By moving beyond binaries and incorporating the worldviews of previously marginalized voices, we can co-create shared visions of the future rooted in regenerative justice.

Post Growth FellowMonika Bielskyte, is a futurist, futures researcher, and founder of Protopia Futures, a platform for research and creative collaborations that offer alternatives to dystopian/utopian stereotypes, and inspire — and be inspired by — what truly inclusive futures could be. We sat down with Monika to discuss the emergence of Protopia Futures, how to transcend the current ‘crisis of imagination’, and why we need to move beyond binaries in order to nurture post-growth futures.

Monika, what’s your background and how did Protopia Futures start?

I was born in a country that doesn’t exist anymore, the Soviet Union. My own origins span from Sakhalin — an island on the far side of Eurasia — to the Baltic Sea, as well Jewish heritage. My family’s history was profoundly marked by the trauma of the country’s colonialist, expansionist legacy, as well as that of Nazi Germany. Both were totalitarian regimes: some of my family were deported to Siberian gulags, some to German concentration camps, and I was ripped away from my roots by the policies of ethnic cleansing and ethnic assimilation of the Soviet regime. I happened to come of age at a critical moment: the collapse of the Soviet Union, an imperial entity that seemed so massive, so oppressive, and impossible to overcome. And yet it collapsed — on the one hand, under its own weight, but on the other, because people fought for it. I have distant childhood memories of taking part in the Baltic Way, when around two million people (around one quarter of the countries’ combined population) from Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia created a human chain stretching almost 450 miles. It was a peaceful protest against the Soviet Union, which had annexed those countries as part of the secret Molotov Ribbentrop Pact, an agreement between Stalin and Hitler to partition the territories, later labeled ‘Bloodlands’. Though they were — and continue to be — presented as binaries, Soviet Communism and German Nazism have some things in common: for example, they both conducted mass ethnic cleansing of ethnic minorities and Indigenous people, and first suppressed and then outright proceeded towards a eugenic attempt to exterminate Disabled, neurodivergent & Queer people, because these identities were seen as ‘non-productive’ and challenged the homogenizing power of these extractive systems.

As a Queer, neurodivergent person of mixed ethnic background, even in contemporary Lithuania I found myself outside of normativity. I guess my desire to peel off the layers and try to understand what shapes the realities of our world has been very much informed by my own lived experience and the necessity to reckon with the inherited trauma. I started out working in media, photography, and videography, and with time became a creative director, specializing in futuristic-leaning projects. In my mid 20s, after a near-fatal accident, I realized I was interested in more than just what the future looks like — I wanted to understand why the future looks a certain way, how it’s made, and whether we can actually change its course. When I look back, I think it all stems from the sense I got when I was young that any given version of the future is neither predetermined nor inevitable, and even the most oppressive systems can be taken on. I saw that some things do change — and that all change (or the absence of it) is continuously shaped by our actions (or our inaction). I decided to apply myself fully into inquiring why our perception of the future is the way it is, and how, by understanding our past and analyzing our present possibilities, we might actually change the narrative of what is possible and, especially, what is desirable.

As I embarked on future studies and futurism, my creative background and visual style led me to work on projects that were leaning heavily towards cyberpunk adjacent aesthetics, which tend to be quite dystopian. After a while I started questioning whether dystopia is productive, or whether it just regurgitates the inevitability of doom and gloom that ultimately leads audiences to disengage from their own role in shaping the future and, even more dangerously, serves as a product roadmap for those who are willing to cash in while the world burns — or even by directly setting the world on fire. At the same time, I was interacting with folks in technology industry and hearing their techno-utopian propositions, which have roots in top-down, eugenic, colonial, and exclusionary understandings of ‘progress’ and in some cases trace the direct lineage to techno-fetishistic ‘futurist’ ideas described by Marinetti in his futuro-fascist manifesto published in Musollini’s Italy. It made me realize that utopia-dystopia are not a binary but reverse sides of the same exploitative coin — just like Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, in the sense that they both feed and inspire each other, and ultimately exclude and erase the voices of people who are not seen as ‘the default’, and who are not seen as ‘productive’ within this world obsessed with extractivism and infinite materialist growth.

Ethnic minorities, Indigenous people, Disabled people, gender nonconforming and Queer people remain excluded from homogenizing techno utopian visions, which are constantly coming up with ways to ‘cure’ or forcefully integrate or outright eliminate us. Within dystopia, sometimes such people are represented, but almost always exclusively as fetishized ‘underdogs’ that are never in positions of true leadership except for — maybe — a tiny rebel group. There is an alternative to the utopian-dystopian binary, and it involves centering the perspectives of people who have never been silent yet whose voices have been deliberately erased from most of the historical record, and either continue to be silenced or are currently co-opted and appropriated by those who do not actually share their lived experience and embodied expertise. Instead of top-down visions centering the voices and perspectives of the most privileged, I’m interested in how we can really center the voices of the previously marginalized, and most specifically those working at the intersection of Queer, Indigenous, and Disability Justice. Importantly, it’s not just about skin tone, or what kind of disability you have, or what kind of ancestry you have, or who/how you love, but whether you actually stand up for intersectional justice and whether your vision of the future is rooted in regenerative action.

