When the Sea Came in and Covered the Land

Five Futures: Volume 1, Issue 6
October 1, 2016

CONDITIONS: Clear and 25° C.

COORDINATES: yoga.skin.shovels

The Story So Far

Perhaps Five Futures is a bi-weekly newsletter? I’m not quite willing to give up on weekly installments just yet, but I think I have to admit that the last few weeks have not been auspicious in this regard.

I spent the week after the last issue of Five Futures in San Francisco though, which was a bit more interesting. It was my first time in the Bay Area as an adult, so rather than sight-seeing I spent most of my time keeping KLONDIKE, EPIPHYTE, and GIBRALTAR moving forward. I did get a chance to see the Golden Gate Bridge though, and managed to take some of my best photographs yet there. You might notice a few scattered around this week’s missive, though not in any way that relates to the surrounding content.

The main purpose of the trip was to catch the kick-off of Alex Steffen’s new project, The Heroic Future. The first two nights were a solid overview of the historical, political, and social dimensions of global climate change. The final night covered some of the more creative approaches to adaptation and mitigation being done right now, and finished up with a pitch for The Heroic Future itself. Steffen calls his new project “anticipatory journalism:” Bruce Sterling-esque design fiction with a participatory edge.

Place as Memory

Native Americans from the Pacific Northwest chronicle earthquakes and tsunamis from at least 300 years ago. Aboriginal stories recount over 7,000 years of changes to Australia’s coastline. Oral traditions, it turns out, are not only remarkably accurate, but often extraordinarily long-lived.

But how does a society without writing hand down memories with such fidelity for so long? It turns out that Aboriginal Australians have been using the environment itself as an inter-generational memory palace, anchoring their history to physical features in the landscape. Moreover, many ancient built structures (such as Stonehenge) exhibit similar characteristics as the natural locations used by the Aborigines, suggesting that they too may have been used to encode inter-generational memories.

If this hypothesis is born out, then the widespread nature of this technique may indicate that it was part of the culture shared by the first modern humans to leave Africa 50,000 years ago.

The Far Travelers of Ancient Times

Ethnically homogenous fantasies are often defended as “historically accurate”, but as sites like Medieval People of Color (now People of Color in European Art History) have documented so well, Medieval Europe (which so much high fantasy uses as its jumping-off point) was actually a pretty diverse place.

This pattern turns out to hold up no matter how far back in time you go. Ancient peoples were surprisingly well traveled. Almost 2,000 years ago Roman coinage could be found as far afield as Japan, and now we know that at least a few Chinese adventurers made it all the way to Britain at around the same time.

Modern technology may have made it easier to travel, but wanderlust, it would seem, has always been with us.

US Electoral Prognostications

Normally I have a specific story or two I want to highlight in each of the main sections of Five Futures. I don’t have one story I want to highlight about the upcoming US election for this issue though. Rather, I’ve been having a lot of conversations recently about where the US political landscape is going, and I want to write up my thoughts a bit more formally. Think of the following as an exercise in accountability: I’m going to lay out some predictions about the Trump/Clinton contest and what may happen next so that interested parties (including my future self) can reality-check circa 2016 me. Assuming we don’t all die in nuclear hellfire or annihilate the internet in the meantime.

First things first: I don’t think it’s likely that Trump will win the presidency — his poll numbers are just too far behind Clinton in too many key states. There are two things that I think could change this:

While I think sexism is going to play a larger role in the final distribution of votes than most people I’ve talked to, I also think that the effect is going to be a wash: The number of women who poll for Trump but secretly plan to vote for Clinton is probably about the same as the number of men who poll for Clinton but secretly plan to vote for Trump.

What happens if Trump does win? I agree with one of my close friends that there are three likely scenarios in this case, all of which hinge on the power of the US military and the deep state:

So, a Trump presidency is bad. But what about a Clinton win?

In the short term, I think Clinton will be constrained by Congressional obstructionism in the same way that Obama has been. The Republicans will probably lose seats this electoral cycle, but they won’t lose their most extreme seats or fall below 40 seats. I thus expect the 2017 and 2018 Congress to remain gridlocked, and given that mid-term elections typically swing conservative, I don’t think this will improve in 2019 or 2020. Scalia’s seat on the Supreme Court will thus remain vacant. Ginsburg’s seat will also probably open up during the time; I expect it will also remain vacant. Clinton could still do a lot of good work via executive order, but in doing so will further strengthen the imperial presidency.

There’s no sign that Republican control over the states is weakening, and I expect the GOP will refocus their resources there during a Clinton administration. With another census coming up in 2020, state elections in 2018 and 2020 will be critical to determining the 2024 electoral map. I have no idea what will happen in the 2020 presidential race, but a combination of gerrymandering and increasingly subtle voter suppression laws at the state level will make it virtually impossible for a Democrat to win the presidency in 2024. The GOP is likely to be increasingly drawn towards its fascistic fringe, which will be increasingly augmented by Neo-Reactionary forces emerging from Silicon Valley. The 2024 Republican presidential candidate is thus not only a shoe-in, but also probably more reactionary than Trump. So we basically wind up with the “Trump wins” scenarios above, but with a much more powerful executive.

