Making the Future What it Once Was

May 3, 2016

I see the tension between a time when the future looked incredible, when anything was possible, and a creeping despair about it, that arises in part out of conflicting philosophies associated with naturalism and humanism. Even during the Cold War, when nuclear Armageddon loomed as a very real possibility and lurked in the corner of our fears, many of us still held onto a vision of a bright, shiny, peaceful future where science and technology, as well as new social orders, could achieve nearly anything. We are still faced with a choice as to how to face the future, and there is little reason to think we cannot still embrace the anything-is-possible future many of us grew up with. The alternative, however, has somehow pervaded our popular culture, and is steeped in a vision of dread and hopelessness. The apocalypse beckons in nearly every form of media, from books, to TV, to movies, and increasingly in young-adult fiction and fantasy as well as traditional superhero comics and movies. The future isn’t what it used to be.

              The various manifestoes, including the Humanist Manifestoes, that formed the cornerstone of various political and social movements of the early 20th century, are drawn in the spirit of possibility. The reality of the history of the 20th century, including two world wars and the Cold War, might have dimmed our hopes for the future but for the rather incredible opportunities posed by the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union, the spread of liberal democracy, and what some thought might be the “end of history,” the culmination of the historical dialectic and the victory of liberty. Of course, none of this came to be, and within a decade of the end of the Cold War, from the ashes of our angst arose new threats to peace and freedom, not least of which and among them is Islamic fundamentalism and terror. This new war was latched onto by those whose livelihoods were threatened by peace, and formed the continuation of a new war, an apparent war of cultures, and a hot one at that, fueled by and fueling in part our persistent fears of the end of the world.

              Whereas in the 20th century, many of us, and our popular culture, still had a place for hope in a better future (with notable exceptions, of course), a deeply humanist desire and belief in betterment if not perfectibility at both a personal and social scale, the beginning of the 21st century appears to mark a nearly complete descent into nihilism and defeatism. In fact, a rather telling element of the emergence of apocalypse porn in all our media is the centrality of some lone hero who emerges from the ashes to grasp for whatever might be left of humanity. The bright, shiny, possible future of Star Trek (for example) has given way to the dark and hopeless doom of The Walking Dead.

              Without the hope offered by myths, the belief in some purpose or salvation reverts to us as humans, with our limited resources but unlimited imagination. We can save ourselves from the impeding collapse of our star, we have a few billion years to do so. Or we can resign ourselves to our eventual demise, even dream and hope for it. While we can acknowledge our imperfections, we can attempt through reason and creativity to overcome them, to strive toward not necessarily perfection, but ever increasing improvement in all our spheres of activity.

              The movie Tomorrowland was a box office failure, by standard measures, which should not surprise us in light of its subject matter. The story it tells predicts its failure, frankly. But in my view, it is a gem. It is summed up at the end, in a speech by the villain played by Hugh Laurie: Governor Nix. Watch it here, please. In sum, it is easier to embrace our doom than to do something about it. It takes vision, hard work, and determination to fight against entropy, decay, and our own folly, to work together for something better for ourselves and our society. But this is what embracing humanism demands.

Deeply entwined with our philosophical ascription to a naturalistic universe is the understanding that only we can make sense of the world for ourselves. Part of that project requires us to act, to do what we can to better ourselves, better our societies, and better our futures. We cannot be lone warriors in the aftermath of humanity, we must attempt to be humans working together to avoid that. Nature cares not whether we come or go, but we should if there is any meaning at all to our present existence. That meaning is up to us, wholly contingent upon our own personal and collective will. If we resign ourselves to utter meaninglessness then yes, the end will come…eventually, either through nature’s indifference or through our own mindless actions. The future used to be better, though, and it can be again, and it should be. We can save tomorrow. The hero of Tomorrowland, the teenaged Casey, desperately seeks to interrupt her teachers’ nihilistic doomsaying with a simple question, the core of our humanist ideals. Her simple question is this: can we fix it?

We must think we can, and then try.