The Future is Not Yet Written

What will become of us?

There is a strange sense of inevitability these days, the idea that the world is careening along a trajectory not under human control.

It’s a travesty of the philosophical underpinnings of modern free societies.

The idea of the social contract presumes that societies can manage a sort of collective will, that widely held ideals can be woven into the structure of daily lives, that the world can be designed rather than merely endured.

Where does this sense of helplessness come from?

Perhaps it comes from a peculiar vision of economics as a pure science (like astronomy) rather than an applied science (like engineering or medicine). In astronomy, we predict what will happen to a star or a planet. In engineering, we prescribe how to build a bridge.

In economics, the tradition is to predict what will happen to aggregate human behavior, not to recommend courses of action. Economics aggregates individual decisions, but tends to shy away from recommending collective decisions. Some economists simply advise against collective decisions altogether.

But the earth sciences and biological sciences tell us with confidence that in the absence of wise collective decisions, matters are going to get progressively worse. We are beginning to see signs that these grim predictions are coming to fruition.

Oddly, though, the earth sciences and biological sciences have a comparable bias. The world expects these sciences to make recommendations, or prescriptions, and yet the environmental sciences have a tradition of making mere observations and analyses or predictions.

We need applied disciplines of economics and earth sciences, and we need ways to translate their findings into competent public policy.

Indeed, we need these things desperately.

Recent events have demonstrated beyond doubt that we lack applied sciences of the earth system, even as ideas of geoengineering are seriously broached as near-future fallbacks to our present-day shortsightedness.

We must get beyond blame.

The mainstream press adamantly refuses to nucleate the sort of discussion we need. Public relations specialists urge us to dumb our message down. A new social contract fails to emerge, because there is no place for it to come together. Social consensus is replaced by finger-pointing.

The press tries to set itself up as referee in the blame game. But the press is not the referee. It is the ball.

While partisan discussions are easy enough to find, venues which can not just tolerate respectful disagreement but actually thrive upon it are especially rare.

Let’s make one.

As Sartre observed, “the future is not yet written”.

It is time for us to start writing it. We cannot do so if we limit the discussion by imposing the interests of any particular culture or interest or institution. We need to take the discussions that the cleverest of us occasionally manage to have over beer at midnight, and put them front and center, into the public sphere. A cold, hard look at the present and the future can be frightening, but it also can be exhilarating. It is time for us to be willing to say what mustn’t be said, and consider doing what mustn’t be done. This is no time for an excess of propriety. But the time for blame and recriminations is over. We can’t afford them anymore. Let’s move on.

Let’s look reality in the face and decide what needs to be done.


  1. But the time for blame and recriminations is over. We can't afford them anymore. Let’s move on.

    I agree, but blame and recrimination is all we have if the debate isn't steered towards recognizing the root cause(s) and taking appropriate action to remedy it/them.

    There are currently many socioeconomic and environmental problems that in time could cause misery precedented only during history's darkest moments (qualitatively speaking, I don't even want to contemplate the scale).

    I'm still convinced that none of these problems can be fully solved if the economic system isn't overhauled. For decades now it has been based on a concept of infinite growth, which was great as a means to raise the standard of living for many people. But the means have become an end, preventing the rest of the world from having decent living conditions and destroying the very base of our collective wealth.

    And so I remain of the opinion that whatever problem is discussed, mention must be made of the fact that an economic concept of infinite growth isn't possible in a finite system and will eventually lead to misery and destruction (as it already is). Just like Cato the Elder ended all his speeches with the famous "Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam".

    We have millions and millions of economists around the world. Of course, there are quite a few of them who have contemplated and investigated the question of what would have to follow the Age of Growth, now and in the past (Keynes, Soddy). But why isn't this the number one thing being researched and discussed in economic faculties all around the world?

    If this isn't the first step towards solutions, we can forget about tackling the symptoms stemming from it.

    Infinite Growth and the Crisis Cocktail

  2. A certain amount of blame is necessary. After all, most of the people who dominate media discussion in the USA have been very, very wrong about economics and the environment for a long time. In order to discuss our problems from a any useful points of view, those people will have to be removed from their positions, either literally, or by the public simply ignoring them and listening to new voices from different venues. Either way requires a mass recognition that these people have been wrong and should no longer be listened to - and that sounds like blame to me.

    Maybe it's just semantics ... if we were to implement a level of taxation on unsustainable activities designed to bend us towards sustainability, one person might call that an exercise in scientifically applied economics, and another might call it punitive or "recrimination".

  3. The amazing thing is that all this is happening in an international environment where there is, on the surface at least, much less philosophical/political disagreement than 50 or 80 years ago.

    Back in the days when union organisers faced beatings or worse, when Communist parties across the English speaking world openly advocated revolution and aristocrats (many self-styled) loudly lamented democracy, things got done anyway. Now, all major political parties would count as 'right-wing' by the standards of those days - and we can't get our act together anyway.

