Turning off the spigot known as the Colorado River, which waters Western cities and agriculture; whether to allow parents to choose micro-editing of their embryo’s DNA; and whether drone warfare is acceptable in domestic settings — those are just some of the issues we may debate in the election of 2060. Each one is based in on plausible extensions of current technology and trends as they intersect with our society’s fiscal and moral judgments. Of course, 2060 could be way off base. If anything, these issues will probably come to a head sooner.
The question for this start-of-election season: how can our society evolve to deal with long-range questions before they become short-term crises? Technology has given us greater powers of divination than ever… not the absolute power to predict the future, of course, but to see trends and vectors, from climate change to the collapse of the traditional gold-watch job trajectory and the rise of the episodic career. So, what are we doing with that information? And does a Presidential election season, paradoxically, make us less likely to look forward?
With Ted Cruz now the first official candidate of 2016 (and Donald Trump threatening to go Full Birther on him), shadow campaigns are materializing into fully-fledged, and -funded, entities. The early journalistic conversation is focusing on money raised; political staffers hired; and whether the Democratic left or the GOP right will distract the front runners from staying on message. While people in politics may get a hot flush knowing who’s been named which candidate’s social media director, we can forgive the public at large for not giving a shit. Lacking a real resonance with issues affecting their daily lives, political news at this point in the cycle only hits when it involves a cartoonish, social-media-ready outrage. Even among citizens with the best intentions of staying abreast of what’s right for their country and family, the dynamics of political reporting make that difficult, intensifying a focus on personality; bleeps and blunders; and, when it comes to issues, the very near term, not the long-range.
Campaigns are, of course, about electing politicians; politicians govern for the duration of their terms; but beyond governance, there is stewardship – the long-range, multi-decade, intergenerational caregiving that America needs. In an election year, pollsters often ask people what they want from a candidate and an election; but how often are citizens asked what they want in terms of stewardship? A functional America in 2060 will have dealt with problems in 2016 that we, frankly, are barely talking about.
Let’s return to the scenarios at the top. Will Las Vegas, Los Angeles, or farms lose out as the Colorado River dries out? And beyond the Colorado or other interstate water agreements, will the Federal government begin to exercise greater domain over aquifers under private land? How many Congressional votes; Presidential vetos; and Supreme Court rulings lie ahead on that score?
You want to talk about designer babies? While Dolce & Gabana are decrying IVF (so 1990s), there is a genuinely provocative debate over DNA editing. Well, imagine a world (not hard) where many children are having physical and neurological problems as a result of environmental toxins. And imagine, also, that you can design your child to be less sensitive to toxins. How much would you pay for that? And if it was successful for those who could pay, would that diminish the collective political will to solve the problem of the toxins for the benefit of all?
Domestic drone warfare… well, that’s fairly easy to imagine. If there were riots of any magnitude for any reason — an urban police shooting or, say, a violent rural protest over the cessation of water services — it could be argued that drones are a safer form of crowd control than risking human officers. And it could also be argued that, as with drone strikes abroad, the lack of human contact can also allow for lethal action without the same ability to make nuanced judgments or the same capacity for empathy.
The election of 2060 is a shorthand I use for keeping my eye on the future. I’ve raised a bunch of dilemmas, because they seem to get us humnans more focused than utopian visions. But there are many future vectors that lead us towards truly family-friendly work policies; greater (and cheaper) opportunities for lifelong learning; and health interventions that make for not only longer but better lives. We certainly can’t forecast what will happen half a century from now, but we’d be fools not to think about it; to study the trend lines in our economy, our environment and in technology. Election years are times where everyone likes talking about the future. But that political future is often so short-term, it almost seems like the past.