How to Grasp the Proximity of the Future

Just some housekeeping at the beginning of this post. I've decided to experiment with using Medium to publish my Supplemental posts when they're general and not specifically blog-related. This post was originally published on Medium this past Tuesday. -M.R.

I'd like to propose a new way of looking at things, from my seat on the Good Ship 21st Century Political Unrest.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been criticized lately for his comments about "phasing out" Alberta's oil sands. A few days ago, I saw a Facebook post claiming that former Prime Minister Stephen Harper had made similar comments several years ago. A commenter pointed out that Harper was aiming for this to take place by 2100, presumably much further in the future than whatever Trudeau is proposing. (I looked, but didn't find any particular date suggested by Trudeau.)

Just like every other human being subject to a wide array of cognitive biases, when I read that comment I intuitively understood that 2100 is at least five centuries in the future. Anyone around today will be long dead by then and the heat death of the universe will be just around the corner. But then, maybe because all political posts I see on Facebook these days are sandwiched between photos of my friends' young kids, I had a feeling my intuition might be wrong. I decided to actually do the math. How far away is 2100?

It's 83 years away.

That's still a long time. There's about a 100% chance that I will be 100% dead by then. But a baby born in 2017 could be 83 years old in 2100, which is by no means an improbable feat of human longevity. To speculate about what their world will be like is to falter in the face of an avalanche of unknown quantities, however. Still, having established that extrapolation is a fool's errand, I started to wonder how a person, with all those cognitive biases, could conceptualize 83 years' worth of time. The obvious answer is that there are people alive right now who will be celebrating their 83rd birthdays in 2017. We know how much things have changed since they were born, because it happened in our collective past.

This is where I think things get interesting, because 83 years ago was 1934.

A quick scroll through the Wikipedia page for 1934 is illuminating. That's the year Bonnie and Clyde were killed. Flash Gordon and Donald Duck made their first appearances. Various authoritarian governments were on the rise. Several separate disasters in Japan killed over 5000 people. Persia became Iran, and veils were abolished in that country. The Dionne Quintuplets were born, and almost immediately began their years of exploitation by the Ontario government. Right in the middle of 1934 was the Night of the Long Knives, during which an unknown number of people were executed by the Nazis for political reasons. That August, Hitler assumed the role of Führer in advance of a referendum that gave him those powers. There are people who are still well known names today that died in 1934 (the aforementioned Bonnie and Clyde, Marie Curie), never mind the long list of cultural and political figures that were born in that year (Yuri Gagarin, Jane Goodall, Carl Sagan, Judi Dench).

It's both tempting and relevant to draw parallels between the political climate of 1934 and 2017, but that's not the point I want to make here. The method works for any future year (how far away is 2025? how well do you remember 2009?). In the case of 2100 and 1934, though, this approach makes two things obvious.

First, what any look at history shows: as a species, we have been on our way to hell since the invention of basket-weaving at least. Every year brings progress and setbacks, natural disasters, new babies. This is not to diminish the tragedy of events that happen in any particular year, or suggest it's not worthwhile to work to improve. On the other hand, I think it proves our capacity to overcome and persevere.

Second, and more importantly in light of the previous point: standing and looking back from 2017, the echoes of 1934 aren't faint murmurs from the distant past. They are still loud and clear today, if anyone's bothering to listen. The war that eventually resulted from the various events of 1934 shaped the 20th century. Eight decades and change—four score and three years—from now seems incomprehensibly far away to a bunch of adults who will be dead by then. No doubt it's the same thing for the parents who are holding their newborn babies this year. But I think it's time to consider what the echoes of 2017 might sound like in 2100.

No comments:

Post a Comment