The Presence of the Future

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Philosophy, Marx said, only interprets the world, but the point is to change it. Such a moment of critique and social change is urgently needed now. We are in the midst of unusually rapid and extensive species extinction, which Elizabeth Kolbert examines in her recent book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. We are also in the midst of unprecedented climate change and global warming, which philosopher Stephen Gardiner explores in his book, A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change. These two works are illuminating to read side by side. But brace yourself.

One hundred years ago—on September 1, 1914, to be exact—the last known passenger pigeon died in the Cincinnati zoo. Her name was Martha. But to paraphrase the sage Ecclesiastes, let us now praise famous creatures. Today and every day in 2014, countless species and individual plants and animals, mostly unknown and nameless, disappear forever. We don’t know the details, but we do pretty well understand the processes and forces at work. They are not simply the evolutionary workings of natural selection. The great extinction going on now has a natural history to it, of course, but it also has an “unnatural history,” as Kolbert notes.

Human economic activity is transforming the biota of the world by many means, direct and indirect, simplifying and culling much of life. As with so much of human activity, this cannot be called unnatural in some thoroughgoing sense, for our technology and its effects operate in accordance with physical, chemical, and biological laws. Living ecosystems are dynamic and resilient: they transform with and without human participation. They can tolerate and clean up after our messes, up to a point. But what is “unnatural” about the present time, what makes anthropogenic influences now so destructive and deleterious, is that we are doing so much, so fast, everywhere. Let’s be honest: too much, too fast. Right now, the quantity, scale, and pace of human influence on the natural world are unprecedented. The graphs of this influence and its ecological effects do not just start climbing gradually five thousand years ago with the agricultural revolution and the creation of states and cities, or three hundred years ago with the industrial revolution; these lines stay pretty much level or gradually increase over all this vast amount of time, and then—about when Martha was breathing her last—they suddenly begin to leap almost straight up. With data involving some environmental impacts and economic activities, these unprecedented spikes take place within the past fifty years—within the lifetimes of those now reading this, or their parents.[1]

Just one example: small, but not insignificant. Where I live, single-use plastic bags were introduced in grocery stores and other places in 1985. Blowing here and there like little tumbleweeds up to no good, they collect in storm drains, impale themselves on bushes, and eventually break down into small shards of long-lived plastic that make their way into the Hudson River, attracting microbes and entering the food chain of river life. My village board of trustees, on which I sit, is now considering a law banning such bags and promoting reusable ones instead. Many cities and towns have done this. But having been around for a generation, single-use plastic bags are the new normal; what is foreign to the land has become familiar in the landscape of our daily lives and habits.

This is happening from sea to shining sea. A 2007 study by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors pointed out that: “Each year, approximately 6 billion plastic carryout bags are consumed in Los Angeles County. This is equivalent to 600 bags per person per year. If tied together, these bags would form a string long enough to reach the moon and back, five times.” A 2009 study by the R3 Consulting Group of the effects of single-use plastic bags in the City of Santa Monica estimated that residents there disposed of 30 million single use plastic bags per year. (In Southern California at the time it was estimated that only about 5 percent of such bags are recycled.)

People adjust to change (in this case, change driven by the profit motive and imposed from the outside by private corporate policy) and normalize it in their minds. People feel threatened by the thought of having “their” plastic bags taken away. They don’t remember a time before them. They rationalize their virtues. In public hearings, I and my fellow trustees were told: “Plastic bags are so much more convenient”; “My customers would go elsewhere if I could not offer them such bags for their purchases”; and “Reusable bags are not hygienic.”

What does Earth ask of us? For starters, self-restraint.

With climate change a similar story applies, and biodiversity decline and climate change are interlinked, of course. Current temperatures and concentrations of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are at levels unprecedented during the time of humans on Earth. We are doing so much, so fast, that we are throwing the planet into a thermodynamic imbalance.

