Idea

Future Histories – TEDxSydney Salon

Museum of Futures

Hi TEDxSydney subscribers. My name is Claire Marshall and I am a futurist who focuses on how stories shape our futures. One way I do this work is by writing ‘future histories’. This might seem like a strange thing to do but it is a valuable way to build imagination infrastructure, a fancy term for helping us see different possibilities for the future. I do this through a project called Museum of Futures, that I run with futures designer Mel Rumble. It was with great delight that I was asked by TEDxSydney to write a future history inspired by the recent TEDxSydney Salon Net Positive: Visions of a Net Zero Future for Australia. I was excited to do this because it was a great event, and because secretly I have always wanted to write a TED talk. So here is my TED talk from… 2034.

 

Good evening everyone, I am so excited to be here at TEDxSydney 2034. Today I am going to talk to you about the power of stories. Stories are a bit like seeds. They can catch on the wind and spread. They can also lodge deep within us and grow, shaping our understanding of the world. An event like TEDx can be a ‘mass cross-pollination’ event. Audience members hear new stories, and some of those tiny seeds settle in their hearts and start to put down roots. 

Today I have a beautiful example for you of how a few story seeds changed the course of Australia’s history, and it all started right here on this stage 10 years ago, at the TEDxSydney Salon Net Positive: Visions of a Net Zero Future for Australia event in June 2024.

On that night 10 years ago, Chris Andrew told a story by Paul Girrawah House, founder of the Waluwin Foundation about a new kind of financing: the ‘Mother Earth Loan’ or ‘Ngama bangalnarranarra’. Yes, it might seem strange that a story about finance changed the course of history, but if there is anything I have learnt about the link between the future and the past is that the catalysts for change are rarely what you think.

The Mother Earth Loan is Indigenous-designed finance based on 65,000 years of managing an unpredictable climate. Similar to HECS, loan repayments by farmers are only due when Mother Earth is plentiful. When Mother Earth is struggling and needs time to heal, payments are paused or significantly reduced as the farmer places their resources into protecting Mother Earth. 

One member of the audience heard this and started to think: how can we know more deeply when Mother Earth is struggling and needs time to heal? Inspired by the Climate Salad pitches, this audience member saw a connection between Artificial Intelligence and big data being used to track, trace and understand carbon emissions and sensors used to detect animal behaviour patterns to report on biodiversity. They saw a new story for Artificial Intelligence. Not one that was about it ‘taking our jobs’ but one that allowed us to listen to the voices of Mother Earth. A technology that allows us to hear the chemical pollution in our rivers, to see the dwindling animal populations in our forests, and even feel our own consumption of micro-plastics. After all, we are nature too.

The story was told like this; Australian First Nations’ People have 60,000 years plus of knowledge about how to listen to Country through patterns in nature. But for many of us, we need help, a ‘hearing aid’. AI together with First Nations’ knowledge, old ways and new ways working together allowed us to listen to and understand the ebbs and flows of nature. 

As this story seed started to spread, it reached a Sydney TV news producer. Sick of the daily reporting of the winners and losers on the stock market, the news producer decided to replace that segment with the new data coming from AI, sensors and First Nations’ knowledge about the state of Mother Earth’s health. They experimented with a number of ways of reporting before settling on a Doughnut as a diagram. This nightly report showed environmental overshoot, or the ways in which Mother Earth was struggling. It also showed societal undershoot, or the ways in which people were struggling. As this new nightly report started to be seen by more and more people, new data sources were offered by research institutes and companies. People started to see that sharing data about the health of the planet allowed us to make better decisions focused on regeneration. 

This movement blossomed and in the late 2020s mandatory carbon reporting and climate reporting started to morph into nature reporting and regeneration reporting. The focus shifted from how much plastic we were consuming, to how much plastic we remediated from the environment. Beyond Net Zero became the goal in all areas, and the Doughnut started to appear everywhere: in annual reports, strategic goals, government policy. KPIs shifted from expected revenue to expected regeneration. 

However, as these shifts in story took place, shifts in the climate took place as well. The swing between drought and flood became more drastic, and the need for the “Mother Earth Loan” in different contexts became clear. People started to acknowledge their responsibility to change systems that cause harm and injustice, and the banking industry was forced to radically innovate. With new data available on which parts of society and the environment needed the most, money began to flow like water, seeking the driest, most parched area for replenishment. As the landscape started shifting, an even braver story started to emerge.This was the story of ‘enough’. 

Living through the devastation of too little water and then too much, wealthy Australians started to declare their ‘enough points’ or personal wealth caps, a limit over which all money earned would be put into a reservoir for investment into whatever Mother Earth needed the most. Empowered communities started regenerative enterprises, to care for their pockets of Country. Nurturing the soil both metaphorically and literally, so that when the drought or heavy rains came again, Country could flourish. There was an ideological shift in the role of business, away from shareholder benefits, towards stakeholder benefits, those stakeholders including first and foremost Mother Earth and all who depend on her.

This way of thinking inspired other ordinary Australians. Conversations around what is enough started to spread. People started to recognise what they had in abundance and share. People started to see that true wealth was not stored in bank accounts, but in the relationships we have in community. People ‘chose to be hopeful’ in the face of a changing climate, and while there were still disappointments, a new future started to take shape.

A future where there were no coal plants, just large-scale artworks that celebrated Australia’s energy transition. A future where TV viewers stayed right to the end to hear the nightly news reports that told of increasing biodiversity scores and lowering poverty rates. A future where First Nations’ knowledge always came first. A future where – inspired by First Nations’ leaders who rose to the highest offices in the land – we all saw ourselves as Mother Earth’s custodians.

This history, this story, may have begun as just one seed. One idea, that was ‘worth sharing’, again and again, but it has come to shape the entire history of this country and feed the soil of its future.

Stories shape our futures, because they shape our imagination. They shape what we see as possible and what we believe is probable. They shape the actions that we are willing to take to save what we love.

Will we be as brave as First Nations’ Bush-Ranger Mary-Anne Bug, who swam through shark infested waters to save her beloved Captain Thunderbolt (a story that was shared by Jess Miller)? Or will we succumb to principled panic and binge-watching procrastination?

The answers lie in how this story will grow within you. How will you paint the present with this future? And how will you share this story?

A big thank you to the presenters at the TEDxSydney Salon for spreading these amazing seeds and to Mel Rumble and Reece Proudfoot (from Regen Labs) for their contributions and editing of this story. If this story resonated with you, you are in for a treat if you visit the Museum of Futures, as there are many other stories inspired by communities around Sydney. 

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