Kenneth Boulding on Posterity

A society which loses its identity with posterity and which loses its positive image of the future loses also its capacity to deal with present problems, and soon falls apart.

Kenneth Boulding is the thinker who lent us the metaphor of Spaceship Earth, back in 1966:

Kenneth Boulding, The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth, 1966

It is always a little hard to find a convincing answer to the man who says, “What has posterity ever done for me?” and the conservationist has always had to fall back on rather vague ethical principles postulating identity of the individual with some human community or society which extends not only back into the past but forward into the future. Unless the individual identifies with some community of this kind, conservation is obviously “irrational.” Why should we not maximize the welfare of this generation at the cost of posterity? “Après nous, le déluge” has been the motto of not insignificant numbers of human societies. The only answer to this, as far as I can see, is to point out that the welfare of the individual depends on the extent to which he can identify himself with others, and that the most satisfactory individual identity is that which identifies not only with a community in space but also with a community extending over time from the past into the future. If this kind of identity is recognized as desirable, then posterity has a voice, even if it does not have a vote; and in a sense, if its voice can influence votes, it has votes too. This whole problem is linked tip with the much larger one of the determinants of the morale, legitimacy, and “nerve” of a society, and there is a great deal of historical evidence to suggest that a society which loses its identity with posterity and which loses its positive image of the future loses also its capacity to deal with present problems, and soon falls apart.

Boulding teaches us that referring to posterity instead of the future leads to a dramatic change in perspective. ‘Posterity’ implies continuity of society and the obligations of those living now to future inheritors, a living commitment, while ‘the future’ is a distant land peopled by strangers to whom we have no ties.

We need to colonize the future ourselves, we must make our own maps of that territory, maps that show us as inhabitants and inheritors, making new economics, breaking with the deals and disasters of the past, and committing again to each other: to be a community and not consumers, to be partners and not competitors, to be from the future and beyond the past.

Boulding is very much a modern man, a product of the first half of the 20th century, when concern for posterity was a duty of the elite. In the postmodern, posterity was mined, exploited for all it held, and all that was left was ‘the future’. And now, at the outset of the post-normal, ‘the future’ is just a pile of slag left behind by people we don’t remember, just a pile of sci fi stills and economist’s powerpoints with the lines all trending in the wrong direction.

We have reached the point that Boulding wrote about: our leaders — our culture — provide us no images of the future other than dystopia and decline. We need to colonize the future ourselves, we must make our own maps of that territory, maps that show us as inhabitants and inheritors, making new economics, breaking with the deals and disasters of the past, and committing again to each other: to be a community and not consumers, to be partners and not competitors, to be from the future and beyond the past.

Originally published at www.stoweboyd.com 22 September 2012.

Work ecologist. Founder, Work Futures. The ecology of work and the anthropology of the future.

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