Updated: May 20

Memories of the future

Imagine this: Humanity never seriously tries to downsize our impact on the planet. Seas rise, waste proliferates. Earth eventually becomes a giant flooded junkyard. Those with the resources to do so flee, Elon Musk-style, to Mars where they begin the whole cycle all over again. The Martians set up massive solar power arrays around the ruined Earth to send energy to their new settlements.

This is the backdrop of “The Solar Grid,” a graphic novel from Ganzeer, one of the most important artists of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, who now lives in Houston. The novel began coming out in serial form last month. It’s a dystopian tale in many respects, but a powerful one. It shows what could happen if unfettered capitalism is allowed to devour all the resources of a planet, right down to its sunlight.

Ganzeer’s vision is not our likeliest future. But I believe such visions help us imagine a future radically different than what we experienced up until now — something humans have a very hard time doing.

Why is it so difficult to imagine a future that doesn’t repeat the past?

It’s a question that has haunted philosophers, psychologists and even economists. John Maynard Keynes, the architect of the global economy as we know it, noticed something curious in the ups and downs of the stock market. He saw that investors tended to assume that market trends would continue indefinitely even though there was no rational reason for believing so. People invested into bubble markets thinking they could expand forever. But when the bubbles started to collapse investors could only see the way down. Panic selling and fear of investment drove recessions deeper and longer than they needed to be. The common denominator of the whiplash of economic booms and busts was an inability to accept that the future was not simply an extension of the now.

As an anthropologist who studies how human beings across the world are adapting (or not) to a changing climate, Keynes’ insight speaks to me. The idea that the future is going to be different, maybe even dramatically different, from what we have experienced up until now is something that is proving hard for people to get their heads around. It’s not an emotional deficit because humans are quite skilled at hoping for better conditions and at fearing worse ones. We do that all the time.

The problem really seems to lie with the future itself: It’s hard to imagine and so making the assumption it will be pretty much the same as the way things are now is a convenient shortcut that allows us to get through the day. As one of my teachers used to shrug, “The thing about the future is that it has no content.”

But the truth is that the future does have content today. Climate scientists are getting increasingly adept at giving us glimpses of it. And it doesn’t look like any past that humans have experienced.

For example, no humans, not even our hominid ancestors, ever breathed air with as much carbon dioxide in it as we do today (418 parts per million and increasing every year). The last time there was this much CO2 in the atmosphere was 3 million years ago during the Pliocene Epoch when the Earth was a much warmer and wetter place. The average sea level was about 65 feet higher than it is today.

But unlike 3 million years ago, nearly 8 billion human beings now live on the planet and 40 percent of them reside in coastal areas that will be impacted by sea level rise. If you think Houston will be spared, think again. Downtown Houston is only 50 feet above sea level. The world’s ice sheets are melting furiously right now as Earth systems adjust to the rising concentration of potent greenhouse gases.

It may take centuries to get there, but Houston is going coastal unless emissions are cut far faster and more dramatically than current plans on the table would deliver. By then, lower-lying coastal cities like Galveston, New Orleans and Miami will have become reefs. Unless, of course, they learn to live with water in new ways.

That “unless” is really important. We have choices and there is time to make them. But this is where we circle back to the opening question. How can we learn to survive and even thrive in a warmer, wetter future if we have so much trouble imagining it?

The problem is that if your gut instinct is telling you that the future is going to be a lot like the past then what the climate scientists are trying so desperately to tell us inevitably will seem unbelievable, like a horror story. The tragedy is that Act I of the horror story has already started. Every season there is news of record-breaking wildfires, heatwaves, droughts and rainfalls somewhere in the world. Yet a lot of humans — and not just the climate deniers — stare in disbelief.

But there’s another option besides staying tied to the past and resisting the changes that are coming. What if we were to give the future a different kind of content? Stay with me, here. What if we were able to create memories of the future that could orient our actions and decisions today?

In Ganzeer’s dystopia, entrepreneurs keep proposing more and more outrageous technological solutions to solve humanity’s environmental dilemmas, all the way up to making artificial planets. What they seem incapable of understanding is that technology is only as good as the vision and values that power it. Technology that makes a future based on the assumptions of the past is a road to more of the same.

This is why I firmly believe that the arts, humanities, architecture and design have so much to offer in terms of helping to adapt our civilization to a changing Earth. They represent a marvelous toolkit for filling the future with content, familiarizing us with bold and even bizarre ideas that will eventually register in our memory to expand our sense of what is possible. Sometimes, as in the case of “The Solar Grid,” those memories are cautionary tales, showing us futures we’d be wise to prevent.

But they can also show us better ways forward.

For example, the Houston we know and love is a sprawling and unsustainable megacity. From its chronic flooding and vulnerability to storm surge to its routine petrochemical emissions and explosions, it is an urban settlement that is utterly environmentally precarious. And yet our default perception of its future is to expect more of the same: more sprawl, more cars, more pipelines.

But one of my colleagues at Rice University, Albert Pope, an architect and urban designer, is thinking against the grain and imagining a different future for Houston.

Pope’s work shows a denser, more vertical and more walkable city. It has given its bayous more room to ebb and flow. It has restored more of its native vegetation that helps with floodwater retention and heat reduction. It has moved away from energy-intensive building materials such as concrete and toward renewable resources such as timber that’s strong enough to build skyscrapers out of (that timber, by the way, is already real and in use). This future Houston is a city of myriad interconnected green spaces, a city that has embraced its natural landscape instead of trying to pave over and engineer it.

Another example is the work of local designer Ilse Harrison who has created some amazing glimpses of a truly amphibious Houston, a future coastal city organized around aquaculture that is modular and floating. Its structures can stack themselves high in times of surging seas and then redistribute in times of calm.

Undoubtedly, this seems like science fiction. But I would counter that the real fiction is the idea that Houston — and other coastal cities around the world — can stay dry and impervious as the world ocean swells.

These designs are only the beginning. The greatest challenge to Houston’s survival is not sea level rise or global warming itself but rather our willingness today to more creatively and seriously engage the problem of imagining and attaining a sustainable model of urban life within a warmer and wetter world.

There’s an old line from John F. Kennedy that applies here, “The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need people who can dream of things that never were, and ask why not.”

Houston needs dreamers to make memories of its possible futures — those we want to inhabit and those we wish to avoid.

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