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Peter Hemminger is a writer, editor, cultural worker and arts advocate currently based in Calgary, Alberta. He is the executive director of the Quickdraw Animation Society, co-programmer of the annual GIRAF festival of independent animation, and the host of The A.M., a weekly music program on campus and community radio station CJSW 90.9FM in Calgary. He also writes a (mostly) monthly Substack called Wander Lines, which in 2022 has spun off into a sporadic blog focused on music, art, culture and philosophy.

Tomorrow Isn’t Over: A Reading List About Brighter Futures

A field of wind turbines just before sunrise
Photo: Patrick Pleul/picture alliance via Getty Images

By Peter Hemminger

These are dark days for hope. 

From an ongoing, ever-mutating global pandemic to international conflict and the threat of nuclear war, to an impeccably researched, 3,600-page report outlining in excruciating detail the devastating consequences of climate change, there is no shortage of reasons to dread the future. Every morning, my phone pings me with an unending stream of thoughtful, articulate articles explaining exactly why I should be even more worried than I already am.

As much as I know I should look away, part of me views that barrage of bad news as the cost of being an informed participant in society. Hope can feel like a guilty pleasure, the sugar on the cereal of serious thought, best enjoyed in moderation if at all. Starting the day with a dose of doom is just what adults do.

Instead of hope, our culture keeps delivering new ways to throw its hands up in defeat. Prestige TV is drowning in dystopias, showing us how our darkest impulses and noblest aspirations will all turn out for the worst. Meanwhile, collective dreams of saving the Earth have largely made way for individualist fantasies of replacing it, with the world’s richest men putting billions into immersive simulations and interplanetary escape hatches. The assumption seems to be that this world’s already a lost cause, so we might as well replace it.

Lately, though, I’ve been trying my best to shake that mindset. If we’re going to face up to the seemingly insurmountable tasks ahead, hope isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity. The challenge is approaching hope in a way that feels realistic. Easy answers can be as dangerous as pure defeatism, but if we’re going to convince ourselves to change, we need better futures to aspire to — not just worse ones to avoid.

I’ve always had difficulty imagining a better world. In high school, tasked with a group project to design the political, economic, and cultural realities of a future paradise, our four-person team split into two irreconcilable factions, with my partner and I arguing that a true Utopia was simply impossible. We suggested instead a Matrix-style virtual world we called Inscience (from the Latin for “lack of knowledge”), where everyone would at least have the illusion of happiness. It was a cop-out, in the same way that escaping to a colony on Mars is a cop-out. We weren’t engaging with the actual assignment, because the task was simply too big. 

Fortunately, there are others who are more up to the job than our teen selves were. Science fiction authors who challenge themselves to move beyond cynicism to more hopeful and genuinely disruptive futures. Ecologists who grapple with the complexity of Earth’s ecosystems, and search for new ways to embrace that complexity rather than control it. Writers, thinkers, and activists who don’t turn away from the peril they see surrounding us, but who also refuse to let that be all they see.

The late Thích Nhất Hạnh described compassion as a North Star, writing in 1987’s Being Peace that “If I lose my direction, I have to look for the North Star, and I go to the north. That does not mean I expect to arrive at the North Star. I just want to go in that direction.” Imagining a better future seems to work the same way: It isn’t about escaping from reality, it’s about finding your way when you’re feeling lost. 

The inspiration for a better future can come from countless sources, and as the pieces below will attest, whether our North Star is fixed in a firmament of scientific fact or utopian fiction isn’t what’s important. After all, following it doesn’t give us license to ignore the terrain we’re walking on. There’s still the risk that we’ll stumble and fall — but at least we can point ourselves in the right direction.

The Future Will Have to Wait (Michael Chabon, Details Magazine, January 2006)

One of the grandest gestures toward imagining the future is the Clock of the Long Now. Originally conceived by inventor, computer scientist, and Disney Imagineering fellow Danny Hillis, and expected to cost in the tens of millions of dollars, the clock is designed to keep time for 10,000 years. Besides being a tremendous feat of engineering, it’s also a tremendous statement of faith — building it is a bet that there will be humans around over the next 10 millennia to hear its bells ring.

