Maybe it’s the never ending pandemic. Or the heat wave currently wreaking havoc in places around the world as we ease into the long summer months, but Amazon’s recent release of The Tomorrow War resonated with me in a way that I’m not sure it fully intended to do. Certainly there is room for its obvious concern for “tomorrow” to translate into specific scenarios (if not an alien invasion then why not a pandemic or discussion of a potential future Hothouse Earth scenario).
Beyond mere correlation though, the film hit on some very real insecurities and fears that have been mounting in me as of late regarding these monumental realities. Some of this comes down to a line spoken by one of the women of the future, revealed in the opening sequences, where she contrasts “sentimentality” with the definite fact that this world they occupy will end. Now, there is a point in this film where this tension (between sentimentality and reality) does get swept up into a more hopeful disposiiton based on “our” ability to do something about it now (how that does or whether that does translate to certain resolutions I’ll leave for the film to reveal on its own time), but the most invogorating and tantalizing part of this very expensive blockbuster is actually the portion of the film that willingly spends time sitting in this tension and allowing it to ruminate and unsettle us as viewers.
For me, a never-ending pandemic with no firm as of yet promise of our human capacity to fully solve it, or a heat wave that seems to be giving fresh voice to the discussions that emerged with force in the early months of last year, particularly regarding the seemingly inevitable future of a warming earth now at a point of no return, is a tough thing to reconcile with my attempts to see the positive in the everyday. That’s simply if I’m being honest. Now, to be fair, many of these articles do still speak of the potential for us to redirect this path towards a better tomorrow, but most of the evidence seems to suggest that warming will continue and that this will cause challenges for humanity in the next 50 years. For all that is made of the human capacity to make this world better and be in control of our future, mass graves being uncovered at residential schools, the sheer inequity exposed by both a virus and a vaccine, rampant racism and division that continues South of the border, wars and conflicts and poverty and tragedy of man-made and natural proportions seem to suggest something different. Sure, we can speak about longer life spans and higher standards of living as evidence of modernity’s ability to solve our problems and move us from the depths of history towards a new and greater age ripe with freedoms and longevity and general prospering, but it would be a gross mistake to count this as equality or “progress” on a moral front. Even modern day movements like the womans liberation and the fight for greater rights for LBGTQ+ communities can be located somewhere in the past with an even more rigorous expression than we find them receiving today.
This might be the result of that old Darwinian falsehood that sees evolution as somehow linear and progressive and forward moving, but such “progressive” ideals are far better understood as part of a cyclical nature that ebbs and flows with the currents of what one could fairly deem actual “progress” (societal and technological development). Same questions, different context. Same problems, different pile. To see it as otherwise is to subscribe arbitrary categories for the kind of suffering we encounter today as somehow less valid and less shocking than the suffering that preceded it (represented in the belief that we live in the least violent, least suffered, least-“insert here”- society of all of history, which is a tired sentiment at this point).
Perhaps this owes something to that old adage that suggests every generation thinks the next one is going to hell in a handbasket, but when it comes to that inevitable question of “tomorrow”, what strikes me about the headlines today is that the finger is pointed straight at us as being beligerent, ignorant, racist… insert here…, and this sentiment isn’t wrong. It doesn’t take much digging to find the dire news populating online sources and discourse. In terms of the ecological discussion, article after article project that we will (not might) be facing a world that is too hot for humans to surive in the next 50-70 years. Add to that the increasing consciousness of viral threats (a problem that stems from a global society with an increasing ecological footprint) and, well, queue my anxiety. The call to “live for today” feels shallow and hollow in the current climate at best, irrelevant at worst.
Now, before I digress fully into “the world’s going to hell in handbasket” mode, let me be clear. I struggle with this tension. I do my best to live beyond it. On this front, the real problem I face in navigating this notion of “tomorrow” is navigating the narratives that surround it. I’m a person who likes to ask why, which is sometimes a good thing and other times this is best left alone in favour of more optimistic discourse. The “why” question gains relevance in the film The Tomorrow Wars precisely when the reality of tomorrow appears written in stone (or time). The world will end. Apply this to the heatwave and it becomes “the world will soon be too hot for humans” in the next 50 years. Apply this to a pandemic and it becomes “the world will be facing widespread pandemics” in the next 50 years. Apply this even larger and one could point to something like the recent book The End of Everything by cosmologist/astrophysicist Katie Mack as a question not of when but how (okay, with some when thrown in for good measure… hint, a small cosmoloical shift could bring it about tomorrow).
