences might be. In some areas this is clearly the case: dealing with complex environments, for example, is beyond anyone’s ability to see the whole and, indeed, complexity implies the emergence of phenomena that no one could ever foresee. Researchers cannot predict exactly how their work may be abused or misused both in the near term and the distant future. This is especially true if the abuse arises from the combination of knowledge that produces something unimaginable when the research was started. For instance, laser and drone technologies both have benign uses, but put them together and frightening weapons emerge.

Another issue is that research is fragmented, and responsibilities are spread across partners and even countries – no one can control the application of research output. Everyone is nominally responsible, but no one person can be held responsible. The responsibility is institutionalised.

There is also a gradation of responsibility in research from those areas that are removed from day-to-day concerns – for example, fundamental physics – to those where the nature of the research is directly about constructing our world and the objectives are well known. These are mission-oriented areas like environment sciences, pharmaceuticals or defence. The application of the knowledge is understood and is thought through in advance – responsibility is surfaced.

The clients of research cannot avoid responsibility – whether that is in the private sector or government, by commissioning research and providing the facilities to conduct it there is complicity and researchers are obliged to follow and possibly subjugate any ethical concerns for fear of being dismissed or ostracised.

Types of ethics

When we refer to ‘benefits, risks and harms’ it suggests a ‘consequentialist’ form of moral reasoning where the consequences of research define ethical practice. For future studies this is doubly problematic. First, we cannot know exactly what the consequences might be in the present conditions. This is the predicament of all science and research, but we can explore the possibilities with the knowledge of our current systems. Second, for the future, the systems we are considering have not yet emerged within the complex interactions that will happen to create this future.

What other ethics can we apply to this concept of research feeding future studies? We have already discussed ‘virtue ethics’ as the original form for research with the perspective of concern with all aspects of a researcher’s professional behaviour, emphasising a need for rigour in ethics reasoning about the circumstances and phases of the research work as it interacts with an external world. Virtue ethics is about character and reputation, which are vital for researchers to maintain.

We have also touched upon deontological ethics – doing what is right no matter the consequences. These approaches suggest that guided and rule-governed research practice can serve to fulfil moral obligations. In this framing, research that affects future studies can be considered right even if the imagined consequences are bad, as long we follow rules or moral law based on our values and principles – integrity, truth, justice.

Research that feeds future thinking can have both intrinsic value and extrinsic consequences, suggesting a combination of deontological and consequential ethics. The first may lead to great improvements that could go so far as mitigating the collapse of society, so preventing harm to future generations. The second would expose the potential harm to people’s psychology both for the individual and for mass effects, creating group hysteria or activist movements like XR and so on. The consequences might be a mind shift to modes of fatalism and defeatism.

Is there a dilemma – which ethical frame do we use?

To resolve this perhaps we can follow Habermas and the concepts of discourse ethics. In this the issues and interests are discussed (freely, without any coercion) so that understanding is widespread and out of this emerges an agreement. There is a strong movement towards large group processes to determine courses of action such as citizen assemblies – randomly chosen people are presented with the issue and after rounds of discussion they produce recommendations. This is a democratic ethic; is it possible that future studies could operate in this environment of scrutiny?

Perhaps the concept of pragmatic ethics is a development of this in that moral direction and decisions – on what future studies should do – evolves like scientific knowledge: it is a social activity over the course of generations. In the same way that science proceeds through hypothesis and conjectures that are challenged and refuted only to be replace by new theories or paradigms, our ethical position on future studies could shift and change as future generations refine the ideas and replace them because of enquiry and discourse.

Another stream of ethical thinking, which is apparent in movements like Deep Adaptation Forum, is that of care ethics. As a branch of feminist thought, moral values emerge that stress empathy and compassion. An increasing theme in future studies is the need to cope with grief as we recognise the destruction of the natural world. The loss of biodiversity is a one-way street.

Future studies require a plurality of ethical thinking, there is no one way to determine what is right to research. There are many dangers as we see from considering the ideology of violation, the more we can freely talk about the issues the greater the chance that we decide how to proceed with research – this is a form of intuitive ethics, we just get better at knowing what is good or bad.

Modern man … talks of a battle with nature, forgetting that, if he won the battle, he would find himself on the losing side.

E.F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered (1973)

In the same way that we are toying with endowing nature with legal rights, and the ideas of earth jurisprudence develops our understanding of the relevance of governance beyond humanity to the whole earth community, perhaps we can apply contractarian ethics? Is it time to produce a social contract (or should we say a peace treaty) where instead of the state we work with the higher authority of the whole earth? The Earth Charter movement attempts this: ‘The EC is an ethical foundation for actions to build a more just, sustainable, and peaceful global society in the 21st century. It articulates a mindset of global interdependence and shared responsibility. It offers a vision of hope and a call to action’.9

Ethics in reporting on research

‘The British nation is unique in this respect: they are the only people who like to be told how bad things are, who like to be told the worst.’

