To Create Something Better

Building a world where our children can thrive

I recently attended a panel discussion with three scholars debating life in the “Anthropocene era,” the idea that humans are now the dominant force in shaping the ecological and even geological fate of our planet. With talk about the destructive consequences of our carbon emissions, the devastation of industrial food systems, and the depletion of our natural resources, the discussion was pretty bleak.

Afterward, I joined the panelists for dinner at a local Italian restaurant. As I began to describe my work with companies on climate change and ocean sustainability, the mood at the table grew even darker. One of the scholars put down his fork and scolded me: “Why bother? We have missed the window of opportunity to solve these problems. You need to wake up to the crisis we are in and face that we can’t do anything about it.”

I understood what he meant. We have a future problem. As we create more powerful methods of predicting the future, we seem to be losing the ability to choose the futures we want. It’s not hard to find reasons for pessimism. A tide of recent reports by international agencies warns of inevitable climate change and mounting species extinctions. But rather than sparking action, this flood of dire predictions threatens to depress citizens so much that they give up on finding solutions and simply brace themselves for disaster.

Yet I can’t sit in that helplessness. I am committed to fight for the future we desire, and the way out is to begin asking different questions: How might we create more space for agency and positive change in our thinking about the future? How do we make the future work for us, not against us?

First, I think we must recognize the future in the present. The science-fiction writer William Gibson once noted that “the future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.” While we can’t know for certain how the future will unfold, we can become more skilled at recognizing possible futures by tracking the early signals and creative experiments happening in our current environment. Gibson encourages us to pay more attention to positive developments, people, and movements that are emerging, and assess how they might be scaled and accelerated.

Young leaders like Greta Thunberg from Sweden are challenging politicians to take urgent action on climate change. Her bold speeches at the UN and other venues have been a catalyst for a worldwide wave of climate protests in recent months, with tens of thousands of students participating in school strikes. An energized global youth climate movement is demanding very different cultural priorities and new kinds of politics.

Second, let’s reframe our priorities. It’s likely that the future will be less comfortable and more chaotic than the world we’re used to. I mourn the coral reefs our kids may not see, the increasingly fierce storms that threaten our homes and communities, the growing instability of our food systems. These threats are even more unsettling because we have placed comfort and stability above almost every other cultural value. But a chaotic future need not threaten our ability to have a meaningful life. In fact, the world will need compassionate, creative, and resilient people more than ever. We can’t promise our kids stability, but we can prepare them to care for the planet and their communities, and to be everyday heroes in addressing the needs of a turbulent world. To do this work, we can’t waste time and energy on despair.

Finally, we can work to design a better world. Real change starts with the recognition that we don’t live in an ideal world now—far from it. While many people experience a higher quality of life than previous generations, we have achieved these gains at great social and environmental cost and have failed to distribute these benefits equitably. We need to challenge ourselves to let go of our current reality in order to create something better.

Is it possible that we could create a less consumptive, more equitable society? Could the inevitable changes driven by climate change help create space for a healthier and more resilient society? How might we approach the future as a design problem rather than a final verdict? One example is the Transition Movement, which helps communities learn to grow their own food, build more resilient homes and neighborhoods, and prepare for the predicted shocks of climate change. Transition Towns are proactively developing the resources and institutions we will need to flourish in a climate-changed world.

At our dinner table recently, my normally upbeat fifteen-year-old daughter was unusually quiet. After some prodding, she shared that she and her friends had been discussing climate change, and had concluded that they probably wouldn’t have children—and may not live longer than four more decades because the world would be too broken to support them.

My heart crumbled, knowing that she had now experienced the anguish of our ecological crisis, not only intellectually but also viscerally. I don’t have any easy answers to assure her, but I am more committed than ever to claiming our agency and actively building a world where our children can thrive.

Vermeer is executive director of EDGE (the Center for Energy, Development, and the Global Environment) and associate professor of the practice at the Fuqua School of Business.

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