Overview:

A key part of building better futures is being fearlessly pragmatic about the humans who will live within them. Imagining a future-history we can reasonably attain is a good first step.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Picture it. The Un-seceded States, formerly of the United States, pre-Southern Separation. The year is 2122. A suburban history class is in session, in a converted mall that also serves as home for many families displaced by rising sea levels. The mall generates enough solar energy to contribute to the surrounding grid—at least, when increasing storms don’t knock out the power lines. When not in class, the kids work in the community garden for partial biology and sustainable home-ec credits.

The history teacher is an avatar designed by group consensus. Today the kids dissented wildly over skin, hair, and clothes, but agreed unanimously on the bright red clown nose. Peer-assisted learning has been the wellevidenced educational standard for years. A facilitator’s face, even digital, mostly reminds them that they can draw on the counsel of adults in the community, too. (And also, that they’re not alone).

“What would you like to learn about the early 21st century?” the clown-nosed teacher asks.

Options pop up in bubbles. The U.S. at War? The Arab Spring? The First Recession? The First Pandemic? Russia at War? The Rise of Fake News? Climate Change and Energy Corporations?

The kids thrill at the word “fake,” but one doesn’t know what it means.

“It’s like, the opposite of real. Something made up,” offers another.

“No, that’s not right,” says a third. “If I read a fantasy story, that’s not fake. Just fiction.”

“It’s something that’s supposed to be real, but isn’t,” the second amends. “Isn’t that right?”

The avatar selects “The Rise of Fake News” in answer, and the bubble is haloed by a range of subtopics. World of Warcraft and Troll Armies. Tweeting Foreign Policy. Facebook and Genocide. QAnon. False Flags vs. Real Conspiracies. Machine Learning, Racial Bias, and the Carceral State. Electoral Sabotage. Foreign Influence in the War of Southern Secession.

“In groups of three, please,” the avatar hums.

The kids, with sordid relish, split up the readings, and dig in.

Creating the future-history that we want

Journalism is famously called “the first draft of history,” but it’s not the only one. As a writer of science fiction, I’m acutely aware that almost every storytelling medium is trapped in that mode. Much as people might think that far-flung future tales actually allow sci-fi writers to escape the present, what we’re really doing is playing out current preoccupations in imagined settings. What drives us now inevitably shapes what we choose to explore in other “whens.”

However, there’s something to be said for imagining the future-history that we want, even if our wildest dreaming might never approach the reality we get. Whenever I advocate for imagining the better worlds we want our advocacy to yield, I’m building such a future-history in my mind. And it’s not a “fake.” It’s a story I tell to sharpen my actions and ethos in the here and now.

We don’t have many great examples to build from, though, and that’s a problem. Christianity holds a wide range of fairly banal eschatology, covering personal endings (Heaven, Hell, Purgatory) and end-of-days/Second-Coming scenarios for the whole species. There’s not much creativity to what happens next, though: reigns of pure righteousness, the unjust vanquished, the Earth “remade” or Heaven at its peak.

Understandably then, many Christians are also humanist, and also interested in making a “Heaven” of the Earth by improving worldly outcomes. Many religious folks, in general, recognize that vague promises of apocalypse and utopia are only ever gesturing in middling terms at solutions. We have a wider consensus that we might realize, of people who want to do better.

But with what stories?

The problem with so many of our imagined futures comes down to bad human behavioral science. We want to imagine worlds where no problems exist. Where prejudice has “ended.” Where everyone is fulfilled all of the time. (And this, despite listening to Mr. Smith’s 1999 explanation of why earlier versions of The Matrix failed)! Is it any wonder, then, that we’re terrifically lousy at imagining anything but complete apocalypse or vague utopia?

There’s a concept in some activist circles called “environmental nihilism.” Now, “nihilism” is generally a word I use to define “humanism” in contrast with the alternative. And it’s often used that way in relation to climate change discourse: to describe a kind of fatalism that leads to inaction. But there are also some anarchists who find it freeing, like Margaret Killjoy of Live Like the World Is Dying. Environmental nihilism, for folks like her, involves an acceptance that climate change is already here, it’s happening, and can at best be mitigated and adapted to.

Why do some activists find this “freeing”? Because it invites us to think about the next question. Okay. Climate change is here. What now?

Trying to “stop” climate change is such a Herculean ask for individuals that it can easily breed despair and disillusionment. But when we put the impossible aside, it becomes more feasible to address what remains: the possible, and plausible, in better policy directions for us all.

And that’s the kind of pragmatism quite a bit of our future-history could use as well.

Pragmatic policy considerations

The problem with imagining that we can “end” prejudice, for instance, is that we’re stuck imagining a future in which children will all be born perfectly enlightened. (Are many of us vaguely Lamarckian in our understanding of evolution? I wouldn’t be surprised). But that’s not how biology and human behavioralism work. Children learn from their environments, and they need a great deal of guidance to navigate any initially violent and retributive instincts as they first grapple with questions of “justice” and “fairness.”

So long as new human beings are born needing the same high quality of justice-seeking education, especially to soften the variability in our biochemical profiles (e.g. a reduced ability to empathize with others), we will always need to be vigilant in our anti-prejudice advocacy.

Is this an admission of “failure”? “Nihilism” in its worst sense? Or simply a pragmatic acknowledgment that frees us up for more attainable goals? What if we focused on building more resilient childhood educations? And a culture more comfortable with lifelong learning and ethical adjustment to new problems as they arise? How would that not also be a “win”?

The future-history we deserve

When I imagine how we’ll look back on the current era, I of course need to consider who’s doing the looking. Who will write our future-history? Will we still have a few media organizations dominating the news landscape, and supporting power and property as they do? Will we be so factionalized as a set of Western peoples that even fewer of us will agree on “basic” facts?

The current, stratified state of our info silos suggests that we’re in a precarious moment. Shifting population demographics might help, but only if properly represented in our democratic institutions. Meanwhile, one added peril of environmental refugeeism, which is already rising with climate change, is the loss of institutional memory and generational knowledge. Continuity in our media discourse is already fragile. We routinely forget so much.

How do we do better?

Social stability is key, and attainable. If we can address the precarity-pressures that drive our current politics, we can lower the psychological cost of bridge-building across factions. We can cultivate consensus. And we can help to ensure that our current era’s legacy, for all its egregious missteps, is a future-history that others can learn from well.

But that “if” is a big one. Because while we certainly have the capacity to improve the reach of our social safety nets, we as individuals can’t seem to overcome the lack of will in our leaders. The people with the most power in our systems are still cranking up the rich-poor divide, accelerating environmental disasters, and taking us into horrific wars and civil conflicts.

And that’s a problem no vaguely hopeful rhetoric is ever going to chase away on its own.

The problem with so many of our imagined futures comes down to bad human behavioural science. We want to imagine worlds where no problems exist. Is it any wonder, then, that we’re terrifically lousy at imagining anything but complete apocalypse or vague utopia?

Dreaming better

Do average citizens deserve the future-history that the current drivers of politics and industry are setting for us? Does the next generation?

Of course not.

But it’s what we’re going to be left with, if we don’t get a lot better at thinking pragmatically about the changes that we can bring about, wherever we are, with whatever we have.

Our old ways of imagining end-conditions for humanity have long since failed to serve our communal growth. Even the wishful thinking of making a “Heaven” on Earth doesn’t sufficiently address and account for certain hard limits in human behavior and our material conditions.

We need better stories, and better future-histories, to plot a surer course through the myriad of competing pressures driving our present news cycles.

So what are yours right now? And what would you like them to become?

GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.