History of the Future: Narratives of Hope & Despair

Below: scribblings that comprised my presentation at the 2015 American Society for Environmental History annual meeting in Washington, DC. I was the gadfly on a panel that investigated the viability of the history of sustainability as a distinct line of subdisciplinary inquiry. The idea of sustainability began to crescendo in ASEH circles after the annual meeting in Tallahassee in 2009. That conference hosted an informal—and very well attended—open discussion on sustainability and the Society’s Committee for Sustainability was formed thereafter. Sustainability was not explicitly present in the program, but it served as one of the dominant undercurrents in presentations and informal conversations. I don’t think we had explicitly articulated the role sustainability could play in our work, but as our field has continued to mature and expand, each conference births a theme or direction for subsequent work. If you look beyond conference titles and just take in sessions, Q&As, plenaries, and book room chatter (I’ll forego the bar talk), often the richest thematic takeaways are not obviously present in the program. All this to say that in 2009, “sustainability” seemed to be that “a-ha!” theme. By the 2011 meeting in Phoenix, the program was saturated with sustainability topics, driven in no small part by the term appearing in the conference title. As the thoughts below outline, I’m a skeptic. I probably overplay my hand here a little, but I don’t see what the history of sustainability does for historians unless it is a part of a more ambitious history of the future.


History of the Future: Narratives of Hope and Despair

I come to bury sustainability, not to praise it. As a popular ideal and as an organizing theme for environmental history, I find it problematic. It does a disservice to intellectual inquiry by narrowing the field of discussion. It misdirects contemporary and historical understandings of social and environmental crisis. And it limits our capacity to effectively contextualize past, present, and future.

Sustainability is appealing. As a concept, it fosters dialogue and hope. We can talk about scarcity crises, but I defy you to identify two things more scarce than dialogue and hope in our contemporary environmental struggles. Over the past few decades, sustainability succeeded in bringing an impressively eclectic group of activists, economists, policymakers, and industry to the table. After the 1972 Stockholm Conference, what emerged—on the surface—was an intriguing marriage of Northern environmental lobbies and Southern development interests, identifying and stressing their common concerns and building multilateral cooperation toward realizing a greener and more prosperous world. This relationship reinforced the important notion that environmental protection did not function in isolation from peace, social justice, and economic development. (But neither did it invent this broader relationship). Please don’t mistake my attack on sustainability as an attack on the two lines of historical inquiry presented by my co-presenters. This is important work that requires further investigation, not least because it helps us to globalize environmental history.

That work is necessary, because sustainability is a concept whose definition has shifted over time and place. Its history also indicates that its goals are increasingly obscured by political compromise and diffusion. While the vagaries of the idea are appealing insofar as they can bring wildly disparate parties together and breed a superficial consensus, the fact that sustainability means different things to different people has resulted in little substantive change in terms of lasting efforts and successes in curbing the global environmental crisis. To make matters worse, just as sustainability and sustainable development have crashed into the popular imagination, they have continued to evolve without a clear notion of what the goal of global environmental politics should be (witness, for example, the continuing failure to develop any tangible plan to confront climate change). In short, sustainability is, in Bill McKibben’s words, a “buzzless buzzword,” designed to “obfuscate [and] paper over the tension between the fact that societies are overexploiting the planet’s physical resources and the fact that everyone seems reluctant to stop this rapaciousness.”

Let’s be very clear about the not-so-new problems that gird sustainability. More than twenty years ago, Donald Worster argued that the sustainability ideal rests on an uncritical, unexamined acceptance of the traditional world-view of progressive, secular materialism. The world view that brought us the current environmental crisis is considered completely benign so long as it can be made sustainable. I’m not sure that anything has changed. I can put that more strongly: nothing has changed. To this end, sustainability and sustainable thinking are imbued with what Helga Nowotny has called “the hubris of believing in progress.”

The evolution of sustainability as an idea has emerged out of older strains of environmental thinking that can be linked to stewardship, husbandry, management, conservation, and ecology. With these intellectual ancestors, sustainability shares an energetic capacity for planning for the future, but it is unique insofar as it gives little or no thought to the past. To sustain is a conversation between the present and the future—and it has typically been organized thus. 

So I come to bury sustainability. I read its past and present as more ruse than muse for global environmental governance. Let me shift, though, from denouncing the deceased—and alleviating my alliteration—to imagine more constructive methods of engaging the questions that sustainability tried to illuminate. I want to briefly touch on our expanding environmental lexicon before situating the kernel of this work within a more functional intellectual foundation.

In terms of environmental vocabulary, sustainability’s ugly but more competent sibling is resilience. In a 2009 workshop on “Expertise for the Future,” Libby Robin remarked that resilience has two definitions: a mathematical one and another in plain English. The mathematical meaning implies that change is inevitable and something that can generally be predicted. The plain English or cultural definition of this mathematical or predictive model is more intriguing. Like sustainability, resilience can be qualified by society, economics, and the environment. But it pretty much rejects the notion that sustainability is possible (change is inevitable, after all), and implicitly recognizes that bad stuff is going to happen.

