Putting the Future Back in the Room

This is an essay I wrote in Spring 2010. It seems appropriate to repost it, given that the need to bring future concerns into present politics has never seemed more urgent.

The future that my parents’ generation warned us about forty years ago looks an awful lot like our present. The ice caps are melting, deserts are spreading, the planet is thick with people, most of the world’s primeval forests are gone, the seas are in crisis, and pollution, famine and natural disasters kill millions of people a year. Compared to the world we might have had, had the progress of the early 1970s continued steadily through the following four decades, we live on a half-ruined planet.

That half-ruined planet, though, is our home. People old enough to remember the first Earth Day can well grieve for that other, healthier Earth we might have had if only older generations had made different choices. Kids born today won’t have that luxury. This world is the only one they’ll ever know: they’ll have to make the best of it; life goes on.

1970 is the same distance in time away from us now as 2050: that’s how close the future is. The 2050s, we know, will be a watershed era: the decade when, if we’re smart, human population will have peakeda bright green model of sustainable prosperity will be widespread and human damage to the climate and biosphere will have begun to be repaired. In an amount of time about equal to that from the first Earth Day, we have to remake the world. We’ll know whether we’ve done well enough by 2050. If we fail, the resulting descent towards greater and greater catastrophe, will likely cause immeasurable human suffering and the end of civilization; it could include perhaps a general extinction of most life on Earth. The final outcome will almost certainly be ripped from our control at some stage. (It would be far better to tackle the planetary crisis while we have a chance at controlling the outcome).

Even if we do reach a safe plateau towards the middle of the century, with a stable human population, a new model of prosperity and a planet-wide effort to halt and reverse ecological destruction, much will still have been lost. Unfortunately, even a “win” may look like a ruined planet to the eyes of those used to the one we have now. Climate commitment means that no matter what we do, more climate change is a given (even if we avoid triggering any massive climate tipping points). Living on a planet of children (the median age in the least developed countries is only 19, for instance) and in a world where billions are struggling to rise out of poverty, means that even if reinvention happens fast and models spread quickly, entire forests, fisheries, rivers, mountains of topsoil, and myriad creatures will be devoured by human needs in the meantime. In the best case realistic scenario, we’re going to do a huge amount of damage to the planet even as we transform ourselves into a global society that provides prosperity with essentially no impacts.

Some older environmentalists (most prominently, James Lovelock) have suggested that the fact that no future now awaits us in which our planet is not greatly depleted means the game’s over. Lovelock in particular seems to enjoy saying it’s too late to do anything to save humanity, but he’s not alone among his generation. These “it’s too late” doomers look ahead and see a world full of deserts and empty oceans, dying forests and dead coral reefs, and they say, “we tried to warn you…” and walk away.

The problem is, the children of 2050 will look at that future world, with all its problems, and see home: and they’ll look at the choices they have in front of them, and see the future. And since the choices we make in the next forty years will decide what choices our descendants are left with — a thriving society engaged in centuries of restoration and planetary repair, or a gradual desperate retreat towards the poles — giving up now because we don’t like the choice set we face is pathetic cowardice.

In fact, it’s worse: the writing off of the future (especially on the part of those who bear the responsibility of cultural authority) actually directly supports the work of those who are destroying the future; those that are stripping every last shred of profit from the planet’s biosphere while they still can. The idea that there is no future is a club used to beat people into submission and acquiescent participation in the unthinkable.

The planetary crisis we face may be made up of machinery and market failures and sheer masses of humanity struggling to live, but I’m more and more convinced that it is not at its core really a material crisis at all. Rather, the planetary crisis is a crisis of vision; we see a growing and darkening void where our future ought to be. The average person, presented with accurate information about the state of the world, can see no way forward at all. The path we’re on appears to end in darkness and a swift, cataclysmic drop. Most folks, entirely understandably, choose not to look.

That void in our future vision, I believe, is not accidental. In the 40 years since the first Earth Day, a whole set of industries has grown large attacking scientists and conservationists; falsely complexifying issues; spinning the news of environmental crimes; launching astroturf front groups; endowing think tanks; bribing politicians; obfuscating the need for systemic change by pushing funding towards NGOs that advocate the most limited of personal actions; and by promoting (in the most direct financial sense) cultural work that promotes cynicism and a disdain (if not a hatred) for idealists, from talk radio to teabagging. In a twist on the old axiom that tyrants don’t care if they are hated so long as their subjects don’t love each other, these industries don’t care if the future they’re offering us looks dark, so long as no other futures we can imagine look brighter. Despairing consumers still buy, and they cause less trouble for the investing class. “We have an economy,” as Paul Hawken says, “where we steal the future, sell it in the present, and call it G.D.P.” Keeping the future dark hides the crime.

There is a vicious political fight for the future happening right now. Having realized that they’re steadily losing the war to convince people there are no problems, those profiting from the status quo have now turned to fear, uncertainty and doubt. They’re trying to convince the public that it is both too expensive to make changes that probably won’t work and too soon for drastic measures (I personally think that the political use to which geoengineering is being put is very much a part of this effort, but that’s a story to take up again another time). The dark, unknowable future has been turned into a weapon against action in the present.

