Trees on Mars: Our Obsession with the Future
By Hal Niedzviecki
Seven Stories Press, 320 pages, $19
Reviewed by Mike Stimpson
There's a scene in the 1986 film Half Moon Street in which a banker at a dinner party says the world isn't billions of people, but only a few thousand; there are smatterings of individuals in the globe's major cities who matter, he's saying, and all the rest of us don't.
Early chapters of Toronto writer Hal Niedzviecki's thought-provoking fourth non-fiction book (he's also a novelist) bring that scene to mind as he describes how lucrative "challenges" and competitions sponsored by the ultra-rich incentivize tech geniuses to come up with ways to improve civilization with forward leaps in innovation.
That competition approach is supplemented by high schools, colleges and universities with corporate-sponsored programs designed to, in Niedzviecki's words, "prepare students to get to the future first." By which he means anticipating or "knowing" what comes next and developing the right innovations to make the most of the future.
It's an elitist outlook. Like the pompous man in the movie, proponents of this perspective think only a small percentage of humanity (the very wealthy and the very smart) matters and the rest of us are relying on them.
Niedzviecki contends the way we think of the future has changed in two key ways: We now think we can control it, and there seems to be a consensus we must compete with each other to "own" it. This is "a vast systemic shift in our consciousness," he says.
The elite-centred drive to own or "win the future" is all about competition, profit, private greed and individualism. There's not much talk of community or the masses, except as a market for future-conquering innovations.
It wasn't always so, Niedzviecki points out. Getting to the moon was presented as something for all of America in the 1960s. The world's fairs were showcases of technology with the promise of making everybody's life better.
Now the future is a source of anxiety. Youth feel pressure to be among the winners, because life for the losers won't be easy.
Anxiety about "owning the future" comes through when Niedzviecki meets with nine recent university graduates in Toronto. He asks them to jot down a few words on "what you think about when you think about the future," and the group mostly responds with expressions of "their present-day yearning for jobs, stability, a clear path." They don't declare bold dreams of a better world for humanity; they want economic security for themselves and worry they'll not see it for a long while, if ever.
Whether the owning-the-future ideology really is as pervasive and influential as he says is open to debate, but Niedzviecki makes a convincing case it is ultimately toxic.
He also entertains the reader along the way with accounts of visits to academic institutions and tech conferences, not to mention interviews with interesting people such as an Alberta woman who aspires to be among the first Earthlings to live on Mars.
When Trees on Mars is not causing you to worry a little about where society is headed, it is a fun ride. It makes you look forward to what its inquisitive author will produce in the future.