    My feeling is that John Ralston Saul's analyses might be on the money here. But it all seems pretty strange.

  4. MT, I have a question. If employees of a bank suddenly come one day and foreclose your house based on bogus 'documentation'; or if climate inactivists continually launch witch-hunts against your very academic work; or if people throw dead rats at your doorstep threaten to rape your family; ...

    ...will you still say, "ooh, no, we must avoid blaming anyone, let's just have a beer, let's move on"?

    -- frank

  5. Frank, the moral atrocities that have been committed and the calamities that they will cause are real enough. And these atrocities are still being committed. Even if those who commit them manage to fool themselves about it (and most of them do) we ourselves cannot be fooled.

    But our objective cannot be to destroy these people, nor to humiliate them, nor to take our revenge upon them. Our objective has to be to free them from the terror of the world we need, the world that will free us from want and selfishness and greed.

    Here is Desmond Tutu:

    If you asked even the most sober students of South African affairs what they thought was going to happen to South Africa a few years ago, almost universally they predicted that the most ghastly catastrophe would befall us; that as sure as anything, we would be devastated by a comprehensive bloodbath.

    It did not happen. Instead, the world watched with amazement, indeed awe, at the long lines of South Africans of all races, snaking their way to their polling booths on April 27, 1994. And they thrilled as they witnessed Nelson Mandela being inaugurated as the first democratically elected president of South Africa on May 10, 1994. Nearly everyone described what they were witnessing -- a virtually bloodless, reasonably peaceful transition from injustice and oppression to freedom and democracy -- as a miracle.

    When the disaster did not overtake us, there were those who said, “Wait until a black-led government takes over. Then these blacks who have suffered so grievously in the past will engage in the most fearful orgy of revenge and retribution against the whites.”

    Well, that prediction too was not fulfilled. Instead the world saw something quite unprecedented. They saw the process of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, when perpetrators of some of the most gruesome atrocities were given amnesty in exchange for a full disclosure of the facts of the offence. Instead of revenge and retribution, this new nation chose to tread the difficult path of confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

    We South Africans have not done too badly. It is sometimes said of newly democratic countries that their first elections too frequently end up being their last. Well, we have already had a fairly uneventful second general election and have witnessed the transition from a charismatic, first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela, to the more pragmatic, pipe- smoking Thabo Mbeki. The turmoil and instability that many feared would accompany these crucial events have not occurred. Why? Well, first, you have prayed for us and, if miracles had to happen anywhere, South Africa was a prime site for a miracle.

    And we have been richly blessed to have had at such a critical time in our history a Nelson Mandela. He was imprisoned for 27 years; most expected that when he emerged, he would be riddled with a lust for retribution. But the world has been amazed; instead of spewing calls for revenge, he urged his own people to work for reconciliation -- and invited his former jailer to attend his presidential inauguration as a VIP guest.

    Wonderfully, Mr. Mandela has not been the only person committed to forgiveness and reconciliation. Less well-known people (in my theology no one is “ordinary,” for each one of us is created in the image of God) are the real heroes and heroines of our struggle.

    There was a Mrs. Savage who was injured in a hand-grenade attack by one of the liberation movements. She was so badly injured that her children bathed her, clothed her, and fed her. She could not go through a security checkpoint at the airport because she still had shrapnel in her and all sorts of alarms would have been set off. She told us [at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission] that she would like to meet the perpetrator -- she, a white woman, and he almost certainly, a black perpetrator, in the spirit of forgiveness. She would like to forgive him and then extraordinarily she added, “And I hope he forgives me.” Now that is almost mind-boggling.

    The daughter of one of four African National Congress activists, whom the police ambushed and then killed gruesomely -- their mutilated bodies were found in their burnt-out car -- came to tell her story. She said the police were still harassing her mother and her children, even after their father had died. When she finished, I asked her whether she would be able to forgive those who had done this. We were meeting in a city hall packed to the rafters. You could hear the proverbial pin drop, as she replied, “We would like to forgive. We just want to know whom to forgive.”

  6. MT, what you advocate is not Truth and Reconciliation, but Sweep Everything Under the Rug and Reconciliation. What you ask for is reconciliation without truth.

    You're only doing so from a vantage point where you don't have to deal personally with any bogus foreclosures, e-mail leaks, academic 'inquiries', death threats, rape threats, which other climate scientists and climate campaigners actually have to deal with -- sometimes even driven to the brink of suicide.

    If you personally had to deal with these totally vicious attacks, then at the very least you would demand the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about these attacks. I know I would. I want the perpetrators to stand up before the world and tell us exactly who orchestrated these attacks, exactly why they agreed to carry them out, and exactly how they did it. If they won't, then they should be punished.

    Is this "humiliation"? Is this "revenge"? Maybe. But can you have "truth" with anything less? Do you think that even this "truth" is too much to ask for?

    -- frank

  7. Pingback: Planet3.0 Launches!!! » Mind of Dan

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.