Vonnegut was right: We need a “secretary of the future.”
ILLUSTRATION BY SAM ROWE
As a geologist and a professor, I speak and write rather cavalierly about eons. One of the courses I teach is The History of Earth and Life. It’s a survey of the 4.5-billion-year saga of the entire planet—in a 10-week trimester. But as a human—and more specifically, as a daughter, mother, and widow—I struggle like everyone else to look time honestly in the face.
Most humans have no sense of temporal proportion—the durations of the great chapters in Earth’s history, the rates of change during previous intervals of environmental instability, the intrinsic timescales of “natural capital” like groundwater systems. As a species, we have a childlike disinterest in the time before our appearance on Earth. This ignorance of planetary history undermines any claims we may make to modernity. We are navigating recklessly toward our future using conceptions of time that are as primitive as a world map from the 14th century.
In these dark times, it is empowering (or at least therapeutic) to imagine what a time-literate society might look like. In his last public interview, Kurt Vonnegut said, “I’ll tell you . . . one thing that no cabinet has ever had is a ‘secretary of the future,’ and there are no plans at all for my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren.” Let’s adopt Vonnegut’s suggestion as our first proposal: a representative for the yet-to-be-born.
I struggle like everyone else to look time honestly in the face.
The Department of the Future would set in motion a realignment of priorities. Resource conservation would be a patriotic virtue. Tax incentives would be rebalanced to reward long-term stewardship over short-term exploitation. Putting a price on carbon might help us prepare for natural disasters that will happen without our assistance—like the hundreds of large earthquakes that will occur in the next century—without needing to expend resources on self-created climate catastrophes. MORE