Your World Is Going to Shatter

A letter from the future

Credit: Mike Kemp/Getty

Dear Reader,

If I tell you that I’m writing this letter from 2069, what do you imagine? Am I curled over a gleaming white desk in a hypermodern cube that’s lofted some impressive stack of stories into a sky filled with floating cars? Am I painted like a rainbow by a tapestry of neon lights, the electric dreams of future men still in the form of those noble gasses of the past? Am I scrubbed clean by a fleet of microscopic robots, brothers and sisters of the machines that rip pollutants out of the air and suck heavy metals out of the soil?

Perhaps your image is bleaker. I might be scribbling this dispatch in a barren desert, wearing rags or skins or paints, hiding and hunting. Everything awful has culminated in exactly the kind of heroic dystopia you were promised. Nature and human violence have conspired to create a neat dramaturgy of epic struggle and survival.

Maybe you place me in a future that doesn’t look much different than your present, your faith in the unbroken continuity of human reason more powerful than your imagination. The phones are nicer — they bend now! — and the delivery of commercial goods is faster, but I’m otherwise still in the same mid-century walkup that you’re in, sitting in the same fake Eames chair that you one-clicked from the internet, and still arguing about whether or not the streaming entertainment is any good.

I can also assure you that I’m not writing from the Hunger Games, Mad Max, Running Man.

Well, I can tell you right away that I can’t be writing from that last future because it was never possible. If much of the 20th and early 21st century seemed like a steady march toward stability, it was only because you were insulated from the costs of that quietude. If the walls of your home weren’t swept away by hurricanes, demolished to construct a campus for a trillion-dollar tech company, or simply vaporized by a world superpower “stabilizing” your region’s natural and political resources, you might be forgiven for thinking that the trend line would be unbroken, that history had given up the ghost. But the clever engines of progress eventually run out of disposable populations and regions to soak up their deadly externalities. There isn’t always another subcontinent to starve while you experiment with modern economics, another well of oil to liberate, or another market to slash and burn, seeding new consumers in the soil of their parents. Squeezed between the nonnegotiables of climate change and the contradictions of capitalism, the future certainly looks different.

I can also assure you that I’m not writing from the Hunger Games, Mad Max, Running Man, or any other aesthetically coherent apocalypse. This future might exist in some other timeline, but I’m certainly not alive in it. Hell, I wouldn’t even want to be. No matter how much prepping you do, how many go bags you cram with space blankets and ham radios, or how many burpees you drill inside your black-box strip-mall gymnasium, you probably are not rich enough to survive in a cataclysmic future. Despite that foundational fantasy of disaster porn ressentiment, I struggle to imagine the catastrophe that the world’s billionaires are not more prepared for than even the most decorated weekend warriors. Sure, a few cunning survivalists might scratch out a bare life on the peripheries of the new world, but I would bet that within a few years of any dystopian battle royal, new castes would coagulate around old molds. Power and class have deep roots and deeper bunkers.

Finally, it might disappoint you to learn that I’m not writing this letter from a bourgeois future of technological perfection in which every surface is scrubbed clean and the disaster of real change has been forestalled by the proud march of progress. I’m not even sure that such a world is different than the brutal alternative I just described. Someone had to bear the production expenses of all those jetpacks. A world of extreme ease must simply be one in which the costs of comfort are more conclusively hidden, a different set-dressing for a globe in which imperfections like me have hit the evolutionary wall. It’s just another strength fantasy but with subtler muscles, a future in which I’m shipped off to the glue factory to become a premium nutrient slurry for some lantern-jawed hedge fund manager or pressed into essential oils as a speculative skincare regime for a self-caring venture capitalist.

So, what is the future like? Well, we never got past the climate crisis, and that’s all right. By thinking of climate change as something we could sprint ahead of — that some God or government or machine would save us — we were deluding ourselves that our lives wouldn’t have to change. But eleventh-hour salvation stories are for children’s tales and amnesiac histories. Instead, we accepted that we could not escape the trouble. We developed more sustainable forms of life without the promise of returning to a world that we didn’t have to care for, and it allowed us to survive. We realized that “fixing” the world was a paralyzing imperative that stranded people and communities between a task that seemed impossible and a chauvinistic faith in some original, purer state of existence. It demanded either unflinching fealty to the same technologies of progress that wrecked the world in the first place or a mystified atavism that abandoned science, selecting whichever things power wanted to enshrine as permanent and calling them “natural.”

We stopped trying to fix the world and started fixing our relationship to it, began blurring the neat boundary that our pride drew between the two.

What would it have even looked like to “fix” the world? It’s interesting how many of the fixes that we were sold in the beginning boiled down to more of the same, shooting the moon with the same activities that caused the crisis. We thought we could fix the world by consuming more, flooding freer markets with greener commodities. We thought we could fix the world by building more, bricking ourselves in with taller walls to contain the threat from the outside. We thought we could fix the world by working more, pouring longer hours into the pit of efficiency, hoping that our corporate sacrifices would pacify an angry god. But, again, all of these fixes were misplaced faith in continuity, misguided fear of deeper change.

