Untaming Futures: Plural knowledges, unknown environments and technologies of anticipation

AAA panel sessions convened by Sophie Haines (Edinburgh) and Sara de Wit (Oxford)


  • Daniel Murphy: Governing the Future: Understanding and embracing the politics of knowledge in climate adaptation planning
  • Jennifer Spinney & Jennifer Henderson: Hurricane Florence and its multiple meteorological futures: how concurrent weather uncertaintoes are managed through forecaster and public interaction
  • Courney Cecale: Losing ground: compounding climate change losses in the Peruvian Andes
  • Paula Martin: Biological futures and gendered selves: clinical practice with gender expansive youth in the US
  • Jim Stinson: Augmenting or obscuring the reality of species extinction? Bad environmentalism at a time of crisis
  • Diego Silva: Keep calm and carry on: the genetic codification of climate blindness
  • Rebecca Zarger: Climate futures and waterscapes in Tampa Bay Florida
  • Dean Chahim: Speculating on water from a mile below: austerity and the production of uncertain hydrogeologic futures in Mexico City
  • Micha Rahder & Melinda Gonzalez: Maya Forest Futures: Institutional environmental collaborations across contested borderlands
  • Sara de Wit & Sophie Haines: Uncertainty Inc. - Forecasting, anticipation and the un/taming of the future in humanitarianism.


Panel abstract:

A growing social scientific literature on the production, circulation and use of anticipatory knowledge  engages with how people anticipate and act on predictions of the future, across domains including weather/climate, public health, resource/hazard management, emerging technologies, finance and play. Studies in anthropology of science and in STS have shown how scientific approaches to foreknowledge often work to make the future appear more stable and controllable. This can involve techniques that reduce and/or quantify uncertainties in forecasts and projections, and plans and procedures that connect predictions to actions and outcomes. Such work has drawn attention to the performative effects of predictive foreknowledge - that is, its capacity to influence the kinds of futures that are imaginable and thereby shape the kinds of worlds that can be brought into being. We have learned that approaches that seek to ‘tame’ the future can obscure their prognostic politics through appeals to scientific neutrality, rational optimisation and utilitarian applications.

While the pursuit of knowledge is often characterised as a way to reduce uncertainties, the multiplication of models and other means of constructing environmental understandings can also cause uncertainties and controversies to proliferate: the more we know, the more we realise we don’t know. The promise of a tamed future is often unmet. In this panel, we seek to not only discuss the roles of predictive forecasting in reducing or taming the uncertainties of environmental futures, but to explore approaches which pluralise futures. These ‘untamed futures’ may be enacted by opening up scenarios; broadening parameters; extending ideas of agency; accepting possible ‘losses’; embracing indeterminacies and unknowns. We encourage reflection on how plural futures are imagined, institutionalised, mobilised, monetised, and played with; and how they shape epistemic and political orders of anticipation and the (un)making of worlds.

This session invites conversations across anthropology, STS, political ecology, and environmental humanities. What socialities, materials and politics are bound up in the cultivation of divergent expectations and scenarios, and how do these play into speculative and moral economies?

Addressing these questions in sectors and situations including resources management, climate adaptation, humanitarianism, gambling and biotechnology, and across varied geographical locations, we apply anthropological lenses to infrastructures and logistics of preparedness, resilience and fatalism; to social and moral dimensions of (im)possible interventions; to imagination and ignorance; and to different temporalities.

Questions and topics for consideration include but are not limited to:

  • The roles of scenario-building, divining, speculating, insuring, gambling, counterfactualising, ignoring or refusing in the generation/emergence of social and material worlds
  • The conditions under which uncertainty, plurality, and/or ignorance can be invoked to generate value, and by/for whom
  • How infrastructures, institutions and publics respond to ‘untamed’ futures
  • The trade-offs or entanglements of truth and usefulness in building and applying models of the future
  • Relationships among knowledge and its ‘others’ (uncertainty, ignorance, indeterminacy…)

Ultimately, we aim to examine how plural future environments are imagined and acted upon, how they become embedded within systems of power, and are informed by or shape perceptions and human-environment relationships.