Plenty of articles have talked about the Clock (one of the earliest I could find was a tangent in a 1997 New Yorker piece on the futurist visions of Imagineers), but none of them grappled with its significance quite like “The Future Will Have to Wait.” As much as it describes the Clock, it’s more about the ultimate goal of the Long Now Foundation to encourage humanity to think on longer time scales, and the powerful emotions that can emerge just from imagining our survival into the far future:

The point of the Clock of the Long Now is not to measure out the passage, into their unknown future, of the race of creatures that built it. The point of the Clock is to revive and restore the whole idea of the Future, to get us thinking about the Future again, to the degree if not in quite the way same way that we used to do, and to reintroduce the notion that we don’t just bequeath the future—though we do, whether we think about it or not. We also, in the very broadest sense of the first person plural pronoun, inherit it.

As much as Chabon’s thoughts on the Clock resonated with my own, his description of his 8-year-old son’s reaction is what gives the piece its heart. It’s a reminder that the stories we tell genuinely can change how we see the world.

The Dangers of Cynical Sci-Fi Disaster Stories (Cory Doctorow, Slate, October 2020)

If narratives really are powerful enough to shape our future — and there’s plenty of research saying that they are — then we should probably be careful about the stories we put out into the world. Not that there isn’t a place for stories about our darker side, but when every story focuses on the idea that we’re one disaster away from the collapse of civilization, it doesn’t give much to aspire to.

Science fiction author and activist Cory Doctorow describes that realization in this 2020 essay, written as part of Slate’s “Future Tense” series on emerging technology, public policy, and society. Reflecting on the role of stories in shaping our mindset, he brings up philosopher Daniel Dennett’s idea of “intuition pumps,” thought experiments designed to help intuit the answers to complex problems. Science fiction that imagines humanity as a competitive creature hiding beneath a veneer of cooperation doesn’t just contradict contemporary research into humanity’s origins — it primes our pumps with exactly the wrong intuitions.

The problem is, it’s wrong. It makes for good stories, but those stories don’t reflect the truth of the world as I see it. Humanity is, on balance, good. We have done remarkable things. The fact that we remain here today, after so many disasters in our species’ history, is a reminder that we are a species of self-rescuing princesses—characters who save one another in crisis, rather than turning on ourselves.

Doctorow goes on to describe how that insight has influenced his writing and it’s fascinating to see an author confront the cynicism of their past work. His newer stories are still far from Utopian, but by putting the potential for change at their heart, they’re more likely to inspire progress in the real world.

Is Becky Chambers the Ultimate Hope for Science Fiction? (Jason Kehe, Wired, September 2021)

In early 2022, Wired released a collection called “The Future of Futures” that could easily have been a whole reading list in itself. Tempting as it was to include that series’ article on Tropical Futurism and alternative visions of tomorrow, it was edged out by another Wired article from a few months earlier: Jason Kehe’s profile of science fiction author Becky Chambers.

To describe the unique mood of Chambers’ brand of science fiction, Kehe keeps returning to the metaphor of a pot of tea. Unlike the epic space operas that many people associate with sci-fi, her stories are calming, complex, “the drink of choice for the clear-headed among us.” Her writing falls into a genre called “hopepunk,” one of a bouquet of alternatives to the dourness of cyberpunk that have begun blooming in the underground sci-fi landscape.

For Chambers, who didn’t ask to be labeled hopepunk but likes the term “very much,” the simple act of being kind in her writing, of imagining futures in which decency triumphs and people are allowed to cry tears of joy, qualifies as more than sufficiently rebellious in the 21st century. “You’re looking at the world exactly as it is, with all of its grimness and all of its tragedy, and you say, No, I believe this can be better,” she says. “That to me is punk as hell.”

Although Chambers’ stories aren’t speculative in the same sense as writers like Doctorow or Kim Stanley Robinson (probably the most prominent name in contemporary utopianism), that doesn’t detract from their aspirational power. Tea leaves may not be the most scientifically sound way to look at the future, but that doesn’t stop them from firing some imaginations.

Another Green World (Jessica Camille Aguirre, Harper’s Magazine, February 2022)

Coincidentally taking its title from an album by Long Now Foundation co-founder (and music icon) Brian Eno, Jessica Camille Aguirre’s profile of amateur scientist Kai Staats lives right on the border between science fiction and science fact. Staats’ goal is real enough — the self-contained biome he’s designing is a descendent of the Biosphere 2 project and a hopeful predecessor to a colony on Mars — but whether a system as complex and chaotic as our ecosystem can really be condensed into a single space capsule is still an open question.

