Future stories of this type involve exercising discipline to address aspects of the present that may lead to undesirable outcomes in the future.
The focus of this discipline is, in most cases, sustainable use of natural resources (e.g. mitigation of climate change, ecosystem preservation, freshwater protection, pollution control), but disciplined approaches can be more broadly considered to re ect the ethos of living within our means. Restraint can apply to aspects of our society, such as taking collective responsibility for matters like economic equity and poverty reduction. Some extreme restraint scenarios involve the imposition of strong beliefs by some parts of society on others and even the exclusion of some members of society who do not accept the imposed restraint. Such undesirable restraint futures are more appropriately considered under the catastrophe archetype. When restraint scenarios envisage fundamental changes to society’s behaviours and/or values, they become transformation scenarios, although where the boundary between restraint and transformation occurs is not always clear.
Restraint was seen as more than doing without. Restraint is a prudent response to awareness of future limits to aspects of our lifestyles (e.g. limits to availability of natural resources, how much stress people can absorb, or how much inequality a society finds acceptable). Failure to anticipate and prepare for limits could result in catastrophe futures (considered in the next section), but it was envisaged that a society that does anticipate and prepare could steer Australia to an active, healthy, and happy future – with perhaps less diversity of material products but greater wellbeing. This future is technically feasible, but there is mixed opinion on whether humanity could or would implement the needed social innovations.
In the Adelaide 2016 workshop restraint was seen as something necessary for a sustainable future. In Canberra there seemed to be more of a sense that restraint might actually lead to a better life if done right. Perhaps this aspect of the restraint dialogue is one that emerges when the positive view is injected by restraint-optimists and perhaps there were more in Canberra. Restraint dialogue is perhaps strongly influenced by the events that dominate people’s thinking at the time. In Adelaide, the venue encouraged at least one participant to reflect that several of the civilisations represented in the displays had involved restraint that was part of their culture and that we should not see restraint as an unattainable objective.
In both Canberra and Adelaide participants were clear that imposed restraint would be experienced as a restriction on individual freedoms, and restraint futures are only desirable if restraint is chosen rather than imposed. Regulations that have public support were cited as a workable mechanism, but participants saw difficulties in that political leaders who introduce such regulations will be less popular than those who don’t. Unlike the Canberra event, in this event some participants were a lot more optimistic about the opportunities to be more informed about the hidden consequences of our actions. They suggested that until now technological advances have served to distance us from the origins of the fundamentals we depend on (food, water, energy systems and the associated hidden web of impacts), but we are now at the point where technology can help us make these more visible. Making the invisible more visible and building more complete stories about our impacts in the world were seen as a ways to foster chosen, agreeable restraint futures.
Workshop participants thought that the word restraint has unnecessarily negative connotations, but so too do other words used in the literature to describe this archetype (e.g. discipline, sacrifice, trade-offs). It seems difficult to convey the complexity of this archetype in a single word. Restraint futures, for example, can be ones in which desirable aspects of life (e.g. healthy environment, cultural diversity, healthier lifestyles, and a fairer society) are increased by reducing undesirable and often unnecessary aspects (e.g. excess consumption of natural resources, unfair treatment of people, and habits that harm mental and physical health). Restraint is more appealing if done voluntarily and early, rather than something imposed on people after a crisis.
Restraint can encourage creativity and innovation. Personal restraint, such as meditation and mindfulness, not only enhances the capacity of individuals to find fulfilment in their lives but also helps society practice other forms of restraint (such as resisting self-interest when it clashes with the common good).
Restraint could be about returning to past ways of life, but could also be attempting to keep things as they are or creating new ways of life that are currently unfamiliar to us.
Restraint was also seen as a logical response once limits to our activities are recognised and understood. Many aspects of Australian lifestyles potentially face limits (e.g. availability of natural resources, tolerable stress levels, or what degree of inequality is considered acceptable by society).
Restraint is also a relative concept: what we might see as restraint in present-day Australia (e.g. limited time, money, space, abilities) might be seen as abundance from the points of view of earlier Australians or other contemporary cultures.
What restraint futures might be like in Australia in 2050
In restraint futures, society might put greater value on the common good and on health and wellbeing, and less emphasis on economic growth for its own sake.
Restraint futures created by this society could feature improved health and wellbeing, more nutritious foods, and a society that is more cooperative, considerate, caring, sharing, unselfish, inclusive, and fair than now (increased equity, fairer income distribution, more volunteering and social safety nets).
