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Project Imagines Adaptive Societies Through Fiction

It brings social scientists in dialogue with speculative fiction writers and their works to help imagine new and better social arrangements in the present.

The Center advances thinking, research, and evidence-informed solutions on contemporary societal questions and challenges that span the range of beliefs, behaviors, interactions, and institutions – all to collectively design a better future for humans and the planet. It does so by probing and collaborating across disciplines, communities, and sectors. And in these pursuits it often interrogates the past for insights through engagement with historians and historical accounts.

But what about turning the gaze forward in time? Can we truly, effectively design a better future without, well, interrogating potential or imagined futures?

The possibility that we’re missing something crucial constitutes a gap that a CASBS project called Imagining Adaptive Societies fills. The project is funded by a Changing Human Experience Grant, a university-wide initiative of Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences.

Collage of imagery depicting climate adaptation and possible climate futures

By now it is fairly well known that speculative fiction provides a world-building palette allowing writers and readers to explore complex systems and imagine new or better social arrangements. It has been deployed extensively from the perspective of literature and social activism – but much less so from the perspective of social and behavioral science research.

“What distinguishes the CASBS project is its effort to bring interdisciplinary social science expertise into dialogue with contemporary speculative fiction writers who specifically explore the social consequences of change,” said Zachary Ugolnik, CASBS’s program director steering the project. “Such exploration may help us imagine adaptable societies that are able to respond to the major questions and challenges of the present.”

Imagining Adaptive Societies is led by Jamie Jones, a 2015-16 CASBS fellow, professor of environmental behavioral sciences at Stanford’s Doerr School of Sustainability, and senior fellow at Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment; Margaret Levi, CASBS’s director from 2014-22, current CASBS faculty fellow, professor of political science at Stanford, and senior fellow at the Center for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford; and Ugolnik, who draws from his expertise in religion and modernity. Paula Moya, a 2019-20 CASBS fellow, professor of English, and director of Stanford’s Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity (CCSRE), also has come on-board as a major contributor.

Jones works on a variety of projects relating to human adaptability and decision-making, much of which involves synthesizing evolutionary, ecological, and climate-science notions of adaptation. From his scientist’s perch, he engaged with climate fiction narratives – their ability to model complex systems and their potential to change minds and thus catalyze social action – in a talk he delivered at the Long Now Foundation, an occasional CASBS partner organization. As CASBS director, Levi led the Center’s flagship Creating a New Moral Political Economy program, which built a network of affiliates and participants that included, among others, celebrated science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson. Robinson acknowledges Levi for influencing his thinking about capitalist political economy in his 2020 novel The Ministry for the Future, praised for its meticulous scientific accuracy of depictions of the most consequential effects of climate change.

Humans and Nature and Machines and Fiction and Science and Governance

To the extent we precipitate present crises (global environmental catastrophe, as the prime example) or potential looming crises (say, economic dislocations or ethical lapses or value misalignment or worse in the development of robotics and autonomous AI technologies), they are of our own design – or lack thereof. If humanity is to survive long-term, it needs to build better and more sustainable relationships with nature, machines, and itself. And probably sooner rather than later.

Accordingly, the Imagining Adaptive Societies project complements other CASBS initiatives – Towards a Theory of AI Practice as well as The Social Science of Caregiving – in an overall effort to combine the human-nature relationship and the human-machine relationship, rather than examine them in isolation from each other. Indeed, as a practical matter, the boundaries between these relationships often are porous or overlapping.

The gains from exchange from such overlap are illustrated in a CASBS-hosted conversation between Alison Gopnik, a former CASBS fellow, renowned child development psychologist, and leader of the Center’s caregiving project, with science fiction author Ted Chiang, acclaimed for The Lifecycle of Software Objects and many other works, on whether we should care for machines in the way that we do for children. The illuminating discussion was published as an episode of CASBS’s podcast in 2023; an edited transcript of the conversation was published in the online magazine Public Books in 2024.

Of particular interest to the Imagining Adaptive Societies project is exploration of adaptations to social, economic, and environmental crises through the written works of indigenous authors and the sub-genre of climate fiction.[1] A reading group led by Ugolnik convened on several occasions to discuss books such as A Half-Built Garden, by Ruthanna Emrys (2022-23 CASBS fellow Henry Farrell explores its significance in a blog post); A Man Out of Fashion and the classic The Fish of Lijiang, both by Chen Qiufan; How High We Go in the Dark, by Sequoia Nagamatsu; Icehenge, by Kim Stanley Robinson, and others.