If the story of extinction and biodiversity is a tale told in an elegiac mood (a voice of memory, regret, humility in the face of time, mortality, and fragility), then the story of climate change is to be told in a prophetic voice (a tone of prospect, warning, and a shaking off of complacency, blindness, and the illusion of invulnerability). It is in this recognition of finitude that memory and imagination—a sense of the presence of the past and a sense of the presence of the future—come together.

The metaphor of a “perfect storm” in reference to global climate change is an apt one because people remember the book and movie of that title and because people are becoming alarmed by the perceived (and actual) increasing frequency and severity of violent weather events throughout the world. The perfect storm metaphor is also apt scientifically and ethically because the nature of the challenge posed by climate change is made up of multiple dimensions that interact to compound the difficulty of successfully meeting that challenge and of weathering the moral storm that is already here and still coming.

An international group of scientists led by James Hansen recently conducted a review of the literature on the public health effects of climate change and the current projections of the IPCC. It reminds us that the consumption of fossil carbon energy (coal, petroleum, natural gas) emits massive amounts of carbon and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, some of which will remain there for millennia, and most of which will find its way into the oceans.[2] This is changing the composition and behavior of Earth’s atmosphere, and the oceanic-atmospheric interaction, in ways that have put the planet into an energy imbalance. This is increasing global temperature; melting ice masses; affecting ocean currents, salinity, and pH; altering weather and storm patterns; and changing the conditions for land ecosystems and habitats all over the world. The thermal inertia of the deep ocean, the possible release of methane deposits in the permafrost, and the prospect of rapid melting of land-based ice sheets present slow-acting threshold effects. This means that human activity leading to temperature rise beyond a certain point will set in motion geophysical processes with long-delayed effects. Once begun, they cannot be stopped by human remediation, and they will not abate for decades or even centuries. We do not know precisely what those trigger-point temperatures are, but it is very likely that we are on track to reach and exceed them sometime in this century unless immediate action is taken. Substantial reductions in the amount of carbon entering the atmosphere is required via reduced consumption, increased natural sequestration such as reforestation, or a combination of both. Like what is called “de-extinction” (using genetic engineering to produce viable embryos with the genome of an extinct species as a response to species loss), the artificial sequestration of atmospheric carbon is a theoretically possible high-tech response to climate change, but its practical application is uncertain, its unintended side effects unknown, and its economic costs enormous (perhaps several times the current total of global gross domestic product).

Can places like the Center for Humans and Nature, together with many other thinkers and doers in the conservation movement and in the fields of environmental studies, rise to this occasion and do what the Earth asks of us? Can we make a substantial contribution to the social intelligence of our societies in coping with this crisis?

The conditions are perilous; success is uncertain; the stakes are very high. Hansen and colleagues throw down the gauntlet (again) in terms so direct that the moral challenge should be difficult to refuse or cower away from.

A set of actions exists with a good chance of averting ‘dangerous’ climate change, if the actions begin now. However, we also know that time is running out . . . [and] large irreversible climate changes will become unavoidable. Our parent’s generation did not know that their energy use would harm future generations and other life on the planet. If we do not change our course, we can only pretend that we did not know.[3]

Pretending that you did not know is what happens to you when you lack the moral imagination to sense the presence of the future. The genie is out of the bottle as far as knowing is concerned. It is no longer a question of knowing but of doing—of discovering the will to act. Pretending that you did not know is all you have to fall back on when you have no other valid moral excuse for wrongful and harmful action or inaction. Pleading ignorance and evading responsibility don’t go over well in such proceedings. Part of what I mean by “moral imagination” involves the ability to envision a figurative dialogue with those whose lives you have touched, in which you are to be held accountable for what you have done. Conscience is the place of this accounting. Memory and foresight are its voices.[4]