Like Chabon’s piece on the “Clock of the Long Now,” though, Aguirre isn’t just writing about a single project. It’s about the challenges of space exploration, but it’s also about what the desire for exploration says about us as a species, and why some people feel such a visceral compulsion to leave the planet and found a new home for humanity. And even if that proves impossible, it’s also about how the project’s complexity helps create a new appreciation for Earth, and just how miraculous the original Biosphere really is.

I thought about a conversation I had months before with Francesc Godia Casablancas, a chemical engineer who runs the ESA’s pilot plant in Barcelona, one of the most complex biological life-support systems ever developed. He told me that no matter what, his systems would always lose efficiency over time; the simplified biological cycle built by scientists in a series of reactors would never be “a perfect world.” Living on a planet that still harbors secrets seemed to me like the opposite of being alone. There is a strange kind of companionship in the tension of not knowing, in the fact that the systems supporting life on Earth operate beyond our control.

The Landfill of the Future (Andrea McGuire, Hakai Magazine, March 2022)

Next to the big, bold future of interplanetary travel, a more efficient landfill may seem like an excessively modest goal. But pound for pound, the ground-level optimism that Andrea McGuire brings to her profile of Newfoundland-based startup 3F Waste Recovery is as restorative as anything you’ll read this year. Connecting the company’s circular economics equally to Canadian East Coast salvage culture and author Neal Stephenson’s futuristic technologies, she subtly makes the case that building a better world might be less reliant on new technologies than new mindsets.

Sci-fi often paints the future as an increasingly virtual dystopia. But a book like [Neal Stephenson’s] The Diamond Age pulses with inventive possibilities that could lead to more grounded, ecologically sound possibilities, too. For Wiper, the sparsely populated Northern Peninsula is the best place to nurture his utopic, sci-fi–inspired ideals. Here, he and his team are less shackled, less constrained than they’d be in a denser, more centralized region, he says. There’s plenty of space for experimenting—which is an important consideration, since, as Lynch tells me, “experimentation is absolutely crucial” for the circular economy.

The idea of fusing future thinking and traditional knowledge is taken even further in Low-tech Magazine’s “Obsolete Technology” series, which looks to seemingly outdated processes like using urban fish ponds for sewage processing, or the revolutionary potential of the hot water bottle. It’s a circular spin on William Gibson’s oft-quoted line about the future’s uneven distribution: Sometimes the future is actually in the past.

Dystopias Now (Kim Stanley Robinson, Commune Magazine, November 2018)

It’s nearly impossible to talk about better futures without bringing up Kim Stanley Robinson. Dubbed “the gold-standard of realistic and highly literary, science-fiction writing” by The Atlantic, the author of the iconic Mars trilogy has used his novels to explore topics from climate change and environmentalism to post-capitalist economics with a hard-won hopefulness, and it seems fitting to give him the last word.

Robinson’s 2018 essay for Commune is ostensibly about dystopian writing, but as with Doctorow’s article above, it’s really a call to put our collective imagination to better use. We have the raw materials for a better future — a planet that is more than capable of sustaining us, a sun that provides ample energy, and the ability to think creatively about how to build a sustainable civilization. Worrying can only take us so far, especially in our imagined worlds. It’s time to do the work of hope.

Or maybe we should just give up entirely on optimism or pessimism—we have to do this work no matter how we feel about it. So by force of will or the sheer default of emergency we make ourselves have utopian thoughts and ideas. This is the necessary next step following the dystopian moment, without which dystopia is stuck at a level of political quietism that can make it just another tool of control and of things-as-they-are. The situation is bad, yes, okay, enough of that; we know that already. Dystopia has done its job, it’s old news now, perhaps it’s self-indulgence to stay stuck in that place any more. Next thought: utopia. Realistic or not, and perhaps especially if not.

***

Peter Hemminger (@peterhemminger on Twitter) is a writer, cultural worker, radio host, and arts advocate based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Among other projects, he publishes the newsletter Wander Lines, which has spun off into a similarly named blog about music, philosophy, arts, and culture.


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The Sounds of Silence: A Reading List About Listening to Nature

A colorful bird perched on a tree branch, its mouth open in song
Photo by Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images

By Peter Hemminger

Since my early teens, I’ve always experienced the city through a pair of headphones. If I was leaving the house, I could be trusted to forget just about anything else that I needed, from bagged lunches to bus fare and house keys, but there was no chance of me stepping outside without my Walkman. Over the decades, the technology has changed and the song selection increased, but the basic principle stayed the same: Music always has been my sonic security blanket, a bubble of auditory insulation between me and everything else.

