This piece will be appearing soon in newspapers in my very “conservative” congressional District (VA-06).
With times as dire as these are — with dark turmoil in our politics threatening the survival of American democracy; with naked greed impeding our response to climate change; with brutal authoritarian regimes in Russia and Turkey and the Philippines; with tens of millions of our fellow citizens buying a world of falsehoods — with all that, it may seem odd to raise the following question:
What, ideally, would we want the human world to look like 500 years from now?
But what is most odd is that we barely ask that question at all.
Why is that so odd?
The first point to be made is that we should know that things will change—a lot. Consider how different our world is from the world of Henry the VIII, who was 500 years before us. Is there any reason to think that the transformations over the next 500 years will be any less profound?
Second, should we not assume that where humankind finds itself 500 years from now will depend a good deal on what we do in the meanwhile? (Consider, for just one example, how much better the results were from the choices made by the victors after World War II than those made after World War I.)
Some decisions made by nations – and other actors – represent important forks in the road.
Third, it is abundantly clear that some among the paths humankind might take would be disastrous. In particular, human civilization could reach a dead end unless humankind finds a way 1) to live in harmony with our planet, instead of destroying it, and 2) to eliminate the possibility of catastrophic warfare involving weapons of mass destruction.
Regarding the first of those potentially civilization-ending possibilities, the long-run survival of civilization requires that humankind learn to live in complete harmony with the earth. Otherwise, civilization will destroy the foundations of its own existence.
We cannot continue to be reckless with the earth, like early civilizations that spread deserts, and like modern civilization that has destabilized the earth’s climate system and unleashed the earth’s sixth great wave of extinctions.
Unless we become more responsible and more respectful in our relationship with the earth – on which we depend for such life-necessities as the food we eat and the air we breathe – human civilization will inevitably bring itself down.
Secondly, civilization needs to build a different kind of order, one that assures that no one has the capacity to end civilization by pulling the nuclear trigger (or otherwise wreak destruction on global civilization from war-technologies not yet invented). We survived the cold war, but it could have been otherwise.
It stands to reason that, given enough time, whatever can happen eventually will happen. Which means that the magnification of humankind’s destructive powers mandates that a global zone of peace must be created, with peace developing deep roots.
These two challenges should suffice to make it clear: a civilization different from today’s will be required if the long-term human future is to be bright.
In addition to these challenges that the civilization of the future must meet, there are also the transformations that we ideally would want for the world our descendants will inhabit: a humane world that is just, healthful, respectful of human dignity, and nurturing of people’s best potentialities.
Once we envision that optimal human future, and note what in our present world will have to change to grow into that desired future world, we can ask: how do we get from here to there?
But, unfortunately, we are not thinking that way. We do not seek to envision that desired future, and we barely consider how we get from here to there. Instead, we are just mindlessly backing into an uncertain future.
Do we assume that just dealing with the immediate, not thinking beyond the next step, represents a sufficient strategy for the human future? Do we assume that the future will take care of itself?
Surely, we shouldn’t.
The fact that civilization might have come to an end in October, 1962, proves that the present global war/peace system is fraught with peril. And the fact that we now confront the perilous challenge of climate change demonstrates that thinking about things only in terms of the next quarter, or the next election, is entirely insufficient to meet the challenge we face.
We need to visualize our desired long-term destination. And then we need to ask: given that hoped-for destination, and given what we know and don’t know, what are the next good steps to take to help us move in that direction?
Perhaps we could begin that process by working to understand – to figure out what it says about our present civilization – that we almost wholly fail to ask what an optimal future civilization would look like, and to steer our course with that in mind.
(And what does it mean that, when we do envision the future, the visions are mostly dystopian?)