Notably, one angle on imagining an adaptive society doesn’t necessarily involve the future at all but instead reimagines governance institutions in the present or near-present. One can define such “speculative governance” as the exploration of systematically different government institutions that do not require non-existent or unrealistic sci-fi technologies; in other words, governance institutions that actually could exist in our world now, even if it is not clear how to get there from here. Along these lines, in 2023 the Imagining Adaptive Societies project held a workshop moderated by Ugolnik with the participation of Jones, Levi, Moya, science fiction writers Ruthanna Emrys and Malka Older, and several other social scientists. The intellectual jumping-off point for the discussion revolved around a draft essay coauthored by Dan Honig, a public policy professor at University College London; fiction and non-fiction author Peace Adzo Medie; 2023-24 CASBS fellow Erica Robles-Anderson, a professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University; and 2022-23 CASBS fellow Martin Williams, a professor of public affairs, public policy, and urban studies at Oxford University.[2] The paper surveys the speculative governance landscape and proposes an agenda for future research.[3]

The CASBS project is planning a culminating workshop to take place during the 2024-2025 academic year, synthesizing some of the lessons participants have learned, including the role of speculative fiction in the classroom. 

A Pedagogical Tool

In the early days of Imagining Adaptive Societies, an undergraduate student, Allison Casasola, worked for the project as a research assistant. Among other things, she curated an extended list of speculative fiction works (books, films, comics, etc.) categorized by sub-genre (literary, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic, African futurist, absurdist, indigenous, etc.). The experience inspired Casasola – a 2024 graduating senior – to contemplate classic works of speculative fiction and their enduring messages and implications. She communicated her thoughts in two columns for The Stanford Daily:

·        “Facing the Speculative: ‘Parable of the Sower’ As a Parallel to Our Society”

·        “Facing the Speculative: ‘The Water Knife’ by Paolo Bacigalupi”

But the project leaders eventually realized a vision to impact students more broadly, and it is unique among CASBS-based research projects of the past decade in that its thought leadership engages Stanford students directly. Jones, Levi, and Moya twice have co-taught an undergraduate interdisciplinary course aptly named “Imagining Adaptive Societies,” examining how speculative fiction can help us work toward sustainable, equitable, and just futures, even in the face of potentially existential environmental threats. Among the aims is to help students individually and collectively wrestle with and cultivate skills involving difficult questions and challenges of meaning, interpretation, and value in order to imagine or reimagine new human futures and, ideally, inspire the building of full lives and successful societies.

While a lot of speculative fiction is decidedly grim or apocalyptic, a lot is not. The course focuses on literature that chronicles dire or ominous circumstances, yet ultimately reaches toward hope and solutions. Readings included Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, Chen Qiufan’s The Waste Tide, and others.

“It’s really easy in climate fiction to go down a very dark path,” said Jamie Jones in an article The Stanford Report published about the course in 2023. “So, when we’re imagining adaptive futures we’re not denying the challenges. But we’re asking, what would it take to surmount them?”

The course is not all reading. Thanks to the project leaders’ connections, in winter 2023 Ted Chiang spoke to the class in person and also participated in a roundtable discussion with Jones, Levi, Moya, Ugolnik, Gopnik, and Abby Smith Rumsey, an intellectual historian and chair of CASBS’s board of directors. Separately, Kim Stanley Robinson appeared via Zoom before the class.

In the winter 2024 version of the course, Jones and Levi video-recorded a conversation with Robinson that students later viewed. The class was assigned to read Robinson’s 2017 novel New York 2140, a work of climate fiction about human adaptability in that city’s future but also a critique of contemporary society.

“Science fiction is the realism of our time,” said Robinson during the discussion. “Science fiction readers are sophisticated enough that they understand that every science fiction novel is, on the one hand, a future, and on the other hand, a metaphor for the present – a way of viewing the present.”




[1] As complementary programming, in 2023 Paula Moya’s CCSRE hosted a conference on “Race and the Speculative.” In the context of racial violence and racialized political discourse, the conference aimed at providing guiding insights toward telling new stories and histories while imagining alternative futures.

[2] Incidentally, Honig, Robles-Anderson, and Williams are alums of CASBS’s summer institute on Organizations and Their Effectiveness, widely known for annually hosting out-of-the-box, innovative thinkers.

[3] As the paper’s authors put it: “Unlike fantasy or science fiction, which generally premise world-building on non-existent physics and technologies, speculative governance is interested in social orders that could potentially exist in this world and in our times, without the presumption that currently unavailable technologies are preconditions for social change.”

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