Humanity will end. The earth will end. The universe will end. We might have a decent set of years to see how far we get with this whole idea of “human innovation”, but even then, when it comes to navigating something like Hothouse Earth what becomes evident is that our biggest problem remains ourselves. Or further to that point, our mass populations and the inequality that maintains it (to be fair, there is a rebuttle to this that is compelling, but even then inequality and consumption remains well within its sights). Further, on the level of scientific study there is a decent case to be made that our mass populations and the functions that flow from these populations that regulate them and maintain them remains the reason why humans haven’t evolved beyond where we are (also a hotly contested topic that is currently being debated), Even those arguing for evidence of modern day evolution in humans tend towards citing more adaptive responses and examples which require smaller, disparate and spread out populations to work (see debates above). And when it comes to the current and growing human population, the fact that we have to factor in questions of an evolving morality remains the biggest challenge we have to technological progress and artifical evolution (the move towards genetic innovation and human bred technology and environmental influence). Otherwise you can be sure that we would have cures for cancer and be well on our way to populating space by now. Even when considering the Hothouse Earth scenario, the problem isn’t human survival, but what to do with the masses that colonize coastal cities and third world countries and which rely on mass production of farming and ecological stability, ect.. This is a moral question. Or to put it otherwise in line with the film- this is a question of sentimentality.
But why be sentimental about mass humanity’s fate? After all, a Hothouse Earth would be good news for the portion of humanity that would eventually thrive within it. Certain portions of the planet will become “eden” like and adaptive to these new climate realities, and those with the means will be able to make the most of it. Sentimentality reallocates at least some of humanity’s obligation to addressing the question of the whole in the interim, that is those who, given the speed of these coming changes, will be the ones to suffer, to die, and to struggle. This is the same mentality used to justify a vaccine rollout which many argue should rightly serve the first world first (after all, your third world country is simply eating it’s own cake and sleeping in its own bed, right?…. I heard that reasoning echoed in two different articles this past week).
Add to this the convoluted narratives that accompany these first world and upper class discussions. For those with the privilege of asking these questions from this vantage point, it basically comes down to three motvations (not including religious ones, which come with their own set of questions)- you either privilge nature, humanity, or progress. One can claim these are interconnected, but when it comes to understanding the narrative and taking stock of allegiances and motivations both real and rhetoricized, one of these plays the dominant role. If it is nature, you will hear people speaking about how nature would be better off without humanity and how, in some unarticulated fashion, the problem is that humanity has changed and affected the role and balance of nature. Thus whatever nature does and whatever nature wills should be the thing we submit ourselves to, even if this means our extinction. The problem with this of course is that we aren’t facing the upsetting of the natural balance (the earth has fluctuated many times before, we’ve seen many extinctions before humanity ever came to be and since, and hothouse earth’s and ice ages have dominated the natural course since the beginning), we are facing an expidited climate change that will wreak havoc on a fair portion of humanity and its economic stability. As well, suggesting that the natural order is the highest ideal doesn’t account for evolution since the arrival of humans and the discovery of fire. The whole course of evolution changed from that point on, with most of it being artificially produced even before Modernity. Naturalism doesn’t really have an end game either, it just has an assumed and imposed morality that gives it its proper power over us (as part of the natural world).
If humanity takes precedence then we begin to attend for some level of human exceptionalism. Here we reserve some degree of rights for survival at the expense of the natural world. We need it, but if it comes down to it that bear will die if it encroaches on human territory. And Western society has long demonstrated that civilization reserves the right to relocate habitats, articially redirect land purposes, and generally conduct ordered society accordingly, including heated and cooled homes, sewage systems, all the way up to the minute modern conveniences. Human exceptionalism assumes that we are responsible for our future and long term survival, and that will happen beyond the confines of this present earth.
