Source: The Nation
Most forecasts of the future presume that something in the present will continue to grow and increase its power or influence. It’s as simple as doing a math problem on compounding interest or multiplication tables.
Orwell did this intentionally in 1984, creating the vision of a postwar Stalinist Britain circa 1948 that was taken to its absurd and appalling conclusion. Less imaginative people, however, genuinely believe that history moves in a straight line. Alarm about the “population bomb” arose from the assumption that women would continue to have babies at the rate they were worldwide in the 1960s. But thanks to reproductive rights and other factors, birthrates have plummeted so dramatically that some nations, from Germany to Japan, are now worried about a steep population decline.
Likewise, people unhappy about the Bush administration seemed to imagine that its power would only increase until it became some petro-cowboy version of the Thousand-Year Reich. People happy with the administration’s policies also failed to anticipate how brief its ride atop the wheel of fortune would be. The Obama victory in 2008 was as out of sight in 2003 as same-sex marriage was in 1977, when Florida-orange-juice spokesmodel and bigot Anita Bryant was successfully fulminating against homosexuality.
There are monumental changes under way that seem as if they will only continue: the decline of homophobia, the widening of rights and privileges from white Christian men to the rest of us, nonwhite and nonmale. But there are backlashes against these things as well, and the other way to call it unpredictable is to say that we can’t foresee which tendency will hold sway a century or more hence. Mostly, what we can learn by looking backward is that who and what we are now—sexually, socially, technologically, ecologically—was not only unpredictable but unimaginable a century or even a half-century ago. So is who and what we will be in another 100 years.
History is rarely linear. The cast of characters is never announced in advance, and the storylines are full of left turns, plot twists, about-faces, surprising crossroads and unintended consequences. In a recent article for Politico, Elana Schor notes: “As Keystone’s problems imprint themselves on the nation’s political DNA, environmentalists and local advocacy groups are using the same template that has stalled it for six years to stoke resistance to fossil-fuel projects from coast to coast. Word is out in the oil and gas industry that NIMBY is the new normal.” As I write, almost no one knows how Obama will ultimately handle the Keystone XL pipeline, but we do know that the struggle to stop its construction has had many ancillary effects. For example, the climate activists fighting Keystone have made the Alberta tar sands, numerous pipeline projects, the oil-by-rail system, and the larger problem of carbon emissions and climate change far more visible.
The struggle against Keystone has also catalyzed remarkable coalitions—for example, the Cowboy and Indian Alliance of rural peoples from the Great Plains, who gathered in the nation’s capital last April, horses, chaps, war bonnets, alternative-energy policies and all. Under the linear theory of history, we’ll decide if this was a successful movement based on the veto (or approval) of the pipeline, but as Schor points out, the effects are not linear; they ripple outward, like a rock thrown into a pond. Or they snowball. Or they catalyze some new action.