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Our Age of Emergency: 2019-2100

by Monica Byrne

Invited talk at the Albright Institute, Wellesley College, January 2019. Special thanks to the Albright fellows

who offered thoughts and challenges on some of the premises of my invented future.

I appreciate them and continue to ponder over them.

~

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First of all, thank you to Professor Larry Rosenwald, who can’t be here because he’s in India—but I watched his Albright talk on the importance of imagination in policymaking, and wrote him right after and said, we’re thinking along exactly the same lines. He then spoke to Takis and Rebecca and Marilyn on my behalf, and here we are. So I’m very grateful to him for advocating for me, and for the entire staff at the Albright Institute for welcoming me so warmly. 

On a personal note, I want to say this.....students have a very wide range of experiences of Wellesley, and they’re all valid. For me, Wellesley was where I became who I am. My high school was in rural Pennsylvania, and was very anti-intellectual and xenophobic. When I got to Wellesley, all the things I’d been bullied for became things I was celebrated for, and I imagine that’s been the case for a lot of us. To this day, I dream about Wellesley about once a week. Usually it’s that I want to change my major to theatre or studio art, or that I want to move into Claflin for my senior year, or that I missed all the cool people at Cafe Hoop. So I’m just delighted to be here in the flesh this time, because it’ll always be a home for me. Also, I read all of your bios, and I’m so impressed and honored to meet you all!

~

So you’ve read the excerpt of my novel-in-progress, The Actual Star. The excerpt is from the far future, a thousand years from now. But the story jumps back and forth from the distant past, during the collapse of ancient Maya civilization; to the present day; to the far future, when a new global religion has brought a stable utopia to humankind. As you saw from the excerpt, whether it can remain stable is one of the major questions of the book.

I’ve been researching and writing the book for seven years now. The last phase has been entirely devoted to inventing the history of the next thousand years. In fact, since the last presidential election, it became a kind of mental refuge. The only way I could tolerate living with this administration was to write a way out of it, and a way out of all of the systems that enabled it. We are living in an Age of Emergency: we’re beginning to witness a rise of authoritarianism; gross imbalance of wealth; and climate change and mass extinction we remain completely unprepared for. It’s as if we’re living through the invention of the printing press, the fall of Rome, and the Chicxulub meteorite all at once. 

I tell you this not to scare you, but to prepare you: in thirty years, the world will be unrecognizable from the world we know today. But. How it will be unrecognizable is not written yet. You are the ones who will get to decide. 

Doing so, and doing so effectively, won’t just require intelligence or expertise or experience. Every pundit on cable news has those. Every consultant to Silicon Valley has those. Every scholar at every think tank has those. They’re a dime a dozen. Steering humankind through this age of crisis will require something policymakers never talk about: imagination. 

Even in my mind, the word immediately connotes childishness, innocence, and fantasy. But imagination is very serious work, and it will only become more important in the coming decades. We already use imagination all the time, but in a limited and reactionary way. For example: 'How do I design this study to get the data I want.' 'How do we tweak our message to working mothers.' 'How do we write a bill so that veterans receive better healthcare.' These are necessary uses of imagination, but they only see one step ahead. The demands of quarterly reports, the daily media cycle, grant cycles, and election cycles all require fragmented, short-term thinking. We can’t afford to keep seeing only one step ahead. We need to see ten steps ahead, or a thousand.

You read a little bit about my idea of a utopia. Now, think seriously: what is yours? Not pragmatically, not incrementally—but ideally. What is your ideal world? 

To build it, you must first imagine it. And then you must always keep it in your mind as a guiding star. 

~

I’m a science fiction writer. I don’t know how much science fiction you’ve all read, but among the general population, the field still has a bad reputation from the so-called Golden Age in the 50s and 60s, with writers like Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke. I say so-called because not only does their work not hold up well on a craft or conceptual level, but because Heinlein was a misogynist; Asimov was a predator; and Clarke was a pedophile. Whatever one calls that era of science fiction, I would not call it definitive or even—at this point—representative.

Rather, I would hope you read Octavia Butler, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Kim Stanley Robinson, just to name a few. In the 70s and onward, writers came along who began to show us what the genre could do for all of humankind, not just white male scientists. Who saw not just one dimension of the future—gadgetry—but all dimensions: how the very fabric of society can evolve. 

