What is Posterity without a Future?
Despite the rather interesting news re Antarctic Ice, it seems like, each passing day, we get closer and closer to an ecological collapse. The time to fix it, where we could have effectively retarded or reversed it, is long gone – some 40 years in the past, now. Worse still, we’ve not the political will, nor seemingly the systems. Literally, an entire country is on fire, and it barely even registers for us save for a few articles the more remarkable for their loneliness. The “land fires” of Indonesia have already produced more greenhouse gasses than the entire American economy does in a full year, and they show no signs of stopping. The logic of the situation makes a twisted sort of sense, as well. Overwhelming demand for palm oil in ‘the West’ incentivises a slash-and-burn approach to the Sumatran rainforest. Like an El Nino fuelled super-cell, the clouds rush in to the low-pressure zone, driving the pattern by their own weight. Singaporean money pours in to the coffers of multi-national companies, the people who don’t have to deal with the aftermath of their actions, the well-heeled ones. Those that have to stay? I wouldn’t pretend to know the mind of an impoverished Indonesian farmer – his experience is radically different to mine, maybe even unbridgeable. We, in a very real way, live in different worlds. However, I can understand some of the mutual concerns, the universal, human motivations. When you have a starving family, a group of men coming to collect on a usurious loan lent last season, fanatical militias prowling about the countryside, killing at will – do you stop and worry about long-term consequences? Or do you grasp at straws, placing your bets on that which seems most stable, most likely to keep the wolves from your door for another hour? The choice is obvious – you do what needs to be done.
At the risk of infantilising them, it should be noted that most people in that situation, agrarian workers in a developing country, don’t likely have the luxury of reading Guardian articles from the comfort of their climate-controlled multi-story office. Is Global Warming, Anthropogenic Climate Change, even a concept they would have heard about, let alone take into consideration? Seems doubtful. Short term solutions that lead on to and worsen long term problems. They’re hardly alone in that – it’s a universally human trait, whatever your background or socio-economic status.
So, amidst all this doom and gloom, what do we do? Well, it doesn’t seem like the greater part of our society – really the only thing we have even tangential control over – is ready to shift in any remarkable way. The future, then, seems set to look radically different to our anticipations. How do we react to this, as artists, as creators? One of the more tantalising aspects of creative work, to my mind, has been the chance of making something particularly worthy, something to put oneself amongst the pantheon of Greats and be remembered. It probably shouldn’t be the first thing in one’s mind, certainly not the main one, when setting out to create something. All the same, posterity looms (loomed?) large.
Will Self has spoken on the subject of posterity, or, rather, the impossibility thereof. He states that, for writers of his generation, there was a coming-to-terms with the fact that their legacies would be fundamentally different to that of their predecessors. He sees this as having played out over several years, a slow, tidal shift. It was required by the changing forces of media and consumption – as ever, the individual is moulded by concerns outside of their control. Self, ever the (acerbic) optimist, thinks the chopping off of the future, the unburdening of those long, unreachable years, should be emancipatory. It should allow writers to get on with their work, worrying not so much about what people will think of them, but rather what they do think of them. And even, what do they think of themselves?
If this is true of Self’s generation, what then does it say of ours? Depending on the reckoning, we are perhaps two generations apart, maybe only one. Surely the sloughing off of a future-oriented position, if true of them, is doubly so for us, who can see a sea-change on the horizon?
It’s something I’ve been struggling with for a while, as evidenced in past pieces. I threw myself into political work for a (short) time, but found that straining to hold back the tide with only my hands just left me angry, and depressed. I needed a different way to see myself, where I was headed, what I was doing. Beyond my own life, I don’t really see a connection with the future – I’ve no, and do not intend to acquire, any children. The world doesn’t deserve them. So, why get caught up in worries about what life will be like after I’m gone? Obviously, I’ll struggle to improve the world in ways that I can, for my own benefit if nothing else. But to make it the mainstay of my efforts? I just can’t go for that. Oh no.
So, too, then, for my literary efforts. If you can win an audience, it’s a very privileged position indeed. For me, for now at least, I will write for myself. Not for some far-flung generation hundreds of years down the road. Not for some unknown, unknowable posterity. Likely, that’s the most honest course in any case.