“How do you envisage the future?” An ex-partner asked me this whilst we sat drinking coffee in a cafe nine years ago. She was about to finish her undergraduate degree and had been considering her future plans when she offered me this question.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“You haven’t thought about it?”
“I can’t imagine it.”
“What do you mean?”
I felt challenged by this question and thought of a quick, dismissive reply—“I just haven’t thought about it”—but then a deeper response emerged, something more honest, something I had grappled with since I was 14 and learned “Australia” had failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol.
“Well… it’s not that I can’t imagine the future, it’s more that I struggle to, like whenever I do I see a world decimated by a changing climate and I don’t know how to imagine a life amongst that.”
The mood between us quickly shifted from optimism to dread.
“You can’t think like that Anton, I mean it’s not helpful.”
As the conversation progressed we spoke of our parent’s youth and how they probably had similar concerns of global catastrophe fuelled by nuclear war. I reasoned that maybe every generation had overcome the prospect of destruction to find their ability to be productive or creative.
“What a positive way to start the day,” she exclaimed.
A few months later my ex-partner graduated from university and we moved to the UK. I overcame the doubt I articulated in that conversation and found a way to move forward for both my own and the relationship’s benefit. Yet, as the years have passed since that coffee, the questions of that conversation remain. That existential dread is not a misplaced fear of death that restricts me from living presently, it is my present, a reality that has gestated in the background of my day to day life, slowly encircling my daily choices. How do I envisage the future?
Last year I explored this question through a piece of writing. I was collaborating with two actor friends, a couple who had just married and were considering their next steps. They were living in the south of France and wondered if we could focus a short film on Sainte-Victoire, a mountain with significance for both the Catholic and Roma communities. I decided to dramatise their future-gazing through a fictional argument between them: the man wants to have a baby, the woman doesn’t. The argument erupts as they climb the mountain. When they reach the summit, they meet an old woman sitting, drinking wine alone, watching the gathering clouds on the horizon. The couple smile at her whilst rolling cigarettes (their heated discussion now at an impasse). The old woman smiles back and asks for a cigarette. The couple oblige and the old woman offers them wine in gratitude. “Santé.” They clink cups. They discuss the origins of that word. The old woman speaks of a ritual her mother taught her where she divines the drinker’s future by reading the sediment at the bottom of their glass. The man offers her his cup. She closes her eyes whilst holding it: she sees a tumultuous future where wealth is lost, knowledge is forgotten and life retreats. “Dictators maraud the continent spreading the misery of fallen academics. Everyone is forced to shift shape and place as pleasure retreats into the unconscious…Resilience replaces gold, morality subsumes technology, people realise that modernity was the spinal chord elevating their minds into the plane of unaware understanding.” She concludes by saying that a spark is carried on the wind, landing at the feet of monks who hold the remnants of humanity in calloused hands. After a silence the man asks what happens next? The old woman doesn’t know. The couple’s attention drifts to the clouds on the horizon as they realise they need to descend the mountain before nightfall. They thank the old woman and begin their descent. The woman turns to the man, “do you still want a child?” He laughs.
The short film was not made. After completing a working draft, I sent the script to my actor friends to offer any edits, and through this period they discovered they were having a baby. While I was disappointed that the film would not be produced, I was so happy to hear the news, and I wondered whether my fictional vision of their future remained in their minds, whether it was through awareness or ignorance that they could stride toward the dark clouds hovering over the horizon to create a life with another human.
A year and a half after the coffee with my ex-partner, we split. Our visions of the future didn’t align and we walked ahead along different paths. I had been working in advertising and on the same day of our breakup, I quit my job. Within a few weeks I started writing. I slowly overcame the pessimism that previously held me back and opened myself up to a future I wanted to live: a life of meaning inspired by creativity. I returned to “Australia” and learned from the rich cultural history of the land where the First Peoples tell stories of, with and for country. And as the years have passed and a potential apocalyptic future comes clearer into view, as the calls for climate action increase in number and volume, the question of the future becomes a question for today: what do we do now?
It is clear a cultural shift, where we create with (rather than from) the natural resources of this land is necessary. Our trajectory is not aligned with our planet’s. We need to make personal and collective choices in response to our generation’s greatest test. We need to bridge our creative and destructive tendencies, our optimism with our pessimism, to balance the opposing forces within our personal and collective worlds by making choices with a clear question in mind: how do we envisage the future?
Everything is connected, everything we do does something to someone else. Our history fuels our present. Our future is not next year nor tomorrow. Our future is here, our time is this moment.