All Tomorrow’s Warnings

From Public Books:

Lamenting the shortsightedness of environmental policy—in 1971—U Thant, Secretary-General of the UN, deployed a by-now familiar move from the playbook of ecological advocacy. He looked to the future:

When we watch the sun go down, evening after evening, through the smog across the poisoned waters of our native earth, we must ask ourselves seriously whether we really wish some future universal historian on another planet to say about us: “With all their genius and with all their skill, they ran out of foresight and air and food and water and ideas,” or “They went on playing politics until their world collapsed around them.

Despite its familiarity, U Thant’s statement here is rhetorically complicated. And it continues to inform efforts to tackle climate change to this day. Rather than castigating the present from some abstract future perspective, contemporary environmental defenders often follow U Thant’s lead, grounding their judgments in a singular figure—“some future universal historian,” geologist, or brother from another planet—who sifts through our future remains with fascination and disbelief. The question, then as now, is simple: Will we collectively close our eyes to the future dangers barreling toward us?

But such a question leads inevitably to a second, perhaps even more pressing question: How can we create a scientifically informed history of the future? This question has galvanized a slew of contemporary writers, filmmakers, and activists, who, echoing U Thant’s warning, are turning to speculative nonfiction, a genre that strives to document the years ahead. The vogue for histories of tomorrow is driven primarily by climate breakdown and the Anthropocene. Such anticipatory histories seek to counter a disastrous temporal parochialism unequal to the demands of the warmer, more insecure world. Nonfictional forays into the future, on the one hand, tend to warn us of coming disasters, and on the other, urge us to take action today.

In a spirit of anticipatory memory, writers, artists, and activists encourage us to own the future by inhabiting it in sample form. They encourage us to feel our way forward into the emergent worlds that our current actions are precipitating. They encourage us to break out of our temporal silos and—from our diverse Anthropocene positions—face the challenges that shadow the path ahead.

In the Anthropocene, Clive Hamilton observes, “the present is drenched with the future.” Despite that, powerful economic, technological, and neurological forces intensify our present bias, severing current actions from future fallout. The neoliberal fantasy of infinite short-term growth, the digital splintering of attention spans, and the rewiring of our brains for restless interruption: all favor dissociation. The average American, after all, checks their phone 150 times a day. A succession of staccato inputs now threatens to crowd out futures of remote concern—futures that seem immaterial, in both senses of the term.

Speculative nonfiction has no innate politics. After all, Big Oil has invested heavily in creating documentaries set in the future that present the companies’ energy trajectories in a glowing light. That said, it is progressives who, recognizing that the trend lines all point toward a warmer, less stable climate, have been most insistently adventurous in experimenting with this futuristic documentary form. Again and again, progressives have conscripted speculative nonfiction as an ally against short-term extractive economics, digital dispersion, political prevarication, and ethical inertia.

Link to the rest at Public Books

As he read the OP, PG reflected that readers generally have few problems accepting science fiction as fiction in part because it is set in the future and includes elements that do not exist (or do not exist in the form depicted) at the present time.