With the introduction of my son into my life, I have been thinking more and more about the future. In what kind of world will my son grow up? What themes and events will dominate his life? What will he see as the looming crisis or greatest opportunities of his day? What will his grandchildren ask him to tell stories about and what will mine?
I am one of those that would respond negatively to the pollster's question about the state of affairs my children and grandchildren will inherit. But, of course, that is far too simplistic a question and the answer space far too limited to answer it adequately. I am negative about the future because I see a great many conflicts in the years ahead. If we do run out of oil, or at least demand far outstrips a difficultly obtained supply, then conflict is inevitable. But our world, particularly America, is shaped by oil. We have grown into its energy contours. The physical structure of our nation (and nations) is shaped by it - roads, highways, the location of grocery stores, jobs, all have been determined by our dependence on the car and its dependence on oil. Perhaps the car's need for oil will change. Perhaps a new biofuel or fuel cell or some other new technology will be developed and that will be all well and good. But that, by itself, is no solution. At least not to other problems.
The physical layout of our nation has created separation from each other. Garages mean people can enter and exit their homes with minimal contact with their neighbors. Gross consumer capitalism has rendered public spaces into little more than shopping experiences and there is no place for true, public community. Where can people gather? Where can new ideas be expressed, debated and discussed? Historians have traced how the coffee-houses of Europe and America played vital roles in revolutions and political changes because they offered opportunities for discourse. Does Starbucks, as pleasurable as the coffee and ambience it offers may be, provide that opportunity? No, and not because it is some corporate giant preying on the poor coffee growers of South America (though this may be the case). It is because as a culture we have become far more insular. We expect privacy. We demand it, in fact. We don't tolerate interruptions. And without interruption, without being open to meeting someone or hearing something new, there is no opportunity for growth, for dialogue or change.
I think this disconnection, this desire to be private, to seek our own personal fulfillment and to remain uninvolved with other people is the greatest crisis and opportunity of my day and will greatly impact my son's life. And this is because this culturally manufactured desire is antithetical to true human desire. We desperately want and need to be engaged, to be a part of a community, to grow, to change. Our fulfillment is tied up in the fulfillment of others but our culture does not want us to see that because time spent talking is time spent not-shopping. And its horribly messy. New relationships, new ideas - these are not tidy creatures. They are not as immediately gratifying and comforting as, say, a new ipod or shiny new car. Nor are they as gloriously edifying as making a silent statement to the world's deaf ears about my individuality and unique thoughts and desires. We can only make such statements to other people who are right in front of our face. But we are apparently quite afraid of such proximity.