My vision of the future is probably a little different from others you might read here. Although I agree with many analyses of the political and economic forces at work, and on the future impact of declining energy and natural resources, I place them in a different framework. I see a factor dominating that others see as contributory.
In my view, the future will be shaped and dominated by climate. Not just the tepid background of “global warming,” not some distant and neutral-sounding “climate change.” I mean what I’ve been calling–and others (like Al Gore) are beginning to call–the climate crisis. I’ll explain what I mean by this, which is perhaps different as well.
But first let me preview what I mean by fear of the future.
Fear is engendered by danger or change that threatens injury or hardship we are not confidently prepared for.
Some fear comes from uncertainty. When bad will bad things happen? How bad will they be? How will they affect me, my family, community, country, planet? My life, and the lives of my children and grandchildren?
The future is by its nature uncertain (a least to our knowledge.) So visions of the future are always fictional. Yet they may help us prepare, and even shape that future. Fear is a visceral response to danger that we animals have. The ability to gather and evaluate information consciously, and consciously prepare for danger, is something we humans share.
A number of recent diaries have been about fear of the very near future, by people facing imminent difficulties. The response has revealed a major antidote to fear: community. We are social animals, and science is just beginning to understand what that means. As conscious human beings, we vary in our relationships to each other. But we also belong, or can belong, to many different kinds of communities, from the `kossacks’ or Booman blogger communities, to neighborhood, families and lifelong friends.
Community of all kind is going to become more important in the future I envision. I believe we will find ourselves building new communities, which we can hope will honor our special individualities and contributions.
They will, in that ideal, adjust to a different balance of our innate and learned behaviors than our present society models, supports and seems to demand–even to the point of insisting that such things as ruthless selfishness, and only such qualities, are “natural.” The empathy and sense of the group’s welfare that is present in our genetic heritage (even if mostly as a capacity to learn it) will aid us in the rediscovery of sharing over selfishness, without it becoming toxic self-humiliation.
If there is to be a future not dominated by chaos and conflict, we will have to rediscover, and learn in perhaps entirely new ways for our species–that we are all in this together.
I say this as a person who isn’t very social, who prefers reading and writing, solitude and quiet, or the organized activities of music and theatre. I don’t think I would have to give that up, if the community values what I contribute because of who I am. And I am willing to contribute, as I believe my life so far proves.
I do believe that the kind of communities we create will determine a lot about our future, and the future of the planet, perhaps for eons to come.
In some ways it may be easier that we foresee now. As the context changes, the social atmosphere changes. Different qualities are called forth in individuals, and the surrounding society begins to value different behaviors, knowledge and points of view. The visions of apocalyptic futures in movies and books often portray a survivalist mentality, a war of all against all, or the return of medieval war lords. It doesn’t have to happen that way.
We have to prepare for a future that in our terms now will be worse—that is, harder. We can see its outline this year. In many ways, 2005 is the first year of our climate crisis future.
The Climate Crisis Future
In my vision, climate shapes the rest of the century, and beyond. No one knows exactly how, but my guess is that for awhile it will be much like 2005, though there will be worse years, and perhaps quieter ones, as we trend towards a much different world than we know now.
For the next few decades, we will see changes wrought by climate that are measurable but appear somewhat gradual, possibly because where the changes occur is remote from our everyday experience, like the melting in the Arctic and the snows disappearing from high peaks of mountains around the world.
But at the same time, we will see major local catastrophes like the effect of hurricane Katrina on New Orleans. And we will see other threats, like the outbreak of diseases and even pandemics, that seem to be unrelated to climate, but may in fact be a predictable outcome of the climate crisis.
It is the catastrophe of Katrina that highlights one crucial fact about the climate crisis. You may have noticed the scientific argument about whether Katrina and other strong hurricanes are due to the greenhouse effect. Some scientists believe their data supports the idea, others suggest that a different pattern is at work that has little to do with global warming.
What we miss in this dispute however is the essential agreement: for whatever reason, or combination of reasons, there are more hurricanes and stronger hurricanes now, in both the Atlantic and Pacific, and this pattern is likely to persist for at least a decade, and probably more.
