Earlier this year, I had a discussion that made me ask a disconcerting question: how will I be viewed after I die? I like to think of myself as someone who is ethical, productive and essentially decent. But perhaps I won’t always be perceived that way. Perhaps none of us will.
No matter how benevolent the intention, what we assume is good, right or acceptable in society may change. From slavery to sexism, there’s plenty we find distasteful about the past. Yet while each generation congratulates itself for moving on from the darker days of its parents and ancestors, that can be a kind of myopia.
I was swapping ideas about this with Tom Standage, author and digital editor of The Economist. Our starting point was those popular television shows from the 1970s that contained views or language so outmoded they probably couldn’t be aired today. But, as he put it to me: “how easy it is to be self-congratulatory about how much less prejudiced we are than previous generations”. This form of hindsight can be dangerously smug. It can become both a way of praising ourselves for progress rather than looking for it to continue, and of distracting ourselves from uncomfortable aspects of the present.
Far more interesting, we felt, is this question: how will our generation be looked back on? What will our own descendants deplore about us that we take for granted?
Some possibilities are more obvious than others. Eating meat and factory farming may move towards the margins of acceptability, given the intensive use of resources and cruelty they represent. Another kind of profligacy the future might regret is the over-prescription of antibiotics. In terms of prejudice, meanwhile, our descendants may – hopefully – wonder how still-marginalised groups like transgender people ever faced intolerance; let alone how some parts of the world continued to criminalise homosexuality, reject equal rights for women, or hold some groups of workers in modern slavery.
All this, of course, is really about what we ought to deal with right now; about those wishes we desperately hope to see fulfilled, and the kind of world we hope to leave behind. What, I wondered, would some of today’s most influential thinkers make of my question?
Since our handling of the environment is perhaps the most vital legacy we’ll leave our children, I made my first approach to the founder of one of the most influential of all modern environmental ideas: James Lovelock, the British scientist behind Gaia theory. He seemed an appropriate first port of call as his Gaia theory proposes that the Earth itself can be seen as a self-regulating system, and that the changes brought by humanity will have profound consequences for its ability to sustain life and civilisation as we know it.
Born in 1919, Lovelock has already lived through more profound global transformations in social norms than most of us will ever experience. In answering my question, however, he took a personal view, considering how his own children might look back on the present in years to come. “With four children, nine grandchildren and at the latest count seven great grandchildren,” he explained, “I feel fairly qualified to answer.”
His actual living descendants, he says, appear to be less angry about the present than might be expected. “They seem to take the present era for granted and only deplore specifics, such as tribal wars.” It’s the generation still unborn that will be maddened by the consequences of today’s environmental profligacy.
“Were I still reproducing,” Lovelock told me, “I suppose my children born recently would in a decade or so begin to deplore the failure of our governments (irrespective of political colour) to keep [the UK] habitable. Have we forgotten that we nearly starved in World War Two? We need energy also to survive…” – and this, at anything like our present level of comfort and development, is far from assured.
For many people I know, there’s something existentially paralysing about climate change: a disbelieving horror matched to feelings of impotence, denial or despair. Yet our descendants may feel quite differently, argued my next expert – Kate Raworth, an economist at Oxford University's Environmental Change Institute, who specialises in “the rewriting of economics to make it a fit tool for addressing the 21st Century’s social and ecological challenges”.
Raworth believes that our children will “deplore our persistently linear thinking and doing”. In other words, the way we tackle problems like climate change in isolation. Over time a different way of seeing the world according to “systems thinking” will emerge. The trouble is, she explains, we tend to treat fields like education, economic growth and environmental impact as if they are not related, but they’re all interconnected – we just don’t fully understand how yet. “The economy is nested within society which is nested within the planet, and these systems are all interacting with each other.”
It’s a hopeful thought to set alongside Lovelock’s prognosis. A future society will have “a far wiser understanding of how the planet functions, how our pressure on it threatens our own well being, and how our economic mindset needs to reflect that,” says Raworth. And this wisdom should bring profound changes to the way we live and think about our world.
One contemporary tenet that Raworth believes will soon become archaic is the insistence that evaluating anything from health to nature means quantifying its market value. “From the impact of HIV/AIDS to climate change, if you want your issue heard, get an economist to put a price on it… Future generations will be amazed that we were still putting GDP at the centre of national economic policy,” she told me, “even while we knew we were running down the very social and environmental wealth on which it was all based. Rather than asking what is really going on, we’re happy to pretend that something doesn’t count if we don’t care to count it.
For thinkers like Raworth, a hopeful vision of the late 21st Century is one in which “material metrics” play a larger part than mere finance in judging the success of societies. She sees it as a world where “our carbon, land, nitrogen and water footprints will be part of our own ways of monitoring our personal and national lifestyles, alongside our health and sense of wellbeing”.
Raworth’s insistence on re-thinking the present was a vision that, in a different sense, the author and Financial Times columnist Tim Harford echoed when I spoke to him. For Harford, one great short-sightedness in our current measuring of the world is national border controls – and the way in which global migration is assessed in terms of value, costs and benefits.
“We allow ourselves such freedoms in the developed world, and we like to tout our concern for the very poor,” he explained. “Yet we think it's natural that someone born in, say, Somalia, must stay in Somalia and not come to Europe or America – and that if that person has a hard life, the fault is with Somalia and not with our border guards. When we argue about the costs and benefits of immigration, the fact that immigration might be of some benefit to the person migrating is rarely discussed.”
It’s an idea that begs some fundamental questions. Will where someone is born still dictate their prospects through the coming centuries? In what sense can we hope to measure the flourishing of individuals across the world as a metric of human progress, rather than the productivity of nations?
