The future is not bright. At least, not if you’re reading the most popular interpretations of the future: AI uprisings, ecological crises, mass surveillance states, and wartime apocalypses dominate speculative fiction across novels and Netflix. It seems inevitable that in the upcoming decades, our world will become an increasingly worse and uninhabitable place. Fueled by the real dangers of climate inaction, militaristic tension, and a crumbling public sphere, there’s genuine reason to worry. People find themselves glued to the apocalypse: escaping to social media to endlessly scroll and consume news of the impending collapse. Some embrace doomerism, an extremely pessimistic and nihilistic worldview that has entirely given up hope for a better future.
Speculative fiction tends to reflect the sentiment of the era. During the Great Depression, Superman first appeared taking down evil businessmen and bankers. In fact, the Golden Age of Comic Books was spawned by hysteria in the World War, with new superheroes The Flash, Wonder Woman, and Captain America taking down mad scientists and wartime foes. Regular individuals who found themselves with immense power to solve problems nearly all on their own. For readers, it was a release from the anxiety-filled thoughts of helplessness and isolation. (And it’s arguably the reason why superhero films have made a resurgence today.)
Speculative fiction continued to mirror our social anxieties throughout the 20th century: atomic warfare in the 1950s (The Day the Earth Stood Still, On The Beach); the techno-laden datamines in the 1980s (Robocop, The Terminator); dystopian hypercapitalism in the 1990s (Ghost in the Shell, The Matrix) or environmental catastrophe in recent decades (Mad Max, Waterworld, The Day After Tomorrow, WALL-E).
Yet, in response to a collective dystopian narrative – some sought to imagine different futures for a better tomorrow. In times of profound hope, authors and filmmakers speculated on what it would be like if humans did solve problems. During the Space Age, Gene Roddenberry invented Star Trek: demonstrating a united future of humans and aliens combatting the world’s problems. It questioned militarism and authoritarianism and featured the first Black woman in a lead role, Nichelle Nichols.
In the 1970s, Marge Piercy wrote Woman on the Edge of Time where a Hispanic woman is wrongfully incarcerated due to her “violent tendencies”, but is given a vision from the future which depicts a world that’s embraced the counterculture movement of the ‘70s, including the elimination of sexism, homophobia, and imperialism. In contrast to something like The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, reading utopian speculative fiction can be a disarming experience: is it naive to imagine a future where people live in…harmony?
And in the late 2000s, the concept of “solarpunk” emerged. YouTube channel Our Changing Climate with Andrewism published an overview of Solarpunk: "Ultimately Solarpunk envisions a world that might be slower, but more intentional. One that ties humanity closely to the natural world.” As Andrewism put in the replies: "A future with a human face and dirt behind its ears."
But if solarpunk is the future with humanity put back in, achieving it means taking control of that future from economic, social, & political forces that seem to be on autopilot to self-destruction, utterly divorced from human desires & human intervention. One path we've imagined already, and its grimy survivalist individualism was the defining feature of Reagan-era science fiction classics. However, in its radical reimagination of economic & social structures, solarpunk resists the nihilism & doomerism of the grim dehumanized technological dystopias that dominate the worlds of Blade Runner, Robocop, & William Gibson's Neuromancer.
Do we have the willingness to challenge the predominant social, economic, & political structures & systems that need to be challenged? To change the very nature of humanity's relationship to the planet? What role does education play in all of this?
In July 2022, Dr. Henry Giroux presented a keynote at the inaugural Conference to Restore Humanity, where he spoke on the topic of Critical Pedagogy in a Time of Fascist Tyranny. In this keynote, he connects our fading visions of the future to the lack of hope that we can ever actually imagine something radically different from the present:
"The commanding visions of democracy are in exile at all levels of education. Critical thought and the imagining of a better world present a direct threat not only to white supremacists, but also to those ideologues who narrowly embrace a corporate vision of the world, in which the future always replicates the present in an endless circle in which capital and the identities that it legitimates merge with each other into what might be called a dead zone of the imagination and pedagogies of repression."
