Messages of doom pervade our lives. Doom may find all of us. One thing I am sure of, though, is that if we act on a belief that we have no future, we will have less of the life we wanted once we get there. Having hope for the future affects how we live in the here and now. That’s because we invest in our lives and loves today because we believe in tomorrow. 

Is the future imperiled in ways beyond what humans have dealt with before? Maybe. On the other hand, while there are constant messages that the sky is falling, life has steadily and massively gotten better for an extraordinary number of humans in the relative blink of an eye. Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker has made a second (or third) career of pointing out vast evidence of progress. He also believes that intellectuals, especially progressives, are too often denying progress. Perhaps this is a natural result of having such a strong focus on a need for change — a need so urgent that one must try to motivate the un-panicked.

Pinker also points out that news “capitalizes on our morbid interests” when it could (or could also) promote more positive stories such as the fact that, in his words, “137,000 people escaped from extreme poverty, yesterday [and] every day for the last 25 years.” And please note that one can believe in what is truly amazing progress while also believing in doing more to help those struggling with poverty or other imperiling circumstances. 

It’s not crazy to worry about a dangerous future. Further, there are vast numbers of people in the world coping with real threats for their own futures because of poverty, famine, illness, or war. Suffering exists everywhere, and we should not expect a life without it. Accepting these facts, my focus here is on how too many people may be robbed of a fuller life because they believe too strongly in a bleak future. 

Fear could mean delaying looking for a mate, delaying or foregoing having children — or foregoing these things by simply delaying them for too long — putting off getting more education or a desired job or career that is most desired, and so forth. It’s hard to maintain the long-view while holding a short-view.

I am far from the only one raising this concern. Ezra Klein recently wrote about how fears regarding climate change are affecting people’s plans for children. He writes, “To bring a child into this world has always been an act of hope.” He also notes that every climate scientist he knows well has children. 

Another article highlights how some people have stopped saving for the future because the world is a mess. (It has been for a long time!) I get that many people can hardly save when they are just trying to make it through the present, but there are others who could save and who are being talked out of doing so because it’s all — only — happening now. 

Stoking fear may be a good motivator for some collective action problems, but it can also paralyze personal investment in life. At some point, to have what we hope for, we need to decide to live our life in the present as if we are going to have a future. 

Some Ways I Was Told the Sky is Falling

Being told there may not be a future is a common human experience. Here are just some of the ways I have been told I may not have a future in the past:

  • Cold War Annihilation: I grew up in Dayton, Ohio, home of Wright Patterson Air Force Base, which was both a small Strategic Air Command’s (SAC) installation and a strategic asset for other reasons. I did the duck and cover under your desk drills in 1st grade (a grade I repeated, by the way, so maybe I was a slow learner at this life skill). Watch that video and think about the effect on a young person. At home, we had a cellar stocked with food and many gallons of water regularly refreshed by me and my mother. Worldwide nuclear annihilation could happen now, and it could have happened back then. But it didn’t and it hasn’t — not yet, anyway. 
  • Earth Wrecked: By 7th and 8th grade, we heard repeatedly about damaged air, dirt, and water, and the catastrophes awaiting us on earth. This was often coupled with concerns about running out of ways to feed people on the ever more damaged earth. There were real concerns, but what was not seemingly anticipated was how much progress could be made protecting air and water. This was long before any focus on global warming. In fact, in the early 1970s, the serious fear was global cooling because of particulates blocking the sun. I remember feeling more fear about these things than of being nuked — at least the latter might be over fast. 
  • Vietnam: Being exposed to war (or lots of news about one) affects a person’s sense of risks and a future. Vietnam had a lot of salience for me because I was in the generation of those who first saw the realities of war on television. I also would have been a little less worried about Vietnam if I’d had a much higher draft number. 
  • Armageddon: If you are of a certain faith background, and you were alive in the early 1970s, you could not have failed to know about the book The Late Great Planet Earth. The author was sure it was all ending very, very soon. There are theological views of the end times, and the view at the time in certain circles was that the end of all things was at hand. As an aside, the book featured massive wars around the Middle East involving Russia and China. Back then, I didn’t think it likely I’d graduate from college, much less marry or have children. (Actual score: 3 degrees, 40 years of marriage, and 2 kids.)

That’s just in my life experience. Add to this list the large and present fear of global warming. As I have noted, Klein’ s piece is centered on this fear. I believe climate change is real and serious. I believe there is warming and that it is partially man made. Further, I don’t believe we are doing enough, and largely because I don’t believe we are making the best choices about possible interim solutions. It worries me. 

On the other hand, the present fears feel exactly like the messages of doom I heard in the 1960s and 70s, except that now the messages of fear are rolling as if on steroids in our social media and ideologically-driven world. Maybe climate change is going to be the end of everything. If not that, maybe nuclear war will do the job. Or, maybe one of the super volcanos of the earth will go off and take most of life as we know it, mostly because of global cooling. (And, to be clear, Denver is not far enough from Yellowstone for my taste).                 

Fear Globally, Act Locally

Stoking fear may be a good motivator for some collective action problems, but it can also paralyze personal investment in life. At some point, to have what we hope for, we need to decide to live our life in the present as if we are going to have a future. 

What do you want in life? Do you want a certain career or type of job? Do you want to travel? Do you want to marry? Do you want to have children or have more children? I cannot answer these questions for you, but I can offer this advice: it’s best to live your life as if you will have a future. Otherwise, when you get there, it will be less than you’d hoped for. 

Fear shrinks life, if we let it. 

Republished from the Institute for Family Studies blog with permission.