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On Fear of the Future

by Captain Future Sat Oct 15th, 2005 at 05:25:09 PM EST

My vision of the future is probably a little different from others you might read here.  Although I agree with many analyses of the political and economic forces at work, and on the future impact of declining energy and natural resources, I place them in a different framework.  I see a factor dominating that others see as contributory.

In my view, the future will be shaped and dominated by climate.  Not just the tepid background of "global warming," not some distant and neutral-sounding "climate change." I mean what I've been calling--and others (like Al Gore) are beginning to call--the climate crisis.  I'll explain what I mean by this, which is perhaps different as well.

But first let me preview what I mean by fear of the future

Fear is engendered by danger or change that threatens injury or hardship we are not confidently prepared for.

Some fear comes from uncertainty.  When bad will bad things happen?  How bad will they be?  How will they affect me, my family, community, country, planet?  My life, and the lives of my children and grandchildren?

The future is by its nature uncertain (a least to our knowledge.)  So visions of the future are always fictional.  Yet they may help us prepare, and even shape that future.  Fear is a visceral response to danger that we animals have.  The ability to gather and evaluate information consciously, and consciously prepare for danger, is something we humans share.

On dkos and Booman Tribune (where this is crossposted) there have been a number of recent diaries about fear of the very near future, by people facing imminent difficulties.  The response has revealed a major antidote to fear: community.  We are social animals, and science is just beginning to understand what that means.  As conscious human beings, we vary in our relationships to each other.  But we also belong, or can belong, to many different kinds of communities, from the `kossacks' or Booman blogger communities, to neighborhood, families and lifelong friends.

Community of all kind is going to become more important in the future I envision.  I believe we will find ourselves building new communities, which we can hope will honor our special individualities and contributions.

They will, in that ideal, adjust to a different balance of our innate and learned behaviors than our present society models, supports and seems to demand--even to the point of insisting that such things as ruthless selfishness, and only such qualities, are "natural."  The empathy and sense of the group's welfare that is present in our genetic heritage (even if mostly as a capacity to learn it) will aid us in the rediscovery of sharing over selfishness, without it becoming toxic self-humiliation.

If there is to be a future not dominated by chaos and conflict, we will have to rediscover, and learn in perhaps entirely new ways for our species--that we are all in this together.

I say this as a person who isn't very social, who prefers reading and writing, solitude and quiet, or the organized activities of music and theatre.  I don't think I would have to give that up, if the community values what I contribute because of who I am.  And I am willing to contribute, as I believe my life so far proves.

I do believe that the kind of communities we create will determine a lot about our future, and the future of the planet, perhaps for eons to come.

  In some ways it may be easier that we foresee now.  As the context changes, the social atmosphere changes.  Different qualities are called forth in individuals, and the surrounding society begins to value different behaviors, knowledge and points of view.  The visions of apocalyptic futures in movies and books often portray a survivalist mentality, a war of all against all, or the return of medieval war lords.  It doesn't have to happen that way.

We have to prepare for a future that in our terms now will be worse---that is, harder.  We can see its outline this year.  In many ways, 2005 is the first year of our climate crisis future.

The Climate Crisis Future

In my vision, climate shapes the rest of the century, and beyond.  No one knows exactly how, but my guess is that for awhile it will be much like 2005, though there will be worse years, and perhaps quieter ones, as we trend towards a much different world than we know now.

For the next few decades, we will see changes wrought by climate that are measurable but appear somewhat gradual, possibly because where the changes occur is remote from our everyday experience, like the melting in the Arctic and the snows disappearing from high peaks of mountains around the world.

But at the same time, we will see major local catastrophes like the effect of hurricane Katrina on New Orleans.  And we will see other threats, like the outbreak of diseases and even pandemics, that seem to be unrelated to climate, but may in fact be a predictable outcome of the climate crisis.    

It is the catastrophe of Katrina that highlights one crucial fact about the climate crisis.  You may have noticed the scientific argument about whether Katrina and other strong hurricanes are due to the greenhouse effect.  Some scientists believe their data supports the idea, others suggest that a different pattern is at work that has little to do with global warming.

What we miss in this dispute however is the essential agreement: for whatever reason, or combination of reasons, there are more hurricanes and stronger hurricanes now, in both the Atlantic and Pacific, and this pattern is likely to persist for at least a decade, and probably more.

This highlights a fact about our time that will soon become glaringly obvious.  We don't think about climate affecting anything because we have lived through an exceptionally moderate period.  Our infrastructure protects us within the range of temperatures and other climate manifestations of this moderate period.   But if we think it can protect us from more intense patterns of temperature or precipitation or storm activity, we need to look again at Katrina and other hurricanes this season, just as Europe had to look at its recent summers of killing heat waves.