While I was doing research for The Actual Star, everything I read about current events, I asked myself, “How did we get here? What are the root causes? How can things be different?” And then I tried to answer those questions in the day’s writing. The more I worked, the more I became convinced that humankind didn’t start going astray because of 9/11, or because of Nixon, or because of the Industrial Revolution, or even because of the invention of race that enabled the American genocide and the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. I started to explore the possibility that humanity lost its way in the Neolithic Era. We regard the Neolithic as the beginning of history, and if we mean written history, maybe. But humans walked the earth for two hundred thousand years before that—before the fall of Troy, before permanent settlements, before the invention of surplus and property and money and agriculture. All of that is only about twelve thousand years old, or, 6% of our history. The fact that we don’t have newspapers from the other 94% of our history doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. It also doesn’t make it any less important when thinking about the range of possible human futures.

One of the highest callings of science fiction is imagining utopia as a possible human future. I don’t mean creating a fantasyland. I mean honest, earnest engagement with the question of what a better world looks like. Here are some examples: In the Earthseed trilogy, Octavia Butler’s characters endure tremendous suffering in their struggle to build a utopian community. In the Mars trilogy, Kim Stanley Robinson’s characters go through several revolutions and constitutions in building a better world than the one they came from. Ursula K. Le Guin engages the idea of realistic utopia over and over again—most notably Anarres, the anarchic planet of The Dispossessed.

The Actual Star is an attempt to work in that same tradition. The distant past—the collapse of Maya civilization—takes place amid the failure of monarchy. The present—our age—takes place amid the failure of capitalism. As for 3012, you read a whole scene of it, so you have an idea. Now I’ll fill in some of the gaps. 

~

In 3012, the world operates by the twin philosophy of accumulation and dispersion. Put as simply as possible, The Law of Accumulation states that accumulation of any human property ultimately leads to suffering. For example, accumulation of capital leads to inequality. Accumulation of population leads to disease. Accumulation of family ties leads to feuds. Accumulation of feuds leads to war. Accumulation of territory leads to war. Accumulation of power leads to war. Not necessarily at first, or even for centuries—but eventually, always.

The antidote is the Law of Dispersion. Put as simply as possible, it states that lasting peace can only result from the constant temporal and spatial dispersion of those same properties—power, capital, territory, population. In other words, we’ve build a society that flows with, not against, the entropic nature of the universe.

In 3012, there are no borders. There are no nations. There are no families. Every other person you meet is your “carnala,” a Mexican Spanish term for “sister.” There is only one pronoun—“she”—which does not mean everyone is a woman; on the contrary, it’s a universal pronoun used for all genders, 1500 and counting. The average life expectancy is 130 years. The world population is steady at two hundred million. Almost everyone roams the earth as permanent nomads, and, by common agreement, only owns as much as they can carry—this is why the system is called Laviaja, a feminized form of “El Viaje,” Spanish for “the journey.” Those of us who cannot move or walk or carry things are accommodated so radically by mutual aid, artificial intelligence, and augmented reality that the very concept of disability no longer exists. In fact, many of us choose to have what we think of as disabilities, and call them “gifts,” because they are ways of creating community.

We eat primarily by foraging, a practice now aided by advanced artificial intelligence and augmented reality. Where there isn’t good foraging, our photosynthetic skin takes over. When we want home-cooked food, we go to a wayhouse. Wayhouses are places where we can rest for a period of up to nine days, in exchange for a few hours of work a day. Agribots—farming robots—do the majority of farming and gardening, strictly on a subsistence basis, near wayhouses. In other words, no one goes hungry. Food security is simply not an issue. This is because, at a certain point, in the 21st century, all technology was built to serve humankind, not profit. The name for this movement is fugitech, or, refugee technology. 

None of us stay in the same place for more than nine days. None of us even stay with the same people for more than nine days. But whomever we lose, we regain. If we give birth, we give up our baby within nine days, assured that our child will come back to us again and again in the form of other children, throughout our lives. As the saying goes, The Beloved always comes back to you.

