Last week I wrote about my love for the future. In the comments, several people said the 800-pound gorilla of climate change looming over every thing these days makes it impossible to think positively about the future.
No way to imagine utopias, or even “protopias” – worlds in which things are gradually improving – this theory goes. We are destroying ourselves. Dystopia is the only likely outcome.
Now I certainly worry about climate change, and not just in the future. At the farmer’s market this week, the blueberry seller said his berries were a month early. “We’re getting LA’s weather,” he said. “I don’t want to live in LA.” Me either.
Having moved first from an area getting nastier winters than it used to, and then from one drought-ridden region of the country to another, not to mention having returned to Austin after 30 years to find a different climate from the one I left – the people who used to grow azaleas now grow prickly pear – I can see the changes happening. And since the only people taking serious action to deal with it are working on such a small scale, the problems aren’t slowing down yet, much less getting turned around.
I don’t think we get out of the 21st Century without major disasters and massive suffering due to climate change.
But at the same time, we’re on the cusp of more and more amazing knowledge. The human genome. Digital technology. Renewable energy. An abundance of earthlike planets in the universe. Greater understanding of human nature – cooperation appears as hardwired into our biology as competition. A decline in violence and – perhaps more important – in tolerance for violence.
Those things make me optimistic – with reservations. If we can survive the crises of the 21st Century without losing the knowledge we’ve gained, we will continue the haphazard journey of human beings toward real civilization.
But it’s not going to be easy.
In a conversation on Facebook after that blog post went up, a friend asked me for a recommendation for non-dystopic science fiction. That sent me looking for the online link to my story “Or We Will All Hang Separately” (which originally appeared here on Futurismic and is also available in my Book View Café collection Walking Contradiction).
In a nutshell: Kelly put out a call for 100-word “haikus” describing “a plausible technological future in 100 years that I would like to live in.” He got 23 submissions and also published his own. For the most part, the scenarios assumed technological advancement: cheap renewable energy, open engineering, a post-scarcity economy. One odd one focused on getting rid of graffiti, which seems like a trivial response to a complex question. There’s also one that assumes that the destruction wrought by climate change will bring us to compassion and generosity as heritable traits, which, nice as it sounds, implies magic.
Raven, a futurist himself, faulted both the submissions and Kelly’s own version for falling into the “standard blindspot” of futurists focused on information and communications technology. He provided his own 100-word description of changes that can be made right now that have nothing to do with technology. It starts out “No one goes hungry” and goes on to describe a world without second-class citizens and with quality products made to last.
To those who call his idea “impossible,” he points out: “We have everything we need already” to make it happen. Nothing has to be invented.
Kelly’s own contribution begins, “2121: Population 4 billion.” It’s a disconcerting beginning, because that’s just over half of the current population. The human race and the planet are going to go through a lot of pain and suffering to get to his utopia (or protopia).
It’s not that I wouldn’t like to see the world population drop by that much; it’s that I think the suffering from such an extreme drop in a short period would be catastrophic. I think it might happen, though. I even think the reduction in population might be what reins in climate change and makes it possible for the human race to thrive. But I can’t ignore the suffering it would cause.
I’ve taken a stab at my own 100-word “haiku” on a plausible sustainable future:
2121: A hellish century ends. Billions dead from famine, disease, disasters. Islands, even cities disappear. Landscapes are changed forever. But things are improving. No more drilling and mining of fossil fuels. Worldwide wealth taxes reduce inequality. Renewable energy widely available. Guaranteed incomes common. Scientific research expands. Medicine based on genomes in wide use. Settlements on the Moon, mining in the asteroids, more space exploration. No slave labor; more opportunities for all. Less international shipping, more local farming and manufacturing. Information and knowledge expand; simple lifestyles predominate. Violence continues to decrease. Cooperative economic systems expand. The human race might become civilized.
Feel free to add your own take on things in the comments.