Born in 2020

I’m due to have my first child in a few weeks and I keep getting WhatsApp photos from my Mum of gifts, like convict-striped babygros saying 9 MONTHS ON THE INSIDE, or soft stuffed bunnies. The other day she sent a photo of a tiny pair of socks that said, “Born in 2020.” I can’t stop thinking about those socks, Born in 2020.

What will the world be like for my child and their peers born in 2020? How will it be in 2035 when they are struggling with their teenage years? In 2070 as they hit midlife? In 2100 when they will celebrate their 80th birthdays?

There are some things we can know for sure, the children of 2020 will have vastly different experiences. Whilst they will all be subject to global phenomena like climate change, pandemics, the impact of AI on our world etc., the way this impacts them will be very different depending on their location and wealth. They may all live through the same storms, but will be in very different boats. Some of these children will find themselves born into refugee camps with little medical care during a rampant pandemic, others will be displaced by climate change and conflict before they start school. When it comes to parenting, some will probably get to choose the physical characteristics of their babies with technology like CRISPR, whilst others may find themselves in authoritarian states where women do not have any right to choose.

Even though my child isn’t out in the world yet, I already have that deep protective urge. Whenever I sense a threat, even if that’s just a cyclist swerving towards us on the pavement, my hand instinctively goes to protect my tummy. As birth gets closer and closer, I realize more and more how I won’t always be around to protect my child as we move further through the century. That they will face profound risks that might threaten their survival.

All of this has me asking, what can I do today to help the world of my unborn child and all their peers?

Strangely, this is also a year where my work has been focused on how we cultivate care for future generations. Three years ago I co-founded the Long Time Project with an article that ended with the statement “Here’s to being good ancestors…” During lockdown whilst my baby began to grow, I ran sessions with policymakers from across the world, from Taiwan to Toronto, to understand what locks us into short-termism and to develop a toolkit to help institutions act with care for future generations.

Whilst the little one learnt how to kick my kidneys from the inside, I spoke to artists, geologists, philosophers, politicians and lawyers as part of the Long Time Sessions with the RSA & Serpentine. And now in-between scans and midwife visits, I’m recording a new podcast series, having emotional conversations about how we shift our worldviews, structures and behaviours with people like Aboriginal scholar and artist Tyson Yunkaporta, Professor Tatsuyoshi Saijo the Japanese economist getting governments to think long-term, and lawyer Julia Olsen, the founder of Our Children’s Trust suing governments all over the world on behalf of future generations. In all of this work, our focus is how we shift our culture and systems so that they cultivate care for the future.

Throughout the course of this strange year, I’ve met people working at all levels of government who desperately want to be able to leave a better world, but feel hampered by the short-termism of the political systems they’re locked into. I’ve also met people pioneering change, whether experimenting inside massive institutions, or cultivating alternatives. All this has reminded me how important it is to remember that the economic, political, technological and cultural systems we live in, have been created by humans. That they didn’t just drop from the sky.

No matter how immutable and permanent they feel, the systems we live in were made and shaped by people, and can be shifted by people. If we want our descendents to inherit a better future (or any future at all) we need to find our agency and shift the damaging systems we’ve inherited.

All this is so important right now because of the disproportionate responsibility for the future that we hold. We face what philosopher Toby Ord, has called The Precipice. As humans, over the last century we have been developing a growing number ways to destroy ourselves as species from climate change and nuclear war, to advanced AI and biological warfare. We are now at such a pivotal moment when it comes to our trajectory as a species, that the decisions we take today will determine the kinds of lives billions of future beings (human and non-human)will have, and ultimately whether they will have lives at all.

Fresh off a podcast interview with Toby, I look at the most recent sonogram of my baby, in all their cute-nose glory, and ask myself, what can I do today to ensure that this little one and their peers, the generation of 2020, get a decent future?

And I guess that’s why I can’t kick the thought of those tiny socks. I keep wondering about when the babies wearing them get older, how will they look back on us, the adults of 2020? How will they judge us for what we did to preserve their futures?

Ella Saltmarshe is the co-founder of The Long Time Project, with Beatrice Pembroke. The work of The Long Time Project in 2020 has been supported by EIT Climate KIC.

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Ella Saltmarshe

Ella Saltmarshe

Narrative. Systems. Culture. Co-founder The Long Time Project, The Comms Lab, The Point People.