Finding positive visions of the future.

“The best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time.” – Abraham Lincoln

I grant that I occupy a very tiny corner of the internet. I watch a very tiny corner of the internet. I follow a very tiny sampling of Twitter.

But there was a (very minor) flare-up of controversy last week between a few of my favourite tweeters. The inimitable William Gibson, arguably the greatest shaper of my generation’s view of the future, discussed the phenomenon of doomy futurism:

“Futurists get to a certain age and, as one does, they suddenly recognize their own mortality,” Gibson says in the Wired premier of The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “And they often decide that what’s going on is that everything is just totally screwed and shabby now, whereas when they were younger everything was better. It’s an ancient, somewhat universal human attitude, and often they give it full voice.”

Matt Novak, who writes for the Paleofuture blog at smithsonianmag.com, disputed that futurists ever held a generally rosy view of the future.

Christopher Mims of Grist picked it up, with the sensationalistic, misleading, and totally awesome headline “Young people expect the future to look like Thunderdome.” His thesis is presented without any rhetorical substantiation, and without any data. He echos William Gibson’s suggestion of a generation divide, but inverts it.

But there’s something different about the present — something more sinister. The image above is, increasingly, how young people view the future, even as their elders seem oblivious to the triple threat of climate change, resource scarcity, and growing inequality.

I don’t buy Mims’ bald assertion that young people look tot he future as see nothing but waste and desolation, which older people are oblivious to. If anything, the most doom-inclined people I meet are in the older generation. But it’s hard to shake that idea. If young people have a positive vision of the future, what is it?

Personally, I have a beautiful and inspiring vision of the future, one that addresses Mims’ “triple threat”. I think anyone trained in Permaculture has access at least to the rudiments of a future vision of a human landscape that strengthens ecosystems, provides abundant renewable resources, and closes growing inequality. There are countless writers, researchers, community organizers, and entrepreneurs doing positive work that obliterate the trope that our future is increasingly hopeless, and that young people don’t see a way forward.

And yet, when I read Mims’ article, I can’t come up with a counterpoint. If we have a positive vision of what our future can be, where is it in pop culture? I’ve felt for about a decade that science fiction (at least in movies and TV) isn’t what it used to be. Historical and supernatural fantasy is everywhere, but where’s the culturally resonant science fiction? I’m not saying it doesn’t exist. I’m just saying I don’t know WHERE. Please enlighten me. The science fiction we’ve had this century has been bleak dystopias (Pandorum, Battlestar Galactica, both in the context of destroyed homeworlds), gritty space opera (Firefly/Serenity), and thinly veiled action thrillers (Riddick, In Time, that one with the clones that had to escape their fate as organ bags for real people, y’know, every other movie). I want to be wrong about this, if only because I want to see the movies. Moon was brilliant, but bleak and lonely and TOTALLY centered on resource extraction. Inception was brilliant, but the setting was so much like our own world plus gadgets that it might as well be present day. Sunshine is high on my to-watch list, so I can’t comment on that. But those are the movies that come to mind. Which presents a positive vision of our future on earth? Not a goddamn one. In the 90s we had cyberpunk (thank you William Gibson), which isn’t remotely a shiny techno-utopian future, but it’s a rich setting that’s produced a lot of great pop-culture. We don’t even have that anymore, and when you’re nostalgic for a cyberpunk future, that’s sad.

So I have to grant Christopher Mims’ point, at least in the sense that we don’t see positive futures articulated in pop culture. In the past, we held out the hope that technology will save us. We have problems, but we also had a techno-utopian Star Trek future to look forward to, wherein white Americans, Jewish aliens, black women, Russians, and asian people banded together in a united federation to explore the galaxy. We don’t buy that anymore. Then we had a techno-dystopian future in which Japanese street Samurai and American code pirates banded together to serve mega-corporations in industrial espionage. We don’t even have that anymore. Not only have we lost faith in the power of technology to save us (except for a few desperate bright-green holdouts), we’ve even lost faith in technology’s power to hold us together long enough to continue the dire trends we see today. Mims’ work assiduously hunts out social and environmental ills and exposes them, without articulating a way out. (Ok, I’m being unfair to him. It’s important that we know about things, and it’s not necessarily the work of the exposers to also be the solvers. He does good and necessary work. But there’s more exposing of bad going on than exposing of solutions.)