Winston S. Churchill10

A discussion of ethics, research and futures studies cannot ignore the way that we communicate and the many different forms that takes. The media mediates between the expert and public. The dissemination of research takes a variety of forms. Professional reporting goes through the formal mechanism of peer review and publication in distinguished journals that is designed to maintain standards of procedure and practice. The Popperian concept of conjectures and refutations explains how knowledge grows through an unending process of trial and error. Virtue ethics is concerned with this rigour over the behaviour of the researcher. The consequences of the content of the research are included only in the way that projections are communicated – if this (our research) is true then that (the outcome) is likely. The outcome in question is seldom expanded to embrace the full consequences for society; these are left as implied or not relevant to the question in hand.

More populist reporting lies in the sensational articles in the press and, more likely, in social media feeds. Their focus is often on the dire consequences and the extrapolation of dangers and potential catastrophes although they are keen to broadcast any sensational breakthroughs and major advances. However, generating fear is good for business. This feeds into the discourse on a collapsing society, the deterioration of circumstances today as compared to yesteryear. ‘Headlines, in a way, are what mislead you because bad news is a headline, and gradual improvement is not’ (Bill Gates, quoted in Green, 2014: 32). Where we see a connection between research and future studies is in the way that research is reported in the media. The story of climate change has unfolded over the last few decades as research evidence accumulates to lend weight to the arguments that human activity is causing a dangerous increase in the greenhouse gas effect through emissions into the atmosphere of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, water vapour, chlorofluorocarbons and ozone. The imagined consequences are volatile weather, ocean acidification, the destruction of ecosystems, sea level rise, melting glaciers and so on. All bad news that sells papers. The drip feed of imagined bad futures produces a constant state of anxiety about any future and a state of low-key existential crisis and depression. And the consequences of that are then expressed as more bad news – surveys on expectations for your children’s future, generated by our bad news, becomes more bad news for us to report.

There are, of course, many channels of communication and there are serious attempts to create ones that explain research to the public in a balanced, professional and ethical way. Consider The Conversation, which is an independent source of news, analysis and expert opinion, written by academics and researchers, and delivered directly to the public. They have published an editorial charter, which includes these statements that are relevant to our discussion:

  • Inform public debate with knowledge-based journalism that is responsible, ethical and supported by evidence.

  • Unlock the knowledge of researchers and academics to provide the public with clarity and insight into society’s biggest problems.

  • Provide a fact-based and editorially independent forum, free of commercial or political bias.

  • Ensure quality, diverse and intelligible content reaches the widest possible audience by employing experienced editors to curate the site.

  • Set the standard in journalism best practice. Be open, transparent and accountable. Where errors occur correct them expeditiously.

  • Work with our academic, business and government partners and our advisory board to ensure we are operating for the public good.11

These are all laudable aims (and they publish further important aims not shown here12); however, there is no definition of what the public good might be.

‘The medium is the message’ – what would Marshall McLuhan have made of social media? For McLuhan, it was the medium that controlled ‘the scale and form of human association and action’ (McLuhan, [1964] 2001: 7, 9). Could he have foreseen how vast and powerful that medium has become?


In thousands of years’ time, if an alien people ask, ‘how did the first, truly global, human civilisation collapse?’, will the answer be because they talked themselves into it, because they researched their way into it, because they could not imagine an alternative to collapse?

Researchers and policymakers must reflect carefully on such large questions, and consider the many ethical issues that can arise during research that investigates them. In summary the ethical concerns that we have covered are:

  • working with people on existential questions might trigger depression and suicide;

  • the magnitude of the problems and the lack of political effort to address them may lead some towards political violence;

  • studying the future affords power and control, or influence over others;

  • whose perspectives and preferrable futures dominate – who gets marginalised?

  • self-fulfilling prophesies – our foresight generates the future;

  • we are damned if we do and damned if we do not;

  • should we research into how vulnerable our systems are, or should we stay away?

  • should we conspire to affect the future?

  • being prepared is an ethical response to the stories of the future;

  • should ethical concerns drive research;

  • stirring up fears produces a reaction to deny they exist, which entrenches the behaviours that cause the fear. The reaction is stronger than the action;

  • what ethic framing should we adopt for future studies? and

  • how should we communicate ideas about the future?

There are many more deep imponderables about how we conduct future studies with the aim of building resilient communities and civilisation. Researchers and policymakers have an ethical responsibility to grapple with these challenging issues. If we believe that societal collapse is inevitable, what are the consequences for future studies, what duty do we have as researchers and to whom do we owe that duty – do we abandon future generations and focus on those alive or about to be born today? Does this line of thinking generate a new form of doomsayer that channels our compassion and humanity towards coping with the end – death counselling applied to society?

If instead we only believe societal collapse is possible but not inevitable then what are our duties and does preventing collapse take ethical priority over other concerns because the consequences are so great? If extinction is on the horizon, should we not rebel to chase it away? And research activity that is happening in thousands of institutions across the world carries on in its own compartments, feeding new knowledge and new hypotheses to those who are imaging the future – and feeding the ever-hungry media that demands sensation – true or not, it matters little.

Perhaps the role for research is to promote an ‘ideology of concern’, an ethic of care and respect that cherishes humanity as part of nature; one that is based on global optimism that a societal collapse will not happen because we are dedicated to finding ways to prevent it.



The article was moved from Medium by the author; since January 2022 it has been hosted on Eudaimonia and Co, and its new details are given in the reference.


See portal.unesco.org/en/ev.php-URL_ID=13178&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html


From a speech in the House of Commons, 10 June 1941.


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