The desire to “fix” the world was malignant. It was a desire to fix the world in place, an attempt to foreclose risk with the certainty of invention. But a world without risk is a world without chance. Life without death is death. As author Ursula Le Guin wrote (she is still read in 2069), “There is no safety, and there is no end. The word must be heard in silence; there must be darkness to see the stars. The dance is always danced above the hollow place, above the terrible abyss.” As Octavia Butler wrote, “There is no end / To what a living world / Will demand of you.”

So, we stopped trying to fix the world and started fixing our relationship to it, began blurring the neat boundary that our pride drew between the two. We stopped trying to build bars over fragility, steel slats that never reinforced anything except the cages into which we crammed each other. We decentered humankind and began looking toward new ways of living with animals and plants. As you walk around 2069, you see all kinds of cross-species collaborations, some a result of climate change superimposing once delineated habitats on top of each other and some a result of intentional engineering forging more-than-human bonds. Birds harmlessly carry environmental sensors that allow us to work with them to preserve shared spaces, monitoring and reacting to air-quality changes. Parades of trained animals, no longer conscripted into police or military service, roam cities freely, offering accessibility to the blind, the cold, and the anxious. Entire swaths of land seethe with insect and annelid colonies, where compost and waste feed impervious beetles and worms that eventually die and are themselves recycled into pharmaceuticals and shellac. Cities look weird, the dense block of your time’s anonymous and individual existence carved into organic clumps of common space by sprawling, multistory fields and rivers. We spend less of our time working to produce things and more of our time working to produce a world in which new possibilities are equitably shared. Also, there are mushrooms everywhere. We eat a lot of mushrooms. They are incredibly hardy and make life comfortable in the ruins of our progress.

Taxonomic boundaries weren’t the only divisions reconfigured. We learned that there is no freedom without decolonized justice, which, as scholars Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang remind us, must not be a metaphor. By giving stolen land back to indigenous people, the world of 2069 has exploded into a variegated assemblage of communities and practices, creating new borderlands of possibility and exchange. We no longer seek to dominate any knowledge we don’t understand with the lockstep march of capital-S Science. Instead, new sciences are constantly flourishing as we learn from each other while respecting each others’ opacities. We have stopped making John Muir’s mistake of weakening forests in the name of preservation by extinguishing Ahwahneechee fires.

If none of this gives you a clear vision of 2069, it’s because the future is messier than you might imagine. Floods have submerged coastal cities, and rising oceans have swallowed island nations. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, erratic storms — we’ve got it all. But we adapt and, though things have the potential to be better than you might expect, sacrifices have been made out of necessity. We can no longer eat any fish at any moment and any fruit regardless of the season. But were those meaningful freedoms? Was a mango in a New England winter worth constantly feeding a global transport and logistics machine? Was a crate of lobster in a landlocked cafeteria worth the pillage of a net wrapped around the planet? Those who recoil at this lost possibility of arbitrary consumer choice are telling on themselves. It’s a miserable liberty compared with the self-determination that’s gained when we stop exploiting poor farming nations and fragile animal ecosystems.

What does the bridge look like between your 2019 and my 2069? The seeds of the future are already in your present. In Tijuana, they are building retaining walls out of tire waste to reshape a damaged and polluted watershed. In upstate New York, Akwesasne Mohawk communities are fighting Superfund pollution and racial environmental violence, and the legacy of Standing Rock has continued to spawn new indigenous resistance against pipeline expansion. Even the relatively commonplace occurrence of abandoned dogs that have been rescued to become assistance companions for visually impaired and blind people points to a world of richer collaboration with nonhuman animals.

All said, I’d be lying if I suggested the next 50 years will be easy. But the sooner your time accepts that we must stay with the trouble, as Donna Haraway has put it, the sooner you can start building the wild and imaginative future you deserve — a future that doesn’t provide for the comfort of a few by hiding its environmental and social devastation among the ranks of the poor, the racialized, and the geographically distant. You won’t be able to prevent climate change, but that shouldn’t cause you to despair. You have the chance to create a better world, a beautiful future that is always already possible.

Your world is going to be shattered by a changing Earth, but there can be great joy in the arts of shared survival. As Derek Walcott still tells us in 2069, “Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole.” You have a chance to take the pieces and make a world of many worlds, as the Zapatistas used to say, a world not just for the powerful, the white, the able-bodied, the neurotypical, the male, or, even the human. You might lose the things you are used to (sprawling McMansions for nuclear families, unlimited consumer selection, the careless burning of natural resources to power thoughtless diversion), but there is everything to gain. Don’t spend the next 50 years trying to hold on to a past that was never good for everyone; spend them creating something entirely new.

Interactive developer and journalist @medium. Taught ‘The Politics of Interactive News’ @TheNewSchool. Formerly @The_O_C_R @NYTimes @outline @WSJ.

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