This would be fine if it weren’t for the looming risk that choices made in the next few years may fix the course of the next thousand years. Scientists and governments agree that the human species has to stop depending on carbon as its main energy source within a few decades if we are to avoid dangerous climate change. That means changing course irreversibly and more or less immediately.
If humankind carries on the way it’s going instead, the planet is likely to be several degrees hotter on average by the end of the century. And there is ominous scientific reason to expect that once the temperature goes up, it will stay up for many centuries, while the oceans warm through and expand, raising sea levels inexorably higher. We can imagine that, even though we can only guess what it may mean to our descendants.
Turned Out Nice
This is where I ended up with my book Turned Out Nice: How the British Isles will Change as the World Heats Up, looking towards that invisible horizon a thousand years away. Having imagined the future, if only to 2100, I was left with questions that have been on my mind since. How do we induce ourselves to care about the future? How do we organise ourselves to avoid altering it catastrophically? And why should we care about future generations, or obscure species?
It’s easy to find reasons why we shouldn’t bother about our descendants or fellow-species. Our descendants may well be much wealthier and technologically advanced than we are, so why not leave their potential problems to them to sort out, while we concentrate on the actual problems that the world’s poor are facing today? Many species could probably vanish without major ecosystems being disturbed by their absence, so should we worry about them going extinct? Does it really matter if the lesser kestrel and the Mauritius kestrel disappear, as long as the common kestrel is still around?
Questions like these demand answers that aren’t readily forthcoming. But as with life’s problems in general, we can’t wait for the philosophy department to deliver its conclusions before we make our choices. Under the circumstances, we should presume that we may be about to do immense damage to life on earth, and that this really is our responsibility. Climate change in this century could commit a sizeable fraction of living species to extinction. Like millions of others, I feel dismay at this prospect, a deep sense of loss in anticipation, that is independent of whether these extinctions make life any harder for humans. Maybe future generations will work out why subjective feelings like these are objectively justified. It’s up to us to see that it remains a theoretical question.
How we do that depends on how effectively we can combine and co-ordinate our resources – which depends on agreement about the fair allocation of costs: between rich and poor, developed nations and rising powers, communities and governments, businesses and households. It requires vigorous partnerships between citizens and centres of power, in which knowledge and resources are transmitted as efficiently as possible, and not just in one direction. That means more democracy, not less.
And enhanced democracy offers us rewards for doing something with the future in mind. By and large, suggested responses to climate change are a catalogue of invitations to incur costs and make sacrifices; but tackling climate change through civics offers benefits all round. Improving relations between government and people would improve the quality of our lives and make the country run better. We would gain power in return for responsibility, and we would find ourselves living in a more trustful society. We might see citizenship as a pleasure rather than a duty.
Growing these civic networks would be like building a power grid, one which draws upon the fundamental source of human energy: reciprocity. Bargain, contract, quid pro quo, one good turn deserves another; the basic form of human interaction is exchange, whose motive force comes from the principle of giving something in return. It can spark chain reactions, because it can work indirectly: you do something for me, so I do something for somebody else, and so on.
The distant future can’t do anything for us. But the next generation can, so we can work for the distant future through what we do for our children. We care about them, and it’s also easy to care about their children. The generation after next won’t be able to do much for ours, since few of us will be around by the time our grandchildren are in charge, so if they see that we have worked for them, they may want to do the same for their own descendants.
We can also imagine the future through our children and grandchildren (‘our’ being a general possessive that includes people without children of their own). Although our knowledge of the future may not extend much beyond our knowledge of people who will be in it, that knowledge is rich and dear to us. If we want to save nature, we may just have to make the best of human nature.
Marek Kohn’s Turned Out Nice is available now in paperback.