Imagination is critical to sustainable and just futures for life on Earth8,13. Writing after the West African Ebola outbreak, Professor Michael Osterholm and colleagues called for more “creative imagination” to consider future pandemic scenarios14. This feels particularly salient five years on. Purely technocratic approaches fail to engage with the emotions that motivate action towards alternative futures: fear, hope, grief and agency8,15. By building new ways of thinking about longstanding problems, inclusive and creative processes can generate positive stories about the future in ways that are empowering8,10. Imagining the future can drive societies towards change by shaping common practices, aspirations and institutions16.

Methods for imagining, such as scenarios analysis, strategic foresight and speculative fiction are commonplace in research, investment and planning8,13,17. They can help the biodiversity community address the bleak futures that are projected for biodiversity. Research can play an important role in embracing imagination by fostering novel participatory methods that enable society to explore what is possible, plausible and desirable13. All models and scenarios are wrong, some are helpful: they contain assumptions about what matters, what is known and what is unknown. Embracing and communicating these assumptions and uncertainties builds trust in science, opening up spaces for deliberation about values, trade-offs and desirable futures18.

Imagination can build the anticipatory capacity to get ahead of the curve, rather than react to crisis17. Decision makers must learn to provide anticipatory leadership that fosters shared responsibility for actions that may have greater costs now, to avert harm in the future. Enabling transformations also requires those who benefit from the status quo to acknowledge the need for change. Policy frameworks need to consider the distribution of costs and benefits over longer timescales when setting current priorities. Ultimately, society needs to accept that the future is unknowable and uncertain, but that action is needed now.

These anticipatory capacities start with asking: what are the short- and long-term drivers of change? What values should be maintained into the future? What can be done differently over the next five years? Over the next 30 years? What do we need to know and what will we never know? How can options be created and traps avoided? What are the ethical implications of action and inaction? Considering these types of questions can provide a foundation for decision making despite uncertainty.

Our stories show that choices have consequences. Some close down options. Some open up multiple pathways. Either way, choices create winners and losers. The critical challenges of the Anthropocene require humility19 and the ability to respond20. Imagination can help the biodiversity community grapple with these challenges by embracing diverse ways of thinking, listening, being and knowing. And such diversity can be the foundation of more just and sustainable futures for life on Earth.

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