This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.
Most forecasts of the future presume that something in the present will continue to grow and increase its power or influence. It’s as simple as doing a math problem on compounding interest or multiplication tables.
Orwell did this intentionally in 1984, creating the vision of a postwar Stalinist Britain circa 1948 that was taken to its absurd and appalling conclusion. Less imaginative people, however, genuinely believe that history moves in a straight line. Alarm about the “population bomb” arose from the assumption that women would continue to have babies at the rate they were worldwide in the 1960s. But thanks to reproductive rights and other factors, birthrates have plummeted so dramatically that some nations, from Germany to Japan, are now worried about a steep population decline.
Likewise, people unhappy about the Bush administration seemed to imagine that its power would only increase until it became some petro-cowboy version of the Thousand-Year Reich. People happy with the administration’s policies also failed to anticipate how brief its ride atop the wheel of fortune would be. The Obama victory in 2008 was as out of sight in 2003 as same-sex marriage was in 1977, when Florida-orange-juice spokesmodel and bigot Anita Bryant was successfully fulminating against homosexuality.
There are monumental changes under way that seem as if they will only continue: the decline of homophobia, the widening of rights and privileges from white Christian men to the rest of us, nonwhite and nonmale. But there are backlashes against these things as well, and the other way to call it unpredictable is to say that we can’t foresee which tendency will hold sway a century or more hence. Mostly, what we can learn by looking backward is that who and what we are now—sexually, socially, technologically, ecologically—was not only unpredictable but unimaginable a century or even a half-century ago. So is who and what we will be in another 100 years.
History is rarely linear. The cast of characters is never announced in advance, and the storylines are full of left turns, plot twists, about-faces, surprising crossroads and unintended consequences. In a recent article for Politico, Elana Schor notes: “As Keystone’s problems imprint themselves on the nation’s political DNA, environmentalists and local advocacy groups are using the same template that has stalled it for six years to stoke resistance to fossil-fuel projects from coast to coast. Word is out in the oil and gas industry that NIMBY is the new normal.” As I write, almost no one knows how Obama will ultimately handle the Keystone XL pipeline, but we do know that the struggle to stop its construction has had many ancillary effects. For example, the climate activists fighting Keystone have made the Alberta tar sands, numerous pipeline projects, the oil-by-rail system, and the larger problem of carbon emissions and climate change far more visible.
The struggle against Keystone has also catalyzed remarkable coalitions—for example, the Cowboy and Indian Alliance of rural peoples from the Great Plains, who gathered in the nation’s capital last April, horses, chaps, war bonnets, alternative-energy policies and all. Under the linear theory of history, we’ll decide if this was a successful movement based on the veto (or approval) of the pipeline, but as Schor points out, the effects are not linear; they ripple outward, like a rock thrown into a pond. Or they snowball. Or they catalyze some new action.
The same is true of the younger divestment movement as it spreads even farther around the world. Hundreds of investment portfolios, from college endowments and pension funds to church holdings, have been divested of their fossil-fuel stocks—but that’s far from the only thing the divestment movement has done. Like the resistance to Keystone, the movement has called attention to the broader issue of climate; generated activism and networks, particularly around universities; and shed considerable light on the financial risk of investing in what is now called “the carbon bubble.” With this, it has become possible to see not only that we live in the Age of Fossil Fuel, but that this age is coming to an end.
Activism always has these side effects. What the Freedom Summer accomplished cannot be measured only by what it did or didn’t do in Mississippi in 1964; it changed the lives of its many young participants, who went on to do remarkable things over the ensuing half-century in innumerable fields. Hurricane Sandy, I was told recently, turned many New York City employees into people passionately concerned about climate change.
Among our few certainties about the future are the following: climate change is here, it will get worse, and it is essentially irreversible. What’s uncertain is whether, through extraordinary effort, we will meet the crisis as we should, with a speedy exit from the Age of Fossil Fuel, or whether that age will drag on and foreclose the possibility of our choosing the least rather than the most terrible future. We are now essentially hostages to the small group of people who benefit most from the fossil-fuel industries, as well as the politicians in their pay—although remarkable victories have been won against them in recent years, from Ecuador to Nigeria to New York State.
The next few years will be crucial in steering us toward the least devastating of the futures that await us. It’s hard to see how we will get there, but it’s important to try anyway—and part of that work involves knowing that we don’t know what will happen, what kind of a world we will inhabit in 2020, let alone in 2115.
