The Future can be Bright, not Dark

I have been remiss on my blog here in not yet highlighting Worldchanging and the visionary essays there by Alex Steffen. I've followed Worldchanging for years, bought their first book, and not too long ago won one of their fundraising auction items (a pile of environmental books I still haven't finished reading). I even sent them some material, at least one of which they posted on the blog. But Alex's writing is the real treasure there, and he seems to just get better. He recently posted this powerful look at what we need to do to make the future bright, not dark - go read the whole thing, it's worth it. I'll excerpt and comment on a few bits of it below.

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.

Some of us do have faith that we'll find a path through it all. But it is clear what we're doing now can't continue much longer. And Alex here beautifully captures the sort of avoidance-of-thinking-of-the-long-term attitude that I've seen in many people around me.

... The dark, unknowable future has been turned into a weapon against action in the present. ...
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.

I think there have long been both dystopian and utopian futures embedded in our minds, and also a realization at more sober moments that in reality the future would end up neither, but just somewhere in between. Growing up I remember the bright world of "Star Trek" but also the madness of "mutually assured destruction", the dream of flying cars and jetpacks against the nightmare of "Mad Max". Perhaps it was the unexpected collapse of communism that, rather than signaling the "end of history" as Fukuyama put it, temporarily shut down our sense of any predictable future. Or perhaps the rise of the internet with its myriad diversions and novelties has made us forswear those notions of predictability. Whatever the cause, I agree with Alex that the future seems to have vanished, there's no clear path forward, no expectation of what lies ahead beyond the next iPhone software release. And that is something sorely lacking in our mental frameworks.

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 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 ...

and we need to think beyond 2050 too - I expect my grandchildren to be alive in 2100, what world do I want for them?

[On those holding us back...] 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.
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.

Acknowledging and understanding the opposition is a first step. Alex, thanks for this, it's beautiful. Now let's get to work on that future.


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thanks for

thanks for highlighting/sharing this post Arthur - really enjoyed it. Now, do I have to add worldchanging to an already overflowing reader feed?