“I remind myself and others that there is still such a wide spectrum of possible futures, and we do get some choice in which ones we have. We’re not going to be able to take some sort of time machine backwards to a perfectly pristine planet, when there’s 8 billion or something people on the planet. But we can have any number of possible options.” –Ayana Elizabeth Johnson
As I look ahead in time and see all the possible futures closed to me – closed to us – at times I despair. I see that which we once had that we no longer have. What we thought we had is now in many cases beyond our reach.
I think back to all the choices available to me when I was younger – the places I could live, the jobs I could have, the people I could be with – and most of those options are no longer there. I think back to the health that I, my family, and my friends enjoyed, and I see how that has slipped away, how I and the people I love have been affected by minor afflictions, or increasingly by major ones such as heart disease and cancer. I think back to relationships I have strained through my mistakes and others I have allowed to wither away through neglect.
I look back at the choices available to us as a people – to found our nation on the belief that all people are actually created equal and that all of us are all deserving of the same rights. We have had multiple chances to correct our founding mistakes – through Reconstruction, through the civil rights movement – and truly grant all of us equal rights under the law. And I see that we have made only modest reforms at each opportunity, when we could have readjusted and realigned the system – and that often those modest reforms have eroded through backlash.
I look at our planet and the choices we could have made as a species to continue living within the bounds of a healthy and thriving world – to take only what we need and leave what we do not. To create economies that are based on using renewable resources and energies and that create only waste that can be actually reabsorbed by the planet. I regret that instead we continue dumping carbon dioxide into our atmosphere and plastic into our oceans.
In each case, we have lost so many futures, either through the simple passage of time or through our own ignorance. We cannot turn back time, nor can we resurrect what has been lost. But we can acknowledge that from this point – this one moment of time where we find ourselves now – spring forth an infinite number of possible futures. Not every future that we can dream is possible, but we can imagine an infinite number that are still possible. We are constrained only by our vision, by our perception, by our imagination.
There are an infinite number of future selves I could be. That doesn’t mean I could be anything – basketball and rock and roll are both most likely closed to me as professions. But I could decide to take up basketball and play it every day. I could pull out my trumpet and rock out with my friends. I can continue my job as a school leadership coach; I could return to the classroom as a math teacher; or I could go back to school, earn my doctorate, and try to become a college professor. Of course, my possible futures are enabled by my identity as a middle-class white man. There are many futures available to me that would be closed to others. But the truth remains that we each have countless futures that are affected by our daily choices which become long-term habits.
The same is true of us as a species. We have an infinite number of futures we can still create. We cannot have a future where we never cross 1°C of planetary warming or where our oceans and lands remain pristine and free of pollution. But we can choose to scale down CO2 emissions slowly, moderately, or rapidly. We can choose to produce unsustainable levels of waste or switch to renewable use of our resources. We can choose to create a world governed by corporate autocracies or full of truly democratic governance where people can decide their own fates. All of these and so many more are just a few of our infinite possible futures.
At times my vision becomes crowded, limited, and corrupted. My chest tightens, my breathing constricts, and the room closes in around me. This can feel like death, like despair, like ending. In these moments, I need instead to expand my perceptions. I need to grow instead of shrink. Turning back toward the expanding futures available can be just the antidote I need.
Please follow this blog by subscribing at the bottom of this page. And please follow me on Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok: