Imagining the Future: An Allegory for Twenty-first Century Pilgrims

On the occasion of Earth Day 2012, renowned nature writer, Richard Louv spoke at DePaul University.  Toward the end of his talk he issued a friendly challenge to faculty and students to create more positive images of the future.  Responding to Louv’s challenge, I began reviewing neuroscientific and psychological literature related to imaging the future.  Though I was initially uncomfortable with some of the findings, I came to the unavoidable conclusion that most individuals are primarily interested in their immediate future and the well being of human beings in their immediate circle.  I am currently in the process of writing an article recommending that environmental agents and agencies “meet people where they live,” instead of trying to remake the public in their own image. Here  is an allegory for the twenty-first century pilgrim, setting out on an environmental mission cognizant of the siren-call of self interest.


1.   The individual is a process suspended between the past and the future.  Our life is like a voyage, but some executive aspect of the self is like the captain of the vessel.  The vessel is travelling into the future, but its course is determined to a large extend by our past experiences.  The individual, though complex and contradictory, is indivisible from their own perceived self interest.

2.    The individual is also a process of adaptation, primarily responsive to immediate opportunities and threats.  On the voyage we have to remain attentive to present circumstances and the immediate future. In order to arrive safely at our destination we have to align ourselves with the prevailing currents and winds.  We also have to be cognizant and prepare for storms at sea (and maybe even pirate ships).

3.  The importance of self importance and core values.  Our values are like our cargo.  They may be the reason for the voyage, the motivating factor (even the goal of transporting ourselves for example), but they can also be our baggage.  Our values are always attached to our attachments. Whether they come from and are reinforced by our family, peers, or a broader sense of community, they remain our intimates.  We carry our beliefs on our voyage, but they are also the wind in our sails and our ballast.

4. Moving from big plans to local projects.  We need to move back and forth from the big picture to local conditions.  Though we may be on a grand journey we need to continually locate ourselves in time and space.  We need a sense of location in the moment.  The most distant and lofty elements can help us. The stars, the cosmos, the environment at large, can give us a discreet sense of place.

5. The eternal return of nature. Earth is our point of departure and our destination.  It is the source of our hopes and dreams.  The dove bears an olive branch to cheer the weary traveler.  Earth gives us meaning and a sense of security.  All voyages are undertaken in search of home.

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