It is said that the future is already here! It just isn’t distributed evenly. Forecasting is a mug’s game. I admit it, I once delivered my own vision of the future in a talk called “The History of High Wycombe 2000 to 2100″. It was “back-casting” in order to present a vision of how we can become sustainable. We put ourselves in the future-we-wish-to-live-in and projecting backwards to see what we had to do to get there. The results can be surprising and differ from person to person. We cannot help but bring our own assumptions to the game. It reveals as much about us today as it tells us about things to come. But destinations matter. A happy ending is a fundamental requirement if we are to inspire people: hope is the essential element if we are to build a truly sustainable human civilisation. Sustainability will only come at the end of business-as-usual. There’ll be no history books to tell tale of our failure in this enterprise. Equally true is that a sustainable future will be stubbornly different from what we wish it to be. Heart-achingly so.
My ‘visionary’ talk (from 2012) was the culmination of 4 years work within the local Transition movement. In the run up (to what was to be the closing act of the phenomenon of Transition in my adopted-home town) I published several blogs on the local Newspaper’s web site. They were fictional stories told about the lives of people within the town as it could become in the year 2099. I published the stories in four parts. The first was called “Jack and Jill” which described the dreams & realities of two school-age children. The second “The City that thinks it’s a village” describes an essay written by young Jill as a letter to the world of 2012. The third was called “The only garage on my street” described the feelings of loss and loneliness felt by an old man as he looks back through his past. The last described a trip to the new town centre: “High Street 2099“. These stories feel like postcards from a past-me to a future-me. However I was not intending the audience to be only myself… It was an enjoyable exercise but failed to prompt the sort of debate it should have. What passed for debate back then (as now) were the offensive ranting of the trolls who felt it was their duty to tell me what a complete twat I was. And it wasn’t just the trolls…
These stories came from the research I did for forecasts I had published on the local Transition Town web site. In that piece I jumped forward in time in five year incremental steps. At each step I described the changes we would see in our town as well as the changes we would see globally – both good and bad. It was designed to show global events spinning out of control whereas the local responses offered security in uncertain times. My High Wycombe “story” covered events occuring between the year 2000 and 2100. This reflected my departure from the collected wisdom of the Transition movement who chose only to look ahead some 15 years. For them it was about urgency, urgency, urgency – it sounded more like the self-important, exaggerated, haste of fervent campaign groups: “only six months to save the oceans“, “just two years to save the planet!” I took a leaf out of the book of John Michael Greer who proposed that we get a longer sense of perspective. Change always takes longer than we think.
Being no stranger to back-casting I took to studying similar works. First we had Shaun Chamberlin’s “Transition Timeline” which projected only as far as 2030, whilst more recently there was Jorgen Randers’ “2052“. In “The World We Made: Alex McKay’s Story from 2050” by Jonathan Porritt [Phaidon Press in 2013 ISBN 978-0714863610] the author has performed his own back-cast. He could have chosen any future date at random but choosing mid-century has a certain form. Porritt puts himself in the shoes of a teacher in some fictional college in urban-Britain in 2050. He sets his students the task of compiling a time-line of significant “changes” since the 2010s. For some reason these changes track the history of mankind’s grasp for sustainability. (It goes unremarked as to why they chose not to document space exploration or the lives of Hollywood celebrities.]
There are marked contrasts between the exercises I undertook a few years ago and what Porritt has done here. Firstly, my work was utter crap and Porritt’s is really rather very good. His illustrations are definitely better. Putting that to one side there is the date thing of course: I felt that little could be really concluded about our future by only looking 40 years into the future. If we looked backwards forty years to 1970 do we really see a world that much different from what we have today? Not really, at least in not the sorts of terms that Porritt asks us to accept. His work suggests that we will see more fundamental changes in the political structure of future societies in the next twenty years that we have seen happen in the last two-hundred. This brings a level of discomforting unreality to affairs which leads the reader to suspend belief.
