The Decade We Ran Out Of Future

(Content warnings: All of them. But especially: war, fascism, genocide, bigotry, climate apocalypse, and general despair. Seriously i am showing you what the inside of my brain looks like and it's not a happy place, if you are vulnerable to thinking-induced depression then consider this entire sequence of blog posts to be INFOHAZARD, maybe just skip ahead to part 6 where we attempt to find some hope left at the bottom of Pandora's Box)

  1. Table of contents
    1. What a horrible decade, right?
    2. Can we still imagine a Future?
  2. Did ANYTHING good happen this decade?
    1. my list, first draft
  3. Envisioning The Future
    1. What is "the future" and why do we need one?
    2. Why aren't we living in any of our past futures?
    3. What does our present future look like?
  4. What a horrible decade, in detail
    1. what went wrong with: technology/the internet (but: green shoots)
    2. what went wrong with: the environment (but: green shoots)
    3. what went wrong with: politics (but: green shoots)
    4. what went wrong with: economics (but: green shoots)
    5. what went wrong with: culture?
  5. The decade in my personal life
    1. depression
    2. bouncing between jobs
    3. having a kid
    4. Turning 40
  6. The argument against despair.
    1. students with climate fatalism
    2. a 2x2
    3. self-fulfilling prophecies, shrinking-pie mindset vs. growth mindset, the need to offer people an alternative
    4. what would I keep, revisited
  7. Can we put those green shoots together into some kind of new vision of the future?
    1. "the future" exists to give us a roadmap, not to trust problems to go away on their own
    2. there is nobody else but us and no other time than now

What a horrible decade!

Right? We're all on the same page, right, that was a horrible decade?

Decades are arbitrary (what we call "the sixties" was actually more like 1966 - 1972) but it turns out the 2010s are a useful framing device for this messy tangle of ideas I want to get out of my head, so here we go.

It's 2020, everybody's doing their "decade in review" posts and making "hindsight is 20/20" jokes. We're looking back on the wreckage that is the last ten years, wondering whether anything good happened in the decade at all, wondering where it all went wrong, wondering what if anything can be salvaged.

I think what best sums up the 2010s in a single sentence is this:

At the beginning of the decade we wondered whether Facebook would bring democracy to the middle east (answer: no); at the end of the decade we're wondering whether democracy in America can survive Facebook (answer: unlikely)

All of the progress we thought we were making towards freedom, equality, and human rights seems to have suddenly reversed itself under a tide of right-wing xenophobic populist authoritarianism that came out of nowhere; there's serious doubt as to whether we'll ever have a fair election again (if we've ever had a fair one) we're on the verge of losing democracy to a system of permanent minority rule fueled by virulent white supremacy and anti-immigrant hatred, of which Trump is not the cause but merely the largest symptom.

Zooming out to the rest of the world: between Xi Jinping, Putin, Erdogan, Duterte, Bolsonaro, Boris Johnson, Modi, and Viktor Orban, the countries not ruled by authoritarian, criminal psycopaths grow fewer and fewer. China reversed its course of liberalization and is now imprisoning a million Uighurs in concentration camps, India is stripping citizenship from Muslims and turning Kashmir into an occupied police state, Hungary is apparently gearing up for a Roma genocide. America is ripping families apart and putting children in concentration camps of our own on the border, and now Trump is trying to start a war with Iran (because the last war we started in the middle east worked out so fucking well )

And that's the small stuff; maybe we could wrest our freedom back from these monsters given another generation of struggle. But we don't have time for another generation.

Despite decades of warnings from scientists we are at 415 parts-per-million of CO2 in the atmosphere and rapidly climbing, the highest concentration for 14 million years; we're already 1 degree celsius above the pre-industrial average, the polar icecaps are already melting, and really "fun" "exciting" stuff starts happening at 1.5 degrees, which we are on track to blow way past very quickly. in 2018 the IPCC (international panel on climate change) report told us we have 12 years to get our shit together or face a crisis of global famine; that was 2018, so 10 years left and we've done jack shit, we have climate deniers (still!) running the executive branch. And that 10 years is assuming we haven't already emitted enough CO2 to cross over various poorly-understood tipping points into runaway warming and global ecological collapse even if we somehow stopped emitting greenhosue gas tomorrow.

