Humans are a forward-looking species if only, it has been said, because of our use of the future tense. In fact, if we are to believe Kant, the three most important questions in our lives are entirely future-oriented: What can I know? What should I do? What may I hope?
That, though, is the pull side of the transaction of the future tense: The ends to be achieved through more knowledge and hope are what pull us into the future. There is the push side as well: To live in the present with our questions and answers is to push us closer to a future where the originating questions and current answers have to matter still. We once referred to the latter as that Augustinian threefold present—past as present remembrance, present as direct experience, and future as present expectation.
–Once we put aside the notion that the future is “what lies ahead, it’s easier it is to understand that the future is the mess now. That is, since our inability to predict the preoccupies us, the future is far more now than later. Or as novelists have long known, it’s already difficult enough to predict the present.
First itemize a few of the apocalyptic predictions that have failed to materialize over the past five decades: global nuclear war, communist world hegemony, global starvation, global oil depletion, a prolonged night/new ice age, and the international meltdown because of the millennium computer bug.
Now itemize—again an arbitrary few—crises we have lived through in just the last three decades or so: the 1987 market meltdown, the banking crisis of the early 1990s, the Mexican near-default in early 1996, the Asian financial crisis in 1997, Long Term Capital Management collapse in 1998; the bursting of the dot.com/stock market bubble in 2000, the terrorist attacks in September 11, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the breakdown in the Doha round of multilateral trade talks, the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent Great Recession, the default of Greece and the increased fissures in EU; the resurgence in Western populism and nativism. . .(and don’t forgot the Argentine default of 2001 and the world fisheries collapse and. . .)
“How many times do you need to hear the world is ending before you realize it isn’t ending,” asks author, Michael Lewis.
When, we must all ask, does unremitting apocalypticism become apocrypha?
And yet, still, this habituated response: “But, but it could get worse, very worse. . .” Well, yes, it could. But just as well couldn’t such lists demonstrate a resilience in the admittedly crisis-prone that many underestimate, locally, regionally, nationally, internationally, globally?
Just what are we getting from this habituation with the messes of it-could-get-very-very-very-much-worse? One answer: Doing so saves us all the trouble of having to figure out the details of the disasters we have already predicted ahead.
What crisis scenario do I have in mind now? The earth releases gases into the atmosphere that are then triggered by sunlight into storms, droughts and other natural disasters.
No, not global climate change. It’s Aristotle’s theory of comets. Remember those predictions about the spread of grey goo? But which grey goo? The one predicted from recombinant DNA experiments at Harvard in the 1970s, the genetically engineered “ice-minus” bacterium for Berkeley strawberry fields in the 1980s, the genetically engineered crops of the 1990s, or the nanotechnology of the 2000s, or something newer?
The result is that we’re asked to treat possible scenarios seriously until proven otherwise, when those offering the scenarios are often unable to specify what it takes to disprove the scenarios or prevent their recurrence. Such is the low-skill toehold of many disaster scenarios passing themselves off as forward-looking.
You might think I’m implying we shouldn’t worry about “the future ahead.” Wrong, if only because the future is the now in which worry, dread and angry express themselves for the purposes of change.