Porritt’s sustainability-revolution seems to result largely from a change in the hearts of our political leadership: lots of people spill out into the streets and protest – leaders listen and change things. Problem solved! It has the feel of so much wishful thinking. Although written at the time of the Arab Spring it is very hard to believe that “protestors-just-get-what-they-want” is the lesson. In reality that is not quite what we all want is it? Change cannot come through chaos. Are we really meant to believe that politicians will suddenly start to listen to the protestors? Should they suddenly understand that business-as-usual is no longer possible? No. Politicians have no track record in interpreting such events in our favour. Why should they? Those protestors are not THEIR constituency. Theirs is a world focussed on the needs of a narrow elite; the political class, the establishment, the media moguls, the hedge fund managers, those who fill the politicians campaign coffers and the 0.1%. For politicians the wishes of this elite-minority are conflated with the needs of the electorate & the protestors.
Since this wealthy-few control the messages the electorate see, politicians need only seek the favour of that few. They believe that the needs of the many can be met by pandering to the elite-minority. Therefore serving this establishment culture is deemed the same as serving the needs of the protestors… QED. What’s good for them is good for everyone. If only the protestors could see it… The elite cannot identify with the protestor. If they did they would be protesting too. Real change requires this political status quo to be threatened. Change is a threat to the elite. Under attack they will hunker-down in defence – even if that makes the situation far worse in the long term. We got where we are today through complete disregard for the long term. This is why things get worse. It is a race towards the bottom. The elite can only see more-of-the-same as the solution. The needs of the elite must align with those of the protestors if the protesters’ desperate pleas are to be validated. The mentality of racing-to-the-bottom must be replaced by the culture of the race-to-the-top. It is a race that the elite must identify as being in their interests if it is allowed to happen. That is the trick. Alignment may well come through shared tragedy. Admits Porritt:
“…I suspect that it will be the unpredictable shocks, rather than the more predictable opportunities, that will have the bigger impact on what happens.”
Hence he does project some climate change-related disasters to encourage the politicians to see that it is in their best interest to change. But the worst – a famine – happens to other people elsewhere. Seeing as the story is being written by fictional college kids in a leafy British suburb it would seem more likely that any such world-changing tradegy would need to strike closer to home. I used a succession of global tragedies in my own work. I believed then (as now) that the world could go to hell in a handbag but our community COULD BE safe if we chose local resilience. In turn our resilience had a beneficial effect through the power of example and by defusing various political, energy and climate-related time-bombs. I do not get the impression that Porritt intends for this to be the lesson from his work. In “The World We Made” the changes seem to be global and largely top-down. It isn’t clear what the author means by the “we” in the title. The only “we” are the young protestors. The “we” doesn’t appear to be “us” – the community – although I am sure Jonathan would protest that this was NOT the impression he wished to give.
My kind of grassroots action is not the sort of “action” of the run-of-the-mill protest movement – no, it was to be local food, local energy, local money, wellbeing over money – all practiced by communities bent on demonstrating the future, not hoping someone else would make it happen for them. The fact that the work of the entire Transition movement is shoe-horned into one brief mention in a section on local food production shows how little this work is respected by Porritt – or at least he sees it as insignificant – just one tiny piece of the jigsaw. However I am happy to admit that it also exposes how inadequate somehow the archetypal ‘Transition’ response is. Like it or not localism will not be enough. Thankfully anyone familiar with the broader writings of Rob Hopkins will know that its intent is far broader. It is not about being entirely self-sufficient (Porritt snorts at such ideals re-stating his pro-globalisation credentials) but about having ‘enough’. Unfortunately, and as I argued many times before, I felt that the demonstration of a ‘Transition’ fell to the whims of the environmentalists who took up its cause. It ended up pigeon-holing itself by doing nothing much remarkable. And if it did anything remarkable nobody realised it was Transition! Anyway, I digress.
It is not my intent to criticise Jonathan Porritt (or Transition) on this basis. I liked “The World We Made”. It was upbeat, utterly charming and highly recommended. It represents a work that closely resembles my own. I can relate to it. Porritt points out that it will be China that drives global change now, not the USA. That is going to be an uncomfortable fact for the global hegemon but a little rivalry can be spur to activity. I genuinely respect Porritt’s attempt to “mess with the heads” of environmentalists. They cannot have it all their own way. The world doesn’t work like that. He echoed my points almost exactly on the matter of organic GMOs – scientifically modified plant genomes could be a massive boost to farming without chemicals. He projects a great future for the internet, materials technology, computers, robots, healthcare, etc. This future is not a low-tech one where we all don sandals and hair-shirts. It is a positive vision – one not unlike the one I was trying to enthuse people about back in 2012.