Restraint imposed on the many by the few, however, is likely to be unacceptable. Only if restraint is chosen and supported by all (‘everyone in it together’) can it be a desirable future. The ageing population, inequality of wealth and opportunity, future length of working life, health care, and labour supply are challenging issues.
Recognising material limits would mean human labour, knowledge, and ingenuity become more valuable, we repair and reuse products more, and we become more aware of our consumption of resources and enjoy it more. Sharing and using resources sparingly (e.g. sharing vehicles and equipment in neighbourhoods, community land trusts, greater use of public spaces such as libraries, parks, and other shared facilities) make social interactions more meaningful. This sort of restraint future could be a future in which progress is measured in terms of all aspects of human wellbeing, rather than only economic growth and material consumption.
Vibrant local economies, increased autonomy, greater self-sufficiency, and reduced waste could provide food of higher quality in restraint futures. There might be an end to domination by supermarkets, more local production and distribution of food, increased eating of food in season, and reduced consumption of meat and processed foods.
A society that has actively embraced restraint is likely to have tackled the challenges of energy supply and waste disposal (otherwise some sort of catastrophe future is likely to have emerged). Desirable future towns and cities exemplifying restraint could include: higher density living, more mass transit systems and active transport (walking, cycling), more off-grid and distributed energy production, more effective recycling and waste management, and lower energy and material use in buildings and technologies.
How restraint futures might come about
Adversity and scarcity are possible drivers of restraint. History shows that people accept restraint when faced with adversity. Shortages of fuel or food, or crises triggered by bush res, other extreme weather events, war, economic shocks, or inequity-driven social unrest are potential future triggers. Scarcity-driven innovation could see more efficient use of resources (e.g. renewable energy), sharing of scarce common resources (e.g. collaborative consumption mechanisms), and more effective involvement in decisions (e.g. mobile communications facilitating social movements like the Arab Spring, or IT platforms enabling new forms of digital democracy). There could be greater acceptance of restraint if impacts of choices are more visible, either through improved information-sharing and awareness (e.g. acceptance of water restrictions when dam levels are visibly low, or growing popularity of self-monitoring applications that draw attention to unwanted personal habits such as compulsive internet use), or through pricing and other market or regulatory mechanisms (e.g. accreditation requirements requiring whole-of-life-cycle reporting or management). Price, in particular, was seen as a key driver of citizens’ behaviour).
Good leadership (not only from politicians) could allow restraint futures to emerge (e.g. by influencing social norms and/or steering society through crises). Other key enablers include technologies that aid restraint (e.g. ways of providing food and energy with less reliance on non-renewable resources), appropriate capacity in design and planning, timely investment in appropriate social and built infrastructure, and high levels of other forms of social and human capital (e.g. innovation, strong social bonds, education, research, social responsibility, trust, and access to opportunity and social participation). Restraint will not happen without widespread support, and any governance mechanisms (whether ‘bottom-up’ grassroots-driven change or ‘top-down’ centralised controls) will require high levels of citizen support and participation. This might become more possible as communication technology makes it possible to involve more of society in through rapid information sharing and democratic processes.
In general, pure restraint futures seem unlikely. People are unlikely to exercise restraint without some kind of external imposition, and any such imposition risks reducing individual autonomy, creating greater inequality and political unrest. Risk aversion, scepticism, fear of loss, and backlash against moral judgements may prevent restraint futures. Freedom and space-loving Australians are likely to resist imposition of restraints, resent moral judgements, and be sceptical about whether restraint will yield the promised bene ts. Lack of political will and low electoral support would hinder restraint futures, as could current social norms that reward material consumption and the meeting of short-term desires, and downplay values such as prudence, temperance, and long-term planning. Political cycles that favour short-term outcomes and planning horizons are a significant hindrance to restraint futures.
Free-riders (those who benefit from others’ actions without contributing) and rebound effects could undo the best intentions. Free-riders could jeopardise collective restraint in the absence of governance approaches that minimise these risks. Rebound effects are likely when ‘savings’ are made through restraint (e.g. resources and/or money is saved through more efficient use of energy in houses and business premises), but these are negated by increased ‘spending’ in other areas (e.g. more travel in energy-hungry vehicles).
In summary, restraint futures were seen as technically feasible, but counter to human nature and social norms.