How to use mental time travel and forethought to navigate our climate futures

How to use mental time travel and forethought to navigate our climate futures

Close up side view of person wearing black shoes and blue jeans standing on a street with arrow signs pointing in different directions

We live in a time and place where we need to decide to change our behaviors, as they relate to climate change and sustainability, faster than ever before. Fortunately, humans possess a powerful evolutionary asset: the ability to engage in mental time travel (PDF).

We can travel to the past via memory and to the future via forethought. Forethought especially offers a tremendous advantage and is one of the strongest tools we have to save ourselves and the planet. That is, if we learn how to capitalize on it more fully.

Forethought harbors untapped potential to help individuals, leaders and organizations make course corrections to forge the best possible futures for themselves and perhaps our planet. But typically, we choose the status quo and maintain our current paths instead of attempting to change significantly. And when future considerations do override present ones, they rarely extend beyond tomorrow’s to-do list, next week’s big event or quarterly performance pressures.

Looking further ahead can be interesting, but it is fraught with uncertainties that push our thoughts and conversations back to the more manageable near-term — and relatively inconsequential — decisions. 

We rarely think about proactively creating futures rather than trying to simply predict and muddle through. Navigating the future via mental time travel requires both future-mindedness and change-focused, sustained-yet-flexible action. Elaborating on what I wrote recently future-mindedness in, here are some essential principles, mindsets and tactics for using forethought as a tool to propel successful sustainability and climate action.

Prospecting is more potent that predicting and planning

Mental time travel helps make predictions, but predictions are usually wrong. Prospecting is far more useful. The goal of prospection is to prepare for possible future circumstances that might demand different responses or actions. It is the key to adapting forward — proactively and continuously changing instead of merely reacting. 

Most planning is designed to bring about one outcome rather than account for alternative possible futures. A better approach is to create two plans: an action plan and a coping plan. 

The action plan helps you get started and identifies the steps expected to achieve your chosen objective. The coping plan, perhaps better called an adaptation plan, envisions what can go wrong and how to change when they do. It includes the processes used to deal with new uncertainties rather than a simple fallback plan. People rarely develop coping plans but they can help attain later success.  

Futures haven’t happened yet, and continuous proaction helps create them

While present circumstances might feel constraining and problems might seem intractable, our climate future remains to be determined. Effective proaction — especially in the case of sustainability via multi-organizational, cross-sector collaborations — can restore some control by applying the best strategic thinking, collective action and sustained effort.

These processes help to chart new paths and change our behaviors, which are essential to adapting to ever-changing circumstances. We are not squeezed into a single future, preordained by past decisions and current trajectories, but can keep course-correcting away from futures we need to avoid and toward more preferable ones.  

For individuals, leaders and societies, such future-focused adaptation is what it means to be truly proactive. The sooner we employ future mindfulness and corresponding actions, the higher the leverage and the more significant the ultimate impact.  

Navigating the future requires a 'matrix of maybe' with multiple scenarios

In addition to straight-ahead planning, we can construct alternative possibilities. Building this matrix of maybe can prompt us to stay tuned to unfolding events, thoughtfully consider new developments and keep generating further options for environmental action and other course corrections. 

Any manager, team or organization can generate their own matrix of maybes, and perhaps do it formally via scenario building. This process requires costly resources such as time, effort and money so most don’t go the formal practice route. Instead of building scenarios themselves, they borrow from the scenarios that others built and then identify their strategic and operational strengths and weaknesses for going forward.

For example, in late 2018, BSR (formerly Business for Social Responsibility) released a report identifying four diverse scenarios for 2030. I’ll summarize just two here. The "Tale of Two Systems" scenario has China offering a vision of "prosperity, order, and sustainability" and emerging economies joining its orbit. For free market capitalism to survive, Western governments and business leaders must radically reform the social contract. 

In contrast to that polarized competition, another scenario, "Tribalism, Inc." shows severe social, economic and cultural fragmentation. People view big business as political, and new "tribes" appear with different experiences and beliefs. This makes collective action even more difficult than it is now, and some tribes attempt radical approaches to global challenges, including climate change.

Many other details — and other scenarios — aside, the main big-picture point is that each scenario is different from the others and from the present.

Unique company visions are useful, but so is a common vision for navigating climate change

As futures unfold in ways that stray from present conditions, maintaining current strategic and operational paths is a recipe for extinction. Proceeding without adapting rapidly is not an option.

The BSR report highlighted commonalities across all scenarios that require urgent and sustained attention plus fast-moving adaptations. Several strategic imperatives provide value across all BSR scenarios. The longer list includes points that can serve as a vision for everyone:  

1. Climate resilience plays a key role in the new business agenda.

2. Sustainability professionals drive broad organizational change within their companies.

3. Companies engage more deeply in external collaborations. Governments will struggle to develop coherent solutions to global challenges, so other sectors must play bigger roles.

4. Companies define and demonstrate a purpose that others view as socially useful in addition to being profitable. Those that don’t, the report states clearly, will not be competitive.

5. Companies develop aggressive, proactive approaches to advocating for and deploying clean-energy technologies, and start innovative collaborations with other actors to share risks and costs.

The BSR report also offers finer-grained analyses and recommendations. Using the imperatives above as a foundation, companies can customize their strategies and operations, starting with provocative questions that demand deep discussions.  

Deliberate, thorough forethought — albeit still replete with uncertainties — can unearth a rich lode of stimulating questions and discussions. Here are a few:

1. Fundamentally, you’ll still be dealing constantly with conflicting demands of short-term bottom lines vs. longer-term sustainability. Moving forward by bringing your A games to the dialogue, how can you, your employer and your profession become most ambidextrous toward accomplishing both sets of goals?

2. Jacob Park, a coauthor of the BSR report, suggests considering: How can you create strategies most resilient to multiple scenarios? What hedging strategies can help mitigate your biggest risks? And what actions would work well in all scenarios?

3. Along with strategic and operational actions, what cultures and processes can we create that will aid and abet good decision-making and continuous adaptation?

Like prospection and the matrix of maybe, scenarios help us understand uncertainties and identify robust strategies. Effective climate action and sustainability require forethought, discussions characterized by provocative Q&A, and adapting and sustaining over time. Consider building team and organizational cultures around conversations that stress future-focused key terms including mental time travel, future mindedness (or future mindfulness), matrix of maybe, climate scenarios and proaction.