I’m pretty sure the end of history will look like this.
In 1992, Francis Fukuyama proclaimed ‘the end of history’. Liberal democracy and free market capitalism were so widely accepted that, in the future, historians would be frankly bored with how secure, content, prosperous and peaceful mankind had become since then. The attacks of 11 September 2001, at least two Middle East wars, the rise of Chinaand the Arab Spring suggest that his calculations were a little off. Both he and Flight of the Conchords (sadly) have created unrealistic visions of the future.
The Conchords’ excuse is that they are from New Zealand. Fukuyama’s is that he believed in the myth of unending and inevitable progress. You’ve seen it in old sci-fi movies: the future is bright and peaceful and the biggest threats mankind face are from aliens or a robot revolution.
The fact is, the biggest threat mankind faces is its own greed.
And despite what those fond of predicting the future would have us believe, technology, science and the latest thing to be called ‘the future of…’ will not solve all our problems.
Twitter will not save the world. Not by itself.
GM crops will not save the world. Because most of them are owned by greedy people.
Medical advances will only save those who can afford them, and democracy will only make everything better if everyone agrees to stop electing fools.
In the real world, the future is not a beautiful spaceship with furniture by Apple. Nor is it a romantic dystopia, where good guys are easy to identify because they are the only ones who don’t dress a bit like Nazis. The future looks a lot like now, only with more people starving, and more of them on our doorstep. That’s because the future is just like now, but with added consequences.
Today, we live in a world where almost every government’s economic model is based on the idea that their economy must keep growing constantly or the financial equivalent of a zombie apocalypse will destroy it. That means we keep on making more stuff to sell. That means using more resources from the earth and producing more carbon and pollution, not to mention all the previously produced stuff people have to throw into landfill to have space for their new stuff. In order to pay workers in factories less. It doesn’t take a professional future-gazer to see that that is not sustainable. But, just in case, we found one.
“I got involved in futurism back in 1970,” says futurist, Tom Sine. “That was the first time that Western leaders in academic circles asked: ‘What are the limits to growth?’” To find the answer, they fed data about population growth, pollution, resource depletion, economic growth and agricultural growth into computer models to see what might happen in the future. “Every time they played those through a computer model, everything came to a screeching halt around 2025,” he says. “Not with a bang, but with a whimper.” Well, that’s comforting.
We in the West are already said to consume so many of the world’s resources that if every person on Earth were to have the lifestyle we do, we’d need five planets to sustain it.
And look, there, behind us! Do you see those lights, coming closer? That’s China and India catching us up. “Trying to spread lives of remarkable affluence like what is happening in parts of China now,” says Tom. “Well, there just aren’t enough planets for the resources that would require.”
Now, we all believe in justice, right? We don’t believe, for instance, that the colour of our skin or the country where we were born entitles us to all the burgers we can eat while there are people – billions of people – starving to death right now, all part of the same global economic system. So, if we know it’s not right, how come it is so hard to change things?
Once upon a time, a man called Kalle Lasn asked himself that same question. So he founded a little movement called Occupy Wall Street. You may have heard of it. “Our whole global economic system right now, for example, is all projected on this idea that we can keep on growing forever and that we will be making progress forever,” says Kalle. “And all of a sudden young people are waking up to the fact that this kind of unwritten assumption about the future may not hold.”
Those young people took to the streets last year and, in Kalle’s words: “Started something beautiful.” The Occupy movement went global. It had no leaders. No central structure. It was accused of having no message. But anyone who spent time on the steps of St Paul’s listening to the discussions or reading about similar ones around the world would recognise what Kalle Lasn identifies at the bottom of the phenomenon: “Hundreds of millions of young people around the world still have this kind of nagging feeling in the pit of their stomach that the future does not compute, that their lives will be full of ecological and financial and psychological crises and that they really have to stand up and fight for a different future.”
Perhaps surprisingly, he believes that people of faith, people with what he calls a “spiritual backbone”, have a central role to play in taking the movement forward. “I think that the future will be driven by people who have a spiritual passion,” he says. “These are the only people that will drive the future.”
And I think he’s right.
The future is not set in stone. What we do with our lives, and the world we allow to develop around us, becomes the future. If it is going in the wrong direction, we have a duty to change it.
As a Christian, I believe in the new Heaven and a New Earth, the resurrected eternal life at the real end of history. When I give my account, I want to be able to say that I did my bit to make things better, whatever the future turns out to be.
Tom Sine is a Christian and a futurist. His latest book is called The New Conspirators: Creating the Future One Mustard Seed at a Time.
Illustration by Malky Currie