Berghahn Books Logo

berghahn New York · Oxford

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Youtube

Forethought or Afterthought: The Origins of Mixed Harvest by Rob Swigart

The Origins of
Mixed Harvest

Mixed Harvest has received the Nautilus Book Award in the Multicultural and Indigenous category! This book award celebrates and honors books that support conscious living & green values, high-level wellness, positive social change & social justice, and spiritual growth.


Audio Chapters:
NEW! “Drummer,” Chapter 10
“Bringer,” Chapter 2

Mixed Harvest by Rob Swigart is Berghahn’s latest feat of historical fiction, digging into the deep past of human development and its consequences through a combination of storytelling and dialogue. From the first encounter between a Neanderthal woman and a Modern Human she called Traveler to the emergence and destruction of the world’s first cities, Mixed Harvest tells the tale of the Sedentary Divide, the most significant event since modern humans emerged.

Visit Rob’s blog, WORDS THAT MATTER, for more.


Forethought or Afterthought

BY ROB SWIGART

We begin to realize we never fully imagined the burning future in which we now live, though it is our creation. Discovering how to consider and plan for the future seems obvious in light of this fact.

The last century brought wars hot and cold, Mutual Assured Destruction, pollution of air, ground, and water, acid rain, the ozone hole, poison gas, toxic chemicals… consequences of human behavior. Today we have the really scary one because climate change is global, slow, hard to see, and now borderline unstoppable.

Despite pleas to “Do something for the children,” our species is not so inclined. Winston Churchill famously suggested, “The farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see,” but evidence people look in either temporal direction is scarce. Most corporate executives, when asked how far they look into the future, will respond, “three months, or the next quarterly report.” (Cf. Upsizing The Individual in the Downsized Corporation, Robert Johansen and Rob Swigart, Addison-Wesley, 1995).

There have always been some who have tried to get a handle on what’s to come. Normally they do this for a leg up or to secure an advantage. Early efforts appear laughable today—chicken entrails, tea leaves, the shape of a sheep’s liver—but such techniques may have been nearly as effective as our efforts today.

The most famous of the ancient world was Oracle at Delphi. A priestess of Apollo sat in a small underground chamber, possibly stoned on natural ethylene gas, and uttered inspired and very cryptic pronouncements. Petitioners often found them comforting, even if they had a tendency to misinterpret them. Croesus, King of Lydia, for example, asked the Oracle what would happen if he launched a preemptive strike against the Persian Empire. The Oracle’s reply was, “If King Croesus crosses the Halys River, a great empire will be destroyed.”

“Oh, goody,” said Croesus, rushing off to give the order. The empire destroyed was, of course, his own. I called this satisfying ambiguity. In afterthought, Croesus could not deny the oracle was correct.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the RAND Corporation thought to rationalize prophesy in the earnest belief that with enough data and the right algorithms they could predict the future. It turned out, in the words of on a widely attributed variant of a Danish saying, “Predicting is hard, especially about the future.” (Mark Twain? Yogi Bera? Niels Bohr?) Too many variables! The word “predict” has given way to “forecast.”

I wrote stories and scenarios for one of the many future think tanks that sprouted like fungi after a rain. These places were funded first by the government, then by corporations, which alone was enough to change the nature of the craft. Among the most colorful and charismatic was Herman Kahn’s Hudson Institute. Kahn was initially at RAND, and was among other things, the father of nuclear deterrence (MAD). Not incidentally he was an advisor on the film Doctor Strangelove, and a model for the title character.
It seems likely these think tanks had a greater influence on the future than their accuracy at forecasting it.

Since 1947 the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock has offered a simple forecast in the position of the hands in relation to midnight, or man-made global catastrophe. In January, 2020, thanks to the increasing spread of nuclear weapons and the implacable march of climate change, the hands were set up to 100 seconds before midnight. This is the closest it’s ever been.

Forecasting is tricky. Consider this: if people change their behavior in response to a dire forecast and the risk is thus averted, skeptics say, “Well, that forecast was sure wrong.” Success undermines its efficacy. But if someone cries the sky is falling, they are crying wolf and no one pays attention. In response, philosopher Jean-Pierre Dupuy calls for “enlightened doomsaying” (The Mark of the Sacred, Stanford University Press, 2013): enough emphasis to trigger action but not so much people turn away in despair.

The nuclear anxieties of the second half of the twentieth century, helped along by Herman Kahn, continued a wild spiritual journey into futurology. If futurology has a history, one may find a good summary in R. John Williams’s essay “World Futures” (Critical Inquiry 42 Spring 2016: 473). In Williams’ words it is “a new mode of ostensibly secular prophecy in which the primary objective was not to foresee the future but rather to schematize, in narrative form, a plurality of possible futures.”
In other words, there are many possible futures. Pick one.

Shell Oil was the most aggressive practitioner of scenario creation. By definition they were a buffet of alternative futures as New Age voyage. Williams’ essay takes us from Buckminster Fuller’s World Game, through zen guru Alan Watts, and other counter-culture luminaries, with side trips into Peter Brooks’ film Meetings with Remarkable Men, the I Ching, and a number of avant-garde art projects. We have entered time as New Age science fiction, where the past is solid data, the present is moving fluid, and the future is vapor, unfinished art, a creative act of imagination.

Only one future can solidify at a time, of course, though there may well be a series of frozen accidents to live through. Mere passengers, we struggle to balance our enlightened doomsaying.

Considering the state of the world today, we can clearly see that enormous collective work remains if we are to survive, much less flourish. For this, even a glance into the deep past may help us avoid becoming an afterthought of evolution.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

ROB SWIGART has a doctorate in comparative literature. Since then he’s worked as a technical writer, computer journalist, designer and scriptwriter for computer games. With Portal for Activision, he pioneered computer narrative and later served as secretary of the board of the Electronic Literature Organization. For a dozen years, he was a Research Affiliate at the Institute for the Future.

Because of his lifelong interest in the deep past, he described this work as a kind of future archaeology. In the first decade of the 21st century, he turned his attention full-time to archaeology and wrote two textbook-novels, Xibalba Gate: A Novel of the Ancient Maya and Stone Mirror: A Novel of the Neolithic, while a visiting scholar at the Stanford Archaeology Center. His new novel Mixed Harvest is a collection of short fiction that chronicles mankind’s mistaken adoption of agriculture.


Read more from Rob Swigart’s Origins of Mixed Harvest series:
“Climate”
“Context”
“Minds”