Yesterday I finally got around to watching the new documentary ‘Living in the Future’s past: What kind of future would you like to see’ by Susan Kucera, produced and presented by Jeff Bridges. On the whole, I really enjoyed the film and believe it is very worth watching and pondering on.
There is probably a whole lot discussion material in this movie, but one small detail stood out to me in particular because I have come across it several times in movies like these. Relatively early on in the movie there is a claim that ‘we have used our abilities to build a huge technological society that’s very advanced’ and a few minutes after this is followed by the claim that, in difference to other animals, ‘as human, we have been able to control our ecological conditions’ because we have ‘mastery of technology’. Towards the end of the movie, this frame is then closed with the argument that there is hope because ‘ingenuity is in our DNA’ and the following quote from geologist, paleontologist, philosopher and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin that reiterates the entire turnus in one sentence:
Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.
So the narrative framing of these movies always goes from ‘we have mastered nature’, to ‘but now we have overdone it’, to ‘but now we can correct this mistake because we’ve done great things (i.e. mastering nature) before’. I think that it’s fairly straight-forward to see how that is problematic, or at least feel that it is a little uncomfortable in the sense of not quite good enough to settle into.
If how we communicate is such an important factor in anything from pain education to environmental science to just being in any kind of relationship because it can carry so many unhelpful, underlying messages, then it seems to me that it would be really important to stop perpetuating the mastery narrative. This is both in historical set up of such stories, that is, that it is something we have successfully done before, as well as in the final, hope part of these stories.
I am not trying to be pessimistic here at all, but it seems to me that if our current environmental, social, economical, and political predicaments have proven anything, it is precisely that we have never mastered anything whatsoever and really only know very little. After all, if all of the arguable gains that we have produced, or, if our ways of life are actually unsustainable and are on-course to leading to the greatest losses (in biological life and diversity, but also non-biological in the sense of ice-cover loss and more) yet, then how can we claim that they constitute gains in the first place. I am also highly doubtful of love having anything to do with mastery or a fire-like-toolness at all, as de Chardin’s quote would have it.
If our reality is actually one of non-mastery and the mastery narrative is actually a core element of what got us into our current predicaments in the first place, then it seems to me that letting go of it is in order. Finding an alternative might not be so easy, but to continue in a habitual way, maybe just because it’s easy doesn’t appear right in this case either. I also don’t think that this means we have to switch to some kind of subordinate, slave-attitude that presents itself as the other side of the master extreme, but is really just another variant of it (I should probably read up on Hegel, or maybe Kojève here), though we are undoubtedly also in some sort of dependency relationship as far as the particular environmental conditions we need to live are concerned.
In the same vein, I am also not sure if the environmental stewardship-narrative can provide us everything we need insofar as it relies on us knowing what and how we should be stewards for. I am certainly drawn to the idea of stewardship, romantically and philosophically, but I think it needs to come from a humbler place than assuming that we already know how to be effective stewards for the environment, or ever fully will be. Maybe it would be better placed as a crucial, motivational, but aspirational notion.
But where the etymological resonance of aspiration would have us ‘panting with desire’ as a result of our efforts, I feel as though coming from and staying in a frame of never-having-known, not-knowing-now, and never-will-know-entirely, or non-knowing for short, might leave us in a slower and calmer place. This might be a very important starting point for future environmental actions that differs from the can-do-stewardship sales pitch that is hastily seeking to undo the more problematic effects of the amount of eco-pocalypse messages we are feeding each other every day.
I am thinking here of a transition to something more down-to-earth, from any variation of a hubristic, mastery relationship with the environment to something that is much more humble, earthly and precisely therefore more human (as the etymological reference would have it here). It’s not doing nothing. On the contrary, it’s still and always doing something. I mean we must. And to be VERY CLEAR, none of this is to say that we don’t have a huge range of really good approaches to doing this differently that need to be implemented ASAP. But it’s maybe doing it calmer and with a true vision to the future that always keeps in sight that what needs to be done should maybe be differently, or, better after all. And it comes with a bit more we’re all in this (mess) together flavour. Maybe there is also less of a risk of pitting us (non-/believers) against each other in this kinder approach here as well…
I also don’t think that hope must necessarily come from an ecstatic place. There’s no question that ecstatic hope doesn’t feel good and it certainly has power in getting us moving. But maybe this kind of hope is too much just the other side of panic and so the same kind of wanting to escape the problem. In my own experience hope can also come from a calmer place that both acknowledges and stays with the trouble (of our current crises AND the trouble of non-knowing), but nonetheless gives ample space and opportunity for action. And it might be more stable (another etymological reference…) and therefore long-lasting if coming from this calmer place.
To be clear, I think that this humbler, kind (of human) narrative is also implied in many of the statements that tell the story of ‘Living in the Future’s past: What kind of future would you like to see’. The more earthly narrative might actually be closer to humankind as per Tim Morton, who is also featured in the movie and of whom I am not sure if he would readily sign under the statement that we are all the same species (as is also claimed at some point in the movie). It might be closer to resonant understandings of a symbiotic world carried forth in indigenous worldviews as represented by Oren Lyons in this movie. And my choice of Buddhist imagery above is also not random. My worry is only that if the kind-human narratives remain encased in the mastery-narrative, they might be at risk of getting lost in the chatter.
I’d prefer a quote from one of my all-time favourite songs by Pearl Jam to end the story. The human, love and action are something very different in this song:
Practiced are my sins, never gonna let me win…
Under everything, just another human* being.
So let’s maybe not just breathe. But let’s definitely breathe. If you are still in doubt about this point, take it from a physiotherapist with an additional 20 years of experience in martial arts training. It’s really important that we breathe, even, or especially in moments of crisis that require concentrated, concerted and immediate action.
* insert ‘and non-human’ here 😉