According to John Higgs, we gave up on the future in the 1980s. Before then our shining vision of a utopia free from disease, work and the laws of gravity was ingrained in our culture. We were always only a decade away from a world of economic equality, total sexual liberation and better waterslides. But by the end of the 80s, dystopian stories of environmental collapse, zombie plagues and the end of civilisation had set in. And it has been visions of The Road ever since.
What if we have been wrongly predicating a pessimistic future all this time? What if the future isn’t as helpless as we assumed? This is the question John interrogates in his brilliant antidote to cynicism THE FUTURE STARTS HERE. The answer? We should be optimistic.
But then Covid-19 swept across the world, just as we were putting the paperback edition to bed. Was an optimistic guide to the future still relevant? In this Afterword, John gives us his answer.
Jenny Lord (Publisher W&N)
I write this afterword a year and a half after finishing the book, while the world is on lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Even before the virus hit, the generational and cultural changes discussed had been occurring far more quickly than I expected. You can find countless examples of this change in values. For example, the plot of the bestselling videogame at Christmas 2019, Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding, is not concerned with an individual shooting his or her enemies. Instead, it tasks the player with rebuilding connections and establishing communities in a fractured world. When the zombie comic The Walking Dead finished its sixteen-year run in July 2019, its story had gone from the despair of isolated and untrusting loners attempting to survive, to communities coming together and building a world better than it was before the zombie outbreak. The four shortlisted artists for the 2019 Turner Prize announced they had become a collective, negating the possibility of an outright winner. In cinema, Todd Phillips’s billion-dollar hit movie Joker triggered a flood of media hot-takes and think-pieces debating whether it was deeply responsible or highly irresponsible. Being an extremely metamodern film, it was of course both. On TV, the Star Trek franchise has started looking to its fictional future again. The importance of this is largely symbolic, but it is welcome nonetheless.
Generation Z’s worldview has impacted politics far earlier than I expected. When I mentioned Greta Thunberg at the end of Chapter 8, I did so assuming that readers would not know who she was. Having since been nominated as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize and become the youngest individual to be named Time magazine’s Person of the Year, she is now one of the most famous people on the planet. Thunberg’s profile is a consequence of the change in her generation’s thinking. Generation Z do not ask ‘what can I do about this?’, they instead ask, ‘what can we do about this?’ These are superficially very similar questions, but they produce very different answers.
This rapid rate of change has generated an enormous backlash. Thunberg in particular has been on the receiving end of an extraordinary amount of abuse. In retaliation, the young began responding to criticism with the phrase ‘Ok Boomer’. The website UrbanDictionary.com defines the meaning of this phrase as ‘When a baby boomer says some dumb shit and you can’t even begin to explain why he’s wrong because that would be deconstructing decades of misinformation and ignorance so you just brush it off and say okay.’
There is nothing new about young people being dismissive of older people, of course. Baby boomers themselves were masters of it. In the 1960s counterculture, the phrase ‘never trust anyone over thirty’ was common, and The Who sang about how they hoped they would die before they got old in ‘My Generation’. Bob Dylan’s ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ actively taunted the older generation who just didn’t ‘get it’. He sang about how something was happening but they didn’t know what it was, before adding the sneering taunt, ‘do you, Mr Jones?’
There were indeed many ‘Mr Jones’s’ who did not understand the generational change that was occurring. They had grown up in an era that was hierarchical rather than individualistic, and they could not grasp the young’s subconscious individualism. This individualism was ingrained in the psychology of the younger generation, so it wasn’t something they were going to ‘grow out of’, as many of their elders assumed.
Those same baby boomers are now trying to deal with a similar generational change that has occurred in twenty-first century youth, because we all become Mr Jones eventually. ‘Ok boomer’ might seem relatively harmless in this context because there is no insult used, just the accepted name for the post-war generation, yet it has proved to be a surprisingly effective and wounding taunt. By labelling an older person as a typical member of a group – the baby boomer generation – the young are denying them their cherished individuality. The same older people, in contrast, use an individualistic word as their preferred insult for the young, ‘snowflake’, to label them as single, isolated things who are weak and helpless. These contrasting approaches to insulting generations cuts to the heart of our current divide, in which people raised in the twentieth century generally see themselves in individualist terms while those raised in the twenty-first century see themselves as part of a network of relationships, without which their individuality is meaningless. They understand that yes, they may be snowflakes, but at the same time they are part of an avalanche.
It might seem a minor, trivial issue, but a small change to such a deeply buried foundational aspect of our psyche has huge implications. On the face of it, there is no reason why an opinion on Brexit, which is a question of political sovereignty, should negatively correlate with concern about climate change, which is a question of understanding science. In practice, however, it is extremely rare to find someone who admires both Nigel Farage and Greta Thunberg, and it is very easy to find hundreds of people who approve of one but not the other. The demographics of this split, it turns out, are a close match with the demographics of the individualist/networked divide. Worldviews that differ on such a fundamental level are bound to clash, and a divide like this does not lend itself to dialogue and compromise. The dissonance frequently emerges as anger.
