Sunday, June 28, 2015

Walking backwards for the future

I like a saying by Arundhati Roy, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

But sometimes it seems like seeing that better world of the future requires eyes in the back of your head. I am thinking of the idea that is apparently the normal way of seeing time in the Aymara language of the Andes: the future is behind us, the past in front.

We don't know the future, but we can see the past. We are weighed down by it, anchored to the tangible experiences that we know. And it could be a good thing: we need to understand where we come from, conserve our history and respect the elders that brought us here.

Well, in general. But at this point in human history, after 500 or so years of wrenching and accelerating global change, many of us have no clear past to see, even as we stumble backwards toward the edge of a cliff. How our parents, or grandparents, lived when they were growing up is almost lost in the fog of memory, already. And we laugh at them as they struggle to use a smartphone or SatNav, cursing “back in my day...”.

In an article about Indigenous health, Graeme Maguire and Mark Wenitong write “The notion of walking backwards into the future describes the value we can derive from remembering and understanding our past, in order to best prepare for a better tomorrow. We can’t do this without properly caring for our elders.”

There's a good definition of looking into the past, that we ought to consider. But I'm not just writing about how we need to look after our grandparents. I'm talking about looking after our future. About being good great-grandparents. 

If you can hear that better world breathing into your ear (I know, sexy, right?) or down your neck (not so sexy) it's an achievement. Our natural, backward-looking conservatism has been disrupted by what some call “shifting baselines”: we view our own life experience as “normal”, even if it is (on a longer, intergenerational scale) very new, unusual, and unsustainable.

Even though many, even in the hyper-consumerist rich countries, recognise on some level that it would be good to live a simpler, more relaxed life, consume less, the commonsense view is that's something (maybe) for when you retire. Later. It's a nice idea, but it's not realistic. We have to pay off the house and the car and the kids' gap year and...

And so everyone is caught up in keeping up with the metaphorical Joneses. Not in the vain, shallow way that it is portrayed in cartoons – “darling did you see what the neighbours just got? We have to have one!”. Just that we feel angst that we are being left behind if we don't keep up. Did I tell you about the fantastic bookshops in Buenos Aires? Or the ski slopes in Gulmarg? And so it goes...

Try going back to living without a mobile phone (let alone a smartphone). Or disconnect from the internet for a month or two. Stop watching TV and video. You know, people were able to live happy, fulfilling lives before all those things were invented. Why can't we? Peer pressure and expectation, and the loneliness of being an ascetic doing it alone.

I'm not arguing that (for example) the internet, where I am publishing this is a bad thing. I think it's a great democratiser of information access (among other things, like a new conduit for marketing).

But the past that we have become accustomed to, at an accelerating rate since probably about the 1920s or 1950s, is that we expect we will be buying new things. The world is getting better because cars now have electric windows and central locking, because it was terrible before such things, right? We're moving forward! Our kids will live better than us!

When you consider eco-modernisation in this light, it's really just more of the same. Let's buy a whole  bunch of new gadgets, only cleaner and greener! But eco-modernisation alone is almost certainly not going to reverse our destruction of the ecosphere. You know, the web of life, that we rely on for our food and air and water (and what's left of our culture). Samuel Alexander has a thought-provoking article at The Conversation that explores this.

What can we do? Those much-theorised “masses” who can't yet hear the better future breathing down their neck are the people who have to make it possible. What steps can we offer them to begin to hear those breaths? To catch a glimpse over our collective shoulder of something better?

No doubt, much of the eco-modernisation program is essential. Renewable electricity can provide essentials like cooking much more sustainably than any credible firewood harvesting program, for most of us. I would argue we don't need to all own a smartphone, Kindle, tablet, laptop, and home entertainment system in multiple copies for each household. Don't you think? But I think the internet is a truly great innovation in communications and we should keep it accessible and free.

Naomi Klein, one of those people who may have caught a glimpse of the future over her shoulder (like Roy), suggests a truly sustainable lifestyle might be like living as people did in the wealthy countries in the 1970s. I don't think we should care if it's like the 1950s or 1920s really, as long as we can hold onto a couple of the genuine improvements such as in medicine and communication and renewable energy (and make them accessible to everyone, globally) and lose a couple of the real duds (like car and roads madness).

That breathing down your neck, that better future you can feel is so possible, can be maddening when your eyes are glued to the ugliness as the world's messy present rolls by into the past. But the question in a rich consumer country remains, how do we get the up-and-coming keep-up-with-the-Joneses generations to come on board? Not just the few inevitable dissidents, but a mass movement. There is no shortcut.

A combination of political conflicts (like the fight for renewable energy, which is almost universally popular now) and a battle for ideas are the elements to work with as far as I can see.

The struggle continues. On a less serious note, here's Spike Milligan.

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