Future Myopia

How do you forge a relationship to a past that considered future generations expendable?

Full-text audio version of this essay.

As a historian interested in the social history of environmentalism, I spend a lot of time thinking about what people in the past thought about the future. Last fall, while researching the history of 1980s United States climate policy, I read the Changing Climate report, written in 1983 by the Carbon Dioxide Assessment Committee. This committee had been created by the National Academy of Sciences in 1980 to assess the dangers of anthropogenic carbon emissions, and was chaired by Bill Nierenberg, a physicist who had worked on the Manhattan project and later headed the oceanographic expedition which first discovered oil drilling sites on the sea floor of the Gulf of Mexico.

The report’s first five chapters, each written by a different climate scientist, detailed the committee’s key findings: that unchecked fossil fuel consumption would lead to disastrous, nearly apocalyptic, consequences within the next hundred years. These chapters warned of a 1.5 to 4.5 degree rise in global temperatures, the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet, and severe water shortages in the Western United States.

Though rising global temperatures would undoubtedly be catastrophic, Schelling acknowledged, maybe future generations would simply, miraculously, solve the problem

After 449 pages of this clinically urgent writing, I came upon the final chapter, written by Thomas Schelling, an economist famous for his work in the field of game theory and for developing “deterrence theory” with respect to the Cold War. He considers the economic arguments in favor of and against taking immediate action to reduce carbon emissions. “The climate changes anticipated are at an unaccustomed planning distance in the future,” he wrote. “Our grandchildren will live into the span of time we have in mind.” Then, arguing that a dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow, he mused that it was possible to “discount” the effects of climate change beyond the year 2000 in economic calculations. Though rising global temperatures would undoubtedly be catastrophic, he acknowledged, there was much uncertainty about how people in the future would live — in other words, maybe future generations would simply, miraculously, solve the problem.

Or maybe they would just learn to deal with it. As Nierenberg summarized in the report’s executive summary, future people’s methods of “adaptation to a high CO2 and high temperature world… are likely to be more economical… It is extraordinary how adaptable people can be.” Despite everything that climate scientists had written in the report’s first five chapters, Nierenberg concluded, based on Schelling’s argument, that “We do not believe… that the evidence at hand… would support steps to change current fuel-use patterns away from fossil fuels.”

The Changing Climate report was one of the key factors responsible for deterring earlier U.S. government action on climate change: As Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway write in Merchants of Doubt, Nierenberg and Schelling’s arguments were used by White House science advisor George Keyworth to discredit EPA findings on climate change as unnecessarily “alarmist.” Delaying government action in the 1980s gave the fossil fuel industry crucial time to develop disinformation and denial strategies that set back environmentalist policy conversations by decades. My point here, however, is not that either Neirenberg or Schelling is uniquely to blame for the current climate crisis. It’s almost tautological to say that most of the people who lived during the past 200 years and had the power to mitigate climate change chose not to. If they had, we would not live in the world we live in now. The Report of the Carbon Dioxide Assessment Committee was just one more moment in a long history of powerful people who comprehended the dangers of the climate crisis, and saw the opportunity to prevent it, but decided instead to do nothing.

Nonetheless, this was one of those moments where you make eye contact with a ghost — where you suddenly find yourself in the close presence of a person from another time. Schelling was born in 1921 — a generation older than my grandparents. When he writes “our grandchildren,” he is speaking my name, summoning me. Across the thin, wavering membrane of history, Thomas Schelling and I are reaching out at the same time, trying to imagine each other. He sees the vague outline of a person living “an unaccustomed planning distance in the future,” and I see the vague outline of an economist sitting at his desk 38 years ago, trying to imagine me.

Schelling knows that my life must be very different from his, because he knows that his way of life is not sustainable

There are some things about me that Schelling probably could not have imagined — for instance, he probably did not expect his report to be read by a Gen-Z, they/them-pronoun-using PhD student in a digital communications program, reading the text on their laptop computer. But he might have been able to imagine that I would be living through an unusually warm spring, trying to make it through my 14th month of self-isolation during a zoonotic global pandemic. And one thing that I am certain he could have imagined about me is that I live on a dying planet, and I am terrified all the time.

He knows this because he is depending on my terrified ingenuity — my “extraordinary adaptability” — to come up with “economical” solutions to the problem of climate change. He knows that my life must be very different from his, because he knows that his way of life is not sustainable. And, yet, he does not seem to have put much work into imagining how I might feel about the whole thing.

Depending how you do the math, we have known about climate change for over 100 years now. In 1896, Svante Arrhenius first described the greenhouse effect, and noted that carbon dioxide released by burning coal could theoretically lead to rising global temperatures. In 1958, Charles David Keeling’s measurements showed that CO2 had been steadily increasing since the industrial revolution, enough to have noticeable effects on the earth’s climate. In 1962, Roger Revelle presented a report to President Lyndon Johnson predicting that by the year 2000, CO2 levels would be high enough to cause disastrous sea level rise. Yet, for every generation until now, climate change has always been “the next generation’s problem.”

Climate change messes up everything we think we know about how the past relates to the future. We are used to seeing the past as ruins. But how do we make sense of it when the past looks to the future and sees us in ruins instead? In Walter Benjamin’s words, we like to think of history as “a sequence of events, like beads on a rosary,” each one neatly occasioning the next. But climate change separates cause from effect. Carbon released into the atmosphere might have no effect on the people who burnt the coal, but will be felt by their descendants decades or centuries later.