All this sounds very apocalyptic, no?

Not necessarily. Intermission for a mid-post quote.

“Problems cannot be solved at the same level of thinking that created them.” – Albert Einstein.

Enter the eco-utopia.

I think the most inspiring work being done today is by people who are bringing together social and ecological change. People like Majora Carter, who has transformed the South Bronx with her “sustainable Bronx” initiative, or Donna Morton, whose work with First Power brings clean tech to First Nations communities, reinvigorating culture and creating economic opportunities. People like Nick Ritar and Kirsten Bradley, Nick an engineer and both professional artists, whose Milkwood Farm near Mudgee, NSW brings together people from all over Australia and the world to learn techniques and stories to build another world. It’s this intersection of simple living and ecological knowledge that holds the most fertile ground for new stories of a positive future.

“Solution oriented” is such an ugly played out phrase. I would be ashamed to put it on my resume. But it says something important. We have to be looking for solutions. And by telling stories of worlds that offer solutions for our problems today, we can create a self-fulfilling prophecy that ends in a new and better world, rather than the logical entropic conclusion of our old one.

4 comments

  1. Bruce Elkin

    Good stuff, Ryan. We do truly need positive, engaging visions of the future we want to create. But a “solution focus” will not get us there.

    Solutions are driven by problems — and it’s this default to problem-solving that is giving rise to more problems. The auto, by the way, was introduced to Victorian Europe as … wait for it … “the solution to pollution.” Yes? Think a million horses living inside the major cities: Paris, London, Berlin…

    What we need is a shift in orientation and focus to “creating what matters.”

    Creating acknowledges current reality (including problems), but is not driven by it. Creating is driven by positive visions of what we want to create. It is grounded in accurate, objective descriptions of what we have or don’t have to work with. And action honours both vision and reality, while we ease the present into the future with those actions.

    More? Check out my book Simplicity and Success: Creating the Life You Long For! Or my free ebook THRIVE! Creating What Matters In Challenging Times and Beyond!

    Less? A quick overview of how this shift in orientation can help us co-create at the community level can be found here:
    http://www.bruceelkin.com/writing/common_future.pdf

    Again, great post. Hope it starts a great discussion. Keep it up!

    • Ryan

      Hi Bruce,

      First of all, thank for commenting, and I’m pleased you’ve found my blog.

      Funny enough, I’ve read Simplicity and Success. My dad (also a Bruce) has a copy, and I read it a few years ago. It was very influential in our consulting practice, so I should know better!

      I get a bit dyspeptic when talking about “solutions”, and you’ve reminded me why. You’re 100% right. The “solution” orientation typically creates more “problems”, and most of the worst responses (proposed or actual) to climate change have been from the “problem/solution” paradigm. The scariest is geo-engineer, but the baffling environmentalist push for nuclear power is a close second.

      The people I talked about in my post, the ones who are making positive efforts forward, are all operating from the “creation” paradigm. They’re all taking positive action to address their immediate situation, and they’re all driven by a positive vision.

      Thank you for reminding me of that important distinction, and for giving me my next blog topic!

  2. Hunter Lovins

    Check out The Future We Want: http://www.futurewewant.org. it’s a project of my organization, Natural Capitalism Solutions, that has just been adopted by the United Nations as the theme for Rio+20.

    Many of us are good at saying what it is we DON’t want: the Keystone Pipeline (or any pipeline carrying tar sands, climate chaos, loss of species and cultures.

    But what DO we want?

    This effort is crowdsourcing visions from around the world to be presented in computer visualizations at the only pavilion that will be where the official delegates gather at Rio. Young, old, cynical, idealistic – let’s craft visions of that better world then make it so.

    (Admin edit – fixed link.)

    • Ryan

      Hi Hunter,

      Thanks for commenting. I think it’s critically important that we have this conversation more and more, and that we do it as publicly as possible.

      Your project looks like a great addition to Rio+20. My friend Naomi Devine had mentioned it to me, but I as yet hadn’t seen it. (I couldn’t remember the name! The down side of martini fundraisers.)

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