The upshot appears to be this. The use of the most significant source of energy upon which humankind now relies must be curtailed very soon and replaced with energy sources that do not rely on fossil carbon. Most of the remaining fossil carbon deposits must be left in the ground. Economic and political ways must be found to prompt this massive change in human behavior, especially among people and nations that are the most intensive carbon users and are the world’s richest, most powerful, and most materially comfortable. Ways must be found to offset the hardship and disruption that these economic changes will cause, especially in societies that are very highly stratified in terms of wealth and income. This is a global phenomenon, so these responses must be applied not only within nations but among them. It is also an intergenerational problem. If we don’t pay these prices now, others will have to pay a much larger price for the health consequences and social disruption later, likely under much less auspicious circumstances. And climate change is only one of the planetary boundaries whose safe operating margins human technology is encroaching on.[5]

The atmosphere and oceans form a complex, dynamic geophysical system. Climate is intimately connected to the basics of human survival, well-being, and social order: our food supply, our fresh water supply, our shelter, our public health infrastructure, our susceptibly to infectious disease, our ongoing dependency on biodiversity and ecosystem services. Climate change will undermine and degrade each of these sources of our humanness, this planetary ground within which our being is rooted. And then, as if this weren’t enough, there is the disruption that climate change will bring about in the social systems on which we rely for orderly forms of life: transportation, distribution, sanitation, law enforcement. All these are undermined by political instability caused by the fear and disrupted expectations of large populations, and by massive population migrations caused by war, famine, drought, flooding of coastal areas, and the like.

There are powerful reasons of enlightened self-interest that by their own inner logic alone should lead to the steps required to limit the damage we are doing to the climate system and the other fundamental planetary systems of life: biodiversity, nitrogen load, fresh water, and so on. And yet look at what is happening and what seems likely to happen. The neurological markers of enlightened, long-term self-interest are not lighting up in the brain scans of our leaders. Apparently, its reasons are weaker than the logic of competitive advantage in market economics and market politics, and our institutions of governance are so constructed that they are overwhelmed by more short-term, short-sighted forces.

The hour is upon us when it is essential to reorient our predominant cultural understandings of the human place in the natural world. This is both a scientific and a philosophical undertaking. It is also essential to reconceive the predominant economic worldview of neoliberal global capitalism. This requires a new understanding of the needs and circumstances of human societies and individuals—social welfare, human flourishing, rights and liberties, growth, progress, and wealth. It also requires new institutional forms and limits on the permitted functioning and effects of economic markets, on the organization of human labor and work, and on the basic activities of extraction of natural resources and expulsion of waste products into natural systems. Finally, it is essential to restructure our value priorities. This requires the widespread recognition and acceptance of the imperative of ecological responsibility, the present and intergenerational duties we have in our own individual and species flourishing, and also the duties humans have to all forms of life and to the sustainability and resilience of living systems.

No one should underestimate the stakes or the difficulty of the conceptual and the practical work—the moral and the political work—ahead. In his book Gardiner identifies and discusses significant challenges to be met: Do our polities have the capacity to act in time to mitigate climate change? Can we achieve just distribution of resources on a global scale and deal fairly with those peoples of the world who have done little to cause the problem but who will have to forgo much? Can we achieve intergenerational justice among those living today? In a previous column, “Just Cities,” in MN 7.1 (January 2014), I touched on these questions. Here I would like to concentrate on the further question of whether we can find a place for those yet unborn in a new global order of justice and governance.

The metaphor of a global order, like the metaphors of an ecological system or the biosphere, captures the idea of reciprocal relationality and interdependency among contemporaneous persons (human and non-human persons). But when we talk about relationships with persons that do not yet exist, inhabiting ecosystems and states of the world that do not yet exist, and may never exist depending on what we do, what is the moral force of those relationships with those beings and lives that are seemingly “not yet”? Surely it is incorrect to say that there is no conceivable relationship here, or that such a notion violates the meaning of the concept of relationship. What we do now will in fact affect those not yet alive and the natural world of their present in the future. Granted, this cannot be reciprocal since the future party cannot affect us in a direct sense, but the future ones can affect us through the medium of our own moral imagination and conscience, with which we craft narratives of what is to come and make judgments about it. And our actions in the present do have the power to shape substantially the quality of life and the options of future people and the integrity and resiliency of the future ecosystems they inhabit. Climate change brings the future perfect tense of ethics to the fore in dramatic fashion—the not yet, but already.

