assumptions change when we begin to imagine the future differently?
What, for example, takes place when we take the scenarios of general cli-
mate change, social dislocation, and perpetual adaptation seriously?
When scientists imagine what the world might look like in a century
if we continue with business as usual or alter our energy economies a few
years from now (and thus too late), providing details about changes to
familiar landscapes and the consequences for the places we know best,
they ultimately depict for us the ruins of our own culture. The best sci-
ence available to us requires us to imagine an America with damaged
coastlines, decaying forests, and drying soils, with countless trees, plants,
and animals under severe distress—and to envision parts of coastal cities
standing in the water of elevated seas, as well as the cities of the heartland
crouching beneath the dust storms rising from parched fields.
These images capture for us the ruins of our own future. If we con-
tinue to live in the way we do today, we will eventually find ourselves in
strange, almost unrecognizable places. Our own lives will change as well:
because they will be at once something like what we know today and very
different, with major elements missing and other elements adapted to
new conditions, they too will be in ruins.
To think of ruins in this way provokes a new emotion. We are all famil-
iar with images of ruins—of human structures, built long ago, that have
survived the disappearance of the cultures that created them, have fallen
into partial decay, and remain in the landscape as reminders of a distant
era and as symbols of what time will inevitably do to all human enter-
prise. In the presence of the ruin, whatever it may be—from the Roman
Colosseum to an abandoned farm down the road—one contemplates
not merely one's own mortality but the mortality of cultures or historical
eras; one senses a great gap between the intensity with which we pursue
our goals and the indifferent flow of time.
But now, we contemplate the prospect of future ruins, conceiving of
a cultural decline that has not yet taken place. Indeed, the thought of
these ruins is so fascinating to us that we have long enjoyed depicting
them fictionally in science fiction stories and movies. (Think Planet of the
Apes or Waterworld .) More recently, however, those fictional scenarios
have given way to sober forecasts of what will take place if we continue
to live as we do. Reading the IPCC reports, we can ind uterly serious,