By Bruce Sterling
Sunday, March 4, 2007
I was standing among a crowd of radical Serbs in front of the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade last week when it dawned on me: As a futurist, things are really going my way! It's 2007, and the old world has backfired so comprehensively that a new era is truly at hand. I actually knew this would happen. I guess, for a prophet, this is what victory feels like!
Back in 1998, the Mexican state of Chiapas caught fire and the smoke from its rainless "rain forests" stretched all the way to Chicago. In Austin, my home town, the sky was the color of a dead television channel. Living under that hideous gout of smoke, I realized that the much-anticipated greenhouse effect was as real as dirt. Most people didn't grasp that at the time. That's okay by me: If everybody got it about issues of that sort, I wouldn't get paid for being a futurist. As it happened, though, five years earlier I'd written a science-fiction novel about climate change. So I was fully briefed.
Al Gore won an Academy Award last week and, who knows, may rack up a Nobel Prize for describing the perfectly obvious. Not the future, but stuff that happened years ago. Go watch his dull, plonking, painfully backward documentary. You see those ice caps melting? That has major consequences.
Wall Street investment tycoon Henry Kravis, the original "Barbarian at the Gate," is buying into Texas coal plants so they won't exist. The great and the good at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, were corporate green all the way. Austin has proclaimed itself the world capital of the war on climate change. Britain's Stern Report on the economics of climate change proves that it's cheaper to run a world than to wreck it. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has figured out that a climate crisis is as scary as a nuclear exchange. And there is an absolute explosion of trendy green design Web logs, of which mine, Viridiandesign.org, was one of the first.
They're all about creating irresistible consumer demand for cool objects that will yield a global atmosphere upgrade. It's the Net vs. the 20th-century fossil order in a fight that the cybergreens are winning. Why? Because they're not about spiritual potential, human decency, small is beautiful, peace, justice or anything else unattainable. The cybergreens are about stuff people want, such as health, sex, glamour, hot products, awesome bandwidth, tech innovation and tons of money.
We're gonna glam, spend and consume our way into planetary survival. My own favorite sci-fi planetary-saving scheme for naming, numbering and linking to the Internet every piece of junk we create so that it can be corralled and briskly recycled, creating a cradle-to-cradle postindustrial order and averting planetary doom, may sound pretty shocking and alien. But I wrote that book while in residency at a famous design school. I received an honorary doctorate there and the book was published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It gets great reviews, designers love it. It's not even science fiction -- it's a cybergreen manifesto.
In 1998, I had it figured that the dot-com boom would become a dot-green boom. It took a while for others to get it. Some still don't. They think I'm joking. They are still used to thinking of greenness as being "counter" and "alternative" -- they don't understand that 21st-century green is and must be about everything -- the works. Sustainability is comprehensive. That which is not sustainable doesn't go on. Glamorous green. I preached that stuff for years. I don't have to preach it anymore, because it couldn't be any louder. Green will never get any sexier than it is in 2007. Because, after this, brown will start going away.
Could I return to my first paragraph for a second? That part about me and the crowd of Serbian radicals? Serbia may be the world's single-greatest locale for a professional futurist. Awful things happen there faster than awful things happen anywhere else. The Balkans is a tragic region that denied stark reality, broke its economy, started multiple unnecessary wars, and basically finger-pointed and squabbled its way into a comprehensive train wreck. It suffered all kinds of pig-headed mayhem, all unnecessary.
That's just how the world behaved with the climate crisis, too. The time for action isn't now. The time for action was 40 years ago. Today we live in a stricken world that bypassed its time for action. We have wreaked science-fiction levels of havoc on the unresisting carcass of Mother Nature. The real trouble is ahead of us.
So what's the good part? They never gave up around here. On the contrary: There's a certain vivid liveliness in the way they're scrambling and clawing their way out of yawning abyss. The food is great, the women dress to kill, and sometimes they even laugh and dance.
You don't have to predict the future when you live in it.
Bruce Sterling, a best-selling cyberpunk science fiction novelist who recently was Visionary in Residence at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., now teaches at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, and lives in Belgrade.