In his famous essay, “What is Enlightenment?” Immanuel Kant announced the arrival of the age of maturity for humankind. The notion of the “Anthropocene” age carries much the same connotation: we have grown into adults with great power to affect the conditions of life and have great corresponding responsibility for all life. We are aware—even, at times, to an exaggerated extent—of our power, but act as though we are unaware of our responsibility, or pretend to be. From an ethical point of view, the time for duty and humility—conscience and caring—has come. The time for indulging our narcissism is over.

Moreover, if the future is at risk, we in the present are already adversely affected. How? Because the continuation of meaningful agency depends on the future as much as on the past and present. Referring to the day on which he thought the meaning-making capacity of his culture had died, Chief Plenty Coups of the Crow nation remarked that agency for the Crow had ceased as well: “. . . when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.”[6] This puts a new twist on the notion of self-interest because it extends the concepts of meaningful agency and the self forward in time.

In his interesting book Death and the Afterlife, philosopher Samuel Scheffler poses the following question: If we did not believe that there would be future people, would anything matter to us? If nothing did matter to us, Scheffler maintains, then surely fundamental aspects of our humanness—the meaningfulness of our activities and projects in the present—would be altered, or even lost. If we knew that a giant asteroid would destroy the Earth in a year’s time, would anyone continue to make the effort to find a cure for cancer? If we knew that the last human being who would ever be born had already died, and the rest of humankind would die out in a few decades, would anyone take the trouble to write a great work of philosophy or a great novel? Creative work might still be done for the sheer joy of it, but not for the ages. Our belief in a human future (a key aspect of which is a viable, resilient natural future) is essential to our present. How then can we say that future people do not matter?

My sense is that we do have the capacity to muster the moral imagination necessary to appreciate the presence of the future. We can grasp the fact that we have a responsibility here and now for what we are doing to the well-being and conditions of life of those who are not yet. Of course, we can only infer in a generic way how human beings will think, feel, and act and how the biotic communities of the Earth will function in the future. That generic knowledge and that imaginative connection between present and future experience are premised on an assumption of some measure of social and biological continuity and commensurability, to be sure. But this is sufficient to motivate judgments of moral responsibility for the actions we do now. That is really all a sense of responsibility and the logic of obligation require, or have ever required. I think it is time to stop wringing our hands about the philosophical puzzle of whether anything we do in the present can be said to harm eventual people because without our actions they would not come into existence at all. And we should stop distracting ourselves with hoped for technological fixes, acting like the economist who was at the bottom of a deep hole and when asked how to get out replied, “Assume a ladder.”

Yes, we can grasp the fact that we have a responsibility here and now for what is happening to the planet. At the same time, I acknowledge that politically and culturally it is not obvious at all that this will happen. Close to the cognitive and the affective center of what impedes us lies a cultural blindness concerning relationality and interdependency. Like a civilizational form of Capgras syndrome, it is the incapacity to acknowledge kindred beings and friends with gratitude; the terrible failing of which Robin Kimmerer speaks. And no doubt, other factors of greed and power and ideological politics may be equally important.

Most of us reading this, as men and women of ideas in the community of minding nature, have few resources to stand up to those forces. But we may be able to do something about the state of thinking and motivation in our societies at various levels. In this way, we can try to bring moral imagination and moral conscience to bear against consumption, pollution, and political and economic power that push us further toward disruptive planetary change and that promise to truncate the futures of persons for decades or even centuries to come.


In this issue, some vital resources of this kind of moral imagination are on offer. We feature lead essays by Center for Humans and Nature Senior Scholars Kathleen Dean Moore and Robin Kimmerer, who led discussion on the topic, “What does Earth ask of us?” in the Center’s series of Questions for a Resilient Future.

