The future ain’t what it used to be

I collect futures.

That is to say, I am an enthusiast of the various visions and conceptions of life in the future that various people have developed over the years.  I find them utterly fascinating.  Not because of their predictive value- which is often quite poor[1]- but because I think it says a lot about the person making it.  Ask someone for their vision of an optimistic vision of the future, and what you’ll often get is actually their idealized present.

Earlier this week, it finally occurred to me to go looking for visions of the future, rather than just stumbling upon them from time to time.  So I fired up Google [2], and searched for “sustainable visions of the future” (“visions of the future” proved to be too vague to be of any use).

Most of them weren’t particularly interesting, but one, a vision of the year 2100 by sustainability advocate Erik Assadourian, caught my eye.

Partially, it got my attention because it parts of it match my own vision of the future (which I hope to publish here at some point in the future)- such as the emphasis on mass transit, and decentralized production (well, up to a point).

However, for the most part, Mr. Assadourian and I have utterly different- and some cases outright opposing- visions of the future.  As it happened, his vision also proved to be a good example of many  of the lines of thought that creep up in environmental, and which ultimately, do more harm than good (at least in my opinion).

As such, I thought it would be a good idea to formally critique Mr. Assadourian’s piece, and the worldview that generates it.  My take on it all is as follows:

1. Stop trying to make homesteading a thing.

According to Mr. Assadourian, in 100 years, most of will be homesteaders living either on what used to be the suburbs, or, somewhat oddly, on national park land or forests.  This is an extreme view, but it is indicative of a very strong sentiment within the environmentalism movement.

Due to its counterculture roots, tendency towards romanticism, and idealized view of agrarian life, homesteading has always had a place in environmentalism.  The allure of off-grid living, self-sufficiency, “authentic living”, and being totally unconnected from “the system” proved to be very enticing to many, culminating in the back-to-the-land movement in the ’60s and ’70s.  There is often an economic component to it as well, though this may not always be admitted (or even consciously stated)- if you’re a homesteader, by definition, you’re your own boss, own the means of production, and avoid “alienation” (in the Marxist sense)- though this is probably not the case in this instance, since judging from his other writings, Mr. Assadourin is more-or-less in the market camp.

However, unfortunately for many advocates, homesteading is a bit of a historical anomaly.  In the U.S., it was only really economically feasible for a relatively short window in the 19th century, during Manifest Destiny.  At that time, there was plenty of unoccupied land (as the previous inhabitants had either died of disease or ethnically cleansed), lots of game to supplement often meager crops, and very low population density.  It’s also worth noting that homesteading was heavily subsidized by the government in order to make it economically feasible in the first place, mostly as part of a land-grab.  Obviously, these conditions don’t exist any more, and it would be extremely hard to make living as a homesteader- and, in fact, many of the back-to-the-landers gave up after getting sick of living in what was essentially glorified poverty.  I think it’s telling that most of the prominent homesteaders of the contemporary era came to it after highly successful careers elsewhere- they have the money to spend on it, and if the crops failed, well, they still have money for the grocery store.

Another bit of strangeness that comes up in Mr. Assadourin’s piece is the notion that, despite all this homesteading, families will still be much smaller, even then they are today.  This flies completely in the fact of historical precedent- living off the land takes work, considerably more work than can be done by one or even two people.  There’s a reason families in agrarian societies tended to be large, and it wasn’t just because they assumed that half of their children wouldn’t make it to adulthood.  You need bodies to plant and harvest those fields, and even with multigenerational households (which Mr. Assadourin advocates), you still probably won’t have enough[3].  Sure, the Nearings did with only two people, but most of their books neglect to mention the veritable army of fans and admirers who volunteered at their farm for extended periods of time, to have a chance to learn from them.

Again, Mr. Assadourin’s piece is an extreme case, but it does demonstrate the somewhat contradictory impulses to tell people to go back to a simpler, earthier way of living, and to have more fewer children (or none at all!)- doing both is quite difficult.

Another oddity is his assumption that we’ll be doing this in the suburbs, despite the fact that most suburban sites lost most of their topsoil in construction, and the fact that the suburban layout is probably the worst possible one for the walk/cycling/public transit orient future Mr. Assadourin describes elsewhere in the piece.

