Rethinking the Future

Tom Ellis
8 min readSep 6, 2023

“There’s a great, big, beautiful tomorrow…”

— Theme Song (from Disney) at the General Electric Pavilion, 1964 New York World’s Fair

When I was 14, my mother drove my sister and me to the New York World’s Fair, in the Long Island suburbs, where — alongside the international exhibits, most of the world’s largest multinational corporations also had big, flashy pavilions. The General Electric pavilion consisted of a rotating set of four auditoriums that carried their viewers around four different tableaus, where a robotic host sitting in a plush chair guided us through the past, present, and imagined future of technological innovations in a domestic setting. As each of the episodes concluded, the entire auditorium rotated to the next stage as the host (backed by a recorded choir) joyously sang the theme, “There’s a great, big, beautiful tomorrow…

This was, in 1964, the dominant ideology of America and the (“developed”) industrial world. Our nation and civilization as a whole were both optimistic about, and obsessed with the future, which was widely envisioned as a techno-utopia, where everyone was rich and happy; all our education, from kindergarten through college, was geared to prepare us for this glorious future, filled with opportunities.

While much has changed since then, this shared vision of a glamorous, technologically enriched, suburban future paradise has not; particularly as it is reflected in mainstream media advertising and in our school and college curricula. The first thing most children are asked these days is, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The answers, however various, are usually couched in visions of even greater affluence than they presently enjoy. This is, after all, what their parents and elders expect.

Greta Thunberg’s one-person school strike for climate awareness.

The problem, of course, is that this “great, big, beautiful tomorrow”…is history. It’s not going to happen. Greta Thunberg, a Swedish schoolgirl, rose to worldwide fame (or notoriety) by calling her elders’ bluff — by assuming the role of the little girl in “The Emperor’s New Clothes” who first points out that the emperor is, in fact, naked. With droll but implacable anger, this young girl simply went on strike, because after reading up on the climate crisis, she realized that all her teachers were lying to her — that her promised future had been stolen by her elders’ utter failure to reduce carbon emissions sufficiently to prevent a collapse of our life support systems, and hence of our industrial civilization, before she reaches adulthood. The ongoing acceleration, in recent years, of climate catastrophes worldwide — wildfires, floods, droughts, and heat waves — has borne out Greta’s realization.

I do not blame either our educators, our politicians, nor even our commercial interests for perpetuating this (now obsolete) vision of the future as technologically enriched consumer paradise. Their livelihoods depend entirely on marketing this vision, and institutional inertia will prevail in corporate and political subcultures, preventing these influencers from going off-message, and threatening their jobs if they do.

But still, truth remains truth. A fossil fuel-driven, money-based (zero sum) economy based on the endless expansion of extraction of finite (and polluting) resources for the production and consumption of commodities, and hence of population to produce and consume these commodities, is fundamentally incompatible with a finite, ecologically complex planet. Our global market economy is therefore the cancer of the Earth, and now that cancer has reached its terminal phase, where collapse is inevitable, not only of the economy itself, but also of its biological support system — its topsoil, fresh water resources, stable climate, and forest cover with its diversity of species and ecosystems. The rapidity of the current rise of global temperature, sea levels, climate chaos, extinction rates, and melting ice caps and glaciers far exceeds, by several orders of magnitude, any other period in geological history; climate changes that once took thousands or hundreds of thousands of years are now occurring within decades, and there is no guarantee that most of our biological support system — our monocultural croplands, our tree plantations, our fisheries, our pollinating insects — will be able to survive the rapidly overheating climate.

In coming years, today’s children and youth will have to endure the cognitive dissonance of constant optimistic messages about their future from their teachers and from mass media advertising, juxtaposed with increasingly dire headlines about chaotic weather and collapsing infrastructures everywhere, such as heat waves, floods, wildfires, rising sea levels, disappearing species, desperate climate migrants, growing homelessness, resource wars, the rise of hateful fascist demagogues and fanatics, hyperinflation, and so on. This disjunction can only lead to steadily rising bleak cynicism, rage, and despair among youth, coupled with rising levels of pathological behavior, such as drug abuse, random violence, and suicide.

So what should we teach our children, instead of continuing to lie to them about the “great, big, beautiful tomorrow” they will never see? I do not have a good answer to this quandary. But my starting point in approaching this issue of rethinking the future is a line from Bob Marley: “The truth is an offense, but not a sin.”

I feel that all parents will soon have to think up our own version of what African American parents call “the Talk” when they first introduce their children to the grim reality of pervasive racial prejudice in the world they will inhabit as young adults. Only this, more generalized “Talk” will be aimed at deprogramming all students from the expectations for their future which their teachers and mass media have inculcated in them all along. Yet this “Talk” must not fill them with fear and despair, and nor must it turn them against their teachers. A tall order!