A humbling visit to Española Island in the Galapagos archipelago leads Kathleen Dean Moore to address the true responsibilities of human beings and the rights of Nature. Reflecting on the recent Ecuadorian constitution and contrasting it with American law, Moore shows that taking Pachamama (Mother Earth) seriously changes land use, changes government regulation, and changes us. The concept of rights is important in this way in both ethics and the law, but the issue of whether and how the notion of rights should be extended to non-human entities has been widely debated for many years. Through amendments to its constitution in 2010, Ecuador became the first nation to recognize fundamental rights and protections for the natural world. Moore’s essay contrasts the legal outlook in Ecuador with that of the United States as reflected in major Supreme Court decisions and the Endangered Species Act. But she weaves this legal and philosophical discussion through more basic personal reflections on time spent in the Galapagos National Park of Ecuador, where one can directly experience a world in which the human individual is definitely not the sovereign being, lording over all others.

Robin Kimmerer turns to cultural sources to highlight both the importance of human responsibility for the natural world and the strangeness of the Western moral and economic perspective. She provides an interesting way to think about the problematic habit in our society of asking what’s in it for us (at both the individual and the species level). She asks instead, What can I give in return for the gifts of the Earth? We need the answers, but we also need to listen and learn how to even ask the question in the first place. She brings to the forefront of attention more fundamental notions to counter that sort of self-centeredness. Gratitude rather than greed. Care rather than consumption. For this gestalt shift, she has recourse to the insight of the Potawatomi and other first peoples of the Great Lakes region of North America. Their traditional story of the creation and beginnings of the world takes place at Turtle Island rather than the Garden of Eden. The contrasts are many between the two narratives and are important to ponder. Suffice to say here, that as the place of human being is created on the soil that became the island, it is the rest of the natural world that supports and sustains the human. Humanity’s ancestor is the Skywoman who falls into the human condition and needs the whole of life to sustain her own. Now the world needs our support: gratitude, reciprocity, and the ability to perceive that accepting responsibility and receiving a gift are actually two sides of the same coin.

This issue also includes three review and reflection essays. In her essay, Anja Claus carries on the themes sounded by Moore and Kimmerer and discusses the meaning of relationship—particularly a relationship between human beings and the rest of nature—and the importance of the concrete places in which we dwell, as well as human awareness of place and the meaning it conveys. In his essay, Luzma Fabiola Nava turns our attention to the world of water beneath, around, and among our activities and our places. He reviews a recent book by David Groenfeldt on ethical issues in water conversation and management. Finally, again touching on the theme of respect, responsibility, and place, Buddy Huffaker reviews a new documentary film centered on the life and work of Jens Jensen, one of the most important landscape architects of the twentieth century.

Diverse flora and fauna; islands on turtles and islands inhabited by them; gratitude; kindness; mutual respect; life-giving water; parks; places of caring, community, and justice; remembering and stories told of beginnings; the presence of the future—all are in this issue. All are robust, yet vulnerable; all are essential for thought in a time of future tense consequences.

[1]. For examples see J. G. Speth, The Bridge at the Edge of the World, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008, pp. xx-xxi.

[2]. J. Hansen, P. Kharecha, M. Sato, et al. “Assessing ‘Dangerous Climate Change’: Required Reduction of Carbon Emissions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Nature,” PLoS ONE 8, no. 12 (2013): e81648. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0081648.

[3]. Ibid., p. 20.

[4]. For a wry account of how the future may look back at our behavior in regard to climate change see N. Oreskes and E. M. Conway, “The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future,” Daedalus 142, no. 1 (Winter 2013): 40-58.

[5]. J. Rockström, W. Steffen, K. Noone, et al., “Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity,” Ecology and Society 14, no. 2 (2009): 32, at

[6]. Quoted in J. Lear, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, p. 2.

  • Bruce Jennings

    Bruce Jennings is Senior Fellow at the Center for Humans and Nature where he engages in research, writing, public speaking, and consulting. He is the editor of the Center’s journal, Minding Nature.
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