The future is a cone, a cone
of possibilities extending
from the present
is moving through
space-time, following a
forward arrow, unipolar, directed
towards tomorrow. Our future manifests
out of a cloud of probability from within the cone.
The future is precisely unknown, but looming, a microsecond away, then proceeding into a widening blur of possibility.
This is the dominant image that comes to mind, with hazy origins in some pop physics and cosmology books I read long ago. In some representations, there is a mirrored cone on the other side of the present point, representing the past.
In retrospect, perhaps I am over-scaling the concept of a light cone as a usable metaphor when considering the future, and especially the past. The future is a rumpled blanket of continuity as well.
end to end.
There’s a terrain and we’re just a small part of it. The context is overwhelming, determinative. The best we can do is try to glean the patterns. We direct our instruments, our imagination, towards this decipherment. Knowledge accumulates, terrain is exploited, the future undermined.
That’s where we are, I think.
The present point.
Our activities have cast new folds in the blanket.
We’re falling in.
The threadbare tunnel,
a scarred battlefield of rapacious extraction, obsessive combustion,
seems to be twisting into
a tangled knot of feedback loops and extinctions.
Too pessimistic? On the macro-scale, I might agree. Frogs and bats, though, disappearing by the zillions today, are likely think it too mild a depiction. And I’m with them, and us, because we’re next — and the macro-scale doesn’t care.
So, in opposition to what I see as suicidal, ecocidal, business-as-usual, forever-chemical accumulation and profiteering over a cliff, I’ll offer a vision of another way — another future, hopefully better.
I have no special qualifications. I’m no academic, nor even all that well-read. I have some lived experience and a history with lefty media, but nothing that notable. I just feel it is time we, collectively, start articulating these alternative visions more frequently. I offer this essay (with occasional verse) as part of that conversation.
My vision encompasses three overlapping values: universal human rights, equitable distribution of resources, and ecological restoration for future generations. I believe these foundational values, guiding a rationally planned economy, are required to prevent a variety of bad outcomes, from nuclear war to mass starvation.
Humanity reached a certain milestone when, in grave reflection of the smoldering ruins and holocaust of WWII, the newly created United Nations General Assembly of 1948 adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights without dissent. Though not yet the force of law, the declaration is similar to the Bill of Rights in the U.S., but adds rights for every person to have healthcare, housing, food, education, freedom from discrimination, and freedom of movement.
These are the rights identified by our forebears to permit a dignified existence to every human being and to prevent the recurring cycles of war and oppression based on want and fear. Putting aside for a moment the mechanism by which such rights might be guaranteed and delivered, the fulfillment of these basic provisions should be an obvious marker to judge a society’s success, today and in the future.
As to an equitable distribution of resources, it means what it sounds like: wealth redistribution, from the very rich to the common good.
There are enough resources in the world to provide for both universal human rights and ecological recovery. And there will be in the future, even with the rapid ecological changes and crises we’re about to experience. But this basic provisioning is impossible under the current system, where just one percent of the world’s population owns half the world’s wealth.
A high Gini (inequality) number is not only cruel and arbitrary, it creates its own corrupting feedback loop, as a perpetual machine of lawyers and lobbyists work tirelessly to shovel ever more power and wealth upward, underwriting media and politics to control conversation and regulation. In the United States, where inequality has been growing for several decades, the political system is now plainly oligarchy: that is, legislation inevitably follows rich donors’ desires, not voters’, as a 2014 study from Northwestern and Stanford showed.
Even many wealthy northern European countries — long assumed to have locked in human rights such as universal healthcare for their populations — have seen these rights attacked by the wealth machine’s automated functions: corporate neoliberalism, privatization, government austerity. Worldwide, corporations themselves, key instruments in the upward wealth and power funnel, rule over vast empires in tyrannical, dictatorial organization whose sole purpose is to extract ever increasing rates of return to investors, while externalizing common costs.
The process of turning this tide — of recovering most of the wealth and power wielded by a tiny minority and their legion of representatives, and instead putting it towards the benefit of most people and towards sustaining that which remains of the living planet — will be a difficult and complex struggle, but it is necessary, arguably more so now than ever before.
This brings me to the third value underlying this vision of an alternative future: ecological restoration for future generations.
