“Awakening as a future event has no meaning because awakening is the realization of Presence.”
Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth
The mainstream environmental movement has tended to mobilise around the future. “Save the Earth” is often said in the same breath as “for the future”, or “for our children”, accompanied by contrasting side-by-side visual representations of apocalyptic versus utopic versions of the future, implying that there are essentially only two options, and more often, that we’re on a fast-track towards the former: a world of climate catastrophe, a warming, storming, flooding mess, without fertile agricultural yields nor drinking water, amidst absolute societal chaos and upheaval. If we each manage to “do our part”, however—so it goes—we will avoid it, and perhaps even be rewarded with, miraculously, what we had “before”: lush forests, pristine waters, people inhabiting communes. Such imagery still dominates environmental media; and if they are not, they are likely to have been internalised.
Perhaps in a similar vein, we ought to mention the narrative within mainstream science: the most authoritative voice, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, speaks in scenarios and pathways, emphasising the need to keep us within 1.5°C warming to avoid climate catastrophe. To be fair, climate scientists certainly have, especially more recently, pointed to how the situation globally is already alarming. But certainly, also, with the release of every new report, this narrative within the science further cements the illusion of choice between a world of climate disaster and a world with less of it.
(Multiple truths can exist simultaneously: that it is true we must pursue the 1.5°C pathway at all costs and avoid more climate disaster, but that it is also true that there are many for whom this climate disaster is already an unliveable reality and thus that there is no choice.)
So it is worth reflecting more deeply on how much the movement and its rhetoric hinge on these conceptualisations of “our” future(s). Who is the collective that has the luxury of choice between these futures? Who thinks about, and has been thinking about, the earth that we (are lucky enough in our lifetimes to) inhabit in this way? For the many communities across the world who experience the climate crisis’ effects, the future has already been compromised. The “better option” we speak of simply does not exist.
We should think too of the ways in which the climate crisis has been undoubtedly engendered* by colonialism and globalised industrialised capitalism (modern-day colonialism), and in recent decades driven by the fossil fuel industrial complex, which has thus not only compromised futures for communities through oil spills, air pollution, and unforgivable amounts of carbon emissions, but also compromised futures for communities through the death, war and destruction it has instigated or dirtied its hands in. The devastation that we see in relation to climate change is necessarily intertwined with the devastation we see in relation to imperialist warfare everywhere.
So who does this rhetoric then serve? By focusing our lenses on the future, we thus allow these real forces and actors to escape culpability and accountability for what they have already done, and what they continue to do. We prioritise and operate in timelines that make invisible and abandon the histories of the most impacted communities, evading a much-needed sense of urgency. Those who do not experience the crises now can conveniently ignore what is happening, and not have to think about it for another day. Actions, mobilisation, change, can be delayed for another day. The narrative hides, albeit in plain sight, the inconvenient realities of the present.
Thus the marginalised and most impacted are deemed “voiceless”—though it is not that they do not have a voice; it is that these narratives drown them out, and they have been silenced from speaking their truth and the circumstances that they face. Worse, they are being gaslit every day by this rhetoric: because in this rhetoric the suffering is ignored, the problem is centred around the future as if the present is not bad enough, as if the crises are not real.
To dismantle the problem we must look more closely at its roots. The question is: why is the “future” rhetoric so compelling? One answer to that has to do with thinking about colonial constructs of futures: centuries-long conquests have been embarked on on the promise of fertile lands and an abundance of resource elsewhere; colonialism was founded upon terra nulius, the idea that we can start afresh someplace else, building empires on clean slates—except, of course, these lands were never empty, and in fact they were occupied by people, communities, and entire cultures, which were devastated, enslaved, massacred.
The same sentiment is being applied in the mainstream environmental movement: there is a utopic future imagined by corporations and governments, one that pretends as if the climate disasters that are happening now do not exist, that pretends as if we can get there if we “save” the environment, conveniently leaving out the fact that getting there involves harm too, just that it’s harm displaced to other regions of the world, an “away” that functions as an abyss. A renewable energy future, for example, involves threatening Indigenous land and destabilising entire regions for minerals. (It’s worth pointing out that the same people who are investing in “clean” energy are investing in space exploration: another new frontier that also involves a great deal of harm on the way.)
All of this is not to say that a future with climate justice, or a future with sanctuary for all, is not possible. It’s to say that it will not come easily: our problems will not magically disappear. If they could, we would simply be building a future that was exclusive to whoever could afford it. It’s also to say that there is great violence in centring our movements around the “future” as it is conceptualised now, as if we don’t have to actively work our way through the present crises—and work to build bridges to get to that future—which have been and continue to affect communities across the world. We cannot be enraptured by the idea of a “future” as if that utopia isn’t built on top of ruins.
“All utopian visions have this in common: the mental projection of a future time when all will be well, we will be saved, there will be peace and harmony and the end of our problems. There have been many such utopian visions. … Nothing is going to make us free because only the present moment can make us free. That realization is the awakening. Awakening as a future event has no meaning because awakening is the realization of Presence.”
Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth
Our environmental movements must be grounded in the present. As bell hooks said: “To be truly visionary we have to root our imagination in our concrete reality while simultaneously imagining possibilities beyond that reality.” That is the nuanced “future” that we should be centring: we need to be brutally aware, eyes wide open, of the crises we are already dealing with, but also capable of, and brave enough to be, thinking through how we can negotiate possibilities for better, from where we are, not in another imagined place, in another imagined time. That is what it means to be reclaiming the future, and that is what we must do now.
*We explicitly chose to use the word “engendered” here rather than “caused”. To be clear, colonialism and capitalism are essential causes of the climate crisis. That being said, naming it as such also runs the risk of us reducing a phenomenon that runs much deeper into a historical time period. It was not simply a matter of “bad people” doing “bad things”: there were misguided notions, a lack of empathy and fear-based decision-making, a desire to tell a story to themselves that some humans meant less, which perhaps come from a superiority complex, etc. Frantz Fanon, who explores psychopathology and colonialism, is one such thinker who elucidates the deeper questions around this question.