It is the least privileged who will pay, and currently are paying the most, for climate change, from the price of food as crop yields go down and crop-destroying catastrophic weather events go up, to the loss of their livelihoods, homes and lives. The impacts range from the storm-wracked tropics to those parts of Africa being turned into deserts to the island nations being engulfed by the sea. The least privileged, in the United States and elsewhere, have also borne the brunt of fossil fuels’ toxicity, from extraction sites and refineries to the dumped byproducts. As a result, while organizations old and new are addressing climate change in the United States, they are far from alone. Idle No More, the indigenous insurgency launched in Canada in late 2012, has always had climate change and the extractive industries in its focus, while from Bolivia to Vietnam, climate activism is under way.
People imagine that the world doesn’t change (having forgotten how dramatically it has changed even in the last few decades), or that all its changes will be linear. Or they imagine that the only source of change is the most powerful institutions and individuals, forgetting how much change has been wrought of late by marginalized groups (queer rights), oppressed populations (the Arab Spring), relatively small activist movements (the climate movement) or surprise players (the hotel maid who brought down the head of the International Monetary Fund in 2011, for example). You have to believe in change; maybe you have to hope. Or at least be willing to gamble.
You have to be willing to gamble on a world not dominated by fossil fuels and the power that fossil-fuel fortunes give to a handful of people and corporations. You have to be willing to imagine a world in which we recognize that what we’re called upon to do is not necessarily to sacrifice; instead, it’s often to abandon what impoverishes and trivializes our lives: the frenzy to produce and consume in a landscape of insecurity about our individual and collective futures. It also means appreciating the value of many other things—confidence in the future, a greatly reduced fear of contamination or poisoning, economic justice, local engagement, decentralization, democracy—in which we’ve been poor during the Age of Fossil Fuel. These are the things we stand to gain if we conquer the fossil-fuel industry and reinvent energy in our time.
A lack of historical knowledge or even the memory of change in their own lifetime leaves many people unequipped to recognize the force of change. But it is a force nonetheless. That there would be a march about climate change (a boring, wonky, remote-seeming issue for most Americans not so long ago), with 400,000 participants here and sister marches around the world just last year; that the Keystone XL pipeline would be stalled for years (just like Yucca Mountain); that engineers would make solar and wind energy evolve into cheap, effective power-generating technologies so rapidly, and that local administrations would deploy them so widely—none of this was foreseeable.
You don’t act because you know what’s going to happen; you act because you don’t. Not knowing is an important part of knowledge. If knowledge is a continent to be mapped, the unknown is the oceans surrounding it. No one is going to be invited to join the punditocracy as an expert on our ignorance or a celebrant of the unknowable. People will continue to make ridiculous predictions and go unpunished for these errors; unforeseeable change will continue to explode our best assumptions. As Howard Zinn wrote in 1988 (a different world, in which almost no one foresaw the collapse of the Soviet Union and the communist bloc): “Who could have predicted, not just the Russian Revolution, but Stalin’s deformation of it, then Khrushchev’s astounding exposure of Stalin, and recently Gorbachev’s succession of surprises?” His essay was titled “The Optimism of Uncertainty.”
When Zinn wrote it, South America was still largely a continent of dictatorships and death squads, not the most democratic and progressive quadrant of the earth, with its many grassroots organizations devoted to self-determination, its resistance to corporate globalization and other forms of exploitation, its indigenous resurgences, its progressive female leaders in three of the most powerful countries. Things change: Germany, the worst country in the world seventy-five years ago, is now a shining example of how to address climate change, the biggest problem that humankind has ever faced.
The world of 2115 is unimaginable, and so is the road there. That world may be better than we can now imagine, and in some ways—ecological ones—it may be worse. It may have corrected oppressions we do not yet recognize. But if we are clear about our lack of knowledge, we can move forward, acting on what we believe. The theologian Walter Brueggemann writes, “Memory produces hope in the same way that amnesia produces despair.” Memory itself is a subjective thing. We can tell of a past that was nothing but defeats and cruelties and injustices; or we can tell of a lovely golden age now irretrievably lost; or we can tell a more complicated and accurate story—one that has room for the best and the worst, for atrocities and liberations. A memory commensurate to the complexity of the past produces hope.
Our world is both better (more inclusive, less discriminatory) and worse (think corporate consolidation, ecological devastation, the surveillance state) than the world of fifty years ago. The ways in which it is better happened because people made demands and then acted to realize them. It was not inevitable that Native Americans, women, gays, lesbians, and transgender people would gain rights and respect. The better part of our present happened because of enormous efforts, sometimes over decades or, as with the vote for women, nearly a century of effort and social transformation.
We don’t have a map for any of this, which is what all the confident prophecies of a predictable, linear future pretend to offer us. Instead, we have, along with the capacity for effort, a compass called hope: a past that we can see, that we can remember, that can guide us along the unpredictable route, along with our commitment to beings now living and yet to be born, that commitment called love.