That’s a pretty depressing analysis, but it assumes that everything continues more-or-less as it has been. There are many points of potential departure… Perhaps Clinton is more effective in the hostile legislative environment she’s likely to face than I expect. Perhaps there’s a black swan event that significantly changes the cultural or political landscape (such as a major, undeniable climate catastrophe). Perhaps the broader “left” in the US finally gets serious about state-level politics.

Of these, I think the last is most important. Even if Clinton is a radically effective president and utterly committed to her campaign promises, there’s only so much she can do. The US electoral system needs reform, and ultimately that reform must begin at the state level. That, in turn, will require the Democratic party and the rest of the US “left” to get serious about committing money and time to state-level races. I don’t get a sense that the left is seriously having that conversation right now. But a Clinton victory gives us time to build the necessary consensus.

If Trump wins, then we will know that our time has already run out.

People Who Are Not People

What political system comes after democracy? I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that over the last few years. While I don’t have an answer yet, I do think I know what the central question is that motivates the creation of a successor to democracy. To whit, “how do we incorporate the interests of people who are not people into our decision-making processes?”

In other words, how do we recognize the interests of — and our responsibilities to — non-human, trans-human, and not-yet-human entities? A lot of things fall under this broad class of entities: Future (unborn) generations, human ethnic groups and communities, plants and animals, ecosystems. Some of these are humans (who are yet to be). Some of these are made of humans (either wholly or partially). And some of these may not contain humans at all.

There are two motivations for choosing this question:

Answering this question is tricky. At one level, I do think that we need to start thinking of these entities as “people” in a legal sense. As it turns out, we already have a class of “people who are not people” in law — corporations. While the system for dealing with corporations is flawed, it does provide us a framework for thinking about our relationships with other entities like this (and their relationships with each other).

But this example also lets us get at the second sense of the word “people” — as a synonym for “human being”. And corporations (or communities, or animals, or ecosystems) are not human beings. Again, however flawed it may be, we do manage to navigate this difference. We talk about corporations have a “right to free speech” in one breath, but also acknowledge that they don’t have a “right to vote” with the next. Corporations are “people” in a legal sense, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we treat them exactly the same as we would a human being.

Now, there’s a key difference between corporations and the other entities I think we need to be considering: Corporations are made of people who are contractually bound together within a clearly delineated legal scope. That’s a big difference, so I think it’s important not to push the analogy I’m making between corporations and, say, ecosystems, too far. But I still think the example is useful, if just to show that we can successfully handle these sorts of things.

There’s been some interesting work in extending this idea over the last few years. Here in the US, the rights of future generations are currently the subject of a lawsuit by Our Children’s Trust, which charges that our refusal to effectively address global climate change is a violation of our children’s constitutional rights. Ecuador has gone a step further, enshrining the concept of the “rights of nature” into its constitution.

Most interestingly, in 2014 New Zealand granted one of its national parks, Te Urewera, the status of “legal person”. For some reason this didn’t get wider international attention until quite recently, probably because a similar change of status is now pending for the Whanganui River. My introduction to Te Urewera was via a Facebook video posted by The Guardian, which turns out to do a terrible job actually explaining how “legal personhood” works in this context. Because of this my initial reaction was quite skeptical, but now that I’ve learned more the situation I have a much more favorable opinion. While Te Urewera is now considered a “person” under the law (for the most part — mineral rights are an interesting exception), it is not treated as someone who has the capacity to act or take responsibility for itself. The land is instead represented and maintained by the Te Urewera Board, which basically functions as its legal guardian. The composition of the Te Urewera Board is, in turn, designed to ensure both that all interested parties are represented to some degree, and that the interests of those who have the closest relationship with the land (the Ngāi Tūhoe, a Māori tribe) are given the most weight.

While I have concerns about how well the interests of an ecosystem can be represented within the arbitrary boundaries of a (former) national park, I think that New Zealand’s approach to representing Te Urewera’s interests is well thought-out and potentially powerful model.

This Garden Earth

The spread of humanity across the globe has been a pretty raw deal for most ecosystems. Human settlements impact the surrounding ecosystems more than significant nuclear disasters, and it now looks like global warming may cause a similar level of disruption all by itself. While it’s tempting to see this as a modern problem, it turns out that our ancestors didn’t tread lightly on the land either.

One way to deal with this impact is by working to restore the species and ecosystems that were lost during humanity’s diaspora, a process known as “rewilding.” It turns out that just re-introducing a key species to an ecosystem can have extraordinary results (apex predators seem particularly important). And while extinction can complicate this effort (unless you believe in cloning passenger pigeons and wooly mammoths), it turns out that transplanting a related species with a similar ecological niche may be just as good.

Global warming presents an additional challenge: As species migrate in response to climate shifts they will often find their progress blocked by natural barriers or human development. We may thus have to rely on assisted migration, where species are physically relocated to new areas, bypassing the barriers that they would otherwise face.

Both rewilding and assisted migration are not without their problems, but both will probably be necessary if we’re to mitigate the worst impacts of global climate change and reverse human-caused environmental degradation. The result will be a planet that is both more wild and more heavily managed than the world we live in now, a garden of both love and necessity.


Fish sing at dawn off the Australian coast.