Reading Paul Kingsnorth’s collection of essays (Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist) this week brought something into sharp focus for me. He talks of the way we dismiss people who look to the past as ‘romantics’, possibly with the ‘hopeless’ epithet, yet the same airy dismissal is not applied to those who look to the future. These people are seen as visionaries. More hard-headed and realistic these people fit with society’s belief in the progress myth with its unshakeable linear thinking that humans as a race will develop technologically until they reach some sort of zenith. Where presumably, what? We’ll stop and be content with our lot and cease striving. If that mindset was possible for the population we’d be doing it now, but we are instead driven forwards to not be content with our lot, as dissatisfaction makes the economic world go round.
Everything about modern life is predicated on the future. Take out a 30-year mortgage to saddle yourself with a debt you assume you’ll be around long enough to service. Pay into a pension scheme (to my mind the modern equivalent of the Catholic afterlife) which will see you through old age, because old age is a given, isn’t it? My dad died at 48, never fulfilling either of those ambitions. Yet we continue to trade away our present for an imagined future we have no guarantee of realising. This was brought home to me this week when watching an advert for a first-time buyer mortgage when the borrower is told that all she needs to do initially is guarantee to pay her monthly debt for three years to which she replies ‘I will’ as though contracting a marriage. This buyer can no more guarantee that she can service that debt than I can predict the future, but this kind of thinking is so entrenched in our society that it passes without question.
The future is intangible and utterly unknowable, whereas with the past we have evidence. We may have to extrapolate from oral history, written documents or buried artefacts but these are physical things. All we can do with the future is extrapolate ideas from the present and the past and make predictions.
Yet look to the past and try to see how our ancestors did things and wonder if we have anything to learn and you’ll be considered a Luddite, backwards thinking. Yet surely we know have much more concrete evidence about the past than we do the future. We know that there were threads of humanity and society that were woven through the centuries linking people to the land, the seasons and the earth, that in fundamentals remained unchanged. Unchanged that is until the disconnect that is the 20th century when old ways of life were brushed rudely aside in the name of technology. We consider we have nothing to learn from our ancestors’ way of life, in the same way we see developing countries as being savage. But the past and the present is all we have. The future cannot be predicted, guaranteed or controlled.