The irony is, we already have the ability to solve or at least address the planet’s most pressing problems. We don’t have every solution we’ll need, not yet. We do, though, have the technological capabilities, the design genius, the scientific ingenuity, the entrepreneurial zeal, the policy acumen, the community-building skill, and the educational and cultural wisdom. It is not that we are not capable of sustainable prosperity. We have never had more or better ability to build a better world. What we seem to lack is a belief that we can actually use those powers to change anything, and we lack that belief precisely because the future has been ripped out of our cultural debate.

That’s why if we care about the planet, the most important thing we can do is start showing how good a future we still can have. That’s why, right now, optimism is a political act, and a radical one at that.

I think, what we need today, is mass movement planetary futurism. I don’t mean futurism in the cheesy sense — the what-color-is-your-rocket-car sense — I mean futurism in the best sense: of people who understand that the future is not an alien world or a land-of-make-believe, it’s where we are right now, with a brief passage of time. Utah Phillips used to like to say that the past didn’t go anywhere. Well, the future’s already here. We’re making it, as we speak, and we make it better when we consider what the effects of our actions might be over a longer range of time.

Human beings make the future every day. Making the future — setting in motion future events — might almost be considered part of the definition of humanity. The problem is that today, when powerful men sit down and make decisions, they generally make those decisions as if the future didn’t exist, as if the consequences of their actions were beyond anticipation, as if they bore no responsibility for foresight. The future’s not welcome in the room.

We need millions of people ready to put the future back in the room. We need millions of people ready to demand that their governments, their companies, their communities and their cultural institutions confront the reality of the futures they make every day.

In 2010, any institution which is not looking forty years ahead and at least considering the long-term impacts of its work is probably engaged in actions that wouldn’t bear the full light of day. We need to sunlight them. We need to hold them up against absolute standards, hard numbers and firm time lines (I prefer carbon-neutrality by 2030, myself, but again, that’s an argument for another time). We need to demand forty-year goals and bold immediate commitments. We need to be the voices for the children of 2050 who otherwise currently have no rights in our halls of power. 2050 is right around the corner: we need to fight for it in every discussion of practical action, in every institution on the planet.

And we need to be ready to envision the alternatives, and explore them with people struggling to make better decisions here in the present. Because the reality is that change is not only in the interests of future generations, it’s in our own interest. Almost all the things we need to do to safeguard the best possible set of choices for the children of 2050 are things we’d want to do for other reasons, anyway:

*build better cities, so people can live in vibrant walkable communities and green homes, served by ecological infrastructure and a mix of transportation choices;

*foster a culture of bright green innovation, helping to generate meaningful work for the billions who will need it, by spreading new approaches like adaptive reuse, product-service systems and so on;

*develop new technologies and material and new clean energy industries;

*redesign our products and manufacturing to remove the toxic chemicals that are poisoning us and recover materials to eliminate waste;

*preserve farmland and forests, securing working sustainable foodsheds and needed ecosystem services;

*protect and restore wild places and biological hotspots on land and in the sea, helping prepare them for climate adaptation as best we can, saving as much biodiversity as possible, and reconnecting us with the beauty of the planet.

Even if climate change magically ceased to be a problem tomorrow, these are all things we’d want to do for other reasons anyway; places that do them will become far more economically robust and systemically rugged than those that don’t.

There will be opposition. We will meet people filled with anger and fueled by misinformation. Many of the men (and they are still mostly men) making these decisions are good people. A few are evil sociopaths, actively obscuring the future to hide their own knowing crimes, but most are people you’d find decent dinner company, people you’d welcome into your family. Some are among the most principled and conscientious people you’ll find anywhere. But many look only backwards.

Many, I believe, are secretly terrified of what they’d see if they looked ahead. The people most deeply traumatized of all in our society may be the older men who’ve devoted their entire lives, in grinding hard work and out of love for the people around them, to building companies and communities and systems they thought represented a pinnacle of human endeavor and free enterprise, but which instead — they would now find, if they could bring themselves to admit the possibility — have become components of what is quite possibly the most destructive way of life ever made by human beings. To have done right and well your whole life and yet find yourself ethically indicted in the end, to have your accomplishments turn to ash, to arrive late expecting security and respect, and find neither: I don’t think those of us who are younger can fully understand what a soul-wrenching experience that must be.

As the air goes out of the most destructive parts of our economy — as the oil runs out, as the sprawl financing dries up, as the world runs out of big trees to cut and big fish to catch — economic fear gets added to the mix as well. How will they survive? Even when they see a glimmer of a bright green economy, it looks full of jobs demanding different skills than the ones they’ve spent a lifetime honing. I think a lot of them refuse to see a bright green future — attack even the possibility of its existence, yell at those who even suggest its necessity — because they see no place for themselves in it, and hear a ringing condemnation of the legacies they’re preparing to leave woven into every fiber of the innovations we need.

I honestly have no idea how to reach out to these good people. We know, though, that they are the ones often at the table when the future is made, and though we will eventually prevail since time and numbers are on our side, spending another couple decades butting heads with these guys will at best slow our progress. Merely defeating them politically also wastes a huge creative resource: their talent and experience. Many of the people most angrily denying the future are those who understand how the systems we now need to retrofit, redesign, replace and adapt actually work — because they built them — and, if convinced that this new work needs to be done, they have oceans of insight and institutional knowledge to bring to bear on the problem. No one knows how to hack a system better than the person who’s been in charge of protecting it from change…if only we can win them over to the side of change.

Whether or not we can bring around the oldest generation, the fundamental need is clear: we need, now, to put the future back in the room.