There is no space travel, since space programs as we know them now were dependent on capitalism and statism. There are no weapons; the very idea is odd and distasteful. Crime is very rare; when it does happen, in the worst cases, the crime is made public and the perpetrator is marked for others to see and avoid if they wish, but the criminal is still allowed free movement in the world. Their exile is a social one.

There’s no currency or system of money. Instead, there’s a worldwide, perpetual gift exchange. Objects have no value beyond their practical use; a wooden bowl is as good as a porcelain bowl. There’s no manufacturing because there’s no need for material goods. Everything is used on a recycled basis.

Anyone who wants to bear a child can do so. No pregnancy is unplanned. There’s no correlation between genitalia and gender. Some of the genders are in fact the descendants of nationalist and ethnic identities, as there have long ceased to be nations or ethnic groups in any meaningful way, given the Law of Dispersion. Identity is completely voluntary and mutable.

The system of government, to the extent that there is one, is a worldwide sortition democracy called the Kikha. A legislature is randomly selected from a pool of all available citizens, from the age of seven years old. This legislature is in session twenty-four hours a day, its members refreshed every hour, on the hour, mostly just to re-ratify a basic Bill of Rights for humans, animals, the earth, and artificial intelligence; but also to take up whatever special questions apply on the global scale. As a citizen, you’re called to serve for about one hour every year or two. For local matters, moving clusters of people are governed by algorithms called “paraguas”—the modern Spanish word for “umbrella”—that take into account each person’s needs and preferences. A paragua may govern a single wayhouse, or an area of a hundred square kilometers, depending on the number of people present, which is always changing.

A person can opt out of this system. They aren’t punished. They aren’t banned. They’re never refused food or shelter, care or companionship, wherever they go. The highest law is the rule of the road, which is radical hospitality. As the saying goes, The strangest stranger is your sister.

I’ve described this future to a few audiences. About half think it’s a utopia and half think it’s a dystopia. A lot of people can’t imagine not having a permanent home or a set family. I understand that. I love my apartment in Durham. I strongly identify with my family. I’m a creature of my age. At the same time, it’s important to realize that what we take for granted as the foundations of society are not only no more natural than any other state of being, but the ultimate roots of violence in the world. I wanted to see what happened if I pulled up those roots. And this thought experiment proceeded directly from our current moment in time. Some of you may think there is plenty to admire in this utopia, and others of you may think there is plenty to criticize. But it was my best faith attempt to imagine what it would look like.

~

So how did I derive this version of the future from today?

To answer that, I need to name a very important book. Rebecca Solnit is probably most famous for Hope in the Dark and Men Explain Things to Me. But the book that felt most relevant to my research was A Paradise Built in Hell, published in 2009. The thesis of the book is that utopian communities of radical mutual aid arise spontaneously in the wake of natural disasters. Again and again, drawing from five case studies and decades of disaster research, Solnit describes spontaneous self-organization, profound euphoria among survivors, and a longing to return to that state.

But oftentimes, those utopian communities are criminalized and destroyed by forces of so-called “civilization,” especially the state and wealthy elites. This was nowhere more apparent than in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when flood victims seeking help were penned up and gunned down because of the lies spread by the media, military, and state. Another example is the brief window of time after 9/11. I remember being here on campus, and being stunned by how New Yorkers united in radical mutual aid, love, compassion for total strangers. There were a few days when a door had swung open, that showed us a world that did not depend on a constant interchange of military force and terrorism. But that door was shut by the return to “business as usual”; in that case, the Iraq War. 

To paraphrase Solnit, we have it all backwards: the society we currently live in is the catastrophe, and going through a natural disaster gives us the opportunity to wake up from the spell. She argues that these spontaneous utopias are just as natural and native to us as any other way of living, if not more so; and in fact, one we’ve practiced as a species before. Her challenge is: how do we codify those spontaneous utopias into a daily, workable system of government? 

My answer is the future world I just described to you. It’s a world where we are constantly wandering, practicing radical hospitality, making communities of mutual aid that form and collapse and form again. And here’s why this specific version of the future matters: we are about to enter an unprecedented period of global natural disaster. We’re already in it. In the next thirty years, researchers estimate that up to 300 million people worldwide will be displaced because of climate change. As a comparison, imagine the refugees of the Syrian Civil War, multiplied by sixty. And this estimate did not include the melting of the Arctic permafrost, the release of Atlantic methane hydrates, an earthquake on the Cascadia fault, or the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, any one of which will displace many millions more.

