Extinction or progress? Visions of the future

Battle of Ideas festival 2019, Sunday 3 November, Barbican, London


Today’s political culture seems obsessed with dark, apocalyptic visions. From young people staging ‘die-ins’ to protest about the environment to talk of an ‘insect apocalypse’, fears and threats loom large. Activists from Extinction Rebellion argue the threat of catastrophe means it is imperative to reject growth and progress in favour of a new eco-austerity. Fifty years on from the moon landings, a stark contrast emerges between the implied promise of a future of space travel and luxury and today’s vision of climate emergencies and ageing populations. Perhaps, therefore, it is unsurprising that dystopias like The Handmaid’s Tale or Nineteen Eighty-Four (published 70 years ago this year) are such a prominent part of our culture. But, perhaps as shown by the success of the hit series Chernobyl, it is not just the dangerous future that’s imagined, but our present or recent past, too.

Of course, imagining a dark future is nothing necessarily new. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published in 1818, was a famous early dramatisation of unease about the Enlightenment, science-driven future. Nonetheless, and in stark contrast to today, such works gained colour from the contrast with the optimistic belief in progress associated with the period. Few people today would identify with the idea of unending progress. Even where an idea of progress does exist, such as among Silicon Valley technologists, it is often presented as the development of new technologies – such as autonomous cars or artificial intelligence (AI) – to save humanity from its inherently sinful ways. Indeed, even any debate about AI is subject to numerous doom-laded scenarios.

Perhaps one question to ask is what our attitudes to the future tell us about the present. Are periods of time where people dream big new ideas more confident of themselves, and do we therefore live in relatively insecure times? What is the cause of our contemporary insecurity? Whatever the roots of this insecurity, it is certainly profound. As some have noted, there is a current tendency to turn technical problems – such as reducing greenhouse-gas emissions or developing clean energy sources – into existential crises.

Naturally, rare voices occasionally attempt a defence of progress. However, such polemics are usually focused on showing how progress has happened in the past, not that we can expect it to continue. Their implicit message seems to be: ‘You’ve never had it so good, so stop complaining.’ Even left-wing defenders of a new, technologically-powered socialism seem interested in singing the praises of technology only to avoid what they see as total environmental catastrophe.

Where, therefore, have the defenders of progress gone? When the elite at Davos broadcast a catastrophic vision of the future, is it a sign that our leaders have lost confidence in themselves and our society? What can we learn about the present from our attitude to the future? Do we need to recover our faith in the future – and by extension, ourselves?

Dr Shahrar Ali
home affairs spokesperson and former deputy leader, Green Party; author, Why Vote Green 2015

Gregory Claeys
professor of history, Royal Holloway, University of London; author, Searching for Utopia: the history of an idea; fellow, Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce

Dr Ashley Frawley
senior lecturer in sociology and social policy, Swansea University; author, Significant Emotions and Semiotics of Happiness

Brendan O’Neill
editor, spiked; host, The Brendan O’Neill Show; writer, the Sun and the Spectator; author, A Duty to Offend

Jacob Reynolds
partnerships manager, Academy of Ideas; co-convenor, Living Freedom and The Academy, boi charity