What Is the Future of America?

04/10/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011


America -- to much of the world that word means the future.

We get drunk on the future easily. In the 50's we were besotted by nuclear power. That was supposed to be the future. Nuclear power would do every little thing. The advertisements said that in the nuclear future we would only have to work 10 minutes a day.

We get high on technological breakthroughs. At the beginning of the first Iraqi War, smart bombs were the rage. The image of a bomb that had human characteristics caught our fancy. The bomb with a brain could make sharp turns, circle around, make decisions, stealthily stop and go. Newspaper cartoons featured bombs knocking on the front door of a dismayed Saddam Hussein, politely asking to pay a visit.

Wall Street applied a mathematical technology to securities, and invented "credit default swaps." The land of derivatives suckered much of the financial world, but also took in the United States government hook, line, and sinker. The magic of it allowed millions of us to use our homes like ATM machines, and retailers beamed their advertising at the impossibly rich American family. Our future became increasingly narcissistic, even bizarre. Our leaders told us to go into permanent, personal debt for our country.

We have a record of getting drunk on the wrong future. Generally someone makes a great deal of money on our delirium. Now we are supposed to breathe heavily over the hand-held gadget of gadgets, the iPad. We are assigned our euphoria once again -- this time at how we organize and ship and display information. Soon we'll have super-computers for hands. But like nuclear power, smart bombs and credit swaps ... this jacked-up anticipation of the future is quite different from the future we finally experience.

We're wising up. There is a simmering uneasiness around the computer revolution. Some of the citizens of the world wonder why we waited for a computer model to tell us that the earth's physical systems were de-railing. At least one President passed on making any decisions about it, because the computers couldn't predict this sobering, very Un-American-like future.

We have discovered that trees on the east coast are speeding up their growth, the gesture of the branches reaching into the sky at twice or as much as four times the usual rate. The trees are gorging on carbon dioxide. It is an emergency response by living things on this earth. Do we need a computer to tell us more than we know? A hand held up in the wind is a simple gesture but the information it gives is more astonishingly complex than any iPad.

Our series of orgiastic futures in America has broken through one final horizon. We are surprised to be confronted by the actual future, and it is nothing like how we marketed it. The future, it turns out, is a dazzling gift. It was given to us -- we didn't cowboy it out of the western horizon.

Our future is a quiet agreement that we have with the dead and the living. No euphoria can break the basic deal. We signed up for this long ago, but suddenly we are inside that space and time that we agreed to take care of. Sure, we might be ambitious. We do what we can -- but soon it is no longer ours. It all happens very quickly. We arrange with the earth to hand over our future to a child.