Introduction to gray sky thinking

The only time I felt hope was when you told me you could see no hope, and you continued with the analysis.” – A comment by one of Donald Winnicott’s analysands in 1956

The standard assumption about the future is that it will resemble the past. Often, people adopt the standard assumption because it is a useful heuristic in everyday life. We generally assume that there will be continuity, because continuity affords us a sense of familiarity and security.

In the context of contemporary existential risk assessment, however, maintaining the standard assumption is blue sky thinking at best and ruinous at worst. Contemporary trends, historical precedent, and scientific models all strongly suggest that our collective futures will be increasingly shaped by institutional collapse, natural disasters, and political decay. Collectively, we take relatively few serious steps to offset or prepare for any of these risks effectively. To the contrary, maintaining the standard assumption in this regard seems to bolster and perpetuate the very legacies of technical debt that delivered us into the many predicaments of the present moment.

For example, we already are living in the middle of an ecological crisis that only threatens to intensify. Numerous stakeholders have attempted to respond proportionately, but there have been systemic failures across the board, both of adequately registering the ecological crisis and of every attempt to forestall it. The international community has failed to prevent the ecological crisis from taking shape, and the environmental movement that started in the 1960s has failed to effect cultural or policy shifts appropriate to the scale or severity of the problem. Additionally, such a crisis functions as a force multiplier for many other breakdowns and risk vectors. The future will be very different than our current approach to it implies.

Ignoring findings and projections like these because they are unpalatable makes us irresilient and risk blind to an extreme degree. Such willful ignorance contributes to the increased probability of systemic collapse. It also results in the potential loss of tremendous amounts of economic, human, and natural capital, not to mention the degradation and destruction of planetary feedback circuitry and political stopgaps that facilitate the existence of earthly life as such. Regarding these considerations, maintaining the standard assumption is a form of blue sky thinking that actively courts further catastrophe.  

Instead of blue sky thinking informed by the standard assumption, gray sky thinking aims to generate speculative engagements with new assumptions. These new assumptions should integrate realistic assessments of existential risk with a multimodal theoretical framework that dispenses with the core reliance on the assumption of civilizational continuity. Examples of the usefulness of exploring and projecting speculative engagements that proceed in this way are rife throughout historical periods of tumult and uncertainty. One need review only the diverse contributions of Plato, Augustine, Ibn Khaldun, or Niccolò Machiavelli for proof.

In other words, gray sky thinking assumes that the future will not resemble the past. Indeed, it assumes that present conditions already are being misconceived and misconstrued when viewed through the lens the standard assumption provides. This can be a very generative, even provocative stance to take, given that apologists for the standard assumption are legion and that abandoning the standard assumption often will be received as the abandonment of common purpose or, worse, the embrace of despair, misanthropy, or pessimism.

The distinction between blue sky thinking and gray sky thinking in this sense is nothing like the difference between optimism and pessimism, however. Nor does it have anything to do with whichever future we prefer. Rather, the distinction is almost purely practical. We tend to prefer blue sky thinking (especially when it comes disguised as frank realism or fraught revolutionary fantasy) because confronting the possibility of negative events or systemic foreclosures (e.g., on ideas, institutions, or pathways forward) generally proves distressing. In contrast, gray sky thinking intentionally leverages and navigates such distress in order to ground and project alternative practices of worldmaking given the realities of existential risk.

In sum: Gray sky thinking first identifies and then negates or transforms the standard assumptions we adopt from the conceptual and sociopolitical worlds into which we find ourselves interpolated or thrown. The standard assumptions dictate and distort our perception of what worlds can do, or of what we can do with the worlds we inhabit and inherit. Standard assumptions may offer a lot of heuristic applications, but their usefulness breaks down when confronted by the legacies of technical debt that standard assumptions frequently smuggle in. People cling to standard assumptions, nevertheless, because they want to preserve a sense of continuity, familiarity, or security. However, it is precisely in circumstances where the standard assumptions are failing us consistently that we need to facilitate and foster speculative defections all the more. It is important not to mistake the fall of night for a flock of black swans. There is something undoubtedly counterintuitive about this, for it suggests that, in the very instance of precarity, one should let go of one’s sureties. This is what Hannah Arendt calls “thinking without a banister,” and gray sky thinking returns us to this formulation and revives it as an imperative.

The valley of the shadow of death can be a fertile valley, indeed.


Michael Uhall is a political theorist. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois. He can be found @noirmaterialism, or e-mailed directly at uhall2@illinois.edu.

3 responses to “Introduction to gray sky thinking

  1. Welcome to SZ, Michael! I really enjoyed your first post.

    “[Gray sky thinking] can be a very generative, even provocative stance to take, given that apologists for the standard assumption are legion and that abandoning the standard assumption often will be received as the abandonment of common purpose or, worse, the embrace of despair, misanthropy, or pessimism.”

    This is all too salient in my everyday life. Everywhere around me people aren’t open to how much we will have to change to get through the century. It’s a denial of death and lack of planetary scale imaginaries that has far too many people clinging and reacting, when more explicitly anticipatory modes of cognition and intelligence are called for.

    Did you read the post on “possitopia”? I think that post, your post, and mine on Feral Philosophy point to a real practical need to embrace uncertainty and seek out experimental yet adaptive modes of engaging and operating within the world.

    It’s a very Deleuzean moment.

    So what does a real politick look like from a post-nihilist, grey sky, feral philosophical, “open” orientation to the future? For me it is about deep adaptation and salvage approaches.

  2. Good question. Thanks for your comment. I think it’s not merely a Deleuzean moment, but a moment (or demand, or opportunity) that structurally recurs throughout history. In future posts, I plan on doing entries expanding upon this idea of “gray sky thinking” in a number of ways. First: drawing from a few figures in ways that might surprise you (but which hopefully will be useful to readers). Topics at the moment include Plato and political decay, on Augustine and resilient institutions, on Ibn Khaldun and civilizational collapse, and on Machiavelli and conceptual engineering. All these figures (and more), I think, provide really striking, sometimes counterintuitive examples of what gray sky thinking looks like. Using decline, risk, and uncertainty as springboards for speculative defection has attended philosophy since its very inception. After I show that, I hope to turn to some more contemporary applications or examples.

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