I first encountered the idea that the future was something one could study in 1971 from historian Roger Howell Jr. In one way or another, thinking about the future informed much that I have written about since, including here in Stirring the Pot.
In my way of thinking about the future, I believe there should be a bargain among the generations. Those of us in the present inherit a legacy from past generations which we should build upon to give the future a world as good as, and hopefully better than, that which we received.
Unfortunately, it looks increasingly like a time in human history when we exhibit disdain for the future, actively pursuing public and private behaviors that will clearly leave future generations worse off. This is a reflection of growing focus on doing what is good for us in the here and now, regardless of how it impoverishes the future. Environmental ethicist Bryan Norton has a term for this phenomenon: presentism. Presentism is making policy decisions predominately based on the implications for those alive now, disregarding the legacy of the past or the implications for the future.
I see this presentism in multiple realms.
The first example is the declining state of public infrastructure in the United States. Roads, bridges, electricity grids, water supplies, and sewer systems are all deteriorating faster than we repair and replace these gifts to us that prior generations sacrificed to build. We fail to raise gas taxes to pay for highway repairs, so individuals have more income for private consumption, free riding on the legacy of the past. We demand low power and water rates rather than pay the costs of public infrastructure. We refuse to fund the construction of resilient electricity infrastructure, instead buying private generators when the public systems fail, as they did in Maine in the December wind storm. Because we have failed to maintain public water supplies, we resort to drinking bottled water, adding to the global glut of plastics. In each case the future is made worse off so that we can consume more today.
A second example of presentism is seen in the denial of climate change in this country. Our focus on the present leads to abandonment of global efforts to protect future generations from sea level rise, devastating forest fires, droughts, and more severe weather events. We can think of the atmosphere as a sink that can hold the effluent of current consumption. That capacity that we use today will not be available for the future to use. Think of the capacity of the atmosphere as a budget that modern industrialized societies have to spend over generations. We are literally leaving the future with less of that budget for them to use so that we can use more of it today. In fact, at the current trajectory, we are going to use that budget up, leaving the future impoverished and having to pay for our consumption.
We see disdain for the future in our approach to biodiversity. Conservation biologists believe we are in the midst of one of the great episodes of species extinction (sometimes called “The Sixth Extinction”) and the cause is us. Humans now crowd out, destroy the habitat of, purposefully exterminate, and otherwise cause the extinction of plants and animals at rates far higher than pre-industrial humanity. We literally are leaving the future with a less diverse world than the one we inherited from the past.
Finally, the Trump tax plan is the most obvious example of literally living large in the present and asking the future to pay the costs. I suggested earlier in the year that the economy before the tax giveaway was in a precarious situation, reflecting the fact that we were living beyond our means. This tax plan will only add to the Federal deficit, by some credible estimates by as much as a trillion dollars. In essence we are asking future generations to pay our debts so that we can get modest tax cuts today for you and me and huge cuts for real estate developers and other wealthy Americans. Adding insult to injury, we will ask the future to pay for increasing the already high levels of income inequality in America.
Maine Senator Susan Collins complained about the press coverage she received around her support for the Trump tax plan. She said that press “ignored everything I’ve gotten…” in the Trump plan. What she ignored was how this new law provides crumbs for Mainers and feasts for the wealthy, while asking unborn generations to pick up the tab. This is disdain for the future.
My wish for the new year is that we begin to show gratitude for the legacy given us by former generations and build on that legacy to leave the future better off.