That started to change during the first COVID lockdown. When I need to clear my head, I’ve always found refuge in the ambient chatter of a nearby coffee shop, or at my favorite hole-in-the-wall cocktail lounge, where the music is always just slightly too loud to talk over. With my usual haunts suddenly off-limits, I found myself spending more time in parks and pathways. I discovered nature hikes in my neighborhood, faded trails leading into tangles of Douglas fir that I’d previously confined to my peripheral vision. As social media talked half-jokingly about nature returning, I started noticing birds’ nests everywhere. I saw beavers swimming in the river, deer walking by the railroad tracks. The more time I spent looking and listening to the world around me, the more I realized the headphones were getting in the way.

At the same time, I’d begun reading Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy — the last book I’d taken out from my local library before everything shut down, and by sheer luck a perfect thing to read while much of the world was on pause. Early in the book, Odell talks about how she began listening to bird calls in her neighborhood. The first step was acknowledging that the sounds of birds were everywhere, even if she hadn’t been paying attention to them. Gradually, she began picking out individual calls, learning what birds they were attached to. As her awareness of the sounds grew, it “changed the granularity” of her perception. Her reality seemed to be increasing in resolution.

I felt inspired to try it, too. Tuning into nature and trying to scale up the fidelity of my neighborhood, I realized I’d been using my headphones to solve a problem I didn’t properly understand. I wasn’t using them as an escape from reality, but as an escape from noise. I’d been blocking out the constant din of background sounds that most of us take for granted in urban life. My walks through inner-city parks hadn’t cut out the noise entirely, but they had turned the volume down just enough that I could start to pick up on another conversation, one that I didn’t want to drown out. As a relative newcomer to that conversation, I’ve been kicking myself for ignoring it over the first three decades of my life. Fortunately, there are others out there who’ve been much more closely attuned to the voice of nature. Reading the works of authors, essayists, and ecologists who have dedicated their lives to deep listening is helping me fill in the gaps — and make up for lost time.  

Splendid isolation: how I stopped time by sitting in a forest for 24 hours (Mark O’Connell, The Guardian, January 24, 2020)

Mark O’Connell’s relationship to nature seems very similar to mine: For much of his life he “wished it well in all its dealings,” but “[his] regard for it was essentially abstract.” Until, that is, he experienced the pleasure of a “wilderness solo.”

The solo is an extended outdoor stay of one to three days, done without leaving a 10-meter circle. A very different experience from a hike and its feeling of constant progression, its aim is to do essentially nothing. No wandering, no distracting yourself with technology, no journaling or sketching or other artistic pursuits. Just watching, listening, thinking, and being in nature.

Like Odell’s How to Do Nothing, O’Connell’s piece is a pre-pandemic work that seems even more relevant in our new reality. His awakening to the power of stillness and silence is an invitation for fellow urbanites to slow down, decompress, and tune into the rhythms of the natural world.

Until very recently, the idea of spending a rainy morning alone in a forest would have been a profoundly unattractive one, but I found myself relishing the prospect of these last hours. The restlessness I had experienced the previous day, in that last stretch of the solo, was entirely absent now, the question of what to do with myself for several hours having come to seem nowhere near as pressing. The idea of such a question felt, in fact, somehow absurd. I went to the edge of my circle and sat down, and looked at the river.

Everything Is Wrong: Bernie Krause’s Concept of ‘Biophony’ (Tobias Fischer, The MIT Press Reader, July 30, 2020)

Despite the dour title, Tobias Fischer’s primer on the concept of biophony is anything but a downer. Like all contemporary stories about nature, it comes with a warning of environmental danger, but the concept it introduces is an enchanting one. To musician and “soundscape ecologist” Bernie Krause, the sound of nature is neither silence nor a chaotic blend of unrelated noises. It’s an intricate symphony, a sculpting of the sonic landscape refined by millions of years of evolution, as intricately coordinated as anything humans have composed.

As Fischer explains in this excerpt from Animal Music, an anthology about the sounds of the natural world, Krause believes that each species carves out its own vocal terrain, which can’t be fully appreciated without listening to all the sounds around it. In that view, field recordings that attempt to isolate individual species are missing the point entirely — the goal should be to hear the region as a whole. Humans are apparently so attuned to these compositions that we pick up on discrepancies on an unconscious level: Nature guides report that areas with less auditory diversity cause bad feelings about a location, even if they can’t pinpoint why. Our bodies know to listen, even if our minds don’t.