This is why I predict that not only will climate refugees shape the next century, but the next millennium.

~

Two years ago, I attended a conference organized by a think tank based in Brussels. There was a workshop on the refugee crisis in Europe. A Member of Parliament from a Scandinavian country confessed that she was exasperated by the dominant opinion in the room, namely, that European nations should accommodate the influx of refugees. She said, “How do I explain this to my constituents who are about to retire, that the money for the pensions they’ve been expecting their whole lives is gone, because it’s going toward social services for people who are just arriving?”

Well, the answer is very hard: those pensions existed in the first place because of the ongoing exploitation of the very countries those refugees are fleeing. Their privilege depends on—is a direct result of—injustice towards others. That pattern repeats all over the world. The Centre for Applied Research published a study last year that estimated the amount of wealth flowing from so-called developing countries to so-called developed countries is twice that of the flow in the opposite direction. To quote anthropologist Jason Hickel, “What this means is that the usual development narrative has it backwards. Aid is effectively flowing in reverse. Rich countries aren’t developing poor countries; poor countries are developing rich ones.” In other words, the standard of living in the United States depends directly on the impoverishment and terrorization of the rest of the world. Global inequality has tripled since 1960. Oxfam recently reported that eight men hold more wealth than the lowest four billion combined. The McKinsey Global Institute estimated that by 2030—only twelve years from now—40% of all jobs will be automated. Given any one of these factors, it’s pretty clear to me that the systems in place are about to fall. In our lifetimes. That’s a given. 

A year ago, I would have said that no one can get elected by saying that out loud. But after last fall, I have more hope—because of the fearlessness of new legislators like Ayanna Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Ilhan Omar. They have imagination.

We need a hundred thousand more like them in every corner of the world. Because now is the beginning of the break, the window, the opportunity, to imagine radically other forms of living. Because it won’t be an abstract exercise to us; it will be very concrete and immediate, because those refugees will include you and me. It’s already happening in the United States—the hurricanes in the Southeast, the flooding in Texas, the forest fires in California. We don’t call them refugees, but that’s what they are, and their numbers are only going to increase.

When there aren’t just thousands of us on foot, but millions, how will the police keep us from seeking shelter in the empty apartments parked in our cities as investments for the wealthy? How will they prevent us from taking the food and medicine from stores that we need to keep living, when no one has credit cards because the banks have collapsed because everyone stopped paying their balances because the power grid has failed? The state certainly can, and probably will, use violent force at first. But the police and the military are made up of people, too. They also need food to eat. Their families will also be affected. And maybe finally, we will realize, as a species, that nation states served their purpose once, but don’t make sense anymore. That borders don’t make sense anymore. That capitalism doesn’t make sense anymore. To quote Le Guin again: “The power of capitalism seems inescapable—but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”

And—I will add—the earth acts on human beings. Climate change isn’t just the invisible hand driving us now; it has been, throughout all of history. The Agricultural Revolution was probably the result of climate change. The Levant and Nile Valley were probably settled because of climate change. Ancient Maya civilization rose and fell because of climate change. And now capitalism and the nation state may well fall because of climate change.

I find hope in that. I’m even thrilled by it. We currently live in an age of spectacular barbarism, but circumstances are colluding to give us a way out. Nowhere is it written that capitalism is natural, that poverty is natural, that war is natural, that patriarchy is natural, that monogamy is natural, that individualism is natural, or that the two-parent two-child family is natural. We made all that up. Hedge funds, corporations, institutions, oligarchies, profit, brands, nation states, borders—we made all that up, too. At the most fundamental level, they are fictions. We can imagine new fictions in their place.

But we must be very, very careful which fictions to choose.

