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Aspirational Futurism

One of the secondary effects of the latest set of crises to grip the world is the rise of essays and articles from various insightful folks, laying out scenarios of what the future will look like in an era of limited resources, energy, money, and so forth. Most of these follow a similar pattern: a list of reasonable depictions of a more limited future, and at least one item that seems completely out of the blue.

The best example has to come from James Kunstler's description of the world to come in his "non-fiction" The Long Emergency and his explicitly fictional World Made By Hand. Along with his schadenfreude-soaked claims about the end of suburbia, automobiles, and all things superficial, he comes in with stark assertions that we'll all be making our own music and acting on stage for each other, instead of listening to that damnable recorded "rock-roll" music and the disco and suchlike.

Yeah, I'm no big fan of JHK's reactionary futurism, but this points to a bigger trend, one that I'm seeing across a variety of political spectra: the vision of an apocalyptic near-future as a catalyst for making the kinds of social/economic/political/technological/religious/etc. changes that the ignorant or deceived masses wouldn't have otherwise made.

This isn't just Rapturism, where a glorious transformation happens, which may or may not have nasty results for some; in that kind of scenario, an apocalypse isn't a trigger so much as a possible side-effect. In this kind of scenario -- "aspirational apocaphilia" -- the global disaster is a requisite enabler.

It's a notable trend in that it's something that those of us who consider ourselves ethical futurists need to pay close attention to in our own work. I'd love to see the current crises result in a variety of more sustainable social patterns -- but I have to be careful not to mistake my desire with what would be a useful forecast.


Those who include rapturous events in their projections may have an understanding of human nature injected in their projections. I've heard many a wise contemporary make claims that large numbers of "normal" (Joe Sick Pax) humans need disaster or threat of disaster to wake them from their slumbers.

It is absolutely reasonable to expect out-of-left-field change when major constraints appear. Who would have thought the onset of the great depression would have resulted in legal beer?

Actually, with or without ethics, these moments in history may fairly be viewed as opportunities. 9-11 was a major tragedy, and for some, a major opportunity which was duly seized.

But the deeper sense of this is to question those who have the ingrained idea that humanity must suffer for "proper" change to occur. Proper being in the mind of the commentator.

Thanks for pointing this out.

I do believe humanity is about to suffer, but I don't wish it, and actively scheme against it.

I've seen this "need disaster or threat of disaster to wake them from their slumbers" referred to as "creating a burning platform mentality" in various corporate change planning exercises.

It can be a useful tool (if there really is a threat of disaster) but if you overdo it then people become cynical and unbelieving (aka the "boy who cried wolf" effect).

In Kunstler's case, the problem is further magnified by his track record of predicting other apolcalypses and his clear desire to see the end of suburbia, regardless of the trigger.

For what it's worth, I was thinking less of the "need a disaster to change minds" and more about the "with this disaster, my One True Vision will come true!" tropes. It's useful to include them in forecasts as a "and even something like this might occur" (complete with disclaimers); it's less useful to give them the same forecasting weight as more plausible elements.

For example, it's possible that one result of the ongoing economic crisis would be the return of the "corporate death penalty," where bad actor companies aren't just fined, their charters are revoked, essentially killing them. I would love to see that happen, and it's possible in this framework that it might, but I'm under no illusions that it's likely. I'd toss that into a scenario more as a wildcard than as a fundamental piece.

This line of thought has been around for a while. I recall a David Brin essay pointing out that many science fictional feminist utopias begin with a big die-off.

(In Brin's own disaster novel, The Postman, the die off leads to entrenched warlordism; only the promise of a return of a national government -- by a traveling actor posing as a civil servant -- seems to stir people to action.

I see two take home points here.

First, most people will try whenever possible to maintain the status quo, even if on some level they sense it's doomed. They'll drive to work, do their job, send kids to school, and all that long past the point where they start suspecting it's meaningless.

Secondly, if they can't find a way to keep pretending that everything's normal, they'll be scared, confused, and angry. Since group psychology often magnifies the irrational elements of the individuals, some responses to the crisis may not be sane.


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