No future, or the permacrisis

Is there a future in times of permacrisis? Future progress depends on what we do today. People have always found ways to adapt.

The word of the year for 2022, according to the Collins Dictionary, was permacrisis. At first glance, it looks like a paradox, since even the Collins Dictionary defines a crisis as a turning point, or an unstable period, and thus temporary. How can a turning point be permanent? Are we really turning around all the time?

However, the permacrisis moniker neatly captures the loss of stability, the crisis mode we live in with a pandemic, a war in Europe, strained supply chains, high inflation, an energy crisis, and climate change as a backdrop. On the financial side, the European Central Bank has been in permanent crisis mode for 15 years now.

Meanwhile, the Last Generation movement throws food at great pieces of art.

Jump back 46 years, and we find ourselves in 1977. Queen Elizabeth II celebrates her Silver Jubilee, and the Sex Pistols produce these lyrics: “God save the queen / She ain’t no human being / There is no future / In England’s dreaming”. Here it is, one of the key slogans of the punk movement: no future.

Are we back in the 1970s?

It was the time of the first oil crisis, inflation hit hard, the Cold War was raging on, and the Club of Rome already warned of the limits to growth. As a child of the 70s, I fondly remember the mood of the times, or the zeitgeist if you will. I grew up with the peace and environmental movement, which gave birth to the Green party, and Greenpeace.

The end of progress?

What punk expressed in those days was the feeling that the way of life at that time had no future. Capitalism was thought to be part of the problem, not the solution. Even more, the concept of progress itself came fundamentally into question.

For centuries, since the early days of modernity, progress had been a cornerstone of both the political left and the right. Social progress on the left counterbalanced technological progress on the right, and in post-war Germany, the idea of a social market economy (Soziale Marktwirtschaft) reconciled both in a free-market welfare state. In the 1970s, all of this was plunged into a series of crises.

The no-future generation also had economic underpinnings that lay in their demographics. Those born in the period from 1955 to 1969 – the Baby Boomers – had issues integrating themselves into the labour force. There were simply too many of them, so the shaky economy could not employ them. This issue extended well into the 1990s.

A recession in the mid-1970s, dismal economic growth in the early 1980s, and rising unemployment darkened the outlook for the future. Combine that with the nuclear arms debate and Waldsterben, the forest dieback at that time, and we arrive at a bleak picture. A few years later, in 1986, the Chernobyl disaster happened. A polycrisis, if you will, or a permacrisis.

In a way, the debate on the end of progress still lingers today. Steven Pinker, ever the optimist, is waving the flag of progress and enlightenment. In a 2019 interview, he put things into perspective:

There was a fear in the 1970s that the world would very quickly run out of oil. Now, of course, the problem is too much oil not too little. So solutions create new problems and we do have new problems but its good to remember that the problems of yesteryear were pretty severe as well.

Future progress depends on what we do today

To his credit, he doesn’t perceive progress as a one-way street:

That is probably the biggest misconception of progress, in that it is a force that is inexorably makes everything better, that wouldn’t be progress. That would be a miracle and progress is not a miracle. There are absolutely regressions, things get worse. The two world wars, the 1960s to 1980s crime boom. Epidemics such as the Spanish Flu or and AIDS in Africa. There was a burst of civil wars and decolonisation in the developing world starting in the 1960s so things could absolutely get worse and there’s no guarantee that they’ll get better in the future, it depends on what we do today.

Just a year after this interview, we added the Covid-19 pandemic to the list. Progress is not a given, neither on the left nor the right. At NEXT22, David Mattin explained how the political framework of left vs right is increasingly obsolete:

If we do things as we are now, everything will change. We’ll hit a climate breakdown.

If keeping things the same changes everything, the conservative versus progressive framework no longer makes sense.

In my book, the progressive label has constantly been misleading. There is a bonmot by Franz Josef Strauß that he once uttered:

Konservativ sein heißt, an der Spitze des Fortschritts zu marschieren. (Being conservative means marching at the forefront of progress.)

This is only a paradox on the surface. Mainstream conservatives always believed in technological progress. They were, however, sceptical about social progress, since they see human beings with their characteristics, needs and desires as fundamentally constant.

Generation Permacrisis

Today, there still is a faction that strongly believes in technological progress, even up to a point where it transcends human limits. The opposite faction expects civilisation to collapse unless we restrain ourselves. The latter is akin to the no-future mentality of punk. In a way, the Last Generation comes from the same school. Even the name conveys the message that there’s no future.

It’s less clear though whether this movement intends to accelerate or slow down the collapse of civilisation. The permacrisis of the early 2020s has demonstrated a remarkable amount of resilience. Our systems are stressed, but they adapted and continued to operate. The global energy crisis only accelerates the green energy transition.

The idea that there is no future is – whether intended or not – a self-defeating prophecy. This year’s Accenture Life Trends report is confident that, “as they have for millennia, people are adapting to instability”. Adaptation can be hard, and it won’t solve everything. People employ different strategies to cope. For example:

When people don’t know how to plan for the future, or when their autonomy to plan is compromised, they naturally channel their attention on things they can control.

Resignation can be another coping mechanism. Young people, the report says, are refusing “to invest significant effort in life because it seems futile”. Here we go again, another no-future generation. Different from punk in the 1980s and 1990s, Generation Z is smaller and therefore highly sought after on the labour market.

Even in times of permacrisis, there would be a future for this generation in case they want one. What future they choose remains to be seen.

People will come through this period. The way they adapt will likely define a generation and the products they love.

Of course, past performance is no guarantee of future results. The future depends on what we do today.

Pictured above is our long-time curator Monique van Dusseldorp (on the right) at the age of 15 with punk hair, clothes, and safety pin earring in front of a wall full of graffiti.