After coming across Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s TED talk recently, and already being familiar with his stunning aerial photography, I was excited to see his film Home, about the Earth, and its dwellers. It is probably the most beautiful film I have ever seen. The BBCs Planet Earth is gorgeous, but Home is far better. Every scene is a piece of art, like his photography, but in motion. I would pay to see it in high definition. The first half hour or so is a kind of naturalistic creation myth: true, but poetic. The formation of the Earth. The rise of the cyanobacteria, and the oxygenation of our atmosphere. The eventual emergence of our own species and the journey we took from hunter-gatherers to pastoralists, to city dwelling, fossil fueled, rulers of the world.
But there it stumbles. While what it says is true, it is not enough. The truth alone is no longer sufficient. The film is blind, or nearly so, to the future that we need to see. It’s too easy, given the truth we have inherited, to envision a dark future. Vague assertions that the solutions are at hand are not enough. He exclaims, and rightly so, that “We don’t want to believe what we know.” For some reason, we are afraid to envision a bright future. Maybe it’s because throughout the 20th century, the bright futures we envisioned often turned dark. Social progress became World Wars and gulags. Technological progress became mustard gas, ICBMs and DDT. Economic progress became the Depression and the disingenuous promise of perpetual growth through the liquidation of our natural capital. I agree that we don’t have time to be pessimists, but fodder for pessimism seems to be almost the only content out there in the environmental sphere. And it’s getting old.
What we are in desperate need of, is the story of Earth 2100, and The Age of Stupid, and Home, told backwards from the future, and with the much hoped-for ending as the starting point. We have the solutions, but they have not been woven into a compelling narrative, while the Apocalypse narrative is one we are all intimately familiar with, and so it takes up residence in the front of our minds. The End has always been nigh in someone’s mind, and that doesn’t mean it isn’t right around the corner now, but because it’s a story we’ve told ourselves so well for so long, in one context or another, we are trained to it. We hear it without having it spoken.
This future history has to be believable, while at the same time not incorporating any wild technological leaps that we can’t necessarily count on, which isn’t to say that wild technological leaps won’t happen — they almost certainly will — but the space of possible technologies is so large, that depending on or waiting for any given one is foolish. This future history needs to be something to strive for, a destination we want to get to. It can be many threaded and non-deterministic; it can have multiple outcomes and decision points, but whatever form it takes, it needs to be compelling. The future needs to be a place we would want to live, with people that we loved. Here’s how I think it goes.
O wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world! That has such people in’t!
Humans moved to the cities. That’s where we lived. And the cities became as nations unto themselves, some jealous and some free. Coal was banned. Banned! Death trains no more. But still we had to block the sun for a while, and so we changed the sky again. In place of coal we harnessed the Atom and the Sun. Then we learned to keep the light and hold it in chemical bonds, like plants, but far better. There was an accident, and a city died, and with our newly stored sunlight we decided that nuclear reactions were best left far away. But still the seas did rise, and there was war and plague. Things stopped moving. Freight trains and container ships were stilled. From this fearful chaos we built cyclical economies, with materials running in circles. Rebuilt and decomposed again and again, biologically. An economy no longer a strong function of location. Labor prices largely equalized worldwide, for a given set of skills. Education the key to wealth, and available wherever you might be. Then one day freely moving energy, freely flowing information, but materials left in place. Landfills finally mined.
Why go anywhere? We go for people. For culture. Different cities, with different laws and different peoples. Cities built for people. Green and quiet but dense. The freedom to move between them as you wish. Distributed economic organizations. Live with people here, work with people anywhere (even here). Our human numbers shrank and our lifespans lengthened. Between the cities the forests could re-grow, with help, there were no longer mines. The wilds returned. We tinkered with our crops at home, for better or for worse. We lost many of our irrigated lands to salt, but with a little tinkering, we took some of them back again. A few people tended the cities of the plants, vast greenhouse worlds, intricate engineered ecosystems under compostable glass, collecting and meting out the rains, drop by drop, cycling nutrients with the help of domesticated bacteria and integrated livestock.
The wilds return. They encroach. We can easily hold them at bay, but know that destroying them means destroying ourselves. We have Enough. Slowly and by parts, the lost menagerie is found or mourned. The European lion and the American camel. The blue whale and the bluefin tuna. The moa and the mastodon. From bits and bytes we sought out or hid away. And if you so choose, you can eat a bit of that ancient meat, hunted on the slowly regrown plains or in the darkening forests, or fished from the reborn seas and emancipated rivers. But only if you take it as an animal, as a member of the wilderness, under your own power, and by your own wiles. Only if you know that you too, are meat.