Let's Talk About the Future

CREDIT: congerdesign via pixabay (CC/2.0)

The table stands where it has always stood, weathered gray in the yard. Today as most days it stands empty. But tomorrow, when the afternoon sun shines bright upon the lawn, rough timbers will bow under cranberries and bread stuffing, mashed potatoes and roasted sprouts, apple cider, apple pie, and all the bounty of the season. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and the table stands ready.

And what there is to be thankful for! The table was built into the wealthiest, healthiest epoch in the arc of human history. Clean water pours from the tap. Lights come on at the flip of a switch. Supermarkets teems with the fruits of globalization; whether we can (or choose to) afford them, the fact is that they’re there.

Could times be better? Of course they could. Healthcare remains a privilege. Poverty is rife. Raceism, ageism, and sexism are endemic features of a system founded on grand myths of justice and equality. Add the barrage of ad-selling awfulness that keeps us glued to our TVs, and it’s a wonder any of us ever really sleep at night.

Yet much modern misery arises from the relative comfort of the age. Antibiotics and industrial agriculture offer tantalizing answers to traditional environmental constraints; superbugs and monoculture crops arise only from our own success. Even existential risks–climate change, superintelligent AI, the enduring threat of nuclear war–begin with factors entirely within our control. Should humanity cease to exist tomorrow, the jury will no longer bring charges against nature.

But while politicians posture and environmentalists fret and business takes what it can, all of us gathered around the Thanksgiving table–families and friends, neighbors and relatives, colleagues and rivals, and total strangers alike–with our bellies full and the water running and the lights still on, can afford a moment to ask: what is the future we wish to see?

Change begins from a conversation. Overcoming the inertia of one personal habit is hard. But in the billions-strong aggregate of habits that make up society at large, one change is not enough. Real change isn’t one person’s plant-based diet, but a household agreeing to limit meat to one meal each week. Building momentum is hard. Conversation is where it begins.

The conversation doesn’t need to be critical. It shouldn’t judge. But it should offer a sincere invitation to explore where our future might lead. We might ask each other:

  • What are favorite vegetarian (or local/seasonal) recipes?
  • What physical, social, and psychological barriers keep us from selling the car?
  • Where are hidden regional gems for vacations/getaways?
  • When have we enjoyed experiential gifts more than physical things?
  • What barriers keep others from having the same conversation we’re having?

A few questions–that’s all they are. But questions that invite us (in this case) to imagine a future that demands less from our environment. Ask the same of work, education, structural inequity, or simply our place within a big, messy global community. There are many more questions to ask, causes to chase, understandings to gain.

And the table? The table will do what tables do: stand where it has always stood, waiting for the future to happen. But we with the good fortune to sit around it don’t need to wait. We can imagine tomorrow’s world. We can vote with our ballots and our feet and back the candidates, causes, nonprofits, and businesses that will help bring that future about. We’ve put the conversation off for too long. There’s no time like now to start.