Sunday, March 06, 2011

The tyranny of the future

So often each of us evaluates the present based on our fantasy of the future. That fantasy has been heavily influenced by the science fiction genre in books and film--a genre which is, of course, an outgrowth of faith in unlimited technological progress. In one of the popular Star Trek movies, the future is referred to poetically as the "undiscovered country," a phrase borrowed from Hamlet where it really refers to death. Perhaps the screenwriter was cleverer than we realize.

Most people imagine the future to be a place of plenty where energy is abundant and cheap, where every door is an automatic door and, most important, all of the problems of the present have been solved by technology: no pollution, no disease (or at least a lot less of it), no climate change, no high prices, no violence (at least no street violence) and no poverty (except, of course, on planets that haven't yet reached our level of development). It's a recipe for inaction and passivity in the face of the many daunting challenges humankind now faces. And, it has a political dimension that suits the current power structure: "Just sit back and we'll take care of the future. You don't need to challenge our ideas or authority because everything will work out for the best." It is a message right out of the mouth of Dr. Pangloss in Candide that we live in "the best of all possible worlds."

This is, of course, not the only fantasy about the future. There are grim forecasts of darkened landscapes of destruction caused by war or by mere neglect following some civilization-destroying catastrophe--a plague, a severe solar storm which knocks out the electrical grid, a famine caused by biotechnology gone awry, or a world hopelessly scorched by runaway global warming. And, this is yet another recipe for paralysis. What can one really do in the face of such catastrophes? As friend of mine once said, "You can't prepare for the end of civilization."

But, you can prepare for something short of that. An outcome between "the best of all possible worlds" techno-optimism and a Mad Max-style collapse of civilization actually calls for more imagination, and, above all, it calls for action. And, that is when the future stops being a narrow-minded tyrant and becomes a field of imagination and possibilities. This is no license for soft-headed optimism, but rather a goad to pragmatic thinking about the needs of people and societies and the biosphere that supports them.

What do humans actually need to lead full and joyful lives? That is the question we should start with. Admittedly, it is not an easy question to answer. To a certain extent it will be geographically and culturally determined. But right now fossil fuels are doing all the talking, telling us that unlimited resource consumption is our glorious birthright and the key to human achievement and happiness.

But, people achieved happiness, fulfillment, and even long life before fossil fuels, and they may very well do so after fossil fuels have stopped being burned. H.D.F. Kitto in his famous popular guide to the life of the ancient Greeks points out that for those living in Greece at the time--if they survived fatal childhood diseases--the Mediterranean climate afforded a lifespan of 60, 70 and even 80 years for many. Not bad for a nation without modern medicine. Longevity then is not merely the property of modern peoples. And, it is, in the end, not the sole criterion for a good life; 100 years in prison seems worse, not better, than 60 years of life as a free person.

We are constantly told that the way in which we live today is better than the way people lived before the modern industrial age. Perhaps that should at least be prefaced with the qualification that some privileged people who lead middle- and upper-class lives in wealthy industrial countries should count themselves better off than their ancestors. But it is worth noting that even the culturally advanced ancient Greeks imagined that their golden age had long since passed and that their civilization was well decayed. Ironically, today, we consider that supposed period of decay to be the time of their greatest achievements.

What lies ahead for humanity may end up seeming better or worse than what we have today. But it will certainly be different. Wouldn't it be a good idea for each of us to consider our role in this future rather than have that role defined for us by fantasies that lead to paralysis or lure us into a naive passivity?


Niamh said...

I am doing some research on media literacy and stumbled upon your article. I have to say that having read your article it gives me a sense of hope without any deception. I hope others can read it and some of the passivity that exists in the public arena can be amended.

Anonymous said...

I can tell you one thing about the future, once all the cheap energy sources are used up, the amount of food produced will diminish, and a lot of people will die.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kurt,

I liked your essay, but I want to point out that one can come to a rather dim (or, theoretically, a cheery) view of the future that is not the product of fancy. I do fear that your approach may encourage people to lean toward the all-too seductive fallacy of judging likely futures by the result desired (a happy medium between pangloss and the supposedly torpor-inspiring doom), rather than basing the judgment on the best analysis of the facts.

By the way, people in the late middle ages in NW Europe were also in quite good help and had a good chance of living longish lives. Early Industrial Revolution actually decreased the living standards of many.