My father always told me to pursue whatever I was passionate about, because my future career hadn’t been invented yet. This advice is a clear product of the world my father inhabited. He grew up as a farmer in the 1970s and went to a free college to study computer networks just in time to get a career in the booming tech scene of the ’90s.
Throughout my life, I’ve waffled on whether my father’s advice was sagely wisdom or the misguided optimism of someone who managed to hitch their horse to the right carriage.
The world I am a part of is very different from my father’s. As I finished my undergrad, I did not see the career my father had assured me would come. Instead, I found the uncertainty of a world in the wake of COVID-19.
I have had the privilege to stave off participating in the labour force for another two years by entering grad school to study climate communication. In a way, my decision to enter grad school right after my undergrad was an attempt to hold on to hope that this mythical future career is still around the corner if I just wait.
Within my first year of grad school, the world became more uncertain. Ecological crises, global conflicts and political extremism make it seem as if any sort of future is a pipedream. These feelings of hopelessness are far from unique experiences. More than anything, this realization is an indictment of my own privileged upbringing.
My current research on climate vulnerability has revealed a possible way out of these cycles of hopelessness and dread. Critical vulnerability research focuses on how crises, conflicts and extremisms are not the product of inexplicable, random events but the result of a world that continually fails to provide individuals resilient social services in the face of these risks.
These events represent moments when social structures are unable to respond to the inner forces and antagonisms that boil up within them. The problem is the dominant social structure’s inability to adequately respond to these events.
Crises are moments for reflection on how social structures fail people. Feelings of hopelessness are based in a belief that the current system is the only one, and if it cannot respond to these crises, then the future is doomed. In reality, this is only one of an infinite number of possible futures.
Movements fighting for liberation, including abolitionists and advocates for Indigenous sovereignty, who have had to live in a world that fails them for generations, showcase numerous ways to envision the future. These new possibilities around alternative justices, ecologies, economies and relations present a foundation for a world oriented around the sustenance of all life.
All this in mind, I am beginning to see my father’s advice in a new light. The issue is not finding out what I should be doing, but helping to build a future that can sustain my as well as my communities’ passions.
Patrick Harney is pursuing his MA in environmental and social change at the University of Winnipeg, focusing on the relationships between culture, nature, risk and resilience.
Published in Volume 76, Number 23 of The Uniter (March 31, 2022)