Lastly, there is arguably another contradiction, in there is much emphasis placed on self-sufficiency and caring for your own, but at the same time, an strong emphasis on community.  Like many in environmentalist and anti-globalization circles, Mr. Assadourin bemoans our lack of social capital (which is a fair point), and considers strong social ties a practical panacea for whatever ails us (although less so in this piece, and more so elsewhere). However, it seems to me that constructing a society in which you were essentially responsible for manufacturing most of your supplies wouldn’t exactly encourage strong community binds.

Which brings me to the next point.

2. Community can’t replace everything

As I mentioned earlier, many sustainability advocates and thinkers have long catalogued the problems caused by a decline in community strength and social capital- and rightly so.  In the U.S. in particular, traditionally a very individualistic nation, we may have swung a little too far towards that direction.  On personal level, it does bother me sometimes that I don’t know my neighbors, and don’t really know how to engage them to get to know them in the first place (granted, it doesn’t help that this is in college town, so most of the population is essentially transient…and that a few of our neighbors seem kind of sketchy)[4].   In any case, this is usually tied  in with the rise of consumer culture- which usually is considered a root cause of ecological damage- as manufactured replacement for the happiness and security brought by close communities (and a poor one at that).

In Mr. Assadourin’s future, of course, this won’t be a problem. We may not have much, but, apparently, we’ll have the joys of providing for ourselves, and of strong community ties, and that this will make up for our deprivations.  Which might sound great until you realize these deprivations include no longer having pet cats or dogs.

Mr. Assadourin, if you’ll excuse the pun, has a pet peeve about dog and cat ownership, writing,

“While discussing population, one surprise may be the dramatic decline in America’s pet population, which fell from its 2013 peak of 171 million dogs and cats to less than two million today. Americans still have pets, but often they are shared at the community level and are full members of a community—serving important roles like guarding farm animals from predators or getting rid of mice. Most households no longer have their own dog or cat but have productive or edible pets, like chickens, rabbits or goats. While hard to believe, dogs and cats are minimally missed now that our human population isn’t as socially isolated as it was in 2011. Pets’ valuable therapeutic role became less important once people had close communities of friends and family to lean on and bond with.”

For the curious, he goes into more detail about why he holds this position in another paper, but the gist of it is that pet ownership is relatively new “manufactured cultural norm”, and that non-edible/productive pets are consuming resources that could be put to better use (interestingly, the Church used a similar argument against pet ownership, at least among the non-noble classes, during the Middle Ages, although it’s now recognized the real reason is that they feared it would somehow lead to pagan worship and witchcraft (e.g. familiars)).

Ignoring the fact that “edible pet” is arguably a contradiction in terms (doesn’t he mean livestock?), and the fact that livestock animals are just as much a resource drain (arguably more so), this illustrates another common problem within this type of rhetoric: while it is true that many of us would benefit from better social connectivity and engagement, and that it would probably be a better source of happiness than consumerist impulses, there are some things community simply cannot provide.  While it is true some people keep pets as a substitute for human interaction, many of us have them precisely because we desire non-human companionship– which, by definition, a human community cannot give us [5][6].

Similarly, the happiness of belonging to a community probably won’t offset high childhood mortality rates (although-I swear I’m not making this up- there are sustainability writers that believe it can *cough*TechnoFix*cough*), systematic oppression, famine, and severe deprivation in general.  It may help you cope with any of those things, of course, but it will not make up for them.

And, of course, as I’ve alluded to in previous entries, this is all assuming your community will be tolerant and open-minded enough to accept you.  There are plenty out there where doing, saying, or being anything even remotely outside of social norms will get you ostracized, and that may be a best case scenario.

As a bit of tangent, it’s also worth noting that the focus on consumerist culture as the ultimate end product of social alienation and the primary villain of environmentalism may not be the best approach.  In her book EcoMind (which is fantastic, I highly recommend it) Frances Moore Lappe pointed out attacking consumerism makes it seems like we in the developed world have been trashing the planet while living large, despite the fact, for all but the very wealthy, most Americans haven’t actually been doing that well economically.  After all, the single biggest “consumption” expense amongst the 99% isn’t electronics or automobiles- it’s healthcare.  Telling people they’re taking too much when most of them are barely getting along as is, is probably not going to be a successful strategy.

But I digress.

3. The future will look like the past.  Mr. Assadourin admits his vision has a definite resemblance to the colonial era (probably due to the scale and emphasis on cottage industry, I would guess).  This sort of thing crops up a lot in environmentalism- some of the literature from the Transition movement even out-and-out says that we’ll be living like our great-grandparents, more or less.  And while it’s true that past eras may have been more sustainable in some respects, they really aren’t a perfect guide for future planning.

A lot of this stems from the general tendency towards romanticism that is prevalent in environmentalism.  Things were better in the past (more authentic, less environmentally damaging, less alienating, whatever), or so the story goes, so we should aim to make the future more like that.  However, for one thing, past cultures aren’t inherently sustainable- plenty of them have crashed on their own, of course, and medieval Europe probably would have hit its limits had they not discovered the New World.

The other thing is that it put limits on your imagination.  If you go into a scenario where many more goods and services will have to be produced locally, for example, with the preconceived notion that such a society will resemble the 19th century, where most medicine was herbal, then it may not occur to you to look into, say, extracting and purifying pencillin from mold grown in your basement.  As a result, I sometimes suspect this is the most damaging “thought-trap” (to use Moore’s term) that environmental advocates fall into.

Which brings me to my last point, which is in a very similar vein.

5. The future isn’t static

One thing I’ve noticed in many of these types of writing is the underlying assumption that once we reach the point we’ve achieved the type of sustainable society the author idealizes, we’ll just kind of…stop.  Very little mention is made of future development beyond that, and that the culture will remain essentially unchanged from that point onward.

This also shows up a lot in the more deep green/dark green literature (particularly anarcho-primativists and others who fetishize indigenous cultures as Wise Noble Savages), especially those that deplore the idea (or, as they like to call it, “myth”) of progress.  Frequently, there is a implicit or explicit call to return to a more cyclic view of time, and fatalistic view to life, in contrast to the more “Western”, “linear” view of time and free-will view of life in contemporary American society [7].  Leaving aside the fact that time as a line and time as a circle are both ultimately just human constructs (as pointed out in Ran Priuer’s fantastic essay), there’s a lot of I’ve always found dubious about this view.

Part of this is from the romantic impulse- after all, if you’re convinced that we already had a Golden Age at some point in history, and then foolishly gave it up or drifted it away from it, then your number one imperative to recreate that time and not let it go away again.  Unfortunately, this can often lead to more reactionary tendencies amongst environmentalists.

Another contributing factor may be what I’ve dubbed Cargo Cult Ecology.  This is a topic that really deserves its own post (and may get one in the future), but in brief, at one point it was thought that ecosystems were basically in a static equilibrium and didn’t really change once they reached the “climax” or mature stage in their development.  This idea was picked up and promulgated within the then-nascent environmentalist movement by notable thinkers such as Barry Commoner.  Unfortunately, we now know that this idea is almost totally wrong- mature communities exist in a dynamic equilibrium, and there is still considerable change going on, just not as much compared to earlier stages.  Unfortunately, this new insight into community ecology hasn’t yet been able to supplant the old view, which has become more ideology than science.

But I think most of it ultimately comes from the fact that most people are uncomfortable with change.  Environmentalists, of course, are hardly abnormal in this regard- after all, it’s a very common condition, to the point that a fundamental tenant of Buddhism is that number one cause of suffering is because of peoples’ inability or unwillingness to accept change.

But, unfortunately, it’s not a good foundation for a philosophy, or for a vision of the future.  Nothing in nature is wholly static.  Wait long enough, and, if nothing else, your environment will change, just due to physical processes and cycles.  Granted, these changes can happen on scales much greater than human lifetimes, but given that it’s the future we’re talking about, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be thinking about these time scales- for all we know, there very well may be humans (or something descended from humans) still around to have to deal with it!

And, sure, there have been cultures that have remained relatively unchanged for long periods of time- favorite examples often cited include the Ladahk, the Pueblo, the Australian Aborigines, and the indigenous people of the New Guinea Highlands.  However, it’s worth noting that these are the exceptions, not the rule, and almost all of them are found in harsh or isolated environments, which tends to select against cultural change.  Most other cultures throughout history have changed over time, usually quite dramatically, and it would be foolish to somehow expect them not to.

Thus, any sustainable future that does not allow for change or adaptation will not be successful.

Conclusion

Erik Assadourin’s view of the future is intriguing, provocative even, but ultimately not a very useful one.  It is rift with contradictions, looks suspiciously like the past, and, well, I can’t help but wonder if Mr. Assadourin actually grew up on a farm, or has even really had any real experience with the subject[8], for all his enthusiasm about the subject.  However, it tells me a lot about him, and the context from which he writes.  And that, arguably, is vastly more valuable than any vision of the future.

