The Maastricht Diplomat

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  • Katherina Petersen

How do you imagine 2050?

Today, I want to try and turn some of all the gloomy futures that surround us these days in terms of war and climate change into something containing hope with the help of your imagination.

As part of my quite rigid morning routine, I listen to news and this Wednesday I heard an audio-article about climate changes that did not leave me pessimistic or frustrated – it left me enthusiastic, can you believe it. The plot of the article was an interview with the world-renowned climate expert Katherine Richardson in a fictional setting in the year of 2050. Zetland journalist Thomas Hebsgaard asked her: “so, how do we deal with trash in 2050?”

Richardson answered: “When our children in 2050 read in the history books, they will not believe that once we would have something in every kitchen where you just collected all the things you did not need … which was called: waste” (this is my own translation of the words of both Richardson and Hebsgaard as the text is originally written in Danish).

Can you imagine not producing waste or not having a trashcan in your kitchen? I hardly can – but we should try! Because how can we create something, if we cannot even properly imagine it?

My point being, we should train our imagination; train it to be able to see beyond the pessimistic prognosis about climate change; train it to envision a solution rather than devastation. Because so much is devastated at the moment with, e.g., Ukrainians seeing their country being torn apart.

A genre that actively use imagination to create visions of the future is science fiction (sci-fi), which “has long used its projected other worlds to offer commentary on our material (and contemporary) one, especially to remind us that this world is open to change”, according to professor of media and cultural studies and of English at the University of California Sherryl Vint in an article for the MIT Press Reader.

Writers of sci-fi have worked with the idea of Earth “as something that preceded our species and could conceivably continue without us” long before the idea of climate change took hold, writes Vint. With the turn of the century, topics related to climate activism therefore also became prominent in sci-fi seeing writers like Paolo Bacigalupi emphasizing the uneven global effect of climate change in his trilogy (Ship breaker (2010); The drowned cities (2012); and Tool of war (2017)).

However, I am still of the impression that in the general public it is more the former topics from sci-fi that prevails and taint the way we imagine a future heavily altered by climate change: topics of dystopian futures caused by pollution or Space colonization. Currently, there is for instance a lot in the media about Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos who actively push the idea of commercial Space businesses to – supposedly – provide Earth with resources and expand humanity into Space, so that we can continue to grow and escape the polluted Earth.

When I read about these projects, I feel that I am living in an Isaak Asimov novel. I feel like I see how Asimov’s fictive company U.S. Robotics is slowly taking shape, headed – as in the novel – by one extremely rich man focused on expanding humanity into Space and sustaining Earth with the use of robots. Even though I enjoy reading Asimov, I do not want to live in his fictional world. And just as I do not want to live in Asimov's world, I do not want to live Frank Herbert’s Dune (1975) either. These imagined scenarios, if they even contain salvation or sustainability, contain it only for the elite. Which directly counteract the movement of environmental activism and the imagined scenarios forestalled in climate sci-fi.

That is why I ask you today: what kind of future world do YOU want? Because we do not necessarily have to go to space as Musk and Bezos happily proclaim; we do not have to continue using the soil as we currently do to survive; and we do not have to live and work the way we do. However, what is needed to change these things is the daring imagination of you and me. So, on this very Sunday: let’s imagine away and start changing.

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