A History of the Future, The Middle Ground of Life

It is strange.

We say that technology progresses so quickly, things have been going swell – but at the same time, even people who don’t necessarily believe in peak oil and the peak everything that our sheer numbers and demands on the planet’s ecosystems are running up against, do seem to be aware of the problematic future – and thus, most books and movies about the future nowadays even celebrate dystopia.

At the same time, even while we are well aware of its poor hygiene, difficult conditions, what-not, there is much talk – and maybe even more nostalgia – about the past.

The time of the bucolic and the mechanical, the traditional, conservative and orderly, is upheld by some as having been much better than the urban, digital, confusing now.

People struggling to deal with the present and all its labyrinthine possibilities and pleasurable variety wish back a time when life paths were, supposedly, all set, and people just had their nice local community and simple life – but they enjoy their hot showers and exotic vacation spots, let alone medical care which, even if not pleasurable, at least consists of more than pliers and bloodletting.

On the other hand, you get those who focus on the bad sides of the past, and look towards the future. They extend recent developments to the future and thus  dream of geo-engineering, suggest that human consciousness will live on forever in computer systems – but enjoy the simple pleasure of hot showers just as much as exotic vacation spots, and run into problems even just operating their smartphones (let alone when the battery goes dead).

It gets overlooked both how much the future is shaped by the past, and how much potential there is for disruption.

Really, though – even as human societies have developed to something very different from the small roving bands that we humans started out as – we are still the same in very fundamental ways. We need food and water, we don’t just want to survive but also to have some fun and ultimately a life we can say is good.

It seems that these fundamental desires used to get hijacked by politics and religion, and are now getting abused by consumerism to turn us from individual human beings into mindless shoppers – but the basic psychology has remained.

With it, there remain realities and problems of inequality. Some people have always been richer than others, some of more fame and influence – we are, in all our fundamental similarity, also different. Thus, some social stratification has always been around. Extremes of social stratification – some people having only too much, some having nothing more to lose – have also typically led to social upheavals. So, some balance may be advisable.

On the other hand, in a wider perspective, different groups of people have also always had something that others wanted, and wanted something that others had. And it was not only violence that ensued, there was also a lot of trade going on.

The lapislazuli on Tut Ankh Amun’s death mask comes from Afghanistan, the frankincense in Medieval European churches came from the Arabian Peninsula, cacao was traded all over Central America – does one even need to mention the Silk Road?

Such trade was also occurring over land and at sea, even on mules and camels, caravels and galleons (and wooden rafts). It made for the first inkling of the globalization that was pushed still further with intercontinental railways and steam passenger liner ships, long before the current oil-powered cargo ships, airplanes, and online communication.

It is only a recent phenomenon that the trade beyond regions, let alone nations, is even trade for basic goods and commodities. Cacao, tea, pepper – such luxury goods were traded far and wide even centuries ago; but they were luxuries. When the Eastern Block countries opened in 1989, their citizens became notorious for buying up bananas in Western European supermarkets, because they had been almost impossible to get in the Soviet Union…

Now, apples from halfway around the world can be cheaper than locally grown ones; future Chinese food security is supposed to be provided by the USA and Africa; developed countries consume far more resources than their own lands could provide.

Looking at both sides when looking towards the future, we can assume that some things will change, some won’t. Just make fossil fuels more expensive or consider other disruptions to the current ease of global trade, and it is clear that changes will happen.

Food production will probably need to be more local again – and even just considering this, population sizes would have to be more in tune with local productivity. Not all would retreat behind large walls, though. Whenever affordable, we’d continue to want things from others – trade will continue. Not in its present form, though.

Such grounded thought experiments aren’t sexy.

They are neither the utopian future of techno-optimists nor the bucolic future in the past suggested by back-to-the-landers, neither the dystopian post-apocalyptic wastelands nor anything else that’s so sexy/extreme/scary.

Given how life and flourishing need diversity, because people are different, because we all want similar things but in different ways, and also because future challenges would be well-served by our trying to find different ways to continue the story of humanity (not just one), looking to complicated – and simple – reality is rather advisable, though.

There is less enthusiasm for such balanced diversity than there is for the extremes, but it is necessary to counter notions both of gung-ho optimism and despairing pessimism, and especially the passivity that comes when we let ourselves get caught in the maelstrom between rosy prognoses based on recent positive trends and gloomy predictions based on problematic trends and likely disruptions.

We are not really caught between these two opposite forces. The wide ground in the middle is where life happens, where flourishing futures can be created.


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