Facing a Fantastic Future: Fantasyland, Apocalypse, or Hopeful Realism?

We usually think of something as fantastic if it is so wonderful and amazing that it seems like fantasy. I suspect that is where Walt Disney got the idea for his “Fantasy Land” and the other fantastical components of Disneyland, Disneyworld, and all those animated entertainments. Much of it suggests unbounded human futures through industrial technology and an inevitable triumph of good over evil. However, the future is now, and its progression appears vastly more complex than Disney could ever imagine, quite unpredictable, and fraught with danger.

If we project present trends in climate, biosphere, ocean life, and even political economies, we find little to suggest the kinds of fantastic futures with which Disney entertains the multitudes. To be honest, each cycle of hard-data projections leads to a progressively more dire future. Without extreme human action to thwart the worst of the consequences of the global corporate extractive industrial consumer economy, our future will certainly become catastrophic and very soon.

Into the Anthropocene

The destructive forces that the “technosphere” has already unleashed move us from the relative earthly tranquility of the Holocene geologic epoch, into the Anthropocene. The defining feature of the Anthropocene epoch is the rise of human-created techno-industrial complex adaptive systems to a planetary force that has already begun to destabilize the Earth System. Yet, planet Earth is itself a complex system that, within its own limits, sustains the many interacting complex adaptive systems we call life. Industrial-consumer civilization has already disrupted its balance. And that is only the beginning.

When a sufficiently large disruptive event occurs—an asteroid impact or an internal disruption such as 200 years of extractive industrial development and waste—the stable relations among Earth-System components lose their mutual balance and may spin out of control. The whole Earth System has undergone diverse and cataclysmic changes over millions of years of geologic time. Yet, we humans have experienced only the most recent brief period (11,000 years or so) of stability in the biosphere—the Holocene. That stability is what allowed the rapid development and expansion of Homo sapiens. Our cultural misapprehensions of Nature as composes of mere objects to be exploited ultimately caused us to destroy the stability of our environment (the Earth System) and potentially ourselves.

We might expect some future extreme disruption of relative planetary stability such as another asteroid hit, but that does not matter anymore, for we have created our own cataclysmic disruption of Holocene tranquility. The “great acceleration” of global economic growth is reflected in both CO2 emissions and average global temperature. We have moved too far already down a dark path of self-destruction while holding on to a delusional fantasy of omnipotence over an Earth System that will no longer tolerate our hubris.

A Predicament is Not a Mere Problem

Here is the fundamental cultural predicament we must overcome to survive. We hold tightly to the illusion that we can control an external world that nevertheless has begun to bite back. As the stability of the Holocene begins to fall apart, we perceive the growing dangers as “problems” for which we can devise “solutions,” which will ultimately fail because we frame them within the very same paradigm of human domination of Nature that got us into this predicament in the first place.

With Peter Kalmus, we must acknowledge the necessity to abandon the linear thinking of the Newtonian model of science that enabled our excessive control over parts of Nature. We must rapidly learn to harmonize with our Earth-home by Being the Change (2017) we so desperately need. That necessity is now. Gregory Cajete, an indigenous scholar of the Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico, made this abundantly clear in his book Look to the Mountain: An Ecology of Indigenous Education (1994). Indigenous peoples saw this coming long before the findings of climate scientists employed by Exxon, which hid them from the public and entered into a campaign of misinformation and denial. The fact that a respected NASA atmospheric scientist and an indigenous scholar of American Indian culture should come to essentially the same conclusion is profound.

The upshot of all this is that we need to break out of our industrial-consumer cultural trap and recognize that the Anthropocene will become an epoch of extreme chaos and likely human extinction. We must face the fact that seeking techno-industrial “solutions” to a condition that is far graver than any mere “problem,” is a dead end. Only by radical transformation of human societal organization to reach harmonious relations with our places in the Earth System will give us the chance to survive and possibly thrive within the limits of our species existence on planet Earth. That is the only way to become hopeful realists, enabled by visions of a future we can live with.

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