The decade began with a telling-off. Humanity was ordered to go to our rooms and stay there to think about what we’d done: destroyed the planet with gross overconsumption, propelled capitalism past any logical conclusion, backed corrupt governments, and passively accepted the sins of the über rich. Our collective hubris was too much for whatever or whoever is bigger than us to endure.
These aren’t exactly my words. They’re paraphrased from various spirituality podcasts and articles I metabolized over the last year. Astrologers in particular warned what the stars had in store for those pivotal 12 months: a mass reckoning, civil uprising, dismantling of the basic structures of our lives. Maybe you don’t believe in the ancient and popular pseudoscience, but regardless, everyone is widely in agreement that a veil has been lifted on the way we lived before.
Though we went through the weird start of 2020 “all in it together,” our experiences, particularly those of millennials and Gen Z, were very different. The wrath of the pandemic felt Old Testament. If you did not have certain life pillars in place before the plague hit, you were trapped in time or lost to it. Those with monogamous, comfortably middle-class fortunes settled in, in some cases accelerating life trajectories by buying new homes, having children, or, in rare and lucky cases, advancing their careers. What we have all “seen” behind the veil is only confirmation of what was obvious in the 2010s: that many wouldn’t own homes or have children because of financial barriers, that wealth inequality was grotesque, that racism exists, that service workers are undervalued, that the planet’s health would be improved by us slowing down. Even the positive outcomes of managing the pandemic, like office culture being deemed retrograde and demeaning, come after years of calls for flexible work from the mentally and chronically ill who knew it would improve their productivity.
Here in the UK, we’re coming out of the third—and supposedly final—lockdown. It feels like half the population are planning their summer, attempting to fit in local trips and visits to see friends and family; the other half have lost work or loved ones, or are feeling shell-shocked, weary, hopeless. There’s an ambient agitated confusion in the air, the result of these two states coexisting. We’ve been left disoriented, with our wings clipped. It’s in this atmosphere that I wondered what experts in various cultural and sociological fields might think about optimism in the 2020s. We’re only at the beginning of a strange and demanding decade. Should we—can we—be hopeful? Here’s what they said.
Adam Curtis, Documentary Filmmaker
We are passive. We’ve given up on the idea that human beings can change the world, when it’s quite obvious that the world we’ve got around us was created by human beings, both good and bad, and that means we can do it. The metaphor for our times is adopting the brace position, going through turbulence, you’re absolutely terrified, you don’t dare look out the window because you’ll see the wing going up and down. You just feel completely helpless. But we do have agency—we can change things.
That’s not to say bad things don’t happen—we’re going through a really strange series of catastrophes at the moment. But there’s a sense that there’s nothing much you can do about it. I did a short film for Charlie Brooker once which was about the fact that the problem of our time is what I call “oh dearism.” You open the newspaper in the morning and you read terrible things and instead of thinking, This is terrible, we should do something, you think “oh dear” and move on. We live in an age of high individualism. Dark fatalism has gone very deep into the minds of a lot of progressive and left wing and liberal people.
It, somehow, has to be sorted out, but to do that you actually have to inspire them; you’ve got to come up with ideas, and I think you’ve got to engage with the people you’re frightened of.
Historically, the liberals and the left are terrified of big stories. They see them as dangerous because that was what Hitler and Stalin did—they swept the people up into a frenzied force by making them lose themselves in big stories. And that led to horror. What we’re waiting for from the left and the liberals is a powerful story; powerful enough to challenge that nostalgic nationalism that the Brexiters and Trump and Boris Johnson are reveling in at the moment. We need a better story.
Dr. Ysabel Gerrard, Lecturer in Digital Media and Society at the University of Sheffield
The mid 2000s was the last time anyone was optimistic about social media: We can create our own videos and images and share them and it’ll be great for democracy! Then it was a downward spiral of harmful content and the social media giants’ complete inability to moderate it, the ownership of data, the increasing monopolization of tech companies. There’s a lot of research about the fact that old people are scared of new technologies and the effects they’re having on younger generations; that’s a moral panic that plays out. We saw it with the first automobile, we saw it with VCR videos, we saw it with advertisements on TV and music videos—with every new technology. I wonder if that might be changing now that more people have had to learn how to use particular technologies just to maintain social connection and bonds, and that fear has maybe decreased. All the arguments about screen time don’t work when now we’re all on screens all day. There’s more empathy and familiarity rather than fear, and it might be interesting to see how that pans out over the next few years.
Similarly, all the hysteria around robots and AI taking our place at work and in relationships, this perhaps has made us realize how much we crave physical social interaction and that there are certain things that technology can’t replace. If they’re not going to replace us now, when the hell are they going to?
