Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Living in "The Now"

Sometimes it is said that Americans, or modern peoples generally, are more future-oriented and forward-looking than any other people at any other time. Looking at much of the evidence of how we live, I think it could be argued that we are the most "presentist" humans ever to have existed. We justify actions that might otherwise have seemed to other people to be the height of irresponsibility, but because we don't think about the future much at all, we reflect very little on the consequences. Whether speaking of global warming, peak oil, soil erosion, water depletion, mountains of solid waste, massive levels of indebtedness, financial chicanery modeled on Ponzi schemes, neglect of the content of higher education - you name it, we love living in "the Now." We mistake a faith in future ingenuity, in technology, or a touching and fantastical belief that the laws of nature will be suspended, with a disposition that is "future-oriented." An unfounded belief in a better future (which is, in fact, a neglect of really thinking about the actual future) is used to justify all sorts of current misbehavior, whether in the form of Hegel's "slaughterbench of history" or driving Hummers because they're safer. To be truly future-oriented one would also have to embrace the full spectrum of temporality, past, present and future. Memory would replace nostalgia and hope would replace optimism, as Christopher Lasch argued. Above all, responsibility, prudence and stewardship would have to govern our present.

These thoughts occur as I go through some articles that I clipped during my recent trip to Europe. One - an IHT article on new technologies being planned to "capture" CO2 emissions from coal-fired electrical plants - in particular caught my eye. Much activity and money is now being invested in this technology as a way of at once allowing us to replace dwindling amounts of natural gas with coal for electric generation, and of avoiding the denser quantities of CO2 emissions that would increase the rate of global warming. In spite of these benefits, the article explains that there is considerable resistance to carbon burial in places where the C02 might someday escape (that is, NIMBY). This resistance is understandable, given that carbon dioxide is heavier than air, and hence could be the cause of a major catastrophe if it collects in low-lying areas where it would displace oxygen and cause mass asphyixiation. In fact, the article relates that nearly 2,000 people died in Cameroon when CO2 from a nearby volcano pooled in a village.

I was struck by the response of one of this technology's CEOs to this concern: "If CO2 ever does get to the surface, it's not going to be in our lifetimes or much of our near-descendants' lifetimes," said [Jeff] Chapman of Carbon Capture & Storage Association. Translation: don't worry about suffocation - you won't be alive when it escapes. Your children might be alive, but they'll be pretty old by that time. And don't spare a thought for your grandchildren - you'll be dead!

Or, maybe the translation is, don't worry - we'll figure out a new technology to solve the problem of leaking buried C02. Which was the solution for the problem of global warming. And the problem of peak oil. Which was ... ok, you get it.

I'll bet there were a lot of eyes that simply glazed over that quotation and continued on with the article. So, while "adults" around the country are getting worked up about the cruel exploitation of 40 well-fed American kiddies on the CBS "reality" show "Kid's Nation," we blithely go about ignoring actual reality, well-content in our ignorance that our actions won't adversely impact our "near-descendants' lifetimes." One is tempted to conclude that Bread and Circuses never went out of style.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Add to this "futurism" of modern societies John Lukacs's comment to the effect that modern history has not changed in essentials since 1913.