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How Do We Think About the Future?

Cameron Gibelyou, a lecturer and staff member at the University of Michigan, discusses how we think about the future.
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<v ->I’m Cameron Gibelyou,</v> I am a lecturer here at the University of Michigan, as well as a staff member. I have a PhD in Astrophysics. I teach courses on the history and future of the universe, Earth, life, and humanity.
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And I’m the co-author along with my historian colleague, Doug Northrup, of the upcoming book, “Big Ideas: A Guide to the History of Everything.” A lot of my work engages questions of how to think about the past and the future, across different timescales and to different depths. So one question is, what lessons or principles can we derive about how to think about the future, based on how we think clearly and accurately and well about the past? One lesson that comes to mind is the idea of multiple causes. So anything that we think about as historians, or even as Earth scientists or astronomers, that happened in the past happened over a certain amount of time.
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And in almost every case happened for multiple reasons, there are multiple causes behind just about everything. So if you think about something, a historical episode, like the Industrial Revolution, say, or the founding of a country, or even the formation of a star in a given location within a galaxy. In all of these cases, you can identify multiple causes or multiple reasons that things unfolded the way that they did.
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And it’s easy to forget that, when we start predicting the future or when we start thinking about what might happen in the future, but with sustainability and the environment, or any other topic that you might wanna to talk about in connection with the future, it’s not just technology that’s going to drive everything. It’s not just politics that’s going to drive everything. It’s not just the decisions of any particular single individual, no matter matter how powerful or not powerful for that matter, they may be. Another lesson or another principle to contemplate is the idea of scale. Different kinds of phenomena unfold on different timescales.
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So in the case of probably a number of you, many of you, most of you watching this, are interested in transitioning from greenhouse gas emitting infrastructure to a carbon neutral or carbon negative infrastructure. That’s something that is very likely to unfold on timescales of years to decades. There’s a lot of cynicism that’s born out of wanting the world to change faster than it can. And it can seem, if you’re an individual who’s interested in sustainability in the environment, it can seem like a very easy thing and a very straightforward thing to sort of make your own life more sustainable on the scale of an individual life.
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But when we start talking about things that happen and things that unfold on scales much larger than that of the individual, when we talk about global mega trends, when we talk about the infrastructure of an entire country or an entire society, those are things that certainly we need to have some sense of urgency about changing and improving, and in this case, making carbon neutral, carbon negative. But it’s not something that can happen all at once next month. It’s something that requires a sense of urgency, but also a sense of patience. So, patient-urgency for these things that happen at larger scales.
Cameron Gibelyou, a lecturer and staff member in the School of Literature, Science and the Arts and the University of Michigan, discusses how we think about the future using timescales and a concept called “multi-causality.” Multi-causality is where several individual, community, and environmental factors combine to cause a particular event.
What historical/current events do you think often get attributed to a single cause that would benefit from a more nuanced and multi-causality perspective?
How does Cameron’s perspective on scale – and the various timescales for change – change the way you think about predicting the future?
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