~

Now I’m going to come back to the discipline of science fiction. In many ways, it’s a confusing term, because the field has evolved so much from where it began in the techno-optimism of the fifties. Usually I use Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s definition: that science fiction is any fiction set in the future, whether it be a day from now or a billion years from now. That includes Star Trek, The Hunger Games, The Broken Earth Trilogy, Alien, The Dispossessed, The Earthseed Trilogy, The Handmaid’s Tale, Dune, Jurassic Park—a wide range of narratives and styles. It’s not a perfect definition, because it leaves out, for example, Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica, which most people think of as science fiction. But this debate is not our concern at the moment. The point is that the fiction I write, and the art form I argue is most crucial to your work, as future shapers of policy—is science fiction. 

For the most part, the elite literary establishment does not take science fiction seriously as an art form at all. To this day, it prefers realism. There is a purpose to this. The writer Amitav Ghosh, in his book The Great Derangement, explains this preference as a reflection of the 20th century’s ironic preoccupation with control. He writes, “Probability and the modern novel [meaning, the literary realism novel] are in fact twins, born at about the same time, among the same people, under a shared star that destined them to work as vessels for the containment of the same kind of experience.” Which is to say, a predictable experience of the world, as regular as train schedules or crop yields. But the conception of life being safe and stable is a very recent invention. We are entering a period of profound irregularity, of immense unpredictability. And so we need a fiction—not of probability—but of possibility. A fiction of imagination. 

The problem is, the vast majority of popular science fiction today is very pessimistic. 

So much so, that many people conflate science fiction with dystopia. My first novel was called The Girl in the Road, and I’m always amazed when people describe the future in it as a dystopia. It’s not. It just happens to be set in the future with characters who aren’t white. On the other hand, I can hardly blame them: think of our most famous science fiction narratives: Mad Max or The Expanse or The Road. They’re fun to watch but they’d be hell to live. Nevertheless, these narratives have an incredibly strong influence on our perceptions of the future. As Solnit writes, “Disaster movies and the media continue to portray ordinary people as hysterical or vicious in the face of calamity…..but the prevalent human nature in disaster is resilient, resourceful, generous, empathic, and brave.” As goes popular imagination, so goes belief, and so goes behavior. Which fictions we choose to elevate matters.

I want to draw especial attention to the treatment of AI—artificial intelligence—in these narratives. Think of Ex Machina or Blade Runner 2049. I spoke at TED two years in a row, and one year, there were back-to-back talks about whether or not AI was going to evolve out of control and “kill us all.” I had to keep from laughing. Because that scenario is just something I have never been afraid of. And I noticed that the people who are afraid of machine super-intelligence are almost exclusively white men. 

I don’t think anxiety about AI is really about AI at all. I think it’s some white men’s displaced anxiety upon realizing that women and people of color have, and have always had, sentience, and are beginning to act on it on scales that they’re unprepared for. There’s a reason that AI is almost exclusively gendered as female, in fiction and in life (Siri, Alexa…). There’s a reason they’re almost exclusively in service positions, in fiction and in life. I’m not worried about how we’re going to treat AI some distant day, I’m worried about how we treat other humans, now, today, all over the world, far worse than anything that’s depicted in AI movies. It matters that still, the vast majority of science fiction narratives that appear in popular culture are imagined by, written by, directed by, and funded by white men who interpret the crumbling of their world as the crumbling of the world.

We don’t need more dystopian narratives from white men because we already live in dystopia. The Handmaid’s Tale is the lived reality of Saudi Arabian women. Ex Machina is the lived reality of millions of children in Southeast Asia. Children of Men is the lived reality of Syrian refugees across Europe and migrants at the U.S.-Mexican border. Orwell’s 1984 is the lived reality of 25 million North Koreans. Minority Report is the lived reality of Black people around the world who are criminalized for merely existing. 

~

It’s easy not to see these realities from a life of privilege. It’s easy to mistake our lives for the baseline. Right now we’re in a community of extraordinary privilege, but I don’t make any assumptions about where any of you came from to get here, so I’ll talk about where I came from. My baseline is that I was born in 1981, the youngest of five, to a professor and a homemaker in rural Pennsylvania. Both my parents had advanced degrees, and benefited—as I did—from generations of race and class privilege. So my understanding of baseline, of ‘normal,’ is small-town Pennsylvania in the nineties, during an economic boom and before 9/11, when it was very easy to believe that there would always be such things as schools, banks, hospitals, private land, public land, armed police, publishing companies, coffee shops, and a functioning government.

