How Far Away is the Future?

Hand reaches towards a green tinted light in an industrial, high tech background
Photo by Mikhail Nilov from Pexels

2050 is the red letter year for thinking about our future, particularly climate change. Scientists have marked this as the time when, if we don’t make drastic changes, things will start to go horribly wrong. (Here is a book review to a great book that gives you the basics if this is a new idea for you.) I’ve read several books that discuss 2050 and I always have trouble getting my head around it. So this week, I sat down and tried to figure out what exactly 2050 means in terms of time.

Its hard for humans to appreciate a catastrophe being created over decades. Our memories are short. Even the emergencies of last year, or five years ago fade quickly. For example, Hurricane Katrina, was likely exacerbated by climate change and human changes to the local environment. It was the first of what are now fairly typical atypical tropical storms. Do we still talk about it? Have we taken up a call of Never Again in order to protect our coasts? Nope. There are lots of reasons for this and one of them is our brains just can’t hang on to the urgency for very long.

Conversely, our lives feel they pass much too quickly. We don’t manage to take time for what we want to do. The possibility of extreme climate changes by 2050 seems impossible to appreciate when we’re trying to carve out time to make a healthy dinner or remember to call friends on their birthdays. We don’t have enough time to simply be, or even take the time to do nothing. I watched television for four hours on Friday and I still feel so guilty about it. Why? Maybe its my Evangelical upbringing, or the way capitalism has seeped into my blood. I can’t shake the feeling that either my time must be useful because it belongs to God (amazing how belief practices stick with you after the beliefs are gone!) or that my value in the world comes from productivity so watching TV is a waste of time because I’m not producing anything.

Appreciating Time

In speculative fiction there are categories of near future and far future. Near future often looks like the world we know now with one or two new technologies. Far future often looks like Star Wars. 2050, is in thirty years. I’ll be well into my 60’s. My parents will probably be dead. Hopefully I will be a semi-famous author using sophisticated smart house technology to dictate stories as I walk around my living room and pet my cats.

This is a near-future type of story. It is hard to imagine dramatic change 30 years forward. But if I look back 30 years, life looks remarkably different. There was no internet, no cell phones, Nebraska had pretty consistent cold winters with snow I played in. We rarely have winters with good consistent snow now.

unraveled cassett tapes on a table

And if I go back thirty years before that, the Beatles had yet to invade America, Kennedy was alive, the greatest existential threat to American life was believed to be communism (even though climate change was very much a thing and if action had been taken then, millions of people would most likely be alive today).

What does your life look like chunked into thirty year pieces? Consider what ideas, weather, environment, technologies, etc. mark each time. Maybe do some research on weather trends, on the price of electricity, the average temperatures. And then project forward to 2050. What might it look like where you live? What resources will be scarce? What will be abundant? (probably algae, it’s literally everywhere). If you’re a writer, maybe this will spawn a new story. If you’re another kind of creative person, what can this new understanding of change over time give you? And what can you offer it in return?

For me, I have a greater understanding of what it means when people talk about 2050. It is both near and far. There’s still enough time for something to change. But the cynic in me says its not actually enough time for humans to believe enough to make that change.

Jaye Viner knows just enough about everything to embarrass herself at parties she never attends. Her novel, Jane of Battery Park, arrives in August