The problem we face in the fight against climate change–beyond the sheer magnitude and complexity of the issue, and our lack of real progress to date–is that a post-climate change world will not look like anything else we’ve dealt with before.
There’s a term for this: discontinuity. When our previous experiences can no longer serve as a reliable foundation for what’s to come, we have a hard time projecting ourselves into the future. Consequently, we struggle to mobilize toward a future that we’d actually want to live in.
Bridging this gap between our distressing present and unknowable future is a specialty for people like Alex Steffen. A writer and futurist, his work revolves around imagining what our planet might look like in the decades to come, and building out strategies to get us there sustainably. His newest book, called The Snap Forward, will tackle the difficulty of making the mental leap from present to future, and how imaging the future will enable us to see that we can still shape it.
In 2015, when Steffen started contemplating this book, he was in the midst of several projects focused on climate change. He noticed a pattern in his research and conversations with people. “There’s this assumption, in a lot of climate writing and discussion, that we’ve already chosen the path, and we’re not going to veer from it–the ship is already sinking,” he says. “But the thing is: That’s not factually true, and culturally, it’s kind of bogus.”
Thinking of our future as set in stone leads to a whole host of problems. Just in the last year, for instance, we saw the Trump administration roll back a vehicle emissions standard under the logic that we’ve already wrecked the planet, so what’s the point of inconveniencing especially car manufacturers now? That type of thinking, Steffen says, reflects something he calls “predatory delay“: preserving the present status quo at the expense of a healthy future. We see this in the strength fossil fuel industries still wield today. By lobbying to protect their interests now, Steffen says, players in the fossil fuel sector are delaying climate action–and making it more difficult to imagine and plan for a future in which we don’t have to depend on fossil fuels at all.
The narrative of inevitability around climate change obscures what our real project will be in the decades to come. “What we have to unflinchingly look in the eye is how much choice we still have,” Steffen says. “The hard part is not wrestling with how bad things could get–it’s understanding how much responsibility we still have to make things better.”
To illustrate: Just this week, the United Nations released a report describing how our chemical and waste output is set to double in the next decade if we do nothing. The way to read this report, under Steffen’s logic, is to look at it not as an inevitability, but as a challenge. What could we do now to ensure that doesn’t happen? What industries do we need to overhaul, and what practices do we have to abandon and remake?
Steffen is encouraged by policy frameworks like the Green New Deal going mainstream: To him, it means people are ready to consider the magnitude of change necessary to build a sustainable future under climate change. The Snap Forward could be thought of as a manual for building out the mind-set that needs to surround sweeping transformations like those proposed in the Green New Deal. Steffen and his colleague Justus Stewart, who assisted on the book, launched the project on Kickstarter last week, where it swiftly surpassed its fundraising goal with the support of over 500 backers. The book will be formally released in August. In a sense, the rush to pre-purchase a work of Steffen’s testifies to people’s growing demand for different ways to think about our climate future, and to Steffen, that’s a source of optimism.