What happened to the future?

Words matter. The word future seems scarcely used anymore in print, sound or video. Instead, we say going forward. This substitutes a spatial metaphor for time, which is one-dimensional and irreversible. We cannot go anywhere in time but “forward.” According to the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics (entropy), that means in the direction of disorder, which hardly seems like progress. In contrast, we can go backwards and sideways in space, up or down, or any direction we choose. Are we now going forward by choice, whereas we could before only by necessity? Does going forward mean progress, advance, betterment, while the future bears no such guarantee and may even imply degeneration or doom? Do we say going forward to make it clear we do not mean going backward? Are we simply trying to reassure ourselves by changing how we speak?

As though daily news reporting were not discouraging enough, the themes of modern film and tv express a dark view of humanity in the present and a predominantly dystopian future—if any future at all. If “entertainment” is a sort of cultural dreaming, these days it is obsessed with nightmare. If it reveals our deep anxieties, we are at a level of paranoia unheard of since the Cold War, when a surfeit of sci-fi/horror films emerged in response to the Red Menace and Mutually Assured Destruction. At least in those days, we were the good guys and always won out over the “alien” threat. Despite a commercial slogan, now we’re not so sure the future is friendly, much less that we deserve it.

Rather, we seem confused about “progress,” which now has a bad rep through its association with colonialism, manifest destiny, and the ecological and economic fallout of global capitalism we euphemistically call ‘climate change’. Cherished values and good ideas often seem to backfire. Technological solutions often end in disaster, because reality is more complex than thought can be or desire is willing to consider. The materialist promise of better living through technology may end in an uninhabitable planet. Having squandered the reserves of fossil fuels, we may have blown our chances for a sustainable technological civilization or recovery from climate disaster. This is perhaps the underlying anxiety that gives rise to disaster entertainment.

In that context, “going forward” seems suspiciously optimistic. Forward toward what? It cannot mean wandering aimlessly, just to keep moving—change for its own sake, or to avoid boredom. We can and should be hopeful. But that requires a clear and realistic definition of progress. Evidently, the old definitions were naïve and short-sighted. Economic “growth” has seemed obviously good; yet it is a treadmill we cannot get off of, required by capitalism just to keep in place. As we know from cancer, unlimited growth will kill the organism. In a confined space, progress must now mean getting better, not bigger. We can agree about what is bigger, but can we agree about what is better?

The concept of progress must change. So far, in effect, it involves urbanization as a strategy to stabilize human life, by creating artificial environments that can be intentionally managed. Historically, “civilization” has meant isolation from the wild, freedom from the vicissitudes of natural change and from the predations of rival human groups as well as of dangerous carnivores. The advance of civilization is an ideal behind the notion of progress. Consequently, more than half of human population now live in cities. Though no longer walled, they remain population magnets for other reasons than physical security, which can hardly be guaranteed in the age of modern warfare, global disease, and fragile interdependent systems.

The earth has been cataclysmically altered many times in the history of life. More than 99% of all species that have ever existed are now extinct. Our early ancestors survived drastic climate changes for a million years. There have been existential disasters even within the relative stability of the past 12,000 years. Our species has persisted throughout all by virtue of its adaptability far more than its limited ability to stabilize environments. This suggests that the notion of civilized progress based on permanence should give way to a model explicitly based on adaptability to inevitable change.

For us in the modern age, progress is synonymous with irreversible growth in economy and population. We also know that empires rise and fall. Even the literal climate during which civilization developed, though relatively benign overall, was hardly uniform. People migrated in response to droughts and floods. Settlements came and went. Populations reduced during harsher times and increased again in more favorable times. Throughout recorded history, disputes over territory and resources meant endless warfare between settlements. Plagues decimated populations and economies. Nomadic culture rivalled and nearly overtook sedentary civilization based on agriculture. Yet, overall, despite constant warring and setbacks, one could say that the dream of civilization has been for stability and freedom from being at the mercy of unpredictable forces—whether natural or human. The ideal of progress until now has been for permanence and increasing control in ever more artificial environments. The tacit premise has been to adapt the environment to us more than the other way around.

Despite the risk of disease in close quarters, urbanism mostly won out over nomadism, wild beasts, and food shortages. A global economic system has loosely united the world, expanding trade and limiting war. Yet, through the consequences of our very success as a species, the benign climatic period in which civilization arose is now ending. Our challenge now is to focus on adaptability to change rather than immunity to it. Progress should mean better ways to adapt to changes that will inevitably come despite the quest for stability and control. While it is crucial that we make every effort to reduce anthropogenic global warming, we should also be prepared to deal with failure to prevent natural catastrophe and its human fallout. Many factors determining conditions on Earth are simply not within our present control nor ever will be. Climate change and related war are already wreaking havoc on civilization, producing chaotic mass migrations. Given these truths, maximizing human adaptability makes more sense than scrambling to maintain a status quo based on a dream of progress that amounts to indefinitely less effort and more convenience.

In past, we were less self-consciously aware of how human activities impact on nature, which was taken for granted as an inexhaustible reservoir or sink. These activities themselves, and our ignorance of their consequences, led to present crisis. A crucial difference with the past, however, is that we now can feasibly plan our species’ future. Whether we have the social resources to effectively pursue such a plan is questionable. The outward focus of mind conditions us to technological solutions. But, in many ways, it is that outward focus that has created the anthropogenic threat of environmental collapse in the first place. Our concept of progress must shift from technological solutions to the social advances without which we will not succeed to implement any plan for long term survival. A society that cannot realize its goals of social equity and justice probably cannot solve its existential crises either. And that sort of progress involves an inner focus to complement the outer one. This is not an appeal for religion, which is as outwardly focused as science (“in God we trust”). Rather, we must be able to trust ourselves, and for that we must be willing to question values, motivations, and assumptions taken for granted.

Money and mathematics have trained us to think in terms of quantity, which can easily be measured. But it is quality of life that must become the basis of progress: getting better rather than bigger. That means improvement in the general subjective experience of individuals and in the objective structure of society upon which that depends. Both must be considered in the context of a human future on this planet rather than in outer space or on other planets. That does not mean abandoning the safety measure of a backup plan if this planet should become uninhabitable through some natural cosmic cataclysm. But, it does mean a shift in values and priorities. Until now, some people’s lives have improved at the expense of the many; and the general improvement that exists has been at the expense of the planet. To improve the meaning of improvement will require a shift from a search for technological solutions to a search for optimal ways of living in the confined quarters of Spaceship Earth.