In The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula Le Guin gives us a sense of what this time-traveling cycle of responsibility and consequences feels like: “It’s raining already… the endless warm drizzle of spring — the ice of Antarctica falling softly on the heads of the children of those responsible for melting it.” In 2019, a group of scientists and activists held a funeral for the rapidly melting Okjökull glacier — a test run of their new role as undertakers and mourners, holding a funeral in the present for a glacier which will fully melt in 50 years, because of carbon burned 50 years ago.

In The Arcades Project, written in 1940, Walter Benjamin lays out his own theory of history, which he describes in the form of an Angel. “This is how one pictures the angel of history,” he writes:

His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Every time I read this passage, I am surprised that Walter Benjamin was not writing about the climate crisis. I always imagine the angel of history surrounded by eroded hillsides, melting ice caps, and thick clouds of pollution, with the earth burning up all around him. Where the businessmen and tycoons of the past look forward and see progress, he looks back and sees the destruction of his future.

Walter Benjamin also writes in The Arcades Project that “like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply.” In the case of climate change, this claim is expensive indeed — Schelling’s logic of “discounting” literally sticks us with the bill for his generation’s excesses. Nobody understands that better than Gen-Z. This is what Autumn Peltier, Greta Thunberg, Xiye Bastida, Ayakha Melithafa, and many kids younger than me understand when they demand of older generations: “You have stolen our childhoods.” The past’s “economical” solution to climate change depended on endowing my generation with Messianic powers — we were tasked before birth with saving them from the guilt of their own inaction.

A ghost is your problem because you live in the house in which it lived — because we live on the same planet, tied up in the same catastrophic global economic system

At my college graduation, a very wealthy man my grandfather’s age told me, “The moon landing was my generation’s problem — now climate change is yours.” I think he meant to sound encouraging, but what I heard was an admission of culpability. Climate change could have been his generation’s problem — Keeling’s report was 11 years old when Americans landed on the moon in 1969 — but here he was, asking me to take on a responsibility that people like him hadn’t been willing to when they were my age. When Bill Nierenberg writes that readers would want to know about “changes in the atmosphere that their grandchildren are going to breathe,” yet recommends nothing to prevent those changes, he is claiming and disavowing us at the same time. He recognizes that we are connected to him, but claims no responsibility towards us, holding on to a cowardly faith, disguised as grandfatherly pride, that we would solve the problem for him.

After I finished reading the Carbon Dioxide Assessment Committee Report, I looked up whether Bill Nierenberg was still alive. After our brief haunting, I wanted to have a real conversation with him: He’d had the audacity to document, in a public record, how little he cared about me, and I wanted him to see me, not as a blurry specter or a messiah, but as a scared, hurting person. But he had died in 2000, which just seemed too neat.

I became a historian because I love talking to dead people. But sometimes, when I look back into the past and meet inventors, politicians, economists, captains of industry, scientists, or even mundane people who lived moderately luxurious lives, all I see are people who took actions that are hurting me right now. I read the names of oil barons engraved on buildings around my university campus, or look at the blissfully oblivious 1950s families drinking out of disposable plastic cups in old magazine ads, and I envy these people who lived pretending their actions didn’t have consequences. I think, “the way you lived made my life worse.”

How do you have a relationship with the ghosts of people who quite literally “discounted” you? In Ghostly Matters, Avery Gordon writes that when we notice we are being haunted, “it is our responsibility to recognize just where we are in the story, even if we do not want to be there… we cannot decline to identify as if such an (albeit worthy) act can erase or transcend the sedimented power relations in which we have lived and live now.”

I want to sit with that “(albeit worthy)” for a second. I think that what Gordon means is that it is perfectly natural, maybe even justified, to want to ignore a ghost — to reject the claims the past tries to put on you, and say “this is not my problem.” I feel this way all the time. It sucks to have to clean up someone else’s mess. It makes you want to say, “you got to live without considering the consequences of your actions, so why don’t I?” It makes you want to throw up your hands and do nothing, out of a despairing sort of spite.

But a ghost is your problem because you live in the house in which it lived — because we live on the same planet, tied up in the same catastrophic global economic system. The world we live in is cluttered with smog, chained with shipping routes and oil pipelines, and littered with the actions of our predecessors. If we ignore that, we aren’t getting back at the past but hurting ourselves, and a future which doesn’t deserve that from us. We can tell the ghosts we’re not doing it for them, but we have to do something; out of a concern for our own survival, if nothing else. 

Maybe, in considering our own estranged relationship with the past, we can learn to be better grandparents. I want to talk with the people of the future the way that I wish the people of the past would talk with me. The future will have its own historians. Someday, someone whose outline I can barely make out across the fuzzy veil of time is going to read about me, and see that I made a choice about whether or not to consider them disposable. The past may have demanded that I take up the work of repairing the planet; but I do this work so that when I meet someone from future in the archives, I’ll be able to look them in the eye.

Mehitabel Glenhaber is a PhD student at the University of Southern California, currently living in Sommerville, MA. They also draw comics about climate change at greenhouseaffect.tumblr.com