Now I must reveal the stark difference between Porritt’s slightly cheery view of 2050 and my own writings about the same period. Although I promote a bright vision for humanity by 2100 I am convinced we will need to go through hell to get there. In 2060 I projected extreme climate change results, mass migrations, rivers running dry, starvation and finally a brief nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan. A near-run holocaust and the exhaustion of the remaining fossil fuels were the triggers I believed would bring about the end of business-as-usual. Hence Porritt’s vision is far more palatable than mine. Our different perspectives do not just depend upon pessimism versus optimism. Both our stories reveal some kind of happy ending. The children in my “Jack and Jill” story have access to technology, they are happy and well fed. Theirs is not a Hobbesian existence; nasty, brutal and short, BUT they share their home town with a half-a-million Climate Change refugees. Their dream is to fly in an airship in a world where air-travel is a rarity. It is, eventually, a song in praise of the human spirit. The town echoes with the sounds of hundreds of languages and cultures. Some of our best ideas have come from those outsiders. I am an optimist.
I only part company from Porritt in my vision of the route taken and the timescale. His is a world where campaigns and activism will change the world for the better. Mine is a world where only the demonstration of a different path by a mass of grass-roots action will change the world. I do not believe in going on demo marches or petitioning my MP. Instead I believe in the power of doing stuff. We should all get up and be the change we want to see. We should act as if that change is happening and not wait for politicians to catch up. In short we must pull the rug from under the political process to make the ‘realities’ of our political class an irrelevance – in essence to undermine the entire culture & replace it with an alternative. Mine is a community-based revolution. In truth though it will be neither wholly one thing or the other. In fact it could be something entirely different!
I am being a tad unfair. Porritt does make gestures towards such community action. However his central narrative is dominated by the grand sweeping gestures of leaders and history. He writes of countries coming together to agree climate treaties, outlawing nuclear power and doing other noble deeds – all of which never quite seems to happen in reality. He hankers after a day when young people will travel the world as modern-day Peace Corp members doing good deeds for the environment. In short he seems trapped in a vision of human enlightenment that seems stuck in the 1960s, a throwback to a different way of doing things. As if the last forty years never happened.
You can take your pick as to which future you find more believable. This is not a temporal democracy. The future is, for want of a better cliché, what we make it. Will we make it like this? Or like that? Unimportant. Futile. Writing about the future tells us so much about ourselves. We project our personal beliefs into the it. We desperately want the future to have a happy ending. We want the future people to sing our praises when they remember us. We want to be heroes in our own story. Nobody wants regrets – or to be blamed when it all goes tits-up. Nobody wants to believe that they are the last generation to live with full bellies, warm homes and fulfilling lives. We all want our children to grow up in a better world, or, at least a world less threatened existentially.
Our visions achieve results through the mechanisms WE believe will work. We map our journey using operating systems we are comfortable with TODAY. This is the reason that we have such a hard battle against business-as-usual. Most people are simply NOT looking towards the future. For them the future will be just like today with hover-boards & flying cars. To give it its harsh economic terminology: most of us have discounted the future to the value of nothing. The only other option is to believe that our leadership think that nothing can be changed – hence the future will be truly Hobbesian where the only option is to pull up the draw bridge and keep out those ‘others’ who are not of our tribe. Building walls is a valid solution to those for whom such walls have always worked before. When a man has a hammer he only see nails… It matters not which path we believe we are on to the sustainable future. Only two things matter: firstly that we can make a better world for everyone (not just for us & our tribe), and secondly that we do actually think about it.
Porritt has given us an accessible vision of the future that is all nicely packaged up and ready to go. His vision is as good as any other but lets not pretend that his chosen methods are the only ones. Lots of other things have to happen, many of them going far beyond what many Transition participants can imagine. Some of those changes will be uncomfortable and not everything will come out alright in the end. Even Porritt admits that he could not stretch his imagination to the eradication of poverty and inequality by 2050. In this he & I are of one voice. There are no utopias BUT there are ways to manufacture a sustainable world for 8 or 9 billion people. That is our destination.
If that is NOT our destination then there will be no history books written to describe our failure. Or as Porritt puts it in the Postscript:
“If we can’t deliver the necessarily limited vision of a better world mapped out in “The World We Made”, then the harsh truth is that no other vision will be available to us anyway, on any terms.”