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A Conversation with Zia Sardar

WORLD FUTURES 2022, VOL.78, NOS 2-4, 111-120 

Liam Mayo 

Centre for Postnormal Policy and Futures Studies, London, UK


These are excerpts of a conversation with Ziauddin Sardar in early 2020. Zia gives his definition of post- normal times: how it describes the rapid nature of change, and how it describes the changing nature of change itself. He confronts the inevitability of postnormality given the erosion of trust in politics, and in the spread of fake news and disinformation. It is a characterization of the “hanging between,” the period in between the end of one paradigm and the emergence of another. Given that, it is our obligation to consider the unthought, to drop our assumptions and precepts from the past to navigate to desirable futures. Postnormal times theory is also a theory of change that incorporates the pace of change and resulting complexity, contradictions, and chaos. Unsurprisingly, Zia criticizes postmodern- ism and distances postnormal analysis from it in no uncertain terms. It is uncertain how long the transition may be to a new paradigm, a new normal, perhaps centuries, but the fact remains, we cannot control postnormal times, simply navigate them.


I was first attracted to the oeuvre of Ziauddin Sardar, when I worked in the humanitarian sector supporting refugees and asylum seekers to reset- tle in new communities. I found his notion of decolonizing futures compelling as I attempted to confront the imbroglio of settling non-Western migrants into Western society. When I later discovered Zia’s (2010) “Welcome to postnormal times,” it eloquently presented the case that the contemporary transformational change we face globally should not be reduced to an East/West, non Western/Western, global south/global north, developing nation/developed nation matter. Rather, the hyper-interconnectedness of a globalized world means that the slightest incidence in any geographical corner of the globe has the possibility of triggering a tectonic social, political, economic, and/or environmental shifts in any number of other places. We are all connected in ways more profound than we have been able to comprehend with our current, ‘normal’, ways of knowing.

Conceptually, it seems all too obvious. Perhaps it is precisely the evident nature of Zia’s postnormal times that makes it such a compelling theory. Certainly, Zia is not the first to point out the characteristics (and possible pitfalls) of late capitalism/modernity. However, it is Zia’s belief that modernist ways of thinking about the future have failed to genuinely engage those in our society who have no voice, that differentiates post- normal times theory from these other theories. In my own work, when I began to talk about chaos, complexities, and contradictions, it appeared to made sense to people and provided me the opportunity to open space for deeper conversations about the future. The following are excerpts from a conversation on 30 January 2020, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

How Do You Define Postnormal Times Theory and How Is It Useful? 

Interesting question. Perhaps, the best way to explain that is to describe how I came to define postnormal times. Essentially, I was troubled by the fact that much of the work we do in Futures Studies assumes that the present is constant. When we do extrapolations, forecasting, we tend to assume the present is static. Although I think this is now changing, when I was working on my postnormal times ideas in the late noughties and looking at all the papers that were coming into Futures [The journal Futures], which I was editing, the basic assumption was always that the present itself is static. And my view, my understanding, was the present itself was changing. So, postnormal times theory was an attempt to show and understand that the present itself is changing rapidly. The present today will be different from the present in 24 hours time. And if the pre- sent itself is changing, the future is not what it used to be. In the first instant the postnormal times theory was an attempt to understand the changing present and the changing future. But also, to understand the changing nature of change itself. Right. It was not just that things were (are) changing, but the nature of change itself is changing. It was an attempt to map the scope of the changing nature of change. But then the question arises, what do you do with all that understanding?

I have always been motivated to not just accept change, but to actually change things as well. It was not good enough for me simply to describe. the nature of change or describe how the present or future may be changing, but also to map a route by which we can change things toward a desired direction. So, in the end, the function of postnormal times theory for me was to find a way to navigate the complex changes that we are experiencing. 

To sum up, postnormal times theory is an attempt to understand the changing nature of the present, future, and the changing nature of change itself. To equip us with the tools we need to navigate all this changing complexity and toward a desired future – rather than some colonized future or some future that has been presented to us as a given.

That is a good point that might bring us to the next question of inevitability. Is the desire of postnormal times theory to help us move toward a desired future? Is it still a desired future that we are seeking?

There are two things that you need to understand. One,, things are going postnormal because a great deal of the old paradigm just does not hold together. There are old paradigms in almost every aspect of life— relationships, complexity in family life, whether it is in economics, with capitalism falling apart, whether it is in politics, and we have lost all trust in politics, whether it is in the notion of knowledge, because knowledge itself is being transformed. Knowledge now incorporates a lot of the things that we do not associate with knowledge. For example, fake news. Outright lies. We are in a posttruth society. What does that mean? So, postnormal times are happening whether we like it or not.

You could say to me, I don’t buy postnormal times theory. And that is fine. You don’t have to. But it is a bit like gravity. You could say that I don’t believe in gravity, but if you jump from a 20-floor window, whether you believe in gravity or not you’re going to have a very bumpy landing. Postnormal times is happening. It makes no difference to me when people come and say, I don’t believe in postnormal times theory. Or if they say, well it’s basically postmodernism with a new label, old wines in new bottles. This suggests to me that neither do they understand what post-modernism is about, nor do they understand how the world has changed, and that we are moving toward postnormality. That is the first reality that we must grasp.

Are we just going to sit back and let postnormal times take its course or are we going to stand up and say no? There are certain things we do not wish to change. I don’t accept that all change is necessary. Certain things should not be changed in my opinion. For example, certain values which I hold dear, like generosity, like mercy. I am against violence. I don’t want violence to be propagated, that means that I am not going to sit by when killer robots are developed and delivered. So, for me the issue is, now that I understand how things are changing—the present, the future, the nature of change—what am I going to do about it.

The second thing to understand is that I do not see postnormal times as a bad thing. It has bad aspects. For example, I fear the havoc artificial intelligence can cause, but at the same time I do see postnormal times as an opportunity. What opportunity does it present to us? A major opportunity because the old paradigms are dying, postnormal times is the in-between period, and new paradigms have not been born yet. We are hanging between something that doesn’t work anymore and something that has not made an appearance yet. So, it is also an opportunity for creating the new ideas, new paradigms, for shaping the world in more humane and sustainable manner. It is a major opportunity for doing what futurists have wanted to do for a long time, such as those associated with World Futures Studies Federation itself, those of us who are passion- ate about shaping desired futures. Our challenge is to come up with new ideas, new aspects, new paradigms of where we could possibly end up. It is not just about looking at the in-between period, but also navigating the the transition toward desired futures for which we need to have some ideas. Now the problem here is that most of our ideas are trapped in the old paradigm. We cannot get out of that. This is what we call the unthought. The unthought requires us to drop the assumptions and the principles and all those things that hark us and take us back to the old paradigm and think of things outside the old paradigm. This is something which is very difficult to do. Because we are conditioned to think in a way.

A very good example – we are conditioned to think in Aristotelian logic. Aristotelian logic goes back a couple of thousands of years. [In this logic] things must be yes or no, good or bad, so we now have to move to a slightly higher form of logic, where the answers are not just no – but maybe. Perhaps, this is my intervention, that in fact things are much more complex than we imagined and complex problems tend to be wicked problems, they do not have one-dimensional easy solutions. Complex problems need complex approaches to understand them and navigate them. So, notice that I have consistently used the word navigate, I have not solved the problem. Because complex problems cannot really be solved in one dimension, in the old yes and no way. The unthought then becomes very important for us. Part of the job of the postnormal times theory is also to focus on the unthought and see what we can dig out from the unthought that may produce the new normalcy which will be slightly more humane, better than the paradigms that dominate the world at this moment.

At the end of the day, postnormal times theory is about empower- ment. It is about empowering ourselves to understand change. Some peo- ple, students, PhD students, young lecturers have come to me and asked, “What the hell is going on?” They just can’t make sense of this, Brexit, Trump, the rise of the right in Europe, climate change, so when you pre-sent them with the postnormal times theory and say there are drivers out there that are taking us in this direction, their eyes open up, it is a form of empowering them so they understand that what is happening in terms of change itself, is an empowering process. And once you have an appre- ciation about things changing, then you automatically ask the question, “do I want this change?” and what aspect of this change do I want and what aspect I do not want. We are seeing this in our [Centre for Postnormal Policy and Futures Studies] workshops when we explain the theory to people. Participants come in with a very kind of perplexed look on their face and when you explain postnormal times theory to them, it is a source of empowerment. And then they want to do something about it! So conventional policy is not working, how do we do postnormal policy? Conventional education is not working. How do we now do education? How do we prepare people for postnromal times?

Let me give you an example. Look at what is happening in terms of climate change, and you can see that certain countries will disappear and there will be a massive influx of new varieties of refugees, environmental refugees. We have never seen this before in history. We have seen people running away from wars, from politics, migrating for economic reasons – but we have never seen people leaving their countries because they have become uninhabitable do to the climate. We are talking about people who cannot live in their country because the temperatures are so high or the whole country is under water, like in the case of Maldives. If you can understand this disaster through the lens of postnormal times theory, and how this is having an impact on people and communities, then you can say, instead of wasting your time studying this, maybe we should spend your time looking at how we create a new understanding of refugees, a new notion of refugee studies that is not just about migration and keeping them out, but also actually providing them with an alternative way of living, or maybe even finding solutions or navigating them through the contours of their postnormality. So, in that sense it is an empowering thing, pointing us in a certain direction. Because the conven- tional notions of research and study, within disciplines, are breaking down. We need to create new disciplines, new modes of enquiry that can deal with the postnormality of the current world.

The other question I have been asked several times is, is postnormal times unique? First, let us be honest an say that every generation thinks that they are unique, full stop. They think that their experience is unique to the generation before. There is hubiris in this.

Second, when paradigm shifts have happened in the past: the Copernican paradigm that was a shifting worldview that transformed our outlook totally; the paradigm shift from Newtonian to Quantum mechanics – a major shift. More recently, the two world wars and we emerged from that and how we were forced to change, and the European Union that came out of that. Never again will we have Nazism and Fasciom in the EU – that was one of their goals. We are going to be together, we will not fight each other any more!

Is Postnormal Times Also a Theory of Change?

Yes, it is a theory of change. However, this is only part of the story, because there are certain things that are happening today, that have genuinely not happened in history before. So, if we are going through the collapse of disciplines, the collapse of capitalism, the lack of trust in politics, etc., the old paradigms are not working, new ones have not emerged. If only that was the case, then postnormal times would not be unique because these have happened before in history. However, there are certain things which are unique to this moment in history and have never ever occurred before. One is climate change and its impact on the whole planet. Never have human activities affected the biology, the geology, the ecology of the planet in this way before. There has been ecological collapse for example the Aztecs, but they are local collapses, not global collapses. We could say that in the ice age for example, but we are not talking about that.

Never in the history of humanity has the individual had the capacity to communicate with millions of people instantly and easily. Not within 3 minutes or 5 minuntes, but instantaneously. That has never happened in history. That is a very unique phenomenon. That level of instantaneous communication has never happened. That is two completely unique phenomena. Yes, complexity has occurred in the past but never at a global level. This is a different dimension of complexity. We now exist on a complex planet. This is not the same thing as living in a complex isolated community. So, complexity now is a global phenomenon. One of the things about climate change is that it requires a global response. Individual countries are doing their little bit, yes, but that is not enough. It has to be collectively, spontaneously, everybody has to do their bit to avert climate disaster.At the planetary level complexity has never hap- pened like this.

I can continue to give you a few more things, the point I am making is, yes if we simply define postnormal times as the in-between period of paradigm shifts then it has occurred. But if we really look at what is going on in contemporary times, and how change itself has changed, and how speed, scope, scale and simultaneity have become the major drivers of change, and how complexity, contradictions and chaos [the three Cs] have come together to create this new period, then postnormal times is unique to this period. That is the thing. We [at the Centre for Postnormal Policy and Futures Studeis] are not making grand claims that this is the theory of history. But what we are saying is that this particular period does have certain unique features which have not occurred in his- tory. And we must acknowledge those unique periods. If you do not acknowledge those unique periods, you are just turning away from reality. You must accept that something very profound has happened, and that profound shifts bring us to this particular moment in time where the three Cs are shaping our future and we have to grapple with them.

So, Does That Mean Then That Normal Change Continues? That Postnormal Change Happens, Or Occurs, Alongside Normal Change?

Yes, that is part of the complexity. We are having rapidly accelerated change; we are having conventional change and we are having no change. We have all of that. At the same time, things that we want to change are not changing; inequality is increasing rather than decreasing—we want it to decrease—or changing in the wrong direction as it were. It is a much more complex notion of change than just conventional understanding.

While we have this opportunity, I also want to clobber the buffoons who think postnormal times is the same as postmodern. Especially these academics who are stuck up in the cultural studies department, philosophy, English literature department, being obsessed with postmodernity, I want to make two things very clear.

One, the function of postmodernism or basic claim of postmodernism was that grand narratives are dead. Wrong—they are alive! They are very much alive! Everywhere. Every day in the world, full stop. And some of the bloody grand narratives that we just did not want to see, like Fascism, have come back in a very big way.

Two, that all truth is relative. Well, that has screwed us up hasn’t it. It brought us to a posttruth position. We are here because postmodernity insisted that all truths are relative. So sense of objectivity is lost, sense of reality is lost. One of the arguments I presented in my book Postmodern and the Other, that if you have that level of absolute relativity then you lose all, you are into deep subjectivity right. You just totally kind of lost in a sense.

Do You End up Condoning Narcissism?

Yes. And then of course, one of the great claims of postmodernism was that we will provide a voice to the voiceless. So sorry mate, the voiceless are still voiceless after 35 years of postmodernism! Not just that the voice- less are still voiceless, postmodernists made it harder for them to express themselves because you wanted them to express themselves on ceartain [postmodern] terms. So, postmodernism itself became an oppressive grand narrative. That actually silenced the other instead of allowing the other to speak because you are only wanting the other to speak on your terms.

