The future is still ours to envision. No one can take that away. We have an obligation to think past next week and next month and next year, and envision the future that will be lived by the many generations who will come after us. This is a hopeful, and hopefully not naive view, given that we are looking down the barrel of a climate disaster and the social unrest that will come along with it.
Many forces may stand in the way of my optimism. The blockers include the short-sighted opportunists who would boost personal income or corporate profits at everyone else’s expense. We won’t talk politics here, except for this: Joe Manchin’s effort to stop the Biden climate initiative is an example of this kind of short-sighted obstruction. I hope, soon, that Manchin, and other obstructionists like him, will fade into insignificance as more activists rise. More on that in a moment.
FutureX, the website and the movement it represents, has been dedicated to making conversations and media about what will matter to the next generation and the generations after them. It’s been a process of experimentation. We have succeeded at some things and failed at others. These things work like that and we’re still finding our way.
If you are looking toward the future, and if you are a maker, a creator, an artist, a reader, a writer, or a podcast producer, then the media you make and the conversations you start must engage people who are younger than you are. They are inheriting a world with problems. Some are mad about it. Some are hopeless. Others want to do something.
In contrast, many of the middle-aged folk I know are interested in what their retirement will look like. They’re not thinking about the next generation and the generations after that. They’re thinking about the next ten or twenty years. After that, what? Oblivion? An afterlife? Cryogenics, defrosting, and a new life? There is a blindness that has captured many middle-aged people, a fog that prevents them from seeing into the future, even a little.
Now, before you think I’ve gone off the deep (depressing) end about old folks and the short-sighted people running things, there are notable exceptions. For example, the people who started Third!Act. Third!Act is organizing sixty-somethings, and inspiring them tell bank CEOs to stop funding fossil fuel companies. They’re working keep voting rights protected, and pursuing other projects that envision a future that future generations can live in.
Whether you are a sixty-something or a twenty-something, what can do you do now? I’ve been a dedicated recycler. I drive a hybrid. These are nice things, but they won’t fix the fix we are in fast enough. The only solution to our climate disaster is to abolish the fossil fuel energy companies. We need to end their business model. I’ve come to this conclusion, which might sound radical to you, by following the work of Amy Westervelt, Mary Annalise Heglar, Emily Akins, and Bill McKibben. Fossil fuel energy is at the root of our problem. We will not get out of this mess until we remake and reimagine our energy needs. We have to envision the future, not just wait for it to arrive.
When I look for prescriptions, for actions to take, I’ve been influenced by a book called The Good Ancestor, by Roman Krznaric. He got me thinking about how we must reframe the tech side of futurism so that it speaks to the human side.
When we measure the most futuristic initiatives of Facebook (brain machine interfaces) or Google (indexing all knowledge or making smart cities) or Elon Musk (electric cars or terraforming Mars), or Jeff Bezos (flying rich people into space or moving all our manufacturing activity off-planet), how do they stack up when viewed through the filter of social justice? Will smart cities be good for people of color? Does indexing all knowledge amount to stealing intellectual property and selling it to marketers? Who does it serve to send rich people into space adventures? Who among the billionaires is working on protecting voting rights? Who is working on disassembling the fossil fuel industry? What billionaire is truly taking a view of their work that will benefit not only their bottom line, but future generations?
Adam McKay’s Netflix black comedy Don’t Look Up envisions a comet flying toward Earth that is big enough to wipe everybody out. The movie suggests that we won’t have the slightest idea what to do about it and the world will end. Oh yes, there are scientists sounding the alarm, but they lack media training and are not compelling messengers. There are politicians who want to use the disaster to advance their power and stay in office. There is a technocrat character, a convincing blend of Zuckerberg, Bezos, and Musk, who manipulates the disaster response for his benefit.
The technocrat character rings all too true. Most billionaire’s solutions to our problems benefit the billionaires. They are thinking of their empires, not of you and me, and certainly not about future generations and the generations beyond them, unless those future generations are named Murdock, Musk, Bezos, or Zuckerberg.
In The Good Ancestor, Krznaric asks us to try a few things to envision the future. Imagine a speech your children’s children are making about their ancestors, about what they accomplished, the sort of world they left, their legacy. If I do this exercise now, I would wish my ancestors didn’t pass down slavery, racism, a patriarchal system of power, the internal combustion engine, and coal power. It’d be grateful they passed along empathy, intelligence, and problem-solving abilities.
How does progress happen? Is what we call progress a good thing?
Krznaric writes that our downfall is in locking the pursuit of progress into a fossil fuel energy system and also bowing down to consumer capitalism as the primary manufacturer of desire. If the purpose of thinking about utopia is to cause us to advance — to envision the future — let’s start by envisioning an energy system that works. The people who have put the existing (failing) system in place are mostly male, white, representatives of the patriarchy, and proponents of extraction capitalism. They invest much time and energy keeping themselves in power.
It doesn’t seem to me that we will find solutions if we look to the billionaires. The usual white, male politicians also don’t look promising. You’re familiar with the expression that goes something like “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” This is where we are now. We can’t keep walking the same path.
