The Denial of the Future

(This post was originally published on June 13th, 2011)

We live in an age where some of our most powerful institutions actively dismiss the future. A main purpose of corporate action in the environmental policy debate seems, often, to be to muffle the question of limits and time spans. The clear example is Big Oil and their PR on climate, peak oil and the possibilities of energy transition. Leaked internal oil industry documents have for decades shown a difference between what oil companies know and say, but if you’re an oil company, obfuscation of the supply issues and the terrible planetary costs of your product is just (amorally) seen as good strategy, whatever the consequences for humanity.

Big Oil’s not alone: all sorts of companies intervene to depict their business models as less unsustainable than they are. Cars, suburban builders, agrobusiness, chemicals: all are profoundly unsustainable, yet fiercely resist notice of that fact. I’m not just talking about the (wrong, but perhaps understandable) defense of current profits by portraying harmful products as benign. There’s a deeper current here — perhaps based on notions of corporate valuation, but I think more psychological at its depths — of profound denial of the very idea that a given industrial business model has no future, and that large-scale change is not only demanded, but inevitable. And while some companies are grappling much more effectively than others with the future, by and large, this corporate denial of the future is a global phenomenon.

As a result, the very different future towards which we’re barreling is coming almost unremarked, much less usefully envisioned. Denial obstructs the critical act of building practical visions of bright green futures; and we can’t build what we can’t imagine. Without visions, preparation, sensible investments and policies, we are arriving in a very different world with an out-dated way of life. This is a recipe for catastrophe.

I increasingly believe the absence of real engagement w/ the shape of future is the single most pressing problem facing humanity.