About 50 years ago, I got a bachelor’s degree in urban planning. After a brief stint with the city of Chicago and then in the Peace Corps, I came to see a raw and ugly political side of planning within the auspices of a city government. In the early 70’s, I rejected a career in urban planning and instead decided to apply my planning interests to the “back to the land” movement. I applied myself to become more resourceful: to build, make and grow everything myself. Even back then, I felt that the future would be a radical departure from the world we now live in. Not a popular idea then; I wondered whether I had gotten off on the wrong planet. Today, unfortunately, my long-time suspicion is finding a wider audience as the failings of our ideas and institutions have become much more blatant than they once were.
The problems lie deep within our economic and political systems, and the inequality and climate crisis that arise from them create economic, political, and, therefore, social instability that defies prediction or control of likely futures.
We have never been more in need of planning for the future than we are today. Planning has been the task of combining current trends and institutions with desired goals and extrapolating these into a workable future. The problem I’ve found is that many of the current trends and institutions are inimical to our goals—we literally can’t get where we need to go on the horse we are currently riding. We need to plan, but we need to get our society off one horse and onto another before we can proceed. Yet we continue to try to tweak the existing institutions so as to produce results that go against the nature of those institutions. For instance, we have housing and healthcare crises that are the natural result of institutions that serve needs with commodities on the market place. If we want to plan for a better result, we will first have to change those institutions. If we don’t, we will continually try to make things right by paying off the predators.
The other difficulty with planning today is that we are headed into unknown territory. Not only is it impossible to predict the timing and extent of the environmental challenges we face, but the political, economic, social, and personal changes necessary to confront the existential climate crisis are unprecedented. Our first step in planning is to define the values that are important to us and change the institutions that are blocking them. We can have desirable contingency plans available and enact them as the opportunity arises. I don’t think we can plan more precisely than that as we can’t really anticipate what our institutional environment will look like down the road.
So, what can we rely on as we try to utilize our uniquely human faculty of seeing into the future and making adjustments to avoid danger? I can think of two things that will not change: the laws of nature and its corollary, human nature. They both are capable of death and destruction as well as life and abundance depending on the interplay of the variables within each. We can’t change the laws of nature or human nature, but we can manipulate the variables. It is not the same as deciding how and when a particular project will be completed. It is more like planting a seed, providing the necessary care and hoping for a good result. On a larger scale, we can be pretty confident of results, but in this we are only manipulators, not creators.
In our present situation, our human nature has tweaked the laws of nature into death and destruction mode, and addressing that has to be the highest priority. However, we have to address the imbalance of variables in our human nature in order to do that. The old image of an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other is actually pretty perceptive. Our better nature is loving, cooperative, compassionate, and joyful. Our baser nature is hateful, selfish, greedy, violent, and fearful. We have to be very careful about the things we do and tell each other because they influence our nature. What our leaders and media dwell upon really matters.
The society we live in today is dominated by our baser nature. Without taking willful action, the current chaotic state of the world will only make it worse. Yet, we know that our better nature is alive and fairly well.
In a time like now where the future is unknowable, we really can’t make precise plans. Yet, plan we must. What we can do is create a sort of operating system that nudges us toward desirable goals as the opportunities avail themselves. There will be need for collective and personal sacrifice, and for this we will all need to understand that we are all in the same boat. Any inequality, prejudice, or intolerance will make it impossible for us to do what needs to be done. Random acts of kindness and refraining from judgment are not just nice. They are our route to survival.