More simply evoked by theorist Mark Fisher, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” And that’s a well we have absolutely run dry in our desire for dystopia. We’ve imagined the world destroyed by AI, by climatological disaster, even by zombies. Judging by popular culture, you could assume we have a preference for annihilation.
Stuck in this doom-loop, we’ve created an entire media apparatus that not only imagines ever worsening and horrific futures (Westworld, Black Mirror), but nostalgizes the past to keep us trapped in existing banal dystopia. In an era of increasingly rehashed ideas, corporations now openly flaunt reboot-culture – negating any ability to imagine something new. "Nothing comforts anxiety like a little nostalgia.”, taunts The Matrix: Resurrections , as a 2021 sequel to the nearly 20 year old trilogy.
Escaping the drudgery of futures imagined for us is no small feat. Philosopher Jean Baudrillard believed that our world had become so engrossed in the hyperreal that we are no longer able to distinguish between what is real and what is imagined. Or as he wrote on Disneyland:
It’s meant to be an infantile world, in order to make us believe that the adults are elsewhere, in the "real" world, and to conceal the fact that real childishness is everywhere, particularly among those adults who go there to act the child in order to foster illusions of their real childishness.
Solarpunk gives us the permission to imagine differently; to resist Giroux's “dead zone of imagination”.
The simple act of having hope for a better future breaks the doom-loop and builds a platform for action. In Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower & Parable of the Talents, the main character, Lauren Olamina, digs and leads others to this well of hope amidst climatological and manmade disaster, disruption, and mass death along the American West Coast. Spreading the philosophy of Earthseed, she writes in her Book of the Living: “The destiny of Earthseed is to take root among the stars.” A different world is possible if we overcome the distortion of our senses and see beyond broken systems. By setting our sights toward something new, we can reveal solutions that already exist today.
Educators play an incredibly important role in society, as conduits of “knowledge transmission” and as allies and mentors to young people who find themselves adrift in an increasingly complex and hostile world. As the pandemic alienated young people and educators alike from their usual learning environments, many embraced and flourished in new virtual spaces and new ways of organizing their education in “science fiction made reality.” However, in the years since, progress in reimagining our social, economic, and educational arrangements has been virtually erased in the forced “return to normalcy.”
Educators' capacity to push back against “normalcy” seems increasingly futile – with neoliberal standardized testing companies decrying “learning loss” and many districts embracing the safe structures of the past that failed to serve many, arguably most, students. It is incredibly easy to become fatalistic about public education: why bother saving it? After all, it has done harm to so many and we face so many problems today.
Yet, we need reimagined schools and public education now more than ever. Urgent problems like climate change require immediate, widespread, and collective action. They require a humane education that ensures all students are critical, empathic agents in their communities and on the global stage.
If we embrace dystopia, if we embrace doomerism, we lose hope as a platform for action in the present. In assuming that incremental change is hopeless against entropy, we either embrace the darkness or put our faith in panaceas, magic potions, grifters, charlatans, and superhero teams who will emerge from the shadows and fix everything. We become locked in a stasis and fail to do anything at all. In other words, the failure to reimagine education – and our fundamental relationship to the future – becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The future depends on educators, in coalition with other movements to create an equitable society, to demand and make change here in the present.
Imagining a better future isn’t naivety, it’s essential for a thriving world. We must preserve in the face of everything a positive outlook toward organizing, surviving, and building anew – or risk becoming stagnant. Individual actions snowball and propagate through systems, and each act of service, each pushback, each classroom decision can fundamentally build a better future. It’s up to us to make that tomorrow a reality.
What is it about the world that is worth preparing students for, and are we dedicated to the work of building that better world alongside them?
In the words of Henry Giroux:
At stake here is the courage to take on the challenge of what kind of world we want. What kind of future do we want to build for our children? The great philosopher Ernst Bloch insisted that hope taps into our deepest experiences and that without it reason and justice cannot prevail. In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin, my favorite novelist, adds a call for compassion and social responsibility to this notion of hope, one that is indebted to those who follow us. He writes, "Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them. The moment we break with one another, the sea engulfs us and the lights go out."