A headline from “developing” Africa, “Sierra Leone Drafts a Development Plan for the Next Fifty Years.”
A forum loosely organized around traditional craft has a discussion about sailing cargo vessels. There are links to proposals for container ships sporting lofty, computerized, automated sail plans, “working” counterparts to the latest sailing cruise ships, themselves intended as fantasy havens for fantasy seekers.
What do these have in common? Besides the fact that Freetown looks the way it does because this is what drove development in the first world – someplace has to be exploited to “generate” all that “wealth” – they are both examples of the way futurism, one of the sects of the worship of Progress, can only see the future as an absurd continuation of the present.
Except the near certainty that in fifty years whatever has been so assiduously planned and discussed in conferences in “developed oases” scattered around the remnant of the yet to be fully trashed world won’t be even a distant memory to whoever and in whatever circumstances they may be living in what is now called Sierra Leone; no one has the slightest idea what life will be like, there or anywhere, in fifty years. But of course that’s not the point of Fifty Year Plans – and they used to make fun of the Soviets for their Five Year Plans…. It’s a ritual, meant to appease the gods of high finance and rack up some perks for the participants along the way.
The sailing container ship idea is that also, but it’s also something else. We see, and smile knowingly as we do, looking at any illustrated magazine story from the mid Nineteenth through the late Twentieth Centuries when a futurist would be let loose to describe the marvels of the coming age. Skyscrapers lining urban canyons stacked up with lanes of traffic vertically as well as horizontally, as dirigibles and velocicopters pass above triple-decker buses and Hansom Cabs. Even Blade Runner carries this same trope forward just a little bit, using it as an ironical signifier of futurity. What happened, and continues to happen, as these sailing container ships evidence, is that the same narrow concerns and expectations and assumptions that give us the present at any given moment are just pushed ahead in one flashy, but essentially misapplied form, to carry us forward into a “New Age!” No one stops to think that if there’s not enough bunker fuel to power behemoth container ships the conventional way there might not be enough other petroleum fuels to power the rest of the container cult’s operations, from sweatshop to shopping mall to waste “management?” How is this any different from a dirigible powered by “the forces of the atom,” or the “Starship” Enterprise, for that matter?
Is this the only way? Are we somehow fated to always reflect the most ridiculous minor twists on our present when we chose to affect how we will meet our future?
I don’t think so, though it requires a deep change in how we perceive the present and the future. The attitudes that bring us the slums of Freetown with one hand and the scintillating lights of a sail “powered” cruise ship with the other – unaware of their tight correlation – assume that the present is a set of problems, inherited problems, resulting from the past’s inability to present us with the lives we are entitled to, and that the future is something we create.
Each of us can, and probably does, on scanning our world, see countless errors and misunderstandings that lie behind the problematic nature of our present. It’s more or less a popular sport, one I’ve indulged in here in this post and in much of my writing. We are fraught with problems and their roots go back, and those roots are more or less traceable, giving us a series of “what if” moments to gaze back at with poignant regret. “What if only they had done this…”
From this we easily jump to our responsibility, to “get it right this time!” In our zeal, we fall into our double trap, seeing the past as the result of past decisions and seeing the future as something we can make.
The trouble is, both these are mistaken. The present, ultimately, just is. It’s causes and roots are so entwined and the proportion of what can be known about it is so tiny in relation to the unknown* that we have no idea what led to where we are, not in any true sense. We are trapped within our umwelt, our narrow view, and seeking comfort in the illusions of certainty.
*Here’s the math: the universe is infinite. What we know is finite. What is the proportion of all that is that is knowable? A vanishingly small amount. If this doesn’t compute, that’s a sign of impatience, not a countering argument.
As to the future, we don’t make it, it arrives.
This is where fifty year plans and sailing container-ships meet on the plane of false ideas. The future is never the result of plans or intended actions meeting their intended results. The future will be what happens when the few things we are aware of and the multitude we have no way of predicting come together within a matrix of profound uncertainty punctuated by unimaginable details that catalyze responses that cascade through being to create an assemblage of factors out of which we, or whoever is here to observe them, will imperfectly perceive and certainly miscomprehend what is happening – just as we do now, and as has always been the case.
“Well if that’s true, I give up!” This petulance underlies most of our responses whenever we begin to get a glimmer that this might truly be the case. Again, this doesn’t change the facts, just announces our willingness to hold onto deadly illusions instead of risking the loss of our precious sense of certainty.
What else can we do? If all this was about was bouncing the rubble, pointing out yet again how we fail to engage with reality in a meaningful way, there wouldn’t be much point. Those who are aware of these predicaments must be tired of going over old ground, and anyone still in thrall of Progress, or its flip-side, reptilian greed, are not going to be convinced by anything I might have to say.
There are some hints at how we could approach this differently, and they are, for the most part, attitudinal changes. This frustrates those who want to “get on with it!” What they fail to see is that our attitudes, how we attend upon what we can see and possibly understand – as well as our relationship with all the rest that is beyond understanding within the realm of mystery – is the one area in life where we are truly “in control.” Our attention, our attitudes, while not easily modified are mutable and we are the only ones who can truly alter them. What others do to us is manipulation, but we can actually evolve our attitudes and change our relationship with the world.
It’s so much easier to get mad, or to feel responsible for everything else, to “change the world.” It can be truly frightening to recognize our proprioception, that what we force upon ourselves as the effects of Ego toss us about on emotional and ideological roller-coasters; are not what they seem, “Look how they made me feel!” But our own doing. While we can’t create the future, we can modify our attention and this does give us a point of leverage upon our reality that is much more steady than the cycles of solutions and unintended consequences that plague us as we flail about “improving” things.
Is life worth living outside of some “dream?” We each must answer this for ourselves, but we need to recognize that there is a choice. This is the one arena where we do have a relatively untrammeled range of choices. If we chose to do otherwise, we find ourselves at the same time constrained, and freed, by the connections we begin to make with what actually is.
Contrary to the popular misconception, an artist is not looking for freedom. Art is not a chance to have unlimited choice. It is the opportunity to find a foundation upon which we can recognize how we are truly linked to what is and that in any given circumstance the right route appears inevitable and it is in the sorting out of perception and possible actions that we discover where those inevitabilities lie and we focus our creativity upon how we then act to fulfill them.
I expect that in some years significant traffic – whatever that will end up meaning – upon the sea will be under sail. We won’t be engaging with this necessity by spinning out fantasies of how to extend the current insanity using “greener” means. We will need to confront these questions with the humility that appreciates how little our actions actually result as intended, or that we can even comprehend to any significant level the factors we will confront.
For myself, I see in the constraints and closed off doors of bankrupt and irrelevant choices a chance to be clear of futility. We, in our chasing after fantasies of control, tend to underestimate the power of futility to shape our quality of life. Clearing out the enticements leading us to make the same mistakes again, in the same ways again, is the one benefit we have from this moment of clarity we find ourselves in.
So, let’s draw our attention to the uses and contexts that sailing will inevitably come to. There’s much to be done, and a lot of it will in time be of a “practical” nature. But before we get to that, we have plenty to do to change the one thing we do have a say in, our attitudes, our attention, and how we approach life. When we break free of seeing it all as a series of problems we must strive to “solve,” we begin to recognize how precious life is for itself, and that we can only live it as it comes and within each moment as we are experiencing it. It’s no loss to be finally free of all that planning, striving, pushing after what is no more than a twisted fantasy.