To look at the present from the future is to look at the past from the present — always reflective of the way things are, whenever we may be. We leave to the future a future in which our “present” is regarded, in retrospect, and the question that needs to be pondered is what the future “present” looks like, and how it may shape future understanding of the past.
In the Arabic language, the term used to address the future is المستقبل (pronounced al-mus-taq-bal), derived from the word استقبل (pronounced is-taq-bil), which means “to face”; “to receive”; or “to meet”.
Central to understanding how to go about thinking about the future is understanding where the present is situated. Inherent is the understanding that what comes next is not yet known — predictions surface, and theories posed, but the future, for certain, cannot be known. This uncertainty, however ironically, is coupled with the presumed certainty that the future is, indeed, coming. Drawing from the Arabic word and its particular etymology, there are many ways to approach questions of the future: questions like whether we would want to meet ourselves — the force driving changes in the Earth system — would we want to face ourselves? to receive ourselves? Had we been born later, would we, the future, look back and feel welcome?
There are many ways to address questions of the future from the present, the most common of which would have to be art and literature. In Aaron Czerny’s performance piece, “Navigating the Anthropocene: Art and Artist as Guides through a Challenging Epoch,” his imagination was used to depict a world different from the one we now know, just as the authors from the various assigned readings (see below) for this week had used their own understanding of the past and present to project how they expect the future to look. Given the extremely wide variety of projections, one can only wonder which to take to heart. All of them posed interesting and sensible points, but they were so different; as I reflect, I cannot help but feel as though they were all equally accurate, each telling a particular story, each of which stemming from a particular set of experiences, none of which are dismissible.
Thinking back to Aaron’s performance — and there is no way to be sure that this was his intention — the part that stood out the most to me was the static: he began with a steady stream of white-noise, and as the piece evolved, we were asked to, together, create our own, unique vibration. It may very well be that he had no intention of this, but the fact that each individual “poem,” when stacked on top of each other, resulted in the creation of a very similar sound. Unity. It felt like we were one.
The different ways by which the authors approach the future/present serve as useful tools on which we can reflect; by presenting various possible implications of our current state on the future, it becomes easier to step beyond the constraints of the theoretical, and towards a more concrete — albeit speculative — conversation. Addressing a present past from a future present makes the conversation more personal: it is no longer a question of what we, the people of the present, could be doing to future generations. It is, instead, a statement from our children, expressing their disappointment in our failure to care for our own — our failure to see that caring for “our own” means reaching past the “I”, and redefining the “we.”
The week’s readings, above all else, go to show that the different stories we tell are different because we are different. From tales of the apocalyptic future to the sustained one, each account is rich with presuppositions, none of which can be argued more or less valid. What can be substantiated, however, is the greater story, told by all of us, together: it is a messy story,often self-contradictory; it is restricted by no borders, and is limited by no barriers; the story is told in all of Earth’s languages, and nobody understands it in its entirety, but that’s okay.
Whether we remain the driving force of the changes in the Earth systems, or become extinct as a species, anticipating the future we will someday meet may very well determine how it looks when it arrives.
Readings for Week 4 of “Making Sense of the Anthropocene“
- The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future (Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway)
- Selections from The World We Made (Jonathon Porritt, Phaidon, 2013)
- “Time Capsule Found on the Dead Planet,” (Margaret Atwood, The Guardian)
- “Commission on Planetary Ages Decision CC87966424/49: The onomatophore of the Anthropocene” (Bronislaw Szerszynski, in The Anthropocene and the Global Environmental Crisis: Rethinking Modernity in a New Epoch, Clive Hamilton, Christophe Bonneuil, François Gemenne, eds., Routledge, 2015)
- “Anthropocene, Catastrophism and Green Political Theory” (Luc Semal, in The Anthropocene and the Global Environmental Crisis: Rethinking Modernity in a New Epoch, Clive Hamilton, Christophe Bonneuil, François Gemenne, eds., Routledge, 2015)