Paxeducare’s Blog

Futures-Invention: Imaging a Fossil Free World
March 12, 2012, 7:59 pm
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“I hold to the notion that the future is nothing more and nothing less than a grand act of the human imagination”. Warren Zeigler, A Mindbook of Exercises for Futures-Invention, 1982

”The rise and fall of images of the future precedes or accompanies the rise and fall of cultures. As long as a society’s image is positive and flourishing, the flower of culture is in full bloom. Once the image begins to decay and lose its vitality, however, the culture does not long survive” (Fred Polak, Dutch futurist, translated by E. Boulding, 1973).

We all image. Deep within us we carry impressions, fragments, pictures, sights, sounds, smells, feelings and beliefs. Sometimes these represent real or imagined events from our past. Sometimes they might represent our hopes and dreams for the future. Sometimes these images come to us in dreams while we sleep. Sometimes in daydreams. Sometimes these images are scary. Sometimes not.

Our conscious or unconscious images of the future have direct relationship to our actions in the present, according to the late sociologist and futurist Elise Boulding. Positive images of the future are related to positive actions in the present. Boulding and other social scientists, including her husband Kenneth Boulding,  Johan Galtung, Eleonara Masini and others, helped to found the modern academic study of futures, a field of inquiry not confined to science, art, history, economics or political science, but rather a melding of many disciplines with a multitude of methodologies involved.

Historically there has been tension between those who attempt to predict the future based on models of the past, a more quantitative approach, and those who see the future as, essentially, unpredictable and therefore make the claim that the best way to predict it is to “create it”. Both approaches agree that the use of analysis, in addition to other methodologies, is key. In some sense, our modern approach to futures inventions combines the best of both of these approaches.

Our modern study of the future also owes its history to the publication of The Limits to Growth by the late Donella Meadows and others in 1972 following the widespread study and sharing in the 1960s among social scientists who were deeply concerned for the future of the earth. This landmark publication represented an attempt to integrate the global issues we faced then (and, of course, still do) of rapid population expansion, limits to economic growth, environmental devastation and resource overuse. Kenneth Boulding wrote his landmark essay in 1965 “Spaceship Earth”, in which he asked readers to imagine our planet as a small spaceship in the stratosphere with a limited carrying capacity for continued production, consumption and waste. The World Futures Society was founded in 1967, heralding some “legitimacy” to the field as it became more established, both in academic circles and also among laypeople.

If we fast forward to 2012, we now can say that our planet is in peril, that many of the predictions of the 1972 study have come true, and more. The next forty to fifty years could well spell disaster for human and others “specieskind”, our atmosphere and physical earth…or not. How we as a species adapt, in addition to whatever mitigation scientists can continue to come up with, specifically how we engage with the physical world, with one another, and how we behave, our beliefs and the carrying out of our values, all seem crucial to the survival of future generations. Intentional imaging of a positive future for our world, Futures-Invention, a term coined by Warren Zeigler, seems an imperative. Not only because, as we now understand, such images will impact how we behave now, but also because it is too easy to become full of despair as we confront the possibilities of what may be in store.

If we believe that we are the co-creators of the world we wish, then it would seem we need to do everything we can to insure our world is one in which energy consumption is greatly reduced, our reliance on fossil fuels is markedly decreased, we have responded to climate change and have moved beyond economic growth. And, while we adapt, we need to have fun! This is the heralded message of the Transition Movement, now global, in which we build resilience while building commun

Elise Boulding first became interested in the studies of futures in 1955 when she translated the work of the Dutch futurist, Fred Polak, learning Dutch as she did this. In the 1980s Boulding began adapting the work of Warren Zeigler to a weekend workshop format, at that time coining the name “Imaging a World Without Weapons” for her workshops. This was in the era of engaged activism around the concern for the proliferation of nuclear arms. Previously Zeigler had produced workshops on Futures-Invention and Imaging in myriad formats including the following themes: Education and Training in Human Services, the Future of Criminal Justice, the Future of Health Care and Its Delivery and the Future of Citizenship. I am deeply grateful that I was able to take a weekend training workshop on Imaging with Elise Boulding some years ago, building on other collaborative work we undertook for a period of about fifteen years. I am very happy now to be able to adapt this work to the very pressing problematique before us of the future of our planet. Together with Tony Jenkins, we will be bringing this format to the National Peace Academy and its Certificate Program in April 2012 in New York City.

The process of futures-inventions involves four modes of interaction among participants in workshops.  First is an internal dialogue, then a sharing of these reflections as a community of learners develops. Common themes emerge and groups are formed with similar visions and inventions and intentions. Finally plenary sharing occurs. In addition, there is a back and forth of reflection and analysis, including more free form and non linear/non verbal, discovery modes of learning among participants, coupled with a well thought out and planned agenda. This gently guides participants into the future and, finally, works backwards toward the present toward action building. The process is not only challenging at times, but fun, building a safe space where participants can give their fantasy life what we might call “the ride of and for our lives”.


“Preferred futuring initiates a large paradigm shift, taking us from being powerless victims to being empowered and connected to our deep passions and motivated to work together to create a future we want. It means we are responsible and cannot blame others.”  (Lawrence Lippitt, 1998)

A good link with an article on futures imaging from the Beyond Intractability Project of the Conflict Information Consortium at the University of Colorado is an article by Maire A. Dugan at

Further Reading

Boulding, Elise. Building a Global Civic Culture: Education for an Interdependent World, New York: Teachers College,1988.

Boulding, Kenneth. “Earth as a Spaceship”. In Seeds of Violence, Seeds of Hope, Friends Testimonies and Economics Project. Found at

Boulding, Elise and Boulding, Kenneth. The Future: Images and Processes, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1994

Masani, Eleonora. Why Futures Studies? London: Grey Seal Books, 1993

Zeigler, Warren. A Mindbook of Exercises for Futures Invention, Denver, CO: Futures-Inventions Associates, 1982