A singular tragedy of our modern way of life and thought is that we only look forward, never back. In its most positive aspect, we might attribute this reflex to American optimism, or to the godless dogmatism that has both charmed and cursed our short history on this continent. We moderns prefer to dream than to reflect. We cogitate on where we want to go, not on where we’ve been, and this unassailable forward stride is, in fact, the very definition of modernity.
“Tomorrow.” “Eventually.” “Growth.” These are the reserved spaces in that giant parking lot called The Future. They are made-up places that captivate us like an imagined lover – always available, exacting nothing. Never mind that the future doesn’t actually exist. In our minds, paradoxically, there’s nothing imaginary about it. The Future is a concept as old as humanity itself. Our plans, hopes and fears – our ancient brain and our young brain – all of it requires this tabula rasa called Tomorrow. We wouldn’t be human, after all, if we couldn’t see past our next biological urge.
In actuality, this futurizing is a deadly habit. What we need is to turn our gaze around. The backward look is tied to memory, and to learning. Peering forward? Well, another word for it is speculation.
This is the construct through which Wendell Berry views climate change, a subject he’s probably been asked about 1000 times, though I myself didn’t learn his take until reading the last essay in Our Only World, called On Being Asked for a “Narrative of the Future.” As always, I sit stunned and slightly chagrined at my inability to predict the formulations of Mr. Berry’s mind.
Of course I shouldn’t feel that way since the essay actually begins on the subject of prediction, a category of thought on which Wendell has little need or patience. Given the future’s unknowability, and Mr. Berry’s prodigious genius for knowing (I can’t think of a better word for it), his distaste for “futurology,” as he calls it, is hardly surprising. With classic Berry-esque incisiveness, he explains that prediction is not the same as provision. Prediction, he explains, is to foretell future events, which is an impossibility. Provision, (“to provide”), is to look ahead and act, informed by precedent. There’s a world of difference between the two ideas. Prediction is guesswork. Provision is just plain work.
Berry is fond of the scriptural homily “take no thought of the morrow.” It’s his pat line for the zillion times he’s been asked to augur about the fate of the planet, the future of food, or this or that current event. I’ve heard him invoke it countlessly. But because I never looked up the verse, I didn’t know its second part until I read this essay: “For the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” (Matthew 6-34). What does that mean? Wendell writes: “The evil of the day enters into it from the past.” To put it my way: our problems of today are here because of what we’ve already done. By extension: tomorrows’ problems are exactly a result of what we’re doing today.
And so our history is what matters. “We must act daily as critics of history so as to prevent, so far as we can, the evils of yesterday from infecting today.” The time zones that our minds should mostly inhabit are the past and the present. Where we’ve been and where we are.
Except that we’re not much good at this. Our forward focus, lately abetted by our technological utopianism, dislocates our minds to the future even in our worry and regret. That is, we take to fretting when we should be acting. Instead of provisioning, which, as action, becomes what we do today, we bemuse ourselves with prediction, which, as non-action, becomes nothing but distraction and wasted effort.
To come to the point on climate change, Mr. Berry – never one to trust expert opinions, finds no reason to protest. Not because of changing weather patterns, since “change,” he says, “is the nature of weather” but because the causes of climate change – pollution and waste, are ubiquitously evident and categorically wrong. We can imagine Wendell grimacing when he writes that climate change is supposedly recent, and apocalyptic and ever more “famous and fearful.” Pollution and waste? Well they are the twin sins of land abuse, and are, he reminds us, “ancient and contemporary and getting worse by the day.” We wring our hands over climate change that’s coming, not realizing – not remembering – that our poisonous and carbon combusting economy is the evil “sufficient unto the day.” We worry for tomorrow without acting this day. We ignore our history -- the record of our misunderstandings . We fiddle. Gaia burns.
Berry makes a beautiful connection in the second part of this short essay between our alive-ness in time and in space. Physically, he wants us home – rooted, and attached to the soil and creatures that have participated, through generations, in the life of a place. But in this On Being Asked essay, he also wants us present in time, where, he says, we belong. And in these exhortations I am reminded of what a natural born Buddhist he is. For Wendell, the future is to the present as the environment is to the place; abstract categories that must never be confused for the here and now. He adds a third pairing – the difference between changes of policy and principle – the former being large and governmental (and therefore abstract and perhaps eternally out of reach), and the latter being small and actionable “by so few as just one of us.” This is where he finds hope.
As we’ve been throughout Our Only World, we’re back to small solutions, good work and good examples now at hand.
It’s so easy to mistake Wendell Berry’s clarity for prophecy. We assume that those with seemingly supernatural powers of observation can see equally well in all directions – backward, forward, side-to-side. This is wishful thinking. Shamans have disappeared from our culture, but our longing for shamanism has not. Because our collective observational musculature has become so atrophied, we don’t know how to look back at our history, down at the soil under our feet, or around at what’s happening to the air and water and trees. So do we become obsessed with looking forward – the one direction that, if we could only crack it open, would provide the shortcut to render the other directional observations unnecessary. Of course it never does and it never will. The future doesn’t provide for the present. The present is where we may, with gifts and good work, provide for the future.
Maybe we could give up saving the world, Wendell says, if only we would start living savingly in it. The world doesn't need saving anyhow. To believe it does is to is to forget it's just a prediction. People living savingly in this world? That's the provisional approach, and that the world needs very badly. The next time you hear someone say we need better models for prediction, or better data, or more polling, or better forecasts or algorithms, be sure to ask a few questions: what is the evil sufficient unto this day? How did it come to be here? How might we provide for ourselves so the good thing we desire tomorrow can flow from the practiced good of today. What's good for the future is good now, after all. The kingdom of heaven is at hand, says Wendell, because if not at hand it is nowhere.
We've been mentally mining the future just as foolishly and rapaciously as we've been physically mining the earth. Fixing the climate doesn't just require localizing our economy and returning to our home places. We also need to disembark from the future so we might begin keeping track of the present, day by month by season by year by generation. And so in this way will we learn to make better provisions until that day when we find we have a climate and other gifts of nature that are pleased with us, that are of eternal help to us, and which are themselves the narrative not of the future, but of a great remembering,