–Humans are a forward-looking species, it’s been said, if only 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 use to refer to the latter as that Augustinian threefold present—past as present remembrance, present as direct experience, and future as present expectation.
–With that in mind, once we get rid of the notion that the future is “what lies ahead” as if it were a land yet visited, the easier it is to understand why predictions about that future are never proven false or true. Rather: If the future is the mess now—that is, our inability to predict it always preoccupies us—then the future is far more now than later. Or as novelists have long known, it’s already difficult enough to predict the present.
–What’s a policy example and, anyway: So what?
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, global epidemics, a prolonged night/new ice age triggered by burning oil wells during the Gulf War, and the international meltdown because of the millennium computer bug.
Now itemize—again an arbitrary few—crises we have actually 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 apocrapha?
And yet, still, this habituated response: “But, but it could get worse, very worse!” Well, yes, it could. But just as well couldn’t the crux of the matter be that such lists demonstrate a resilience in the admittedly crisis-prone that many underestimate, locally, regionally, nationally, internationally, globally?
Or to put the issue in terms of the opening points, what are we now getting from this habituation with the messes of it-could-get-very-very-very-much-worse, these being ones we (want/have to) live in and with now? One answer: By definition, doing so saves us all the trouble and worry of having to figure out the details of the disasters we find unpredictable, now.
Another way to put this is that the good messes are to be found in working out the lived details (i.e., where context and contingency are most variable), and many predictions avoid or obscure such details, deliberately. In the mid-1970s a group of physicists and political scientists met at MIT and “arrived at the conclusion that if a World Government was not implemented soon, the probability of a nuclear war before the year 2000 would be close to 100 percent”. But since when did academics become experts on the details of implementation, operations and management?
What to do, then? I confess a preference here. Where better to start than with those geoengineering proposals for climate change. Think about it: Except for nuclear war, what better way to bring the governments of the world to their collective knees than ‘‘solutions’’ like those that would engorge the skies with mirrors and the seas with iron, all because climate change leaves humanity no choice—no alternative—but to be unreliable on unprecedented scales? Personally, I hope—my nod to Kant—that we spend wads of money on these guys, keeping them at their computers so they never see the light of day.