And so, the lower ends are usually taken by mammals, from the subsonic utterances of giraffes, elephants and hippos to the sounds of monkeys and cats. Further up in the spectrum, one finds different species of birds, which have arguably taken the art of song to an unprecedented degree of refinement. The highest frequencies, finally, are secured by insects and the ultra-sonics of bats. Together, they form what Krause termed the “Great Animal Orchestra,” a constantly shapeshifting constellation of individual voices in motion, and he termed their symphonic soundscape a ‘biophony’ — all of the “sounds originating from nonhuman, nondomestic biological sources.

Making sense of our multispecies world: Body-Forest as community (Jack Young, Uneven Earth, December 13, 2021)

“Listening to nature” doesn’t always have to be literal. In this wide-ranging essay, poet and educator Jack Young reflects on the increasingly fuzzy border between humanity and nature while walking through the woods on the edge of Bristol. The landscape itself acts as a collaborator in the essay, raising questions, leading off on tangents, and offering novel perspectives for those attuned to its language.

There’s something about moving through natural spaces that triggers a different kind of thinking, one that’s more in tune with the connectedness of nature. The landscape becomes an extension of the mind, coming up with thoughts in a dialogue that couldn’t have emerged alone. The conversation that Young documents is personal, political, and philosophical, a wide-ranging wander through mental and physical terrain.

Below my feet the fungal network surges with intricate connections, erupting out of the earth in arrays of glistening mushrooms among oak worms and darkling beetles. These woods make clear that our bodies are not merely our bodies. They are intimately connected with the bodies of trees and plants and fungi, with the bullfinches and marsh tits and fly orchids, all breathing separately, yet as one. My body is only my body in relation to the other bodies that surround it.

The Minds of Plants (Laura Ruggles, Aeon, December 12, 2017)

For more on the interconnectedness of our surroundings: Biologist Merlin Sheldrake and British writer Robert MacFarlane tune into the mushroom kingdom at Lit Hub.

Who knows how many conversations we’re missing out on, either because we don’t know to listen for them, or because we’ve closed our minds to the possibility of having them at all? In her exploration of whether plants might have more mental life than we imagine, philosophy doctoral student Laura Ruggles brings up the idea of “plant blindness,” the human tendency to dismiss the world’s flora as mere set dressing for the real actors in the animal kingdom.

As much as it may seem like a stretch to say the forest is thinking, Ruggles makes a compelling case for at least some form of inner life, even if it’s one that’s entirely alien to ours. Treating plants as backgrounds is another way that we ignore the natural world — and maybe underestimate it. After all, if plants can learn and react, maybe we can learn from them, too.

[I]t’s what the mallow does at night that has propelled this humble plant into the scientific spotlight. Hours before the dawn, it springs into action, turning its leaves to face the anticipated direction of the sunrise. The mallow seems to remember where and when the Sun has come up on previous days, and acts to make sure it can gather as much light energy as possible each morning. When scientists try to confuse mallows in their laboratories by swapping the location of the light source, the plants simply learn the new orientation.

The God of Silence Speaks Up (Katherine LaGrave, Afar Magazine, September 8, 2020)

The most difficult thing about listening to silence is that it’s so easy to drown out. There’s hardly a stretch of the world without at least some human-made noise in earshot, whether it’s the clatter of a train, the constant hum of a distant highway, or the regularly scheduled interjection of a passenger jet’s roar. Fortunately, there are activists like Gordon Hempton working to preserve the subtle sounds of nature, through a combination of field recordings and preservation efforts. In this profile for travel magazine Afar, Katherine LaGrave explores the origins of Hempton’s quest, as well as what’s at stake if it fails. The number of spaces that are truly free from man-made noise is shrinking every day, and the consequences go well beyond some lost peace of mind.

“My father used to say, ‘Quiet? That’s so highbrow. Quiet is so trivial. Someday we can just fix the noise pollution and it will be quiet. Quiet doesn’t rank with endangered species, breeding programs, habitat preservation, global warming, nuclear waste, and toxic cleanups. And you want me to pay attention to the need to preserve quiet?’ Yes,” Hempton says, quietly. “Because when we save quiet, we save everything else.”

***

Peter Hemminger (@peterhemminger on Twitter) is a writer, cultural worker, radio host, and arts advocate based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Among other projects, he publishes the newsletter Wander Lines, which has spun off into a similarly named blog about music, philosophy, arts, and culture.


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