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SUSTAIN 131: Imagining Adaptive Societies

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As we emerge from the first pandemic of the Anthropocene—with its attendant social and economic challenges in a world characterized by extreme economic inequality, the existential threat of climate change, increasing mistrust in fundamental social and political institutions, and the growing threat of authoritarianism—it is time for us to re-imagine how best to organize our communities, our institutions, and our societies. The social structures that support late capitalism are not well adapted for the challenges that the twenty-first century holds for human existence. Yet, despite the clear shortcomings, our society remains stuck in a rut of inaction. During periods of rapid social and economic change, segments of society become gripped by a form of presentism that makes them believe there are no alternatives, and others develop a nostalgia for an idealized past that never really existed. Such presentism and nostalgia act as powerful forces that hold back innovation and contribute to a failure of imagination. How, then, might we imagine alternative social arrangements that could allow us to thrive sustainably in an environment of greater equity? The Pakistani writer Moshin Hamid reminds us that literature allows us to break from violent nostalgia while imagining better worlds, and the American writer Ursula K. Le Guin notes that “imaginative fiction trains people to be aware that there are other ways to do things, other ways to be; that there is not just one civilization, and it is good, and it is the way we have to be.” There are—there have to be—other and better ways to be.

In this course—jointly taught by three Stanford professors from Earth System Science, Political Science, and English and the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity—we turn to speculative fiction as a way of imagining adaptable societies that can respond to the major challenges of our age. We demonstrate that speculative fiction provides a remarkable set of tools for exploring complex systems. The atmosphere, ecosystems, human social systems and our livelihoods: these are all complex, coupled systems. Tweak something in one of those systems and there will be cascading, often surprising, consequences. The world-building of novel-length treatments of the implications of climate change, for example, provide the space to explore what these consequences might be for our planet, for social, political, and economic structures, and for the lived experience of different people. Such a modeling framework is just as powerful as–and powerfully complementary to–the mathematical models that we tend to associate with the field of complexity studies.