Now I’m not counting on any of it, for me or for anyone. I don’t think you should, either. I think those who reset their baseline—who imagine and create a new baseline—will be the best positioned to harness this moment for the benefit of all. But I have to warn you: this work is very fraught, especially in the liberal, nonprofit, corporate, and philanthropic worlds, the very circles in which you are moving as Albright Fellows. As noted by Anand Giridharadas in his book Winners Take All, “Much of what appears to be reform in our time is in fact a defense of stasis…..Conferences and idea festivals sponsored by plutocrats and big business host panels on injustice and promote ‘thought leaders’ who are willing to confine their thinking to improving lives within the faulty system rather than tackling the faults.”

 

Disrupt the unspoken agreement that there are some things you can’t talk about. Question me. Question everyone who speaks to you. Question their motivation, their compensation, their forms of privilege, their socioeconomic background. Question why they work for a corporation. Question why—in Anand’s words—instead of giving back, they don’t take less in the first place. Remember that phrases like “corporate social responsibility” and “philanthro-capitalism” are smoke and mirrors. Philanthropy is not justice. Philanthropy is a symptom of systemic injustice. It is also—because it makes the donors look good—a mechanism for maintaining that injustice. The purpose of corporations—including tech corporations—is to make profit for its shareholders. Thus we have a suite of social media platforms and devices that are designed to be addictive. 

Imagine, instead, technology created with the sole purpose of improving human lives. This is what every tech corporation is trying to convince you they do through clever marketing, but they’re lying. And unless corporations are regulated to an extent where they don’t have more power than the will of the people; and unless they are taxed at a rate commensurate with the conditions that allowed them to thrive in the first place, their existence is fundamentally incompatible with steering safely through this age of emergency. 

To steer safely, we need new narratives. Not like in The Road or Ex Machina, where we’re terrified of each other, suspicious of each other, and enslave each other for profit and pleasure. We need narratives that reflect the lived reality of disaster research: that humankind is fundamentally adaptable, kind, and above all, creative. 

~

It’s been sixteen years since I graduated from Wellesley, and I think then, I was under the impression that—even given 9/11 and the Iraq War—the world I’d grown up in was going to continue more or less as normal, and maybe even improve. I would get jobs and eventually buy a house, I’d find the person I was going to marry and have children, I’d carry a healthy amount of debt. One of those things happened—guess which one.

Now, I wouldn’t predict any of these things for you. I can’t say with any confidence that, in another thirty years, banks or corporations or borders or institutions will exist as we know them. Right now, with all of the threats we face from climate change imminent, we have a Russian asset in the Oval Office. That’s not a conspiracy theory or hyperbole, it’s a fact, the evidence for which has been public domain for years. Again, I say this not to scare you, but to prepare you. 

Now is the moment when you must create your vision of the future. In your ideal world, how does the economy work? What is the currency? What is the form of government? How many genders are there? What are the taboos? How are we educated?

If you wish to become leaders on the global stage, this is not an idle exercise. It is an act of imagination central to your work. And in the meantime, instead of planning how to maintain your baseline, plan how to recalibrate it. There may soon come a time when our definitions of what we need will change radically; but if we have them, we’ll have enough. Can you move from place to place, by car or on foot? Do you have food? Do you have shelter? Are you warm enough? Do you have company, of family or friends? Do you have the medicines you need to stay alive? The less you need, the more free you’ll be, and the lighter you’ll be on your feet when the time comes.

Rebecca Solnit writes: “Any belief that is acted on makes the world in its image.” I would extend that to say: stories are a type of belief. This is why I said we must be very careful when we choose our fictions. Because when disaster strikes, some people will bar their doors to make sure no one eats them, like in The Road. But others will have read New York 2140, where communities endeavor to aid each other in the wake of catastrophic flooding.  

Which will you be? You can’t know until the time comes. You can’t know which stories you’ve really chosen to believe and act on. Not unless you’ve already imagined them, already written them down, already prepared for everything you know to be no more. To quote activist Adrienne Maree-Brown, “All organizing is science fiction. When we talk about a world without prisons; a world without police violence; a world where everyone has food, clothing, shelter, quality education; a world free of white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, heterosexism; we are talking about a world that doesