Can we still imagine the future?

Having kids is gambling that tomorrow will be better than today. Will that bet pay off?

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Fifteen years ago this month, novelist Michael Chabon wondered what happened to the future. Contemplating the Clock of the Long Now — a clock designed to keep time for the next 10,000 years installed deep inside a mountain in western Texas — Chabon waxed nostalgic about a past version of the future in an essay for Details magazine. That old future, the one he heard about during his childhood in the mid-20th Century, was the future of the Jetsons, Tomorrowland, space travel, or even hydroponics, Chabon remembered. It was weird and new and imaginative. It was a story told “not just by popular art and media but by public and domestic architecture, industrial design, school textbooks, theme parks, and by public institutions from museums to government agencies,” he wrote.

But, he concluded, something changed. We don’t talk about the future the way we used to. “It’s as if we lost our ability, or our will, to envision anything beyond the next hundred years or so, as if we lacked the fundamental faith that there will in fact be any future at all beyond that not-too-distant date,” Chabon wrote. He noted that his then-eight-year-old son felt very differently about the future than he had at the same age, preferring to believe that the world will likely end soon, and humanity with it. The future, Chabon argued, had disappeared.

Now, as we emerge from a year consumed by a global pandemic, it feels as if more than ever we need to find the future again, to regain our imagination for what’s possible tomorrow, next year, or 10,000 years from now. But can we?

Climate change is the likeliest source for our apparent loss of distant perspective. In fact, Chabon’s son, uncertain about the future, cited it as a likely cause of humanity’s doom. In 2020, the climate crisis has been easier to ignore simply because a more seemingly immediate one, the pandemic — another possible apocalypse scenario Chabon’s young son considered — took its place. (Notably, these phenomena are likely related.)

How does climate change, like the pandemic, destroy our concept of the future? Simple: it has become the future. It occupies the entirety of the space ahead of us in a nearly unbelievable way. There is simply no world of tomorrow without it. In fact, in many places on Earth, there’s no world of today without it.

If you imagine the future now, the picture in your mind might look something like an image that emerged from Australia just before the end of 2019. In it, a then-11-year old boy, Finn Marion, sat at the stern of a small dinghy, masked, steering the little boat amid a world turned orange from brushfire. The photo was iconic of Australia’s Black Summer, in which climate change-fuelled fires engulfed the country’s eastern coast. The photo felt like a metaphor for our situation as humans — both our present and future. We’re Finn, cast afloat, surrounded by a world aflame, wondering where we can go from here.

via Facebook

The thing about the future of Chabon’s childhood is that it has, mostly, come to pass, he wrote: “Digital viruses, identity theft, robot firefighters and minesweepers, weather control, pharmaceutical mood engineering, rapid species extinction … air-conditioned empires in the Arabian desert, transnational corporatocracy, reality television — some days it feels as if the imagined future of the mid-twentieth century was a kind of checklist, one from which we have been too busy ticking off items to bother with extending it.”

These things are all incredible feats of human ingenuity — products of, well, futuristic thinking. Yet we can wonder, looking back, whether getting all the gizmos and gadgets of the old future is partly why we don’t have one now. The future of the mid-twentieth century was based on the concept of perpetual (capitalist) growth — a concept that itself wasn’t actually that new, having been the basis for the future imagined by those living at the end of the nineteenth.

The pursuit of that dream gained us innumerable benefits, but it also contributed to the accelerating effects of human-fuelled climate change. The cost of our old future is, perhaps, that we don’t feel like we have one anymore.

This might explain the popular current theory that capitalism, that former engine of futurism, has now run out of ideas and that its inherent promise of constant innovation is false, even laughable.

We’re past the point when we will find the solutions to our problems in products. We must instead focus on politics.

Hardly a day goes by that the latest great idea actually turns out to be the last one. Ironically, this trend has lately been most noticeable in Silicon Valley and the greater tech sphere, where the world has looked for decades for futuristic thinking. Recently, ideas like pooled transport, hyperloops or education financing schemes feel less like cutting-edge innovations and more like attempts to turn once widely-accessible services (mass transit, rail systems, book stores, public education institutions, or even vending machines) into largely exclusionary for-profit ventures that limit choice or perpetuate inequalities of access — often both. Even the platforms many of us use to communicate are all kinda the same.

But if we’re afraid of what comes next and unable to imagine a way forward, is it any wonder our economic system reflects that state of trapped anxiety? That it serves us not products of a distant tomorrow, but instead those of a perpetual present, like social media, that drive us further and further down into the immediate now?

And is it all that strange, given this, that in some cases we have simply turned our backs on the future altogether and chosen instead to focus on the past? Our recent societal embrace of nostalgia as both a political and cultural perspective, exemplified in its extreme by MAGA-ism and Brexit-ism, may be explained in part as a yearning to recreate a world in which there still was a future.

In his essay, Chabon concluded that, for all the apparent lack of belief in the future (and despite his own son’s negativity), the fact that so many of us still choose to have kids proves that we’re betting on it all the same. Under the pressure of looming climate catastrophe, this feels like a sucker’s gamble — or at least a very selfish one. Having kids now, as an inevitable climate crisis bears down, seems monumentally unfair. How could we?

I don’t know the answer to this. 2020 hasn’t helped. The ongoing disruption of climate systems on a global scale has, sadly, become familiar. But 2020 revealed that, for all its formerly futuristic perspective, our social and economic capitalist-based system is lacking in imagination.

For all the bike lanes we installed, the flights we didn’t take, the traffic jams we avoided creating, it’s difficult for me to imagine at this point any of it will stick long enough to become the new status quo. If anything, the post-pandemic years feel like they’ll be an orgy of unreleased energy, eclipsing any minimal advances we might have made in reducing our carbon output and erasing from memory our vows to vigilance. It’s happened before, after all. Our Roaring ’20s may turn out to be just as loud, if not louder than those of a century past, backed by the cacophony of a collapsing climate.

Will we learn from our mistakes? Or will we just create a post-pandemic world that’s the same as the one we had before? One analysis shows that “in at least 18 of the world’s biggest economies…pandemic rescue packages are dominated by spending that has a harmful environmental impact, such as bailouts for oil or new high-carbon infrastructure, outweighing the positive climate benefits of any green spending.”

That said, even in the bleakness of 2020, there’s been progress. The price of renewable energy, like solar, has plummeted over the last decade and we’re finding new ways to capture and store it. Wind and solar energy have “doubled their share of the global energy mix over the past five years,” Bloomberg noted in September, to about 10% of electricity generation in most of the world. And as divisive as climate change still seems, more and more people accept that its a concern. In April, Pew Research found 60% of Americans now believe is a major threat to the U.S. — up from just 44% in 2009. That proportion is still low, globally. We all seem to understand the threat, finally.

We’re not yet out of ideas. Nor are we necessarily out of time. Instead, what’s run its course is the social and economic system we’ve created — the one in which Chabon grew up, the one that led us to believe in a future of the Jetsons and Tomorrowland. Based on the idea of perpetual growth and endless expansion, whether of industry or consumerism or even human domain, the capitalist system of the twentieth century seems useless now as a foundation to create a new future in which growth is at best no longer a given and more likely impossible if most of us are to survive the coming decades. It hasn’t even managed to get us properly through 2020, just one bad year.

That is to say, we’re past the point when we will find the solutions to future problems in products. We must instead focus on politics — not the partisan kind, but rather the basic assumptions we use to solve problems together.

As for the kids, I used to think what I was handing down to my children was time. These days, I wonder whether it’s choice. Time alone is useless to them if it’s time spent treading water in the decaying vessel of twentieth century capitalist society. If they’re going to get out alive, they need to inhabit something better, something that gives them options. But it’s up to us, relics of the last millennium, to use our imaginations again and build it — a system better suited to the present, and thus the future. If we do it right, we can trust they’ll find their way, even as they’re surrounded by flames.


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