Thursday, 19 June 2008
Draft Article for Sublime Magazine (comments?)
TODAY'S WORK, TOMORROW'S HERITAGE
What will we leave behind as a useful cultural heritage for our great grandchildren; the generation who will be taking over in one hundred years time?
The next century will see some profound shifts. I’d be very surprised if the advertising and marketing industry I spent the last 20 years working in would actually still exist, for a start. Likewise I’d need a lot of convincing that our growth-addicted corporations, or lumbering centrist governments, or the speculative bubble that banking has become, or all the oil-addicted industries and infrastructure, our gadget makers, our supermarkets… if any of those would make the cut. It seems pretty certain that much of this must go; as certain as the demise of Victorian corsetry and horse drawn carriages a century before.
In my current musings on possible futures, I am very influenced by the writings of Howard T. Odum, a pioneering environmental scientist and joint winner of the Crafoord Prize (an equivalent of the Nobel Prize for life sciences). Odum based his radical but mildly optimistic predictions – for instance in A Prosperous Way Down, published at the end of his life in 2001 – on five decades of mathematical modelling of complex systems. Odum’s view went way beyond the ‘steady state’ proposed by sustainability. He predicted that both population and energy use would both fall to much lower levels than today.
Odum was essentially a peak oil pundit. He compared the impact of fossil fuels on our species with the effect of an algal bloom on fish stocks; producing a pulse of rapid population growth; and an equally rapid fall off once the energy source is more than half gone. Odum analysed every alternative energy source and found no other in abundant long term supply, which could produce a similar surplus compared to its embedded energy costs (‘emergy’)… except forests and farming that is. (Odum pointed out that plants have a billion-year head start on manmade solar). However Odum did believe we would still have medicine, advanced social structures and that we would mostly still live in cities. All complex systems, he pointed out, cluster at higher levels of organisation; whether in galaxies, shoals of larger fish, or human cities. And even if, as Odum said, we will be a predominantly agrarian society, the city was first invented as a farmers market.
How we would get from here to there is hard to imagine, but that’s not the point. Odum’s view - only one possible future - gives us a basis to ask; what would then be our heritage? Here are some ideas that our descendents in this scenario might actually thank us for:
1. Our music. My hunch is people will still listen to the Beatles. That the folk music distribution system of the middle ages will return; and good tunes will endure.
2. Women’s empowerment. Probably the single greatest social change in recent centuries and the absolute key to future development and population control.
3. Our buildings. Especially skyscrapers. These (along with landfill mining) will likely be the primary source of materials for making things in future; a deconstruction industry. As well as providing a standing reminder of our follies. In both ways they may function rather like ancient monuments.
4. Postmodernism. Not the confusing academic theory. But the idea of blending and bricolage - the delight of making new cultural ideas out of old (EaKo’s fire-hose fashion accessories being a current example).
5. The social venture. Where corporations were, community hybrids (public-private) ie cooperative-style organisations will be. We may still see massive global franchises for proven formulae (and not reinventing the wheel) but with local and/or employee ownership.
6. Open source. Restrictive IP and the modern cult of the patent is from a broader perspective (Odum argued) a key block on development and flexibility. And most breakthrough ideas originate in science parks and universities, not corporations.
7. Know-how. The stock of knowledge we have developed in the fat times may support us through the lean times; from medicine to nutrition to design. I imagine a definitive ‘bible’ in every town library collecting a sum of useful know-how on everything from what to do in a cholera outbreak to servicing a computer server.
8. Permaculture Design. The more I read about this, the more I think this is probably the key set of ideas of our age. One of its founders David Holmgren was profoundly influenced by Odum too. Permaculture will likely revolutionise agriculture; including their calls for turning every garden into a home farm. But it may also revolutionise human systems design in general. For instance, we need to convert systems from optimum profit (lean, just-in-time efficiency) to optimum resilience (lots of built in redundancy, providing some slack in times of crisis).
9. The internet. I seriously doubt that current trivial uses will be affordable, but as an essential means to share good ideas, crowd-sourced innovation processes, support efficient markets and a global sense of belonging…
10. A cautionary tale. Our whole (from a future view) totally mad modern lifestyle will probably be taught as a negative example, to support the new culture. ‘Imagine a day when people used to throw things away’!
Of course it’s impossible to predict what the culture of a distant tomorrow will really value. But it’s still a vitally important question for us as individuals today. Because the wellspring of motivation in midlife - once you reach an established position - is the question of creating a legacy; what psychologist Erik Erikson called generativity. We need to realise that the world will change. And hence the things you direct all your energies into today may simply not be relevant tomorrow. This way of thinking can redirect your life’s work.
Those possible future heritage items are ultimately my own list of the sorts of things I think of as worthwhile to focus on. I wouldn’t dream of suggesting it is the right list or one which any reader should share. Rather I’d suggest it’s well worth forming such a list of your own. What can you build now, which will be valued by our descendents?