The Future is Cancelled

A human figure walks along a rusty pipeline in a bleak, drab, wetland.
{Image taken from: Public domain; no attribution required}

I used to take comfort in the idea of the future.

I was an awkward, nerdy kid. Years later, I would be diagnosed with autism. Years after that, I would come out as transgender. But at the time, I was just weird. Weird and maladjusted and nervous and alienated from my own body.

And I was bullied. A lot.

But through it all, it was the thought of the future that kept me going. Life now might be petty and grating, or so my thoughts went; the strong may harm the weak, and the bullies may have their way — but it wouldn’t always be that way. Surely it wouldn’t!

Some day, I knew, there would be justice. There would be excitement and adventure and a world gone pleasingly right, just like on Star Trek: The Next Generation. And there would be room for people like me in it. Room for the freaks and the weirdos and the effeminate little boys who would rather spend recess looking at textures on the wall than play soccer.

Global warming was a distant thing in those days. It would be mentioned on the nature documentaries that my father would occasionally sit me down to watch. I remember when I first heard David Suzuki talking about it on his CBC science series The Nature of Things; I think I was only around five or six at the time and it made me cry inconsolably. It was an affront — not just a threat to the world, though that was bad enough — but to that which was sacred to me: my gleaming concept of the glorious future to be.

My parents, of course, tried assure me that it was years off; that there was uncertainty in the predictions; that there was time for the people in charge to do something about it. This did little to help against what amounted to my first genuine brush with mortality: the idea that world around me was a transient, perishing thing. That the future might offer horror, as opposed to comfort. Or, for that matter, that the idiots and bullies who daily tormented me at school might strangle the future to death in its crib.

Ah, but it was a long way off! And there was uncertainty! And there was time! And even as the problem grew worse — or at least gained more attention — I could at least take comfort from the people who would put on a smug expression on the coldest days of winter in Winnipeg and say “so much for global warming, eh?” They were adults! They probably knew what they were talking about.

Years passed, and I kept reading the likes of Scientific American and watching Nova and The Nature of Things. And of course, the warnings were growing ever more intense. In 1995, the International Panel on Climate Change released its first definitive statement that humans are responsible for global warming; I was frightened, but I had faith that, since an important body had said it, the adults in charge would finally get around to doing something! All of the elected leaders of the world — whom, my parents assured me, were all very honourable men and women, even if people might sometimes make fun of them — would gather together in a place with a name like “Kyoto”, and they would make a deal, and that would be that.

That, dear readers, was decidedly not that.

In 1999, my dad subscribed to a new newspaper in Canada: the National Post. He bought it because he liked its investments section. He would leave the newspaper lying around the living room after he was done with it, and by that point I was old enough to read through it on my own. I would mostly read the news articles, but I would also read the editorials: editorials that were written by smug men in business suits, asserting that there was no such thing as global warming and that it was perfectly natural and that it had stopped years ago and that the scientists were all hypocritical Marxists who were only in it for money and that even if it was real then the Kyoto Accord would be the “death knell of the Canadian economy” and would someone please think about the poor workers out on the oilfields in Alberta who would lose their jobs and be unable to provide for their families and anyways hippies are whiny and smell bad.

(It was around this time that I first resolved to learn about socialism. If these wankers were opposed to it, it couldn’t be all bad.)

More time passed. The Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, dragged his feet on ratifying the Accord. In 2000, George W. Bush was elected President of the United States, and he promptly withdrew his country from the Accord altogether, much to my outrage. My dad just shook his head and said “that kind of thing always happens with Republicans.” In 2001, terrorists blew up the World Trade Centre; in 2003, America and Britain invaded Iraq on pretences that I considered to be transparently phony. The last shred of respect that I had for the moral authority of “adults” as a class quietly died. Global warming, naturally, was pushed to the back of the news if mentioned at all, and its very existence had become a matter of intense political — though not scientific — controversy. In Canada, Stephen Harper became Prime Minister in 2006; he withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol and imposed strict restrictions on scientists employed by the federal government to prevent them from voicing environmental concerns to the media. Canadians were subjected to a constant barrage of propaganda in favour of oilsands development; I remember one omnipresent Cenovus advertisement from 2012: Canada is spelled with a “can” not a “can’t”, a narrator boasted over a montage of patriotic imagery, culminating with an heroic oil worker pouring himself a nice, wholesome cup of diluted bitumen. 2015 was the first year that I woke up one summer’s day to discover that the sky had turned piss-yellow with wildfire smoke; it lasted for days. Over the following years, this became an annual occurrence. In the Atlantic, hurricanes grew larger and more frequent. In 2016, Donald Trump, a man who had called global warming a Chinese hoax, was elected President. In October of 2018, the International Panel on Climate Change issued a report to the effect that the world had only 12 years left to avoid catastrophic global warming; by the end of the month, Jair Bolsonaro had been elected President of Brazil; now, even The Economist, hardly a left-wing magazine, is warning of a deathwatch for the Amazon rainforest. Around the world, fascists and authoritarian strongmen are coming to power, promising to fight back against entirely make-believe “threats” like white genocide and cultural Marxism. Meanwhile, global warming — the greatest single threat to the whole of human civilisation — faces no serious opposition, with even liberals like Barack Obama and Justin Trudeau trumpeting their victories on behalf of the oil sector.

