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Sustainability and Scenario building - The need to strengthen a culture of long-term thinking

The transition towards sustainability is – in its different dimensions – a key challenge faced by humankind today. And yet, although there is a largely shared consensus as regards the need to take up this challenge, the gap between intentions and actions has never been more startling. A major hurdle still on the path is that sustainability does not – or at least does not yet – hold sufficient appeal. In people’s minds it usually tends to be connected with ideas of waiving or prohibiting, with fears of higher costs, job losses or a potential reduction of personal freedom. One reason for this ‘image problem’ from which sustainability suffers is that we lack stories and pictures about the future. The new is hard to imagine and this reduces its attractiveness. There is a general preference for sticking with what is familiar because it has been handed down from the past.

Scenario-building can be a great help in this respect. Scenarios are stories about possible long-term futures. Contrary to prognoses, they do not seek to predict the future but to create a frame of reference within which several possible futures can be debated. Scenarios provide us with ‘memories of the future’ helping us to take the ‘right’ decisions today. Since 2008, the ETUI has been exploring working with scenarios in its project Worker Participation 2030. One aim is to exchange views on the long-term prospects and changing contexts of worker participation in its various forms in Europe. In what sort of circumstances will trade unions and works councils have to act in 2030? What will their world look like? In order to address such questions, a set of four alternative scenarios was developed. A key determining factor present in all scenarios is the road towards sustainability. Each of the four scenarios tells a different story in this respect. In the scenario entitled Life goes on the basic attitude can be described as “Tomorrow, I will change!” (today I am unfortunately too busy with other more urgent stuff). In the scenario we have called The GRID, today’s multiple crises and the day-to-day experiences of mutual (inter)dependency ultimately pave the way for increased cooperation on the most urgent global issues, and a new balance between economy, ecology and the social realm is found to ensure sustainability: we change before we have to. The third scenario – Al(l)one – tells yet another story with regard to sustainability: the situation of permanent crisis serves as a catalyst for personal change. Trust in the old institutions’ ability to find solutions to the big challenges has hit bottom. People instead start exploring and experimenting in their own surroundings to achieve a lifestyle which is sustainable for them. “I change because I have to” is a common mindset in this world. Finally, the scenario entitled The lost cake tells a sad story of what happens if we come to the sorry realisation that we did too little too late. That the world could be saved in 50 easy steps turned out, unfortunately, to be an illusion.

These diverging general frameworks have, of course, a significant impact for trade unions and works councils: What would the different scenarios mean for our organization? How would we react to changed surroundings? What could we do in such a world?

Scenarios are not there to tell people what they should or should not do. But they can be helpful in prompting you to ask yourself important questions and exchange your views with others. In its Anticipation Workshops the ETUI brings together people from different backgrounds and countries. Based on the global scenarios devised under the Worker Participation 2030 project, group members together explore the four worlds, adapt them to their own contexts and exchange ideas about impacts and possible actions for today. Scenarios make it clear that you do have choices, which is empowering in a world where bad news often seems to be the norm – in addition to which it is often the case that encouraging developments, projects and initiatives are small in scope and fall below the threshold for media attention.

Scenarios provide you with possibilities and ultimately with power. First, even in the worst-case scenario you have choices and you can make a difference. Secondly, the future is not yet written and will be shaped by our decisions and actions today. Scenarios can motivate us to be creative and active, rather than feeling victimized. In order to solve the great challenges that lie ahead, we will probably have to move further beyond the bounds of our traditional ‘group think’, allow ourselves (and take the time) to think ‘outside the box’ and exchange ideas with people to whom we usually barely speak, let alone work together. Here too, the work with scenarios may well be helpful, as its purpose is not to defend standpoints but rather to allow an intense and mind-stretching exchange and to support us in understanding one other better.

The positive feedback from our workshops encourages us to continue our work with scenarios. We need to strengthen our capacities for long-term thinking and dealing in a productive way with the uncertainties that lie ahead.

(published as editorial in Just Transition Newsletter)

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