We are on the cusp of a human-caused mass extinction event, one featuring cataclysmic events such as drought, widespread flooding, and coastal sea rise which will directly impact billions of people. In an unintended experiment whose consequences are still unclear, we’ve also doused the entire living biosphere with our chemical pollutants (e.g., PFCs in the Arctic). Further experimentation is underway with the forced introduction and monopolization of genetically modified seeds and organisms — exciting new markets in the neoliberal regime, on the road to transhumanism for the elite and their guinea pigs.
A lower emission future is feasible, a sustainable system might be installed, the precautionary principle empowered, and humanity’s innate values of solidarity and fairness reinvigorated. It can be and should be, if there is to be a better future, as I see it.
The fights are the same. The carbon emissions causing global warming, the toxic pollution contaminating water and critters, the continued offenses in defiance of science and common humanity — these are an effect of the upward wealth funneling machine. Human-equivalent corporations have captured the regulatory regimes designed to oversee them, and are extracting maximum profit, externalizing the costs of their chemical feast onto and into us. Just as they do with our illness, through a corporatized health industry, and through our lives, through the low-wage, high-rent economy.
So far, I’ve mostly been committing an offense common to the literature of self-proclaimed alternative vision. I’ve described the disease and the struggle in some detail, while generalizing the goal of healthy societal alternatives — specifically, how a better world might manifest and what it might look like. So let me end with some (admittedly kitschy and arbitrary) description of life in an alternative system and the possible paths of transition.
Imagine a movie-trailer voice….
“Imagine a world, where people work by choice, an average of just 12-36 hours a week, producing healthy goods designed to endure or providing skilled services in projects promoting human rights and ecological restoration — the very tasks required for our collective future. The rest of the time people occupy in activities of their choosing — largely in personal, familial, cultural, educational, artistic, or spiritual activities. This peaceful, creative, inquisitive, compassionate, and truly productive society might still suffer from many age-old problems, but at least it has a chance to finally transcend the worst brutalities recurrent to their constituents’ common history and to build increasingly humane systems in concert with our planet’s rich, living ecology.”
Such a better world is possible, to borrow from the slogan at the World Social Forum I was once honored to attend. This future world, as I conceive it, could actually be much more productive, despite the scaled back work week, than the current system — wherein far too much toil remains dedicated towards war, surveillance, the ever-present wealth funneling machine, and manufacturing and distributing disposable goods using increasingly destructive carbon emitting energy.
In opposition to a system which creates excess goods made from toxic materials, within a closed system designed for an infinite growth of excess goods made from toxic materials and toxic waste, it should not be so difficult to articulate a better future and move towards its many possible manifestations. Such a world, with sharing values and wards against structural power accumulation, might soon operate at a far higher level of understanding and progress than we might even be able to imagine today. That’s my hope — and also my excuse for not describing here in further detail my vision for a better future.
As to today’s obstructionist political stalemate, and the difficult transformations required to get from here to there, from bad future to better future, I think it necessary to address a conceptual roadblock (often sublimated and subconscious) that often prevents discussions of reform within the working and middle classes that I am most familiar with.
One great fear in the West is that extending human rights and equitably redistributing wealth to everyone will destroy the middle class, or even the working class. If that’s your fear, you need to wake up. The middle class today is shrinking by design and, as in robber baron days, becoming skewed towards a specialized high-end coterie of professional and managerial service providers — at least until, like future Uber drivers, these tasks can be replaced by robots or transhuman handservants.
As for vast spectrum of the working class, in the West and around the world, despite a consistently false and distorted representation to them and about them, for the most part they still know the real enemy is the rich — and are ready to act accordingly, given the proper provocation.
Which brings us to the current historical moment. As a multi-decade leftist, I’ve been heartened to see the youth-led activism for environmental and racial justice expressing the need for radical society transformation. Reparations and ecological restoration should go hand-in-hand, especially since it was the exploited and holocausted aboriginal societies which held so much knowledge of the natural systems.
I’ll forego the concrete poetry that I started with and just point out that the cone of the past and the future points to herenow, from both directions — to us. To my magical-thinking mind, this indicates to me that this is the time for us to articulate our better visions for the future. My suspicion is that many will have said it better than this already and my hope is that many more will do so soon. And then, for those of us with the inclination and energy to do so, the work ahead is clear: to make this future materialize out of the probability cloud.
AJD has been a bookseller, on and off, for a decade or so, and an undisciplined and unproductive writer and artist for longer than that.