Rebecca Henderson, Author of Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire
One of the things the pandemic did is highlight how fragile things are and that you can’t just plan for business as usual. One business owner said to me, “I’ve always understood why I have to manage cost, now I know I need to manage risk.” What is climate change but a massive risk? I’m sure you’ve seen a sequence of announcements saying companies will go net zero or totally zero by 2035 or 2050, but now the size of business, the magnitude of the dollar involved, is getting really quite large. BP’s announcement that they’re going to change the whole company was met with skepticism—we’ve seen this story from BP before—but they’re investing in wind, investing in hydrogen, investing in solar. Then I checked out all the other big oil companies, and they’re all starting to make multibillion-dollar investments. I was looking at this thinking even if it is greenwashing, it’s really interesting.
Randon Rosenbohm, Astrologer at VICE
I was waiting for January 12, 2020, and the Saturn-Pluto conjunction for years. I remember refreshing Twitter waiting to see what would happen. Astrology might make someone falsely pessimistic or optimistic. It’s just a way to gauge expectations, and human error always should be kept in mind.
Uranus, the planet of revolution, will be in Taurus from 2019 to 2026. The zodiac sign Taurus corresponds with money, food, and fashion. We have already seen a lot of activity in cryptocurrency and huge uprisings in the global farming industry. Idealistically I would hope for a major overhaul in farming practices and things becoming more sustainable, especially for cows (Taurus is just a fancy cow). Uranus in Gemini from 2026 will bring revolutionary technology in how we communicate.
I’m personally interested in seeing what happens when Neptune, the planet of beliefs, changes signs in 2026. With Neptune in Aries I am excited for people to be more self-confident in their spiritual beliefs, but I also worry about religious organizations becoming completely decentralized as people become more self-absorbed.
The United States is in the middle of its Pluto return, and the coming years are ominous with regard to a regime change and complete overhaul of power. Every democracy lasts about 300 years, the length of a Pluto cycle, and that’s about how old the United States is. The next few years will see the United States transforming.
Emma Lawrance, Mental Health Innovations Fellow at Imperial College London
We need to ensure that in raising awareness we don’t over-medicalize the variety of human emotions and experiences, or that we only focus on “palatable” versions of mental health that shy away from the full range of experiences. In many ways digital hasn’t yet lived up to the hype, with many tools either really effective but not user friendly, or really commercially appealing but not providing much real improvement. My hope is that digital mental health will help facilitate connection, not be a replacement for it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is increasing evidence that climate change interacts with our mental health. Direct experiences related to climate change—including heat waves, or extreme weather and climate events like a flood or wildfire—are related to increased suicide rates, cases of extreme distress and worse outcomes for people with a diagnosable mental illness. As we grapple with the pandemic, and the loss, grief, and changes surrounding that, we will need to heal as individuals and communities. What we learn will hopefully help us as we confront and process the implications of a changing climate.
Anab Jain, Futurist Designer and Co-Founder of Superflux Studio
Before we look for ways to be hopeful, perhaps it might be worth asking what hope might mean or achieve in the age of climate crisis? In our project Mitigation of Shock, we imagined how people might find ways of living amid food insecurity, extreme weather, and resource scarcity. Our desire wasn’t to create a worst-case scenario to frighten people into change, but to highlight a narrative of resilience and perseverance. The more we find new relationships with our environment, the more we can be hopeful—we want to avoid hope as a kind of opiate for our condition, and think about it as a catalyst for active hope in others.
Aaron Bastani, Co-Founder of Novara Media and Author of Fully Automated Luxury Communism
Over the 2020s what we’ll see is that as a species we’re entirely capable of solving all the problems that we’re confronted with, whether that’s climate change, demographic aging, or housing. The big question for the next ten years is: The tools are there, the possibilities are there. How do you create an appropriate politics for the task? That’s why I would say: Skepticism is rational, it’s healthy. It’s how you identify what is true. But pessimism and cynicism in no way help you find out what is true. So I would call for strategic optimism.
For most people, cynicism comes from the idea that nothing changes, and that’s just categorically not true. Things can get worse and things can get better, but things do change. I think about my grandma. She’s 95, born in Iran; she’s still alive. She was born before Hitler became chancellor, before the Second World War, before the Great Depression, before antibiotics, nuclear energy, the space race. This is one person, one lifetime, and look at how much changed. That realization grounds me. Humans are a couple of million years old, we’ve had farming for about 12,000 years, in the last 90 most of us have learned to read and write. That’s a really optimistic story.
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Correction: Because of a copyediting error, a previous version of this story incorrectly stated how long humans have been farming for.