History is replete with changes related to climate, though our history books don't emphasize this.  Even within living memory, the Depression of the 1930s was greatly exacerbated by years of drought through much of America, as far east as Pennsylvania, into the deep south, and of course to the dust bowl phenomenon in the west.  

(Eventually, probably in the next generation, we will rediscover our cultural relationship to climate.  Old tales and old histories will make new sense.  Schoolchildren will be reading more Wila Cather and other literature about the interrelationships of individuals, communities and societies with climate and the natural world.)  

But in this moderate period, we have lost touch with the power of climate and other physical forces, yet their residual power in our psyches is perhaps demonstrated by our current denial. We rely on science to explain natural forces and our interaction with them, and on technology to control these forces or protect us from them.  But when science warns us of the onrushing climate crisis, we largely ignore it.  That's powerful denial, greatly aided by irresponsible leadership more intent on short-term profit, but also in denial.

It may be awhile yet before the shape and import of the climate crisis becomes clear enough in the popular mind to focus action.  But Katrina is an important indicator of what we'll face in our lifetimes: violent and extreme events that will test our ability to cope and adjust.  

Katrina revealed the relationships of nature and human activity, of interrelationships of the natural and built environments, political, social and cultural institutions, economics, energy, health, and more.  We could have learned more from Katrina, and perhaps we will, but partly because our federal leadership is so poor, it will probably take other such disasters before we take constructive action.

At first, the disasters and dislocations of our immediate future---the next 50 years, say---will probably be seen first as separate and isolated, and eventually as forming patterns requiring anticipatory action.  This will be the challenge of the climate crisis in the future we can foresee.  Because there is nothing we can do now to stop it.

These actions are likely to mean large investments in infrastructure, possibly large dislocations of populations, and reorganizing of all kinds of economic, social and political institutions and relationships.

Whether all of these problems are direct results of the human-induced global heating effect, or a combination of that and "natural" climate changes and cycles, won't really matter.

It will likely take awhile before it is understood that if we are to address the problems of our time and be responsible to the farther future of the planet and humanity, it will require two sets of actions, separate but conducted simultaneously.

To be responsible to the future, we will severely lessen the human activity causing the greenhouse effect.  Though there will be factors that encourage this, like peak oil, the needs of current times may make it difficult.  But the long-term future of life as we know it on this planet, beyond this century, will likely depend on it.  

To be responsible to our time will require addressing the consequences of the climate crisis, and anticipating its effects to lessen their impact.  This will mean a lot of changes and a lot of cultural and individual adjustments in assumptions and attitudes.  For instance, those who don't believe in the priority of the climate crisis will need to take it seriously.  And those who believe that the solution to the climate crisis in the near term is cleaner energy will need to realize that this is a good thing for other reasons, but will not prevent the climate crisis or its manifestations for the foreseeable future.

This is the outline of a vision that I hope to articulate more fully, providing links and sources.  However, a recent article by Bill McKibben is a good summary of recent global heating news:

 But the intent of this diary is to present this vision in the context of how to deal with the fear of this onrushing future.

The first way is to anticipate it.  In some ways it hardly matters whether the future will come to pass in just this way.  By fully exploring the vision, we can come to grips a little better with the fear of many unknowns.  I think this vision is worth considering as a likely future.  It does at least provide a framework to view current events.

The second way is to realize that our decisions will affect this future.  What we do now, including how we approach our individual lives and what kind of communities we form.  

If we commit ourselves to positive action--which may be political or cultural or spiritual or, ideally, all of these and more---then we live our lives to our potential.  Fear is about the future, what may happen.  But essentially we know what will happen.  We will all die.  We operate within that context.

Hope is about the present, what we commit ourselves to now, to help create a better future.  It is about life trying to make more life.  It is what life does.  What kind of a future we work towards is a living statement of who we are.                  

Will take some time to thoroughly read your article later, but what immediately strikes me is your title. I have a great deal of concern about the "climate crisis" too...how can you not, look around! Thanks for the article...

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Sun Oct 16th, 2005 at 03:23:09 AM EST
Fear or Annoyance ?

Most of those projected changes in weather, as the rising of the sea level, more brutal downpour on some regions, more drought on others, petrol spills, toxic chemicals industry, etc, are slowly but surely modifying our way of thinking collectively!

In most EU countries, this concern is already legalized in Urban and Environmental laws. In France we have the PADD (Plan d'Aménagement et de Développement Durable) that has been coined recently. It is still mostly empty, but most town and countryside villages are starting to work on it, locally! As it means meetings between the elected representatives, the citizens and the experts... It will take some time :-)
Still, the process is initialized !