Krznaric argues that we should be acting as intertemporal ambassadors — we are the people responsible for conveying a future vision of the world that will work for the people who come next. So let’s try that on for size. Elsewhere in these posts, I’ve written about how speculative fiction acts as an early warning system. It allows us to visualize what’s next. With that knowledge, we might have a shot at taking a different path out of disaster. Let’s take that a step further, and suggest that we encourage the fictions and worldviews of people of color, of women, trans and non-binary people, of others who might not serve the interests of the working elite. Since they are not working so hard to maintain the current power structure, they might be the people to turn to for fresh ideas.
You may also have heard of this expression: “Atoms are heavy, but bits are light.” It’s an argument for distributed, digital communications. Makers, artists, and storytellers are in a good position now to create alternative narratives and release them into the world. I’d listen to a podcast that showed me how micro grids of decentralized energy systems would work, or how a matriarchal society would work. I’d listen to a TEDx talk about the concept of ecocide and how we should be treating the Earth as a living being with legal rights.
The question, well dramatized in McKay’s movie Don’t Look Up, is how to package the solution-oriented message so that people can act on it. McKay’s characters try. They have a go at telling the truth the about the impending disaster on talk shows, then screaming about it in a rage, and finally a glittery Ariana Grande show with hilariously sad lyrics. Nothing works. They become social media memes and little else.
Now that we’re on the topic of memes, it’s a good time to bring up evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, the inventor of the term meme as it is used to describe an idea that replicates like a virus. Dawkins has something to say about motivating people to move on our current crisis. In his book, Krznaric asked Dawkins, “perhaps the world’s most famous atheist,” about making the worship of some version of Mother Earth the one religion that deserves our allegiance. “I fully expected a characteristically strident rejection of this suggestion,” writes Krznaric, “but his reply surprised me:”
I would feel sorry if Mother Earth was considered a religion–I prefer to make the scientific arguments about why we should do something about climate change. But I can see that there might be a political argument to treat the earth as a goddess like Gaia, as a way of galvanizing people and arousing them to protect it.
Finding the right tonal voice to motivate people — not too strident, not hopeless yet realistic — is the first thing. We all can think about how we will package the message. What media would we use? What stories shall we tell? Who are the right people to tell them? An even deeper challenge is remaking an energy system that relies on patriarchy and capitalism for its power base. Krznaric suggests this framing:
When it comes to being a good ancestor, they key questions is not “how can I make a difference?” But “how can we make a difference.” A mere shift of pronoun has the power to change the world.
Single actions are not a drop in the bucket, but addressing the crisis will take a lot of us. We need to forge a community of future-thinking people.
For example, employees of Microsoft and Amazon pressured those companies toback away from their contracts with ICE. Bill McKibben wants the older generation to see the value of helping the next generation. Stacy Abrams fights for voting rights.
I’m a tech guy. I enjoy working with machines, software, and hardware. But when I look toward solutions, I’ve had to change. My solution-thinking now involves the “people side” of the equation. It’s become too easy to be impressed with new tech without questioning whether it benefits its inventors more than it benefits humanity. *Does this new technology bring more voices to the table, or does it reinforce the same voices who represent the power in place now? Does this tech bring agency to diverse groups, or does it consolidate power in the hands of those who already have power? *
As the mission of FutureX comes into focus, I can say that we aim to create media that jumps across generations. We make media that suggests alternative realities and solutions. Media that might address the bigger questions that Krznaric poses so well: When future generations look back, what will they think of us? Will they be shaking their heads at the mess we made of the climate? Or the damage that bad policing done, or the legacy of systemic racism?
One way to think about the big task of making generation-jumping media is to think small. Anne Trubek, who writes the excellent newsletter Notes from a Small Press, has said that niche books often do better than general “trade” books. Regionally focused books, books published by small presses, and genres like Manga enjoy great success because they find their audience and their audience is willing to help them find new readers within the niche.
Most future forecasting I read suggests that the fields that will change the most in the coming years are design, urbanism, architecture, diversity, remote work, self-care, and personal expression. We’ve already seen some changes in these fields. If we want further changes to come, particularly making media about those changes, we might do well to think small. It’s counterintuitive, perhaps, but niche networks, like niche publishing, have shown their power. For example, there will always be big budget superhero movies coming out of the Marvel Universe. But podcasting has taught us that niche audiences will seek the podcast they want to listen to. Those podcasts become a success on their terms. Anne Trubek, of the aforementioned newsletter, wrote that Manga sells as much as any book genre in the country right now. It is a passion for many and a force in publishing.
Envisioning the future means not only having a vision for ourselves, but also for the future generation and generations beyond them.
Ed Yong, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author of I* Contain Multitudes*, first wrote (as as far as I know) the line, “the future is ours to envision.” It was part of a review of the Flash Forward podcast. Here’s the whole passage. “Flash Forward is an essential work of imagination and journalism, as only Rose Eveleth could have created. Eye-opening and thought-provoking, it’s a powerful reminder, at this crucial moment in time, that the future is still ours to envision, through neither naïve optimism nor cynical nihilism, but instead a respect for history and a commitment to justice.”