You are one of a group of thinkers who call the present-day post-normal times. What would be the definition of that?
Those of us who talk about post-normality are futurology researchers who see the results of our work failing more and more often and are therefore dissatisfied. The data are failing, the method needs adjusting... and so we are starting to think that reality is no longer what we have been taught to observe. In 2010, Ziauddin Sardar published the article Welcome to Postnormal Times, and since then the idea has spread that we are in a kind of interregnum: the old world is faltering, and the new one is not yet established. Sudden things happen in these times of transition. We speak of the VUCA environment (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity); Zygmunt Bauman describes liquid times (times of change towards models that cease to be solid and become voluble); in the documentary Hypernormalisation, Alan Curtis talks about the deceptions of consumerism and post-truth... There is a widespread feeling that what is happening goes beyond what is normal. And this means that when trying to foresee the future we could get it very wrong.
But trying to predict what will happen in the future is precisely what this is all about. Are you saying this is a worthless task?
Not exactly, it’s more about taking into account that the forecasts may not happen. That’s why we have developed the meta-method of the three tomorrows. The first is the extended present (projections of the present situation into the future); the second is the familiar future (more sophisticated scenarios but not strange to us because we know them from science fiction); and the third tomorrow is the unexpected future (incorporating elements we would never have thought would happen). It’s not a question of time, one of these futures is not closer in time than the other. They depend solely on the current way of thinking predicting what will happen. If 10 years ago you had told a political scientist that Trump would be President of the United States, it would have been not only an unexpected future but also an unthinkable one. Therefore, our way of thinking today affects how we look at the future... We need to keep in mind that we are in a time of postnormal change. Change is accelerated in time and expansive in space (for example, in a year, Greta Thunberg has gone from being a lone protester to leading a world strike and meeting heads of state). Change is also incremental in its impact: being in an interconnected world causes seemingly simple things to have a big impact. And it’s also simultaneous: Greta’s mobilisation reads differently because we are simultaneously seeing extreme weather events. Therefore, extrapolating and assigning probabilities under these conditions is risky. It’s good to have a base, a frame of reference, to ask ourselves things. For example, why do we consider the future one way and not another?
And how should we look at the future?
We believe that three things could happen, which we symbolise with three animals. One of these animals is the elephant: forecasts fail because we let our preferences get in the way. We don’t like the future that awaits us, and we therefore don’t believe it: climate change denial is an example. The second is the black swan, an animal that no one believed existed until it was discovered and made known by scientists. This is an example of our arrogance: unexpected events take place that come out of the void of our knowledge and our failure to admit that some of our intellectual tools have become very obsolete. An example of this is dichotomy: thinking that if one thing is true then the opposite will be false will no longer make sense. Reality has become quantum, sometimes things are and are not at the same time. For example, Catalonia could be considered a postnormal country: we are a republic, a little; we are also a region, and sometimes none of this, such as when Article 155 was applied.
And the third animal...?
Jellyfish: they represent questions that we often underestimate because we consider them to be minor or controllable, but if they open up, like jellyfish, they create all sorts of problems. On its maiden voyage, the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan almost caused a nuclear incident because jellyfish blocked the reactor’s cooling system. CDRs are a good example of jellyfish, arresting them may scare some, but may also make others appear. The essence of chaos is that people tend to think of it as the antonym of order, but in reality chaos is a subtle order in itself. If we think of intersections without traffic lights, there is a chaotic system to it, but it works. And now there are people who think that chaos can be controlled, but it structures itself. The modern idea that we can create a kind of command panel to control nature, and also the future, does not work.
Then we’re back at the beginning, it wouldn’t make much sense to prepare...
Actually, we must prepare for the future more than ever. The Indian political scientist Ashis Nandy, who has studied colonialism in depth, says that the future is the only important fight left for us, the only thing worth fighting for. We need to be critical of ideas that come to us about what it will be like. It has often been said that we have less difficulty imagining the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Some concepts have been introduced to us in such a way that we accept them without criticism. And one of those concepts is capitalism, there seems to be no alternative, when there is enough evidence to see that it is more a part of the problem than the solution. Therefore, we must keep the future a space of freedom. The old way had some sort of promise of future control. We first dominated nature and the prospect helped us dominate time, but now we know that this is futile, naive and dangerous. We need to learn how to navigate postnormal times, and the most important thing when navigating is to know where you want to go. We need to know what we want to happen and react to forecasts. If scientists tell us that a cure for cancer can be discovered in 10 years, we should think about how to make it five instead of 10. Or come up with alternatives for our political systems. At this time, we are still anchored in liberal democracies, which are still an 18th-century idea from the 17th century. And if I had to treat a disease now, I’d prefer to use 21st-century rather than 17th-century medicine.
When trying to foresee the future we could get it very wrong The future is the only important fight left for us