Postscript:  My brother, upon reading this entry, commented that from the sounds of it, Mr. Assadourin would love rural Tunisia (where my brother has spent some time as part of an economic/humanitarian development project).  Apparently, there, there’s no pets, almost everything is made or grown on site, and hardly anyone ever leaves the village they were born in.  This, no doubt, would seem like paradise to a would-be homesteader- until my brother pointed out that these communities are, by and large, economically depressed, utterly demoralized, and more than a little xenophobic.  I played devil’s advocate, suggesting (as Mr. Assadourin no doubt would), that part of the community’s distress was due to the effect of globalization, and, more specifically, longing for a Western-style level of affluence that these communities could probably never hope to achieve.  My brother responded that that might contribute, but he strongly suspected that it had a lot more to do with the complete lack of economic opportunity, incredible boredom**, hand-to-mouth living, and oppressively strict social hierarchy.  I’m inclined to agree with him.

** This actually brings up another important pitfall of the neo-agrarian vision of life- these lifestyles have a tendency to be very, very dull.  Advocates seem to imagine that they won’t be, because we’ll entertain ourselves (presumably like we did in the “old times”), by telling each other stories, conversing/socializing with each other, making music, I dunno, community theater, etc.  However, the latter presume a lot more leisure time or affluence than I think is realized- when you’ve just spent 8-12 hours working the fields, you may not have the energy to rehearse music, or set up a play. And as for the former, if you’re living in a very small community, with only tens of people, and none of you ever go anywhere, and most of your daily experience is going to be identical, then there’s probably a very finite number of things to talk about (about the only thing I could think of would be new and rapidly changing enough to be interesting would be relationship drama, but I imagine these kinds of societies tend to discourage talking publicly about matters). There’s a reason bards were so highly prized in the agrarian age, and why inebriants of one kind or another so widely consumed- it was the only relief from the monotony readily available. I suspect these problems don’t enter the minds of writers such as Mr. Assadourin, probably because either 1) they’re willing to overlook them in pursuit of what they consider an overall greater goal, or 2) consciously or subconsciously, they tend to have an ascetic mindset or personality, and, as such, entertainment would only be a distraction from the goal of purifying the mind/spirit.

[1]One of my favorite example of this is the 1981 Omni-Future Almanac I found in my middle school library as a kid.  It was filled with the wonders of the year 2000 and beyond, which included spray-on clothing, completely reorganized approaches to education, military space stations…and absolutely no mention of the internet or even really personal computing, both of which technically already existed at the time it was written

[2] Well, actually, StartPage.  It’s like Google, but it respects your privacy, donchaknow.

[3] This brings up another contradiction- if we’re going to have these expanded households, but live in smaller houses, as Mr. Assadourin believes, where exactly are we going to put all these people?

[4] This fact has become much more apparent to me recently, as most of my previous social support network has graduated, moved, or dropped off the face of the Earth for one reason or another. Not having a strong social net really makes you realize the value of one.

[5] I suppose one could get companionship from your livestock animals, but chickens and goats aren’t really known for being all that personable, not in the way a dog is.  Rabbits might be an acceptable substitute, but I doubt you’d want to get to close to it, since it would eventually end up being dinner eventually.

[6] I also find it odd that, for someone who has written about the need for people to love/appreciate/feel close to nature, he has a remarkably cold utilitarian view of animals.

[7] It’s worth noting that the West does not and did not have a monopoly on linear thinking, no matter what the Luddites may say.  After all, Buddhism has a very linear view of progression towards enlightenment (Therveda Buddhism especially)- in large part as a reaction to the perceived futility of the endless cycling through rebirth found in the Hindu context from which it emerged.

[8] Mr. Assadourin apparently has degrees in Anthropology and Religion, and appears to have some connections to the permaculture movement, though don’t quote me on the latter.  If the latter is true, then he has fallen into the same thought-trap that seems to afflict many permaculturists: apparently, since permaculture has some of its root in organic gardening (with the emphasis on gardening), it has a tendency to conflate actual farming with gardening.  Which, of course, misses the most important distinction between farming and gardening: if the crop of your garden fails, it’s a disappointment.  If the crop of your farm fails, you will probably go broke and/or starve (the latter is particularly true in cases of subsistence agriculture, which many environmentalists seem to idolize, for some inexplicable reason).

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About tessarion

Astrobiologist, environmentalist, trans lesbian, and would-be writer.
This entry was posted in Criticism, Environmentalism, Sustainability. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The future ain’t what it used to be

  1. Pingback: The Crux of the Matter | Planetary Habitability Starts at Home

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