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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