It used to be a lot easier to envision, and then enact, good. Back in the days of traditional time, traditional stories, and traditional movements, all we needed to do was set our eyes on a prize, and then march toward our goal.
The Manhattan Project brought the atomic bomb from concept to conception in seven years. Martin Luther King shared his dream in 1963, won the Voters Rights Act in 1965, and then the Fair Housing Act in 1968. A trip to the moon began as a speech by John F. Kennedy in 1961 and culminated in the Apollo 11 mission of 1969.
Each of these massive efforts—nuclear capability, civil rights, and a man on the moon—progressed along a time-honored trajectory from inspiring vision through hard work to an ultimate goal. We put our intentions into words (or, ideally, some charismatic leader does this for us), we are galvanized in our commitment to realize our collective goal, and we ultimately cross the preordained finish line—usually just in time.
Having a clear goal makes success pretty straightforward. That’s why simple, future-based goals are used so often—especially in murky times. Remember it was in the confused, anxious aftermath of the Bay of Pigs that JFK announced America’s ambitious goal of reaching the moon by the end of the decade and, presumably, before the Russians. Instead of living through complex, steady-state Cold War anxiety, we could instead march toward a clear cut goal: send a guy up to the moon so he could stick our flag in the ground. It was at once victorious and superfluous—as much or more about how that climactic gesture made us feel as whatever it truly meant in terms of military superiority over the Soviets.
That’s why it’s only natural that in our current wash of chronic crises, we look toward goals and time capsules and heroic journeys as ways out of the mess. The “vision thing” worked in the past, so shouldn’t it work now? If we can only imagine the story—the beginning, middle, and ending— through which we dig ourselves out, then we will be able to engage in the struggle and reach our destination.
Problem is, these heroic journeys we’ve been following are not particularly relevant to our current predicament. They were great for fighting wars, winning territories, or even achieving civil rights victories. They take us out of the ambiguity, and into clarity: those guys are our enemies. The ends justify the means. Better times are just over that hill.
But they are not so appropriate for challenges that don’t have clear endpoints. How do we “win” the water crisis? What is the moment of victory? How do we reach the “goal” of slowing global warming, especially when our best-case scenarios at this point still involve tremendous compromises of our remaining biosphere?
In short, we don’t. The challenges of the 21st century are different. They are grown-up challenges, requiring us to think and act not according to a battle plan for future victory, but rather in terms of sustainable, always-on, steady-state present. Indeed, our ability to resist oversimplifying narratives and game-like goals will be the true test of whether we are up to the challenges of the now. Sustain.