Utopias tend to magically leapfrog today’s issues without ever fully addressing, let alone rectifying, inequities of the past. What is actually missing is: How do we get there? By centering the voices of people who are at the forefront of immediate harm, and by looking at their ideas, approaches, and the future they imagine, we have a much better chance of getting it right. The evergreen rule of such an approach is ‘never design for, always design with’. And as we edge closer, a whole new horizon opens up. Protopia Futuring is designed to be continually iterated. We need to keep reframing and bringing additional points of view onboard. It’s really about this process of learning, and not about always being right. And while it’s centered around a common vision, it is never, ever ‘finished’.

I feel a sense of urgency because, if a power vacuum is created, we need to ensure it is not filled by something more toxic. ‘No’ is never enough — we really need some kind of shared ‘YES’ visions of the future. These visions of the future that we’re creating are not the territory, but hopefully maps towards the kind of future we want to grow, weave, nurture. It’s also about taking the best lessons from academic, speculative future circles and the bleeding-edge of scientific, social, cultural, and political innovation, and matching them with the appeal of visually and narratively captivating mainstream science fiction, so as to make them accessible to as broad of an audience as possible.

Monika’s talk, ‘From Fiction to Real Futures’, at Building The Future 2022.

Why is plurality, rather than binary, such an important aspect of envisioning regenerative futures?

The concept of binary is a product of an enforced patriarchal settler coloniality — it’s truly inseparable from it. While Indigeneity is made up of so many cultural expressions and should not be painted with broad brush strokes, one of its defining features is a profound relationship with the land. Settler coloniality is about being decontextualized from the land, and seeing yourself as separate from it, whereas within Indigenous cultural understanding you see yourself and your community as truly part of the living fabric of life and never ‘on top of it’. The only way that you can do that is by feeling deeply connected to the land, by listening, observing, and being in conversation with it. And once you do that, you realize that there’s no such thing as a clear boundary. In the living world there are no absolute dividing lines between genders, between humans, between us and the living world. I find it fascinating that cutting-edge science on the microbiome is proving it, with research revealing that more than half of the cells in a human body are not even human but of the microorganisms that are an inseparable part of the ecosystem that is you and me, for example. Life is really about processes of becoming, and the boundaries are always blurred. There’s no perfectly straight line. As Tyson Yunkaporta writes in his book Sand Talk, “only a fool would ever attempt to walk in a straight line,” which is such an excellent illustration of how an embodied and circular, as opposed to disembodied linear, learning is the only way to truly relate knowledge rather than just decontextualized ‘information’.

Coloniality had to draw these lines of separation between various groups of humans and between humans and the other-than-human world, because that process of othering lays the foundations for exploitation. That’s why I really dislike this term ‘human-centered design’: I mean, we’re heading towards biosphere collapse because we keep centering humans (and only the richest few in the Global North at that)! The only way to ensure that humans thrive is to ensure that all life thrives, because we are inseparable from that life. Yet the world’s gazillionaires are fantasizing about colonizing the so-called ‘virgin terrain’ of Mars or even Alpha Centauri under the illusion that we can survive, or at least maintain our humanity as we know it, while completely separated from the ecosystem. The truth is, we won’t be able to replace or replicate the profound organic interaction with other-than-human life with which we’ve co-evolved over millions of years. What’s more, this dream of space expansionism is rooted in the millennia-old Christian notion of Ascensionism and denigration of everything associated with the soil — Heaven, after all, is about as far away as you can get from the Earth. Through the lens of such ideology, (and its modern iterations such as transhumanism, longtermism, etc.) Earth and soil are linked variously to biology, femininity, Queerness, Disability, Indigeneity — all perceived as ‘weak’, ‘impure’, ‘uncivilized’. Our very bodies are never vehicles for transcendence but rather vessels that must be transcended for the ‘heavenly’, ‘cosmic’, ‘pure’ existence. It’s truly an indictment of our civilizational priorities that we know more about deep space than about the deep ocean, upon the health of which our terrestrial life is utterly dependent.

Neurodiversity, Indigeneity, Queerness, and Disability show us that binaries are a myth, and that the concepts of spectrums and plurality are liberating for everyone, not ‘just’ the ones experiencing the greatest harm — because they help us realize that you don’t have to conform to any ossified notions that only truly serve to control and constrain our potential.

I always return to the words of Aimé Césaire from his Discourse on Colonialism, in which he points out that the colonizer is only able to colonize by removing the humanity from his colonial subjects — and in doing so he removes his own humanity. From an Indigenous perspective, it’s perhaps more that such a mindset stops you seeing things as fully alive and conscious, and that makes you become less alive and less conscious yourself.

Unfortunately, the world we have built is predicated on the continuously enforced boundaries. The only way to move into a post-growth future, one that is actually regenerative and not merely sustainable — because do we really want to sustain the status quo? — is to move away from the notions of aspirational independence and isolationism, towards aspirational interdependence, which is so beautifully illustrated by the Nguni Bantu term ‘Ubuntu’: I am because we are—united in our humanity because we participate, belong, and share. The decolonial foundations of human evolutionary history tell the story of interdependence and collaboration, not isolationism and competition.

