Looking further out, scientists have predicted the burning out of the Sun (~ 7.6 billion years) and, of course, the ultimate heat death of the universe in 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000 years (more or less). On the more immediate side, the familiar apocrypha (nuclear war, climate change, massive pandemic, and Trumpism are regularly cited as likely causes of the end of humanity. Some have predicted that the Boston Red Sox or Chicago Cubs winning the World Series was a sure sign of the end of days, others view the Detroit Lions as an NFL contender in the same light. More religious types have looked to the “Rapture,” or other modes of the Second Coming of Jesus. Other deep cultural traditions have their own versions of the end.
We—both as individuals and societies—seem to have some difficulty in comprehending such big numbers and long periods. As a species (maybe as with any living thing) we’re highly focused on the “here-and-now.” At one level there’s a correlation between survival and immediate threats, so this primacy of presentism makes sense. Yet, I can’t but wonder if one of the benefits (purposes?) of a larger brain and human consciousness is the ability to think ahead. After we’re pretty sure no sabre-toothed tiger is nearby and that we have enough food safely stored for a few days, we can extend our perspectives.
Modern folks increasingly have such confidence in short-to-medium term survivability and can afford to commit an increasing portion of our attention to longer-term issues: saving for college or a home, planning for climate change, or retirement. As one moves up the ranks in the military or commercial organizations, more time is spent thinking about “the strategic,” or the “long-term” and leaving the tactical and day-to-day to those lower down the organizational ladder.
Historically speaking, “modern” folks seem to have a different sense of time than pre-moderns. This is due to several reasons. First, our awareness of time is a function of our awareness of change. Traditional societies faced considerably less change than we have seen in the last 250 years. As a result, the “future” has become meaningful as a concept since it has become increasingly apparent as something different from the past and present. Second, modern societies have (generally speaking) increasingly mastered short-term survivability and can spare some bandwidth for a longer-term future. Third, the emergence of modern historical practice has made us aware of the length, complexity, and change of the past and opened up the prospect of the reciprocal: the future. Fourth, our longer individual longevity means that, as compared with a few hundred years ago, the prospects and conditions of our (potential) lives multiple decades hence actually could have some meaning (not so if your life expectancy is only 45). Finally, 19C science—especially geology and evolution—has forced us to come to terms with the vastness of human time. Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology in 1830 showed that the planet was millions of years old (not a few thousand as clerics had inferred from Scripture). This created a chronological space for Darwin and his theory of evolution, showing that the emergence of species could actually occur, one genetic modification at a time, since there was now enough possible generations to accommodate the development of the human variability, for example; something that would not be feasible without divine direction in the few thousand years since Adam.
Modern rationality has also insisted on counting and specificity. So traditional stories of end times—of whatever culture and nature—can’t be so open-ended: floating out there as something that would happen…sometime. Mythos doesn’t fit well—stylistically—with spreadsheets. This has led to scientifically-grounded projections which are far more bounded, even if not precise to the last detail (we’ve only got 7.6B years with the Sun, not 8B).
So, not only has our time horizon expanded, but the mentality with which se contemplate what lies ahead has changed too. The acceleration of change in the 20C—whether in terms of technology, geopolitics, or culture—has brought with it (among other things) an expectation of further accelerating change. This makes the future inherently—and consciously—different from the present and increases the interest in what’s coming next. When we add in a dollop of Enlightenment-stimulated sese of human power and control, it’s no wonder that the 20C saw a bourgeoning of “futures studies,” scenarios, and efforts to at least conceive of potential future vectors of developments: possibilities which could be planned for.
Planning connected the present with the future. In contrast, ancient and traditional modes of envisioning the future—the Second Coming, Kaliyuga, the Mayan Long Calendar—all existed “out there” somewhere in the indeterminate future; not in the present, but not really according to any calendar that people could comprehend. Railroads and naval fleets, on the other hand, required plans—with schedules and budgets. With the incremental advance of technologies as a model. The arrival of the future could be projected as emerging, piece-by-piece, out of the present. It became immanent (of and in the world), no longer transcendent (dropping out of the skies without much human agency).
Much the same can be said of the avowedly fictive futures. Utopias from Plato (4C B.C.) to More (16C) existed away from reality; indeed that was their point. Modern “science fiction” wrestled with societies based on the present-plus; Verne and Wells being the pioneers here.
The combination produced an extension of the culture of the present; one that continued on increasingly, so that the realm of the imaginable, the realm of the implementable, grew from merely the present to years and decades ahead.
Our world today is filled not with just the present, but with this future, extrapolations of current trends, either through literary imaginations or statistical models. The premodern world didn’t conceive of itself in this way. Its future was preconscious, dominated by the here-and-now. We are willing to contemplate a span of years ahead as something that is integral to who we are now, something which we have some chance of steering; even if we never actually know what will happen.