The only aspect of postmodernism that has survived is the claim that image and reality and merging together. I think that is partly true. We are now living with virtual reality, the arrival of AI. The distinction between image and reality is dissolving. So, a little bit of postmodern the- ory still survives but at the end of the day postmodernism is dead! It is as dead as the dodo. And for people to keep harking back on postmod- ernism is absurd. It is supposed to be a reaction against modernity, but modernity has eaten postmodernism alive. Modernity has come back and really abliterated postmodernism completely. It is very interesting that many of the postmodern philosophers, some of our friends and colleagues in academia, have now moved away and become right wing extremists. Look at France. Even in America. Late modernity is still here to a very large extent. Transformed into liberal-secularism or whatever postmod- ernists want it to be transformed into and liberal-secularism has led to a complete and utter distrust of politics. In my view, postmodernism is a complete and utter disaster in many respects, they got everything wrong. And some stay consistent on postmodernism and they have the gall to say that postmodernism and postnormal times are the same thing. In fact, we deliberately do not call it postnormalism because we are not an ‘ism’. Yes. But we are a discourse. And, like any discourse, there will be differences of opinion.

How Long Will Postnormal Times Last?

There is no limit to the transition period – it could go on for a long time. The interesting thing is, when old paradigms die, they don’t die immediately, they linger on and on and on and on. People hang onto them no matter what happens. For example, the Copernican revolution which took place 400 years ago and you still find the flat earthers!

I think this transitional period will be very long – in my opinion. Indeed, Capitalism for instance is going to linger on. Even though we may find alternatives to capitalism, there are always people fighting back, trying to bring back old-fashioned normality.

For all of us, living in postnormal times, inflicted by the postnormal condition—what we are beginning to flesh out as the postnormal condition—what are values and virtues that will help us to transcend? What does that look like? What does that mean?

This is the 64-million-dollar question! And if you give me 64-million dollars, I will answer.

There are certain old fashion virtues which have stood the test of times and they will continue to stand the test of times in that sense. I will give this answer in two parts. Part one is that there are certain virtues, I mean 2000 years of philosophy is not going to disappear just like that.

The virtue of humility. I would argue that modernity banished humil- ity. The very idea that we can conquer nature is an idea that is so utterly arrogant. And postmodernity vanished certain things that are very valu- able. Boundaries—boundaries in our private life, privacy, and decency. If everything is relative, then what is the bloody point of being decent. So, boundaries and decency in a sense kind of have disappeared. What does it mean to be decent in contemporary times? I would argue there are cer- tain values of that nature that we should look to.

Mercy is another value. Even though most cultures talk about mercy, nobody actually practices it. For me the first merciful act would be for the 1% of people who control the worlds wealth, 90% of the world’s wealth, their act of mercy would be to hand that wealth back to 99% the people. That will be an act of mercy. It is not me going out and giving two ringgits [Malaysian currency] to one poor man. That just makes me feel good that’s the kind of charity. I am talking about real mercy toward nature, toward the planet, mercy toward other cultures. These basic val- ues ... respect. What does it mean? In contemporary times no one seems to respect anything or anyone. So, some of these values have stood the test of time and we need to bring these virtues back as real virtues to be practiced in society.

Part 2 of the answer to your question is – and here I admit that post- modernism has taught us something – the context. So, what is good, is not universally given. Context can change what is good. The example I always give is a freshwater lake that is good and healthy, anyone can come and drink from it, the local village gets water from it—it is very healthy. You come back 100years later, and the good lake is not good anymore. It is polluted, it kills the animals that drink from it and the vil- lage has already died. Good has a context in that sense. So, we must always be aware of that, and that is where change comes in. If things are changing in a postnormal direction, then what is good becomes a com- plex question. It is not just a philosophical question. In a pragmatic way we have to adjust and then discover what is good in the context. We are not passive, we are active agents, defining and discovering what is good in a particular context. It is a totally different kind of approach. It is a very proactive approach to discovering good constantly. Not just in circumstances when we are experiencing change but in circumstances where change itself is changing. So, the notion of good then becomes a very profound and practical thing. I am not talking about philosophical discussion that can go on for, has been going on for, the last 2000 years – and will continue for the next 2000years! I am talking about how we practically, pragmatically, decide what is good in a particular context. Because the answer is not a definite yes or no, good is something we navigate toward and with. Both—toward and with. Sometimes we are with, but things are changing. The nature of good itself changes and then we have to navigate toward that. So that becomes different.

Then two other things come in, and I haven’t written about it yet. I have always wanted to go back and write about it, but I haven’t been able to. That is, you have to be very creative in this situation, creativity becomes essential. But also, sometimes you have to imagine potential solutions (in inverted commas) that we will use to navigate, even though in complex environments, there are no instant answers. There are no solutions, you are always navigating. So, creativity and imagination become a very powerful requirement for navigating postnormal times.


Sardar, Z. (2010). Welcome to postnormal times. Futures, 42(5), 435–444. https://