‘Protopia Dreams’ by Reuben Wu. “In the margins, beyond the binary, exists a possibility space…”

Are we facing a ‘crisis of imagination’, and if so, how can we transcend it?

Fundamentally, if we cannot see it, we can never do it. Yet as we acknowledge how important imagination is, it’s not enough to have these smart and artsy people in the world’s cultural centers, academic institutions, and think tanks get together to discuss ideas and publish reports. We need to communicate these visions to more people — in fact, to the global majority, because the vision of fear, isolation, and paranoia is being successfully communicated right now. We see the rise of neo-fascist, authoritarian governments across the world, and that’s because it’s so easy to communicate visions of fear, and much more difficult to communicate visions of hope. Words are not enough.

Through my work in virtual reality, I know that it’s easy to provoke a strong fear reaction with a really unsophisticated VR experience, such as walking a plank, falling from a skyscraper, or having zombies (generally a thinly veiled illustration for xenophobia) chasing you down. Unfortunately, it’s the same with politics. It’s so easy to trigger fear by demonizing people (and entire populations) perceived as different and, hence, a threat. To counter that, you need much more captivating storytelling that inspires people to action on both very local and global scales. This is the core of @protopiafutures as a project, and it’s why I want to use all the tools at my disposal to create compelling, memorable narratives that people can connect with and feel represented within.

I think it’s really important when we talk about imagination, that it should not remain abstract. It needs to effectively translate the vision of the kind of world that we want to live in — awaken people’s curiosity and make us want to bring such dreams closer to reality.

Another commonality among Indigenous worldviews is that there’s no such thing as ‘empty’ content (i.e. it is never ‘just’ entertainment). In almost every Indigenous culture all content is capsules of knowledge and memory devices — whether it’s a dance, chant, ritual, or ceremony — and there is always something being taught and something being learned. By the same token, as much as some people would like to dismiss this, the entertainment content we consume is also teaching us: profoundly affecting what we consider attractive, valuable, and aspirational, for instance, but it is too often both littered with discriminatory bias and bereft of real knowledge that could actually help us to engage and have agency with our presence on this planet now, and to make the future more livable.

Imagination is vital, because if we can’t actually see the future we want, the best we can do is stumble towards it — and chances are, we’re not going to succeed. But we don’t have the luxury of time, or of the biosphere, to keep doing the wrong thing until we figure it out.

Monika’s keynote, ‘The Metaverse: Extending realities’ at this year’s Ada Lovelace Festival.

To what extent is Protopia Futures a post-growth project?

I often speak about this notion of post growth and how we need to move beyond material growth as a measure of the value of our lives, and towards fully-circular ecosystem living. But there’s one area where I think growth should be desirable, and that’s in the realm of knowledge and experience. Love, learning, and creativity for example, have no boundaries — they can continue growing, unlike material material extraction and pollution on a finite planet.

I’m interested in the future of experience as multisensory. There’s so much for us to perceive beyond what we do now, and there’s so much to learn in terms of our own sensory apparatus. Emergent tech should not reduce human potential but expand it: intellectually and physically, but also creatively and emotionally. Most importantly, it should bring us closer together, not just amidst humans, but also with all life here on Earth — and some attempts to do that are already happening, for example Marshmallow Laser Feast’s collective project In the Eyes of the Animal, which allows us to see the forest through other-than-human eyes. There is so much more to explore here — if we want to understand a consciousness different from humans instead of fantasizing about ‘conscious AI’ or aliens, we’d do better to understand the consciousness of octopuses, whales, and forests. Tech should bring us closer to understanding how life itself is the most extraordinary technology there is — rather than pushing us further away from that insight and rendering us ever-more algorithm-like (as illustrated by the goals of the increasingly popular utilitarian longtermist movement).

What if we imagine a more hopeful future? By Ari & Luna Kuschnir. Music by Julio Monterrey aka YouthFaire

Nobody can quantify how much you can love, learn, and explore, and these are the areas where infinite growth is possible. The only real boundary is how much life there is on this planet; if only we would focus on that rather than on the accumulation of things, which requires the destruction of life. Colonial space expansionist fantasies are the deus ex machina of unlimited material growth and are likely to actually further endanger us, not save us (though it’s important to draw a distinction here between fundamental physics and astrobiology-related scientific research, and space expansionism). When you move away from quantitative growth within the material realm, to qualitative growth within the realm of knowledge and experience, a whole new space of possibility opens up and for me, that’s the biggest opportunity of the unique moment we all currently inhabit on this planet.

Inspired to act? Here are some ideas for how you can make a difference:

  1. Read the works that have been foundational in shaping Protopia Futures, such as:

2. Watch Monika’s latest talks, videos, and presentations.

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 Teaser photo credit: @protopiafutures urban rewilding vision — concept art by Efflam Mercier, world design by Monika Bielskyte, commissioned for “A Little Movie About The Future” by Ari & Luna Kuschnir / Mssngpces.