Students in schools of architecture learn about such problems and the different levels of answer (high or low tech), searchers in "hard science" universities work on those topics and the "awareness" can be seen in the PhDs titles...!

Politicians are still in the 19th century era...! But they can change when they see where their electoral interest is!
So I believe we are "technically" ready, even for a new petrol crisis (or the flu).

What I find most interesting in your diary is the use of the word "communities", as I see it has a whole different meaning on each side of the Atlantic.
In a country like France, "communities" are frown upon, as ending inevitably in a "Ghetto" sort of culture (with shotguns, mean dogs, etc). We use the word of "collectivity" (well, if my bad english can convey some meaning!).

But there are people who think (and write) about the "end of cities" as the classical tool for urban civilizations.
Up to now, the "City" with it's anonymity screen was a tool of progress versus the rural village or small town in which you could point at somebody and say "I knew his father"...
Those "villages" are in the "let's keep things as they are" culture (and that goes for religion too!).

The end of cities as a collectivity tool would mean to find an alternative, a meta-city ? A meta-nation ? One could say that Europe is already such a concept! Others use the web as an analogy for something bigger even ( but still with the "urban" anonymity :-) )

Or will we fall back in communities and return to some sort of new meta-tribes and start a cultural stasis ? Blockading against new thoughts or way of living ?

After all, even in an economy driven civilization, those are the roots for the Turkish question ... And the line feed for a new political design...

"What can I do, What can I write, Against the fall of Night". A.E. Housman

by margouillat (hemidactylus(dot)frenatus(at)wanadoo(dot)fr) on Sun Oct 16th, 2005 at 07:01:33 AM EST
Europe is more consciously aware of the climate crisis and has done more to deal with it than the US. Your observations on "community" are intriguing, and probably indicate a more mature view in Europe of what cities and nations and a larger polity of nations might mean in this day and age.  

But here in the US, there is a discourse on the meaning of "community" in a very broad sense.  "Collectivity" is never used, as it conjures the anti-Communist Cold War period.  The exploration of "communities" of all kinds and on every level are, I believe, a response to the prevailing mythology of economic individualism, of "every consumer a king." (My phrase.)  It is supported by certain religious views (individual salvation) and pseudo-scientific views (the selfish gene=social Darwinism.)  

The landmass of America is vast, and there are still vast open spaces (however environmentally corrupted). The meaning of the local and of place are part of the discourse.  As is the depersonalization on every level--from neighborhood to nation.  Any crisis in which people will need to depend on others, and work together outside the work/get paid/spend system will test the US sense of balance on the key question: everyone for themselves v. we're all in this together.

It would help to have better civic systems in place, as I hope Europe does, and as I hope the US can learn from appropriate models in Europe.        

"The end of all intelligent analysis is to clear the way for synthesis." H.G. Wells "It's not dark yet, but it's getting there." Bob Dylan

by Captain Future (captainfuture is at sbcglobal dot net) on Sun Oct 16th, 2005 at 05:01:34 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, I agree to your reply :-)

In the choice of words, it is more about a state relationship... Civism vs the sheer "Pro Patria Morii" (or patriotism).
But I can't really figure  how the US communities will evolve, as, you say it yourself, "there are still vast open spaces"... Sort of Go West myth in a centripetal way !

I'm afraid that in a grave crisis those communities will "shrink" horizontally, each caring for it's own kind, unless there is a common belief linking them together.
The main difference is that on your side, they can still survive without that link, while here, we are mere individuals without it !

I'll think that over... :-)

"What can I do, What can I write, Against the fall of Night". A.E. Housman

by margouillat (hemidactylus(dot)frenatus(at)wanadoo(dot)fr) on Sun Oct 16th, 2005 at 06:57:07 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Even with great empty spaces in the Dakotas etc., the US population is concentrated in cities and megalopolitan areas on the coasts and around the Great Lakes and river ports. So self-sustaining physical communities, or even self-sustaining neighborhoods and families won't be possible in that many places.  In any widespread crisis,most of the US population will have to do exactly what Europeans must do: depend on each other.

The unknown now is the role of non-physical communities.  Yet they also depend on the physical world--on energy, transportation, infrastructure.


"The end of all intelligent analysis is to clear the way for synthesis." H.G. Wells "It's not dark yet, but it's getting there." Bob Dylan

by Captain Future (captainfuture is at sbcglobal dot net) on Sun Oct 16th, 2005 at 09:26:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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