Thursday, January 26, 2012

What future?

The other day I was speculating a bit about what we would want the future to be like in say a few hundred years from now? First, it should be obvious that we do not all want the same future. This immediate and intuitive observation should serve as a simple reason for us to instead seek a pluralist future, one in which different individuals can pursue different life projects. Leaning for a moment on Rawls here, it seems reasonable that we would would like to see a future which not only safeguards the greatest possible freedom that is compatible with that everyone else enjoys the same freedom, but also a future which provides the protection from ignorance and poverty which gives worth to that freedom on a universal level. We would want a future of punk rockers, surfers and idealists but also one of conservatives, doubters and pragmatists, we would want a future with different religious beliefs but also one of atheism, we would want a future which makes good on the lofty promises of the Enlightenment but also one that recognizes the Kantian aphorism that “out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made”.

This would basically be a future that preserves the human existential condition at the same time as it makes universal the kind of opportunities that many people in the rich world currently enjoys. What would it take to make that materially possible in a world which is already today at its ecological limits? Most likely, nothing short of a radical acceleration of modernity through massive investments in education which would lift society upwards and bring about the kind of technological change and social innovations necessary for such a future. In practical terms, this would depend on our ability to develop breakthrough energy technologies such as next-generation nuclear while restoring the natural habitats that we have ruined by permanently decoupling our industrial processes from the natural world. On a sociological level, it would be about a future in which humanity has grown out of its savaged past, yet remains a species full of contradictions, a future in which violence still exists but (just as we have already done within the framework of the nation state) it has been institutionally contained so that a lasting, universal peace can finally be realized at the global level. It is about accepting that some people always want to go further, faster and higher whereas others may want to stay on the same farm or in the same forest for their entire lives. It is about recognizing such simple facts and using our political imagination to creatively craft a world which makes all this possible by drawing on what we have learned from our encounter with modernity.

It is tempting to ask, how can anyone, and environmentalists in particular, be against such a bright future? The simple answer is: because they do not believe that such a future is technologically or socially possible. But I would be tempted to say that is more than that, it is about a desire to see their own particular idea of the future realized, one in which things are slowed down rather than accelerated, organic communities restored and the world ethically and socially homogenized. In this sense, environmentalism stands for an almost fascist vision of the future. But it is, one should recognize, an ethically motivated fascism since it is considered by many environmentalists to be the only option for human survival. In his 2010 book “Treading Softly”, Thomas Prince writes, “[t]he next era will be one of living within our means, one way or another”. It is important to remember that for many environmentalists, space ships, artificially cultivated meat, fusion reactors and other common themes on this weblog are nothing but artefacts of science fiction. By equating the long-term potential of science and technology with what autonomous market-driven research has accomplished, environmentalists generally believe that the unintended negative consequences of advanced technologies more often than not will outweigh their possible ecological benefits. On a deeper level, this reflects a widely shared belief among environmentalists that human emancipation from nature is the ultimate cause of our current ecological trauma; “[i]f there were a single philosophical position in environmental thought, adhered by all who are concerned about environmental destruction, it is that at the root of that destruction is human’s separation from nature” as Prince writes later in the same book. Consequently, it is not surprising that few environmentalists recognize that separating ourselves more fully from nature is essential if we want to preserve and restore the natural world.

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