Consider PD James' Children of Men not as the rather conventional thriller that it turns out to be, with "The Good Guys" racing to save "The Only Hope for the Human Race" from "The Bad Guys", but as a dystopian thought experiment.
The book's premise, as you doubtless know by now, is that the human race can no longer reproduce, and is condemned to watch itself die a slow, whimpering death. In the first few chapters, before the conventional thriller takes over, PD James takes time to spell out some of the implications of this premise: the ache for children, the loss of interest in sex, the general ennui, the organised group suicides.
For me, this part of the book ended all too soon. Could we go back and explore that a bit further? How much of your life, how many of your daily routines and projects, would cease to have any meaning without an assumed future generation to carry on your work? Would you bother learning anything new? give to charity? campaign, or vote? invest in the stock market? plant trees? recycle your aluminum cans? fall in love and marry?
How many of our jobs would still matter? We would still want food, of course, electricity, cars, dentists, policemen; but would there be much point in the educational system, the legal system, the publishing industry, the campaigning charities, the construction industry, or that huge financial machine known as The City? For politicians, only three or four issues would continue to matter: utilities, care for the elderly, keeping us amused and safe enough to end out our days with a semblance of order and dignity. Would we still have any motivation to be responsible, honorable, unselfish -- or even to get out of bed in the morning?
My point is simple: the implicit future gives meaning to practically everything we do. When environmentalists talk about the need to prevent catastrophic climate change, they often speak about our responsibility to future generations. They invoke this as a general moral principle, a sort of Kantian duty to the unborn that might somehow motivate us to change the way we live now; as if, without this duty, our only care would be to ensure that the end of our own life was comfortable. Après moi le déluge -- or in this case, perhaps, après moi le désert.
If we were religious in the conventional Biblical sense, the end of civilisation might not matter to us; perhaps God means it to end anyway, and besides the meaning for our lives would lie in our eternal life, not in this temporal one. But for most of us, any meaning we have lies in this life, because there is no other. We know this, and are no longer surprised at it. What we don't so often articulate is how much of that meaning is tied up with an assumption of continuing life. Not our own personal lives, which will come to an end; but the continuation of human civilization -- imperfect, of course, but still somehow splendid, and still striving to be better. Our lives rest on this assumption as surely as the lives of conventional Christians rest in God; we might even say, to borrow from orthodox theology, that the future is that in which we live and move and have our being.
"Time past and time future", wrote Eliot, "point to one end, which is always present." Why pretend to worry about the future unborn? If civilisation dies out before they are born, they will never know the difference. The real focus of concern is ourselves, our own lives. We think about the future, campaign for it, invest in it, worry about it, practically all the time; our lives would be empty without it. So forget some falsely unselfish duty to some vague future generation: saving the future is really about saving ourselves -- from meaninglessness, from emptiness, from the end of hope. "I can understand now", says PD James' hero, "how the aristocrats and great landowners with no hope of posterity leave their estates untended...Without the hope of posterity, for our race if not for ourselves, without the assurance that we being dead yet live, all pleasures of the mind and senses...seem to me no more than pathetic and crumbling defenses shored up against our ruins."
Patti currently works as Director of Resources for Forum for the Future. Prior to working at the Forum she worked at the International Secretariat of Amnesty International, initially as Director of Information Technology and subsequently as Deputy Secretary General.