Thursday, April 25, 2013

Against Fleetwood Mac (and "The Future")

"Don't stop thinkin' about tomorrow." Is that good advice? In thinking and writing about patience and hope, I've (finally) had to start thinking more explicitly about time and in particular the idea of "the future." I was struck the other evening by the thought that perhaps it is bad to think too much about the future. Perhaps that much is obvious. But then it occurred to me that this (obvious?) point might be used to diagnose a certain backwards-ness in our thinking about how we (the collective, cultural we) have come to face various crises of an environmental and economic sort (these are no doubt interconnected): we think too much, not too little, about the future. The usual story is that we make trouble for ourselves and the environment by not thinking enough about the future (the down-the-road consequences of our actions), or by thinking badly about the future. But perhaps it's too much anticipation and anxiety about the future that's the problem: thus, we hoard goods, buy things we don't need (expecting future pleasures that evidence suggests will wane anyhow), and are generally preoccupied trying to get to somewhere else because our present lot is intolerable.

Of course, we can't (or perhaps shouldn't) do away with all planning and striving, in part because sometimes our present lot is, in one way or another, in need of change. But perhaps part of what we should plan and strive to do (paradoxically?) is to think less about the future and pay more attention to today. In part this is simply because we can't solve tomorrow's problems, since we don't know what they will be. My thinking is that none of this will serve as an excuse for ignoring or downplaying various environmental concerns, but perhaps rather serve as a better way of thinking about them. (Would we be more likely to share and to be content with the present and simpler goods in life if we thought less about the (or our) future?) But this is all pretty vague at this point. Thoughts?


  1. I've been meaning to respond in some way to this since you posted it, but I'm still not quite sure what to say. Someone's got to think about the future, but that doesn't have to be all of us all the time. And it's hard to think about it well. I tend to imagine things being either much the same as they are now or else much worse (environmental catastrophe, for instance). But I doubt such thoughts do much good. Not only are they probably inaccurate, they don't have much motivational force. It's hard to make sacrifices now for the sake of my future self unless the sacrifice is relatively small. And when it comes to the environment there is no point (in terms of this kind of calculation of self-interest) in my making sacrifices that others aren't making. I also don't care very much about my children's children, partly because such people might never exist. Which is not to say that I don't care about the planet. What seems to me to be the right reason to avoid pollution and other forms of environmental damage is not concern for the future but love of what exists now. More conservation, less consequentialism. I don't know whether this is helpful, but it might be more or less in line with what you're thinking.

  2. Thanks for indulging my crackpot in-the-shower thoughts. "More conservation, less consequentialism" seems attractive, and would fit into what I'm thinking if "conservation" means, to put it in somewhat cliche terms, keeping things beautiful now. Of course, conservation is in some ways future-oriented, and it can become, as Keekok Lee put it, a kind of "mollycoddling," refusing to allow natural cycles of change to occur. (I discuss Lee's point here and here.) And I imagine that there are some places and contexts in which it may not make sense to talk about conservation rather than some other kind of activity, such as restoration or reclamation (of land, sea, life, and beauty). It's true that someone's got to think about the future--to keep seeds for next year's crop, to plan the budget going forward, and so forth. And it can be dangerous to assume (a) that things just will get better, (b) that things will be about the same, and (c) that things are going to get worse. (a) can lead to wishful thinking and (c) can lead to things like devoting one's life to planning for a zombie apocalypse (is that a good way to live?). (b) can be dangerous if we are living badly and the assumption that things will be about the same leads to a lack of critical reflection on one's own life. Maybe the first thing to say here is that we probably won't be very good at thinking about the future if we aren't very good at thinking about and understanding the past: history repeats itself, etc.

    But then there's a more personal level to these reflections, in that I find myself too often insufficiently attentive to the present, thinking about work to be done (e.g. when the kids go to bed, as now), and things like that. So when I say "we" above, maybe I really just mean "I/me" and should be careful just to speak for myself. At the same time, I don't assume that I am particularly peculiar in my tendency to get caught up in my preoccupations and anticipations. (But maybe I'm wrong about that...)

  3. Yes, by conservation I suppose I mean some combination of conservation and restoration. I'd say loving care, but... Well, I said it.

    Attending to the present is tricky. I think we are made looking forward, but there's obviously some loss if you never pay attention to the here and now. It's easier said than done, though, I find.