Previously, the UK was traditionally divided politically in terms of class, but now age is the best signifier of how a person will vote. Among eighteen to twenty-four-year-olds at the 2019 UK general election, 19 per cent voted Conservative and 57 per cent voted Labour. These figures are almost the mirror opposite of those aged over sixty-five, of whom 62 per cent voted Conservative and 19 per cent voted Labour. Although Millennials are less likely to vote compared to older generations, the teenage Generation Z cannot wait to get in the voting booth. Around 750,000 members of Generation Z become eligible to vote each year, while 500,000 mostly older people die of natural causes. It will not be long before Generation Z tip the scales in the political makeup of the country.
In climate terms, however, this delay is critical. Scientists are adamant that we need to decarbonise our economy now if the worst climate scenarios are to be avoided, but the older generation, who are courted by political parties because they can be relied on to vote, are more likely to resist the changes needed. At the start of 2020, the generational clash looked like it would only intensify, and get a lot more unpleasant than the phrase ‘Ok Boomer’. Being based on a fundamental change in worldview, understanding the interconnected nature of the economy and the environment was not something Gen Z were going to ‘grow out of’. From their perspective, the old were actively damaging their future. It’s normal for kids to be rude about their parents, but for them to have such a negative view of their grandparents was something new.
Then the coronavirus pandemic arrived. At the time of writing, it is not known how long the lockdown will go on for, but very few people expect the world to be the same afterwards as it was before. The enforced lockdown has been like a global monastic retreat, and people will emerge from their isolation with their values and goals changed. Our views on which jobs are important has been radically altered, for example, and it is clear that it is not the jobs that pay the most which are now the most valued. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of our relationships, because the connections between people are the same vectors along which the virus travels, so our attention has been focused on those connections like never before. This book has argued that in the twenty-first century we will focus more on our networks of relationships than we did in the twentieth, and that argument seems a lot less controversial now.
One result of people being forced to isolate is that we realise how much we value each other. This has helped soothe the growing inter-generational conflict. Because the virus is more dangerous in older age groups, the young have put their lives on hold, and are experiencing great financial hardship, in order to protect the older generation. They recognise that, for all their frustrations about the older generation’s politics, they still value them as people. Of course, the young also expect to be valued and considered in return, and that includes their concerns about the climate. Some older wealthy people used to say that they absolutely needed to fly several times a year and there was no possible way they could change their behaviour. This is not an argument that they will be able to get away with after this.
It may be that our inertia in dealing with the issue of climate change will prove to be another victim of the virus. It is not simply that we have been shown a different world, with cleaner air and the return of wildlife to places where human activity previously kept them away. It is that the global economy faces record unemployment and a prolonged economic depression, and there is a notable absence of economists arguing that austerity and inflating asset values will solve these problems. Instead, governments are being urged to take advantage of record low interest rates and to spend huge sums of money in order to create jobs and stimulate the economy. The question is, what will they spend that money on? Establishment voices, ranging from current and former central bankers to Prince Charles, are arguing that this money needs to be spent as part of a Green New Deal to undertake the previously resisted major infrastructure changes needed to decarbonise our economy. They argue that green stimulus would create many jobs, utilise existing technology, and that there are many ‘shovel ready’ projects that can begin immediately. Almost miraculously, the necessary political action needed to tackle climate change has suddenly become possible.
There were many ideas for a better future which people dismissed as unrealistic before the pandemic, but which now seem necessary and sensible. The situation can be likened to how all the great modernist works appeared after the First World War, even though all the key ideas behind those works were developed before it. The war removed inertia and tradition, and suddenly all these new ideas and values were free to run wild. In a similar way, many ideas suggested in this book are suddenly gaining support from institutions who would previously have resisted them.
An important example is basic income, which looks like it will be implemented in Spain. The Spanish scheme is not a universal basic income in its purest form, in that it is intended to be targeted rather than given to the entire population, but it is still a major step forward. What has helped the argument for basic income is that we now have a much better understanding of which jobs are important, and we can see how the old system has failed to value or financially reward what matters. It will be interesting to see how Spain gets on, and who will try the idea next.
Despite the pandemic, the rate of societal change is still increasing. Technology continues to play a large part in this, and it has continued its haphazard, drunken advance since this book was written. Elon Musk’s Crew Dragon spacecraft has now successfully ferried astronauts up to the International Space Station. The VR game Half-Life: Alyx has proved to be a major step forward for virtual reality. The wild claims being made about AI have started to die down, as we become more aware of the limitations of the technology, and the extent to which the rate of automation will be affected by high unemployment is currently uncertain.
But technology is just one element in the changes we’re living through. Society is also evolving, and so are our values, beliefs and ideas. The combined pressure from the pandemic and generational change have thrown off our previous certainties and given us a rush of options. The future is up for grabs now, and perhaps the fact that we have lacked an idea of the future will turn out to be a blessing. We are not limited by an out-of-date roadmap. We have the freedom to react, experiment, and make it up as we go along.
Over at the Knepp estate, the rewilded landscape continues to grow in biodiversity. In May 2020 white storks hatched six stork chicks there, in two stork nests. This was the first time that wild white storks are known to have successfully hatched eggs in this landscape since 1416. For those fond of signs and symbols, the return of hatching storks after six centuries was surely as good a sign as you could wish for. A new world is being born, regardless of those who deny it, and it falls to those alive in the twenty-first century to both witness it, and to shape it.