That said, having resilience—or being resilient—is a good thing. It means acquiring flexibility; anticipating unknown or unforeseen troubles; and preparing for survival in tough times. As environmental historians start to grapple with the “great acceleration”—as we start to take seriously the idea of the Anthropocene—resilience provides historians with an interesting framework for interacting with global change.

But I want to move beyond semantics. The history of sustainability- and resilience-thinking constitute specific areas of inquiry with a larger history of the future, which I take to mean the study of how past peoples—individually and collectively—imagined the future. The future is omnipresent in the historical record. It is an idea, a proposal, a scenario, rather than an orchestrated series of events. As social constructions, they have their own histories that would reward our investigations.

Because the future plays such a critical role in shaping the human condition, historians would do well to examine the “history of the future,” or how past societies imagined and/or prepared for what was to come. We are in perpetual interaction with the future. On a daily basis we are pre-occupied in planning for it. From memos to to-do lists, our present selves leave communiqués for our future selves. We plan vacations, retirement, grocery lists—all with at least one eye on the future. Most of these activities are mundane, but they consume an inordinate amount of time and social creativity. Socio-politically, economies look forward; so does infrastructure planning and disaster preparedness. Climate models, weather forecasts, famine predictions are all expressions of engagements with the future.

In effect, there are two branches to engaging history, environment, and future. The first involves exploring the institutional interpretation of global change. The scientific and technological interactions with the physical environment and the intellectual inquiry into changing patterns constitute an exciting overlap between the histories of science, technology, the environment, and the future. The second avenue of inquiry traces the cultural ramifications of these more formal frames of analysis. Where the intellectual pursuits of explaining and predicting global change are largely conducted among emerging experts, the cultural response

If history recounts what people did, much of the history of the future examines what they thought they were doing. This perspective invites opportunities to investigate the manner in which new technologies mediated visions of the future and, conversely, how imaginations of the future shaped subsequent technological innovation. Material culture—green design, urban planning, dam removal, dyke reinforcement—offer stories that reflect the temperaments of their time, but also an articulate foray into a future conversation.

Science, technology, environment, future, and their overlapping histories reconvene in the emerging fields of vulnerability and disaster studies. After World War II, disaster preparedness became a science as the developing world sought to insulate its peoples and economies from natural and technological catastrophes. Perhaps not surprisingly these new interests received considerable military support during the Cold War, as Jake Hamblin has shown in his recent work.

Fears around nuclear holocaust, the proliferation of toxic chemicals, and the scientific consensus on global warming drove the developed world into panicked discussions of what the environmental future held. Vulnerability and disaster studies turned into major industries, complete with new kinds of experts who analyzed, predicted, and prepared for different future scenarios, drawing on computer modelling, probability, and big data to do so. In effect, the single greatest development in post-materialist society is that its population became evermore risk averse (this is a forward-looking kind of cultural tension). I think this is an interesting angle that deserves more attention. There is, of course, a counterpoint, where concerns about emerging scarcity and uncertainty invited imaginative optimism over technological futures. If Hamblin’s bleak interpretation of vulnerability and environmental catastrophe offer declensionist prediction, Patrick McCray’s The Visioneers examines how limits inspired human ingenuity.

Cultural responses to environmental risk are interesting historical phenomena, and they sit squarely in the sights of our history of the future. Calculating risk—whatever the scale—is an explicit conversation with the future. In addition, it binds the scientific and the technological with the cultural. In a cultural reading of past environmental futures, analysis of success is less relevant than the optimism or pessimism that courses through the primary sources.

An explicit history of the future promises a novel toolkit for unpacking the Anthropocene and the emerging discovery that humans have irrevocably changed the planet they inhabit. And in so doing, an ambitious history of the future contributes to historical inquiry on a far more critical scale. Political and economic imperatives tend to put emphasis on a shorter timeframe that lacks pragmatic viability when the environmental stakes are so high. David Armitage and Jo Guldi recently argued that historians have enabled this kind of shorter-term thinking. The disciplinary shift away from the longue durée to the analysis of more concentrated time scales has resulted in concomitant shrinking perspectives of the future. In effect, by limiting their scope in exploring the past, historians have contributed to reducing the attention/imagination span of publics to look forward. They note that contemporary society functions within fiscal quarters and political cycles, but that warnings of environmental apocalypse twenty years hence are received as abstractions. Mainstream media has difficulty communicating their scale and scope, while in the political arena there is limited incentive to work in such ambitious timeframes. In response to this, it is time for historians to consider returning to larger syntheses—to take stock of what we have learned. New organizing principles like the Anthropocene hearken back to big history, and provoke historical inquiry: how were portents of change interpreted in the past? And what did historical actors suppose they meant for the future?

In this vein, perhaps we can rehabilitate sustainability, not as an organizing concept, but rather as part of series of tools through which historians might examine past futures.

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