Australia's literally on fire right now. So's the Amazon. The world is literally burning down.

I haven't been sleeping well the past few years. I wake up a lot at night and lie awake in bed with a knot in my stomach, just trying to make myself stop thinking about how utterly doomed we are. It's not so much "a world teetering on the brink" as a world already over the edge and in free-fall, screaming all the way down.

I have a 3-year-old daughter who didn't ask to be brought into this horrible world. Not a day goes by that I don't feel guilty for dooming her to exist in it. How old should she be when I tell her "Sorry, you don't have a future, we fucked up your planet too bad." ?

How did it all go so wrong in the 2010s? Why did liberal democracy, after supposedly winning its final victory in the 1990s according to Fukuyama, start losing ground? Why did the ideal of progress fail? Why can't we fix any of the things that so obviously need fixing? Why don't our governments do what we want them to? Why has technological progress seemingly stopped delivering anything other than new tools of surveillance? Where did all these fucking neo-nazis come from and why are they suddenly running our government? How come everywhere the ritual of innocence is drowned in the blood-dimmed tide of... how does that poem go?

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

-- "The Second Coming", William Butler Yeats

Hmmm, Yeats wrote that almost 100 years ago -- 1921, between WWI and WWII -- so file it under "the world's been ending for a while" I guess. There was a guy 100 years ago who couldn't imagine a future that proceeded out of the present in an orderly fashion so he personified the future as some kinda sphinx monster and regarded it with horrified fascination.

It seems similarly impossible to imagine a future, at this juncture of 2020. That is, a future we'd want to live in. We can imagine Mad Max futures and Hunger Games futures but we can't imagine a Star Trek future.

How dare we imagine a better future now, when obviously nothing is waiting for us in the 2020s but howling chaos: fascism, authoritarian surveillance, climate tipping points, breakdown, collapse? Hoping for anything seems actively painful.

After all, 2020 was supposed to be The Future already, wasn't it? 2020 sure sounds like a futuristic year. We're past "2001: a Space Odyssey", past Blade Runner (2019), past Transformers: the Movie (2005), past Neon Genesis Evangelion (2015) We're in the future now and this isn't how The Future was supposed to be. We were supposed to have defeated fascism and global warming back in the 20th century, weren't we? We weren't supposed to still be fighting them in 2020. The very concept of "The Future" broke somewhere along the way.

This is what I mean by "the decade we ran out of Future".

But what if our inability to imagine a Future -- a future worth living in, somehow, on the other side of the present crisis -- is precisely the root of the problem? What if the reason the present is such a horrorshow is precisely because we've lost our imaginations when it comes to the future?

No Future, no hope. No Future, no direction to move in. Here's my suggestion: we need to construct the Future anew.

In this blog series, I'll be digging into the wreckage of the 2010s trying to answer the questions of where it all went wrong. But wallowing in misery isn't productive, so I'll also be trying to answer the more important questions: What do we do about it? Where do we go from here? How do we survive? How can we rebuild hope? What do we try to save, and how?

Maybe the 2010s, awful as they were, will look like a golden age compared to whatever nightmare we're about to enter. Or maybe -- I can only hope -- maybe the future will look back at the 2010s as a series of regrettable wrong turns that we blundered into before we finally figured it out.

I'm pretty sure the only way we have any chance of getting to the second one involves somehow reconstructing a concept of "The Future". How can we imagine a future worth living in, so that we might start getting people inspired to build it with us? All of our old concepts of "The Future" have run out. We have to start from scratch.

Next post, let's get started by looking among the ruins of the 2010s for some green shoots that we can use as material for our new Future. They're hard to see, but there are a few.

Last modified Jan. 5, 2020, 9:09 p.m..

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