Michael Rawson Shows How Our Dreams of the Future Have Contributed to Our Present Environmental Crisis

February 10, 2022

Rawson, author of "The Nature of Tomorrow: A History of the Environmental Future," discusses why we need to change the stories we tell about the future and the past.

Michael Rawson
Michael Rawson
The Nature of Tomorrow by Michael Rawson

Professor Michael Rawson (GC/Brooklyn, History) is the author of the new book The Nature of Tomorrow: A History of the Environmental Future, a study of how Western dreams of ever-expanding growth have helped lead to our current state of environmental crisis. The book goes back to works by Francis Bacon and Jules Verne and also looks at popular movies and TV shows of the 20th century to show how we arrived at such an untenable vision: the expectation of near-constant growth, fueled by science and technology, on a planet with finite resources.

Rawson is also the author of Eden on the Charles: The Making of Boston, which was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in History, and teaches the popular Brooklyn College course “The History of the Future.” He recently spoke to the Graduate Center about why we need to change the stories we tell about the future and the past:

The Graduate Center: Our dreams of limitless growth have proven to be dangerous in many ways. How can we come up with a less harmful vision of the future?

Rawson: We keep looking to science and technology for ways to clean the atmosphere, to clean pollutants, and to be more energy efficient, but solving our environmental problems is going to require us to rethink how we live on a fundamental level. To do that, we need new stories about the past that don’t glorify growth, and we need new stories about the future that imagine a truly sustainable society.

Historians in particular could contribute to that. Our visions of the future come from the past — we build what we think will happen tomorrow on what we believe happened in the past. And if we interpret the past as centuries of human growth and expansion, and think about that in a very triumphal way, as all positive accomplishment and no negatives, then that’s what we’re going to look for in the world of tomorrow as well.

GC: In your book you discuss the ’60s TV show The Jetsons, which positively and “self-consciously depicts a future where every bit of the natural world has been replaced with something artificial.” What do you make of contemporary TV shows like Station Eleven, which take a dystopian view of the near-future?

Rawson: The Jetsons was a positive image of the future, but what we get far more often through popular culture today are visions of a fallen civilization, and in many cases it’s a vision in which nature is reclaiming the planet. We seem to believe that if we want to gain any sort of balanced relationship with the natural world, it will take a collapse of our civilization to do it. The message in a lot of those stories is that we’re not finding a way to make those changes ourselves, within our current civilization.

GC: Thanks to your book, I realized that this is the year of Soylent Green — it takes place in 2022 and was released almost 50 years ago. The movie overtly dealt with the impact of climate change and the greenhouse effect on our food and water supplies. With these visions so pervasive in the popular culture for decades, why have we fallen so short, in terms of policy, of what needs to be done to protect us from such a future?

Rawson: These concerns go back even farther than that — the novel [Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison] was written in the ’60s, and people were talking about these concerns in the ’50s and ’40s. There was a point around 1970, with the advent of the environmental movement and Earth Day, where it felt like people were realizing what was going on, and it was possible to take political action that could reverse things. And that’s when you see the slew of legislation, the Clean Water Act and other federal legislation, all passed and signed enthusiastically by a Republican president, Richard Nixon. Everybody was on board in 1970.

But within a couple of years, it became very clear that having a clean planet and a sustainable society was going to require some radical changes in our lifestyles and it was going to bite into a lot of people’s wallets. And that was a problem.

It was then, and it is now, difficult to imagine a truly sustainable society while insisting at the same time that everything about humankind has to keep growing forever. As long as we have this dream of endless growth on a finite planet, we’ll have problems.

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