Imaging a Fossil Free Future-Visioning Workshops For a Brave and a New World

July, 2013

Guest Column

Mary Lee Morison - July 2013

Mary Lee Morrison PhD is an educator and author and past president and founder of Pax Educare, Inc., the CT Center for Peace Education.  Recent publications include Peace Education (3rd edition) with Ian Harris, McFarland and Co., 2013. She is the author of Elise Boulding: a Life in the Cause of Peace, McFarland  and Co.,  2005.

Several years ago I became intrigued with the idea of adapting the workshops, "Imaging a World Without Weapons", which had been developed by the futurists Elise Boulding and Warren Ziegler in the 1980s, to the deep challenges we now face with climate change, systemic economic dysfunction and increased environmental devastation. I began doing workshops on these topics in this format, and created both a facilitator and participant handbook for the process. 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, and one which has responded to climate change and moved beyond economic growth. With the sometimes indomitable human spirit of creativity and adaptability, I believe it is possible that we as humans can, indeed, become such co-creators. This is the purpose of these workshops.

Boulding and Ziegler based their workshops on the previous work of Dutch futurist Fred Polak, whose thesis was that societies that have historically maintained themselves and thrived have done so by developing positive visions of their future. Those without such visions have perished. In short, we cannot work for a world we cannot envision.

The process of futures-inventions in workshops involves four modes of interaction among participants in workshops.  First there 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 nonlinear/nonverbal, 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 metaphorically call “the ride of and for our lives”.

The following is a summation of the format of the workshops that I have developed, using as the primary sources the notes left me by Elise Boulding, together with her copy of  the Ziegler handbook that she gave to me (A Mindbook of Exercises for Futures Invention, 1982).Workshops can vary in length. Ideally they are held over a weekend, giving ample time for individual and group work and to experience actually being in the future. One of the challenges that workshop facilitators face in settings where we are inventing our future is the necessity of suspending our sense of being in the present and to actually experience being in a future time, usually this is presented as a time 30-50 years forward. A longer workshop can make this process much easier, negating the tendency for disbelief or cynicism. The core of the work are the exercises, affording the opportunity to release the imaginative powers and to focus intentions on a good and hopeful future. Equally important is to figure out how to bring this about and to choose action strategies to make it happen.

After an initial period of introduction, participants are asked to "flex their imaging muscles" by remembering a positive, personal memory from their past. One they enjoy reliving. Focus is on details such as sights, sounds, smells. These are then shared.

Participants then choose 3 or 4 hopes they have for the world 30 years into the future. These hopes are shared in smaller groups and, if time, in the large group.

Participants are then invited to "step into the future world of 2043". based on the general idea (stated positively) that the world has responded to climate change, we are carbon free, we have moved beyond the idea of perpetual economic growth, we have adapted creatively and purposefully to the needs of our environment. The idea is to keep this simple theme in mind throughout the workshop. Ziegler calls this "the great adventure of the human spirit" (1982). The year 2043 is chosen as it is far enough into the future that substantial changes have taken place, yet many of the participants may still be alive to see the changes. There are various ways to "get into the future". Boulding used the idea of individuals stepping through an opening in a thick hedge...the other side of which is the year 2043. The hedge then closes and there is no going back. The future is now a blank slate, we leave behind all of our worries, fears and needs and wants that we had in the year 2013.

Now finding ourselves in the year 2043, workshop participants are asked to first look around and observe what we see. Asking questions of those whom we meet is important. What is the world like? The focus is on details. Categories of understanding might include: education, laws, government, family life, food, leisure, communities, buildings, work and volunteerism, human relationships, relationship to other living beings, spirituality. Questions of practicality are, at this point, irrelevant. Participants are then asked to draw pictorially what they see, and then share with others in a small group. Any reference to the year 2013 is used in the past tense. Sharing takes the form of storytelling. Questions are fielded in small groups, asking for clarification of images.

The next step is for analyzing the images in the small groups. Questions go deeper, in an affirmative mode. For example, what is good about these images-how do they portray a desirable state of affairs? Gently probe things such as whether any new problems might be produced as a result of scenarios imaged. How would people be impacted? Gently probe for plausibility, maintaining affirmation and the present in the year 2043.

After such a period of discerning and analyzing, each group pictorially diagrams their worldview. Themes are identified, focusing also on details that back up each theme. Each group shares their world construction. Common themes across groups are identified and, if time, participants can form into groups around each theme for further discussion.

The next step is to figure out how we got to this world. Participants remember specific milestones in years that led to the present, starting with the present and moving back to the year 2013. A timeline can be used, or pictures or stories.
The final stage of the workshop is to plan action steps. First individually and then in groups, participants are asked to consider what each of them will do in the coming week, month, year to bring about the world each has "remembered". Action settings can be identified such as family, neighborhood, work, organizations. Based on a model used by the National Peace Academy participants are asked to identify key players in each of these settings with whom they feel they will need to develop right relationships, this term coming from the wording in the Earth Charter. Goals and objectives are determined and a plan is developed, recognizing also the challenges that will need to be faced in meeting the goals.

The workshop is closed with the sharing of these action plans and a wrap up closing activity, chosen by the facilitator. Resources may also be shared.

“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)

For an article on futures imaging by Maire  A. Dugan of  the Beyond Intractability Project of the Conflict Information Consortium at the University of Colorado visit

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

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

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

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