From indexes of development and human rights to those of quality-of-life and health, the world already bristles with attempts to move forward on these fronts. A more radical answer, however, is that the most meaningful way of bettering our future is not simply to seek enhancements, but rather to focus on lessening the suffering of the poorest and most vulnerable.
For the philosopher Peter Singer, this lessening of suffering is a moral imperative more urgent than any other – and one that should not be restricted to the human race. As he bluntly replied when I put my question to him, “the way so many of us wallow in our affluence while doing very little to help those in extreme poverty” is one clear flaw that the future ought to deplore, alongside our treatment of animals, which “will (I hope) seem to [our descendants] as barbarous as the Roman circuses now seem to us”.
Singer backs his polemical work with practical advocacy. His website The Life You Can Save provides a framework for lessening suffering. On the site, he ranks 10 carefully selected charities to whom you can give money today.
It’s a sentiment I found echoed by Roman Krznaric, cultural thinker and author of the book Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution. “The biggest future crisis our children (and their children) will have to face is declining social cohesion,” he told me. “Communities are being fractured by growing urbanisation, and an overdose of free-market culture has ratcheted up levels of narcissism to record levels.”
As an antidote to this narcissism, Krznaric recommends a new form of emphasis on empathy as a fundamental human value: on promoting “the ability to step into the shoes of other people and look at the world from their perspective” as the ultimate social glue. Only through building empathy, he argues, can we hope to thrive together in a future of increasingly scarce resources and escalating competition – something for which his work sets out a detailed practical programme.
At the other end of the scale, another apathetic act that we may one day regret is our attitude to the risks of major catastrophe. If you take a long enough view, it’s fairly certain that one day humanity will face a threat or disaster that will kill whole swathes of Earth’s population – or even bring us to the brink of extinction. And how we prepare for that day will define us in the eyes of the survivors.
This is the terrain of Nick Bostrom, the founding director of the Future of Humanity Institute in Oxford, and a thinker who has made it his business to weigh and measure worst conceivable futures. "If humans are still around after a massive catastrophe," Bostrom told me, “they may look back and think it a grave dereliction that we did not do more to reduce existential risk. But if humanity is gone, and there is nobody left to deplore our era, that doesn't make us any less deplorable.”
Bostrom has a list of potential “game over” scenarios that includes global pandemics, nuclear weapons, nanotechnology (highly destructive miniscule machines self-reproducing and destroying life as we know it), synthetic biology (artificially-created organisms able to infect, kill or take over the world’s ecosystems) or artificial intelligence (super-intelligent machines that decide they’re not interested in the continuation of human life).
For Bostrom, the question is not simply how we deal with obvious threats; it’s whether we should take seriously even the slight chance of something happening that could end human life as we know it – a question he and his colleagues answer with a resounding “yes”. And it is far worse if we are fully aware and do not act. “The harms that are most obvious,” he told me, “are the ones for which we may carry the heaviest moral responsibility.”
For Steven Pinker, there’s one risk above all on Bostrom’s list that nobody can ignore: nuclear weapons. The professor of psychology at Harvard and prolific author has recently explored the place of violence in modern societies. His 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature makes the case that violence has actually declined over time. When it comes to nuclear war, however, a shattering possibility still hangs over us.
As he put it to me, nuclear weapons “violate every norm of civilised warfare… disproportionate to any threat, indiscriminate in killing civilians in inconceivable numbers and in poisoning the environment. They are useless as an ordinary weapon in war, and their effectiveness as a deterrent depends entirely on the willingness of leaders to murder millions of innocent civilians”. And, most alarmingly, “though the taboo against using them has held for two thirds of a century, the probability of use through an accident or in the hands of a fanatic is not zero”.
So what happens if the worst case scenario arrives, and something like a nuclear war devastates the planet? For Nick Bostrom’s colleague at the Future of Humanity Institute, the philosopher Stuart Armstrong, our responsibilities to prepare for existential risk are not only about prevention – but also about how we prepare our descendants for possible aftermaths.
“One thing we are interested in,” he told me, “is whether the Industrial Revolution can be repeated. After most disasters there would be some survivors. Would they be able to rebuild technological civilisation? And what could we do that might enable or help them to rebuild?”
It’s a chilling thought. If a catastrophic event undoes much of the last few thousand years of development, will our descendants be able to rebuild industrial civilisation – and is there anything we can do to help them? Put like this, almost everything we’re doing today can feel extraordinarily short-sighted.
“If there is a disaster,” Armstrong argues, “our descendants will resent us for not preparing resources to help them. We are bad at keeping records.” Our generation stores its most vital information on CDs, hard drives or in the digital cloud, assuming that we will always have the means to power and decode these. If the future loses this technology, much of their past and its achievements will effectively cease to exist.
What can we learn from all this? As I digested the responses I have heard, it became clear that speculating about future disapproval is a sobering existential process: an attempt to see the peculiar circumstances of our own time through more impartial eyes – and to admit just how peculiar we are.
Hopefully, the future will be too busy getting on with its present to spend much time looking backwards. But while the early 21st Century belongs to us, one imperative is clear: we must try to stretch our imaginations beyond present concerns. As a final conversation with the science fiction author Greg Bear brought home to me, our capacity to think about the future is one of our species’ most remarkable talents. The power of great science fiction, Bear argued, is that it does not so much predict the future, as shape it. “Good books change the way we think,” he says, “and thus, their futures can’t come true—not completely.”
The truth is we will never escape some measure of disapproval from our descendants. If, though, we can grasp their possible futures with sufficient faith and rigour, we may achieve the best anyone can hope for: averting the worst, aspiring toward the best, and handing on a culture (if not a planet) in better shape than the one we inherited.