Article published in The New York Times, Opinionator, October 13, 2013.
Contemporary life is overloaded with visions of the future. Whereas Friedrich Nietzsche bemoaned the surplus of historical sense, crushing old Europe under the weight of its past, we are now suffering from an obsession with what lies ahead. Personal and national debts are accruing as rapidly as our obligations to subsequent generations. We are awash in reports that the global environmental crisis may soon reach a tragic turning point. With the possibility of apocalypse peering at us from every corner, how are we to face the time to come?
To insist on any one notion of the future risks turning it into an ideological instrument to justify present policies.
In the midst of this turmoil, a new futurology is afoot, arising out of a growing confidence in our ability to divine what the future wants and needs. Decisions on issues like environmental protection or the control of human reproduction are made in the name of future generations. As the Nietzschean latecomers on the scene of history, whose pinnacle we deem ourselves to be, we are confident that our absolute knowledge extends well beyond the temporal horizon of the present. But how do we determine the interests of, and our obligations to, those not yet born? Are we really able to listen to what the future tells or, more often, faintly whispers to us? And, more crucial still, why are the demands of the present neither pressing nor absorbing enough in their own right?
It’s true that the consequences of today’s actions are going to have a long-term impact. The effects of a disaster, like Fukushima, will certainly outlast those responsible for the catastrophe. But does the enormous size of our temporal footprint mean that we can speak for human beings who are not yet alive? In other words, what are the epistemic and ethical grounds upon which our relation to the future can unfold?
To insist on any one notion of the future in political and philosophical debates risks turning it into an ideological instrument used to justify present policies. The discourse of anti-abortion advocates, for instance, emphasizes the rights of the unborn in order to regulate female sexuality. The reductio ad absurdum of this argument is the prohibition of any form of contraception by certain religious conservatives, who place abstract reproductive possibilities above existing persons. Arguments like this turn future generations into mere pawns in the power games of the present.
And so, suffocating under the excessive burden of the future, we project our worries onto it, and usurp its proper space. In claiming to speak for the future, we represent it in a double sense: by electing ourselves as its delegates and at the same time turning it into an extension of the present.
Another dimension of the colonization of the future is its idealization as the be-all and end-all of our actions. The future is converted into a fetish that supplements the deficiencies and redeems the flaws inherent in the present. Since the coming generations have not yet attained empirical existence, the ones now living will never be able to measure up to their purported perfection.
This seemingly new phenomenon is actually a mutation of the old metaphysical tendency to debase the world here below at the expense of an otherworldly ideal: Plato’s Ideas, Aristotle’s unmoved mover, medieval philosophy’s God, Hegel’s Spirit and the rest. But the emerging metaphysical paradigm differs from its predecessors in that its fate is tied to historical becoming, rather than to the eternal principles of being. This temporal characteristic is illusory, since the future is postponed indefinitely. It always remains beyond the present, immune to contestation, much like the chimeras of old metaphysics.
Nothing is easier than appropriating the voices of those who cannot speak for themselves in the polemical struggle to define the present. In the context of colonization, as members of the Subaltern Studies group have pointed out, people deprived of the means for political expression risk being misrepresented by well-intentioned authority figures. Advocacy for the environment replays this pattern by ascribing particular interests to “voiceless” ecosystems and even individual species. Truly, the road to the future is paved with good intentions.
A healthy dose of Epicureanism will go a long way toward curing the discursive inflation of the future. This is not to endorse a carefree attitude in public life, oblivious to ethical concerns. We suggest refocusing attention to the living beings, human and nonhuman, already in existence. At the least, the future should not be used as a diversion from what is.
The one defensible relation to this temporal modality would be to leave the greatest number of options available for generations to come, as Daniel Innerarity argues in “The Future and Its Enemies.” This minimalist approach would be sensitive to the future’s open-endedness and acknowledge our inability to do justice to its sheer otherness. Only then will the future truly have a future.