And time… Time keeps passing. But the future — my future — comes no closer. Indeed, it is farther away than ever. The idiots and bullies have strangled it; mortgaged it to make a tiny handful of already wealthy people richer than God on His throne. How does one live in the face of looming destruction? How does one motivate oneself to build a career, create art, clean their room, get out of bed each morning in a civilisation that seems to be driving full-tilt towards a brick wall with millions of people cheering it on?

I find little solace in science fiction anymore — at least, not in the kind that inspired me during my childhood. So much of it now induces only a strange shade of melancholy: a nostalgia for the way the future was supposed to be; for all of the futures that we once dreamt and that now will never come to pass. At worst, the stories can seem like a cowardly sort of escapism — a mad dash into an age that happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Sometimes I wonder what the old masters of the genre would make of the present crisis. I doubt that Olaf Stapledon would be surprised. His books Last and First Men (1930) and Star Maker (1937) are nothing if not catalogues of human folly: aeon after aeon of benighted humans, screwing up on ever-greater scales. But I think that the “golden age” American pulp writers, with their triumphant faith in reason and the power of science, might be shocked by just stupid global warming is. We’ve known its causes for decades; we even have a fair idea of what must be done to stop it; and yet we, as a technologically advanced super-civilisation, just…can’t be arsed.

So what is the role of science fiction now, with our radically truncated view of the future? Well, it’s a multilayered question.

First of all, I think that we need to admit that, until further notice, all near-future SF must become “climate fiction” by definition. It is simply irresponsible to set a story ten, twenty, or even a hundred years in the future without tarrying with the impact of climate change; it is happening, it will affect all aspects of life in the coming century, and anyone who ignores this at this point in time loses the right to call their work science fiction. This already appears to be becoming the standard throughout the genre: even the latest season of Star Trek: Discovery included an offhand reference to the widespread use of solar panels on Earth. This is good: we must acknowledge that there is a problem, and that it is of such a scale that its consequences will very likely continue to be felt for centuries. Climate change must be accepted as one of the preconditions for all but the farthest-future speculations.

The second thing that we must do is not give-in to despair. The problem with global warming, after all, is not that it will be the End of the World. That would be easy. The problem is rather that the world will not end: that it will go on, becoming ever worse, ever poorer as it is stripped of its healthfulness and biodiversity; and, worst of all, that we — and our children, and our children’s children — will have to live in it. There is certainly is a place for post-apocalyptic stories; there is always room for fiction that reflects the anxieties of the times. And yet if all that we imagine is dystopia and collapse, then we are precluding the very possibility of hope. Moreover, we are ignoring a very important role that science fiction should play: imagining solutions to scientific problems. How might we restructure our civilisation to exist in balance with the Earth’s ecosystem? How might we even set about repairing the damage that we have done? And perhaps most importantly: how can we, as a civilisation, plausibly get from here to there? These are questions that we must seek to answer.

There are positive signs in this direction. Kim Stanley Robinson — whose novels I cannot recommend highly enough — has been trying this trick for more than 20 years. The first novel that I read by him was 2312 (published in 2012), and it was a life-changing experience. He had vividly imagined a future that I genuinely wanted to live in — but one that still accepted every fact emerging from the field of environmental science as a given. Perhaps it was not the galaxy of gleaming starships with which I had grown up with, but it offered me hope that a future better than the present day was still possible. Another hopeful sign is to be found in the incipient — though still largely unrealised — potential of the Solarpunk genre. We need more of this. We need a work of Solarpunk that will make as large of an impact on pop culture as William Gibson’s Neuromancer did for cyberpunk in 1984. We must, in short, lose our fear of utopias.

The future that I expected as a child may be gone — or at least indefinitely postponed — but we should not waste too long mourning it. A future will be along soon enough, no matter what happens. And, whilst we may have missed the turn-off for Star Trek, we don’t have to end up in Mad Max either; not if we abandon the twin dangers of head-in-the-sand denialism and paralysing despair.

The future is dead; long live the future.

Writer, lapsed physicist, and scholar of science fiction (no, really).