Or progress becomes the highest value. The most important elements of this view are the questions associated with what long term survival means and looks like, particularly when it comes to making choices that favor technological progress at the expense of human and natural life (assumptions that get made all the time). In this narrative, humanity isn’t relegated to our mere human form, but rather the future is determined by technology and its ability to transform our present humanity into its next iteration in our artificially bred evolutionary story. This might mean one thing when talking about an artificial heart, but the near future will be asking questions of the mind and brain that far surprass any figurative boundaries we feel might be in place even now.
And all for the concern of longetivity of life and future as the primary measure of success. We are obsessed with the future, whether we want to admit it or not.
And this is the conversation that informs our future. We all know it. We just rarely like to see it in these terms in their most honest form. We like the narratives spun positively because they give us purpose and allow us to be sentimental about nature, human life or progress. The perpetual romanticizing of the future to pad the present, allowing us to create these kinds of narratives, is what gives life its meaning in the present.
Until something throws you into upheavel and you find that human ambitions can’t change this reality. Until you face suffering or tragedy that suddenly cascades all this future obession back into the present with a certain degree of fervor and disallusionment. Nihilists have famously in recent history given much attention to attacking our denial of the meaningless present with vigor. They claim religion is obsessed with “tomorrow” to the detriment of our ability to face death itself as part of our present reality. There’s a reason why its very rare to encounter someone who actually lives as a nihilist. We can romanticize death, but only inso far as we have a narrative to shape the future in its place, be it nature, human exceptionalism or progress. This is no diferent than attending to the very difficult tension of this present reality by means of faith in religion, desiring hope for the future that makes sense and can live up to its promise. The most egrarious challenge of secular society (I hate that term, but for lack of a better one) is contending for or acknowledging its own highly irrational assumptions when it comes to “meaning-making” or the necessary sentimentalization of this world. It does seem to be ingrained into the human condition to need to imagine a future and find some kind of hope in a meaning-making narrative. Secularists must contend with the fact that we then must thrive on “false” narratives that sell ourselves everday on something that is not true just in order to survive and keep moving forward.
The main character in The Tomorrow War is Chris Pratt. His challenge is finding meaning-making in a reality that seems to have revealed itself as meaningless. The future is revealed, and humanity will end. So what we do? How do we respond? How do we continue to exist and move forward? From where do we find hope, and how do we avoid simply collapsing into frivilous revelries of the moment and seizing the day, end of the universe or the world or life be dammed? More importantly, how do we make sense of those sentimentalisms that seem to still be pervasive in the souls of much of humanity? To what end is there worth in giving oneself for the sake for another and investing our time and energy into their well being when the same end point can be seen for all involved? These questions shift with the story in the film into different forms and different interests. But for a good deal of it they do permeate the activity and the choices and concerns that face our characters. And when they begin to take on a slightly different emphasis, it becomes easy to become skepical of the narrative that allows them to do this without seeming contradiction. It seems to both be pointing to some kind of universal truth about the human experience while also betraying this same truth. Which is also a reflection of the tension I’ve mentioned above. The real question is, is false hope made true simply because we believe it to be so, or does the fact this hope is false shed light on the meaninglessness of it all. Something tells me this depends on the questions we are willing to or want to ask in this direction.
And yet, for as skeptical as one can be, there is something unavoidable about the presence of hope within these narratives, our narratives, and the place it demands in our daily life. That seems to say something about how life, which to date has no real shared definition within the scientific community, works, and even more so how humanity (slightly more defined) works. The fact that it is within our humanity that we find the clearest definitions of life taking root seems to suggest this hope might be something we are forced to contend with, which is why I supposed this tension exists. Tension is, by its very nature, hope as much as it is doubt. And sometimes when it feels and appears all is dire and written in stone, that’s enough to carry us forward into the places that truly matter. And in pandemics, genocides, climate change and hothouse earth potentials, those happen to be places of hardship, struggle and suffering that desperately long for this hope to emerge.