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Living in the future

02 January 202007:39PMclimate

It's January 2020, and it's starting to feel like the future - but probably not in the way we expected.

We Are The Ancestors

Over the past few years I've had these occasional moments of perspective, where I think to myself, "We are living in the before times. One day, I will tell my children about this, and they will stare at me in awe."

Sometimes it's everyday things, like seeing the city skyline from my backyard. Sometimes it's less everyday things, like watching the fireworks on New Years and thinking, at the back of my mind, about the energy and time they represent. Sometimes it's fun, like marvelling at the intricate logistics of some little widget I want being manufactured and flown across the ocean and delivered to my door. Sometime's it's vaguely sickening, like thinking about that same thing happening for the hideous fake plastic plant I got in the office gift swap.

It's a sense of decadence and opulence, at a scale that's simultaneously incredibly intricate and unfathomably enormous. It's like we're at the heart of a machine that's both too complex and too large to comprehend, and its energy is directed almost entirely to satisfying wants rather than needs. We can accomplish wondrous things with a word or a gesture, and we mostly use it to snark at each other and order food.

It feels like we're living out a sci-fi trope. It feels like we're the Ancient Civilisation, and that any minute we're about to Fall, and one day our Descendants will stumbly across our Artefacts in the Ruins and tell Tales of Those Who Came Before. In shape, at least, if not in scale.

And I think maybe the reason I'm starting to notice this feeling more and more is because things are already starting to change. Not a decline, necessarily, but definitely a change.

Pre-emptive Adaptation

Here are some things which, over the last few months, I've noticed people I talk to doing.

But what's more interesting, I think, is who is doing it, and how they're doing it. For the most part, these aren't activists or radicals. They were pretty regular people from parts of my life I'd assumed were pretty isolated from climate-related issues. And they weren't making a big deal out of what they were doing - in fact, quite often they were a little bit sheepish about it, or cited things like cost as pseudo-justifications.

They're small changes, and stringing them together into a pattern might be wishful thinking, or my peer group maturing, but I think it's possible that we're taking our first, tentative steps into climate-impacted lifestyles.

We're told, over and over again, that this is not an individual-scale problem. That compared to the gigatonnes of carbon and the billions of dollars swung around by governments and corporations, your decision to have a meat-free Monday just doesn't register.

I have some issues with where that places the responsibility for the problem - and power to fix it - but for the most part, it's true.

But I don't think that's what these people were doing. I think what we're seeing here is something else.

I think we're quietly, unconsciously preparing for the future we know is coming.

A smaller, quieter future

We're heading towards a future where parts of the way we live now just don't happen. We'll live in a future where we live closer together, out of necessity and convenience. We'll leave our neighbourhoods less, as car ownership becomes less viable*. We'll leave our cities less, as air travel becomes prohibitive**. Our food will look different and come from closer as the kinds of agriculture that make sense change. Our consumer goods will last longer, or become less necessary, as the same happens to manufacturing.

This is not a Scandanavian urbanist daydream. It's a necessary consequence of a lower-carbon economy. Yes, it might sound pleasant, but like any change, if you get stuck behind the curve, you'll be running very uncomfortably to catch up.

Imagine, for example, finding yourself trapped in an outer suburb in a 250m^2 house which relies on air conditioning to stay cool as the climate heats up and a car to access as fuel prices rise and a barbecue you can't afford to put steak on and a yard to water as restrictions get tighter and tighter but nobody will buy or rent your house and there's nowhere left to go. Maybe you're insulated from the fires and the floods by the privilege of living in a developed country, but you sure aren't protected from financial hardship and crushing despair. If anything, it's made worse, because you can't tell what's wrong - everything just gets a little bit harder every day and there's nothing you can do to stop it***.

Once you stop and think about it, our lifestyle is actually extremely fragile, and the sooner we put the brakes on, the more comfortable that speed change will be.

Nobody's forcing you to change - yet. But eventually they will, whether through legislation, taxation, social expectation or the inexorable price changes due to supply and demand. And when that happens, I think a lot of people are going to be in for a bit of a shock, because this is a smaller future, with smaller dreams. It won't be realistic to dream of owning a house in the suburbs and travelling around the world.

The future isn't going to be worse. Or at least, it doesn't have to be, if we get our shit together. But it is going to be different, which kind of brings me back to the conversation around lifestyle changes. Because if we don't start changing expectations about how our lifestyles "should" look now, then we're only making things harder for each other down the line.

If you're interested in precipitating this epiphany for yourself, I recommend reading Station Eleven and Lost Connections within 24 hours of each other in an ill-fated attempt to hit your Goodreads target.

* because I don't know that the maths works out on everyone having an electric vehicle - or at least, an electric car. Other kinds of rideables, maybe more so.

** in my ideal version of this future we replace jet planes with solar powered airships, but that's still a slower, more significant exercise.

*** and you will probably vote increasingly conservatively because of this, but that's... a much bigger problem and this post is already running long.

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