So here is one possible solution. Rather than telling them, point-blank, that all their authority figures have been lying to them, and that the real future they face will be nothing other than a relentless, accelerating sequence of ever-worsening catastrophes, we could, perhaps, start on a more invitational note, by showing them how to grow some of their own food in their backyard. As Bill Mollison once wisely noted, “Though the problems of the world are increasingly complex, the solutions remain embarrassingly simple.” And as his permaculture disciple Geoff Lawton put it, “You can fix all the world’s problems in a garden.”

My advice, in short, is to introduce schools and communities alike to a new, more adaptive vision of the future by propagating permaculture as quickly and effectively as possible. Permaculture, for those unfamiliar with the concept, is an ecological design methodology developed by Australian agronomist and visionary Bill Mollison, which has quickly grown into a global movement based on three core ethics: Earth Care, People Care, and Reinvesting the Surplus.

Permaculture, however, is still very much under the media radar. Though permaculture design projects have proliferated throughout the world, with remarkable success in every conceivable bioregion, the concept is still ignored by the cultural mainstream, and its practitioners are mostly small-scale homesteaders on the margins of society. So how can we make permaculture go mainstream?

My target audience for this is the suburbs, for suburbanites, as the biggest consumers, are the primary target audience of the advertising industry, and if they start to embrace permaculture, the concept could possibly go viral. To accomplish this, we need, however, to find new, more accessible terminology, since “permaculture” still has countercultural connotations for most people in Suburbia.

For this reason, I have created an initiative called “Garden Guilds,” which are groups of contiguous suburban neighbors who share an interest in growing some of their own food, and who meet periodically to share ideas and techniques over a potluck dinner at various members’ homes. The slogan I have come up with for such an initiative is as follows: “Grow Gardens, Grow Community, and Grow Awareness…by Learning, Teaching, Healing, and Creating.”

Design for a Lawn Sign for Garden Guilds.

Imagine if this became the core mission of educators everywhere! So that as our global consumer society collapses inevitably into ruin, neighborhood garden guilds spring up like wildflowers everywhere, sowing the seeds of a relocalized Gaian culture, based on permaculture design principles, amid the smoldering ruins of the Global Market Economy.

Where to start? Before we even get to a place where we can learn and teach young people basic food-growing skills in our backyards, these youths will need some wise and capable assistance in abandoning the fallacious dream of future prosperity and endless media distraction into which they have been indoctrinated. They will need, that is, to cultivate the inner resources common to successful permaculturists and earth-healers everywhere: health, competence, resilience, and patience. There are, of course, many paths to this goal, but here is one I wish to share. It takes the form of a simple mantra, consisting of ten verb phrases:

1. Breathe, Observe, Let Go.

2. Be well, Do good work, Keep in touch.

3. Learn, Teach, Heal, and Create.

Children and youth can easily be taught this practice; on each of ten breaths, they first contemplate, then practice, and finally vow to continue doing each of the above. These verb phrases are also excellent prompts for discussion, even among youth (I used them successfully for many years as a writing instructor with college freshmen).

The first three injunctions — breathe, observe, let go — comprise the basic arts of meditation: reclaiming and reinhabiting the present moment, in order to establish and maintain a mindset of benevolence, compassion, selfless joy, and equanimity.

The second three (borrowed from Garrison Keillor) comprise a generic daily agenda: to take good care, first, of our health and well-being; then to pay close, mindful attention to our daily chores, tasks, and projects; and finally, to take an interest in others.

The last four injunctions comprise a good, generic life agenda, no matter what happens in the world. This is what I would tell my students: (1) Everyone you meet and everything that happens is your teacher, so be ready at all times to learn; (2) Everyone you meet is (potentially) your student, whether you like them or not, so be ready at all times to teach them what they need to know; (3) Anyone or any living being you encounter may be hurting in some way, whether physically or emotionally, and may be in need of your healing attention and compassion; and (4) Everyone you meet may need your special gift — the creative ideas you might have for solving any problem or undertaking a new project — so be ready at all times to create.

By internalizing and cultivating these ten injunctions, young people can set themselves on a path toward becoming healing agents in a dying world — by growing gardens, growing community, and growing awareness. And though their “tomorrow” may not be “great” or “big,” it can still be beautiful — at least in their own backyards and neighborhoods. Permaculture is the key to shifting humanity (if, when, and where possible) from a parasitic to a symbiotic relationship with Gaia, our biological support system. This may take many generations, but as Lao Tzu said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins under one’s feet.”

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Tom Ellis

I am a retired English professor now living in Oregon, and a life-long environmental activist, Buddhist, and holistic philosopher.