This highlights a fact about our time that will soon become glaringly obvious. We don’t think about climate affecting anything because we have lived through an exceptionally moderate period. Our infrastructure protects us within the range of temperatures and other climate manifestations of this moderate period. But if we think it can protect us from more intense patterns of temperature or precipitation or storm activity, we need to look again at Katrina and other hurricanes this season, just as Europe had to look at its recent summers of killing heat waves.
History is replete with changes related to climate, though our history books don’t emphasize this. Even within living memory, the Depression of the 1930s was greatly exacerbated by years of drought through much of America, as far east as Pennsylvania, into the deep south, and of course to the dust bowl phenomenon in the west.
But in this moderate period, we have lost touch with the power of climate and other physical forces, yet their residual power in our psyches is perhaps demonstrated by our current denial. We rely on science to explain natural forces and our interaction with them, and on technology to control these forces or protect us from them. But when science warns us of the onrushing climate crisis, we largely ignore it. That’s powerful denial, greatly aided by irresponsible leadership more intent on short-term profit, but also in denial.
It may be awhile yet before the shape and import of the climate crisis becomes clear enough in the popular mind to focus action. But Katrina is an important indicator of what we’ll face in our lifetimes: violent and extreme events that will test our ability to cope and adjust.
Katrina revealed the relationships of nature and human activity, of interrelationships of the natural and built environments, political, social and cultural institutions, economics, energy, health, and more. We could have learned more from Katrina, and perhaps we will, but partly because our federal leadership is so poor, it will probably take other such disasters before we take constructive action.
At first, the disasters and dislocations of our immediate future—the next 50 years, say—will probably be seen first as separate and isolated, and eventually as forming patterns requiring anticipatory action. This will be the challenge of the climate crisis in the future we can foresee. Because there is nothing we can do now to stop it.
These actions are likely to mean large investments in infrastructure, possibly large dislocations of populations, and reorganizing of all kinds of economic, social and political institutions and relationships.
Whether all of these problems are direct results of the human-induced global heating effect, or a combination of that and “natural” climate changes and cycles, won’t really matter.
It will likely take awhile before it is understood that if we are to address the problems of our time and be responsible to the farther future of the planet and humanity, it will require two sets of actions, separate but conducted simultaneously.
To be responsible to the future, we will severely lessen the human activity causing the greenhouse effect. Though there will be factors that encourage this, like peak oil, the needs of current times may make it difficult. But the long-term future of life as we know it on this planet, beyond this century, will likely depend on it.
To be responsible to our time will require addressing the consequences of the climate crisis, and anticipating its effects to lessen their impact. This will mean a lot of changes and a lot of cultural and individual adjustments in assumptions and attitudes. For instance, those who don’t believe in the priority of the climate crisis will need to take it seriously. And those who believe that the solution to the climate crisis in the near term is cleaner energy will need to realize that this is a good thing for other reasons, but will not prevent the climate crisis or its manifestations for the foreseeable future.
This is the outline of a vision that I hope to articulate more fully, providing links and sources. However, a recent article by Bill McKibben is a good summary of recent global heating news:
But the intent of this diary is to present this vision in the context of how to deal with the fear of this onrushing future.
The first way is to anticipate it. In some ways it hardly matters whether the future will come to pass in just this way. By fully exploring the vision, we can come to grips a little better with the fear of many unknowns. I think this vision is worth considering as a likely future. It does at least provide a framework to view current events.
The second way is to realize that our decisions will affect this future. What we do now, including how we approach our individual lives and what kind of communities we form.
If we commit ourselves to positive action–which may be political or cultural or spiritual or, ideally, all of these and more—then we live our lives to our potential. Fear is about the future, what may happen. But essentially we know what will happen. We will all die. We operate within that context.
Hope is about the present, what we commit ourselves to now, to help create a better future. It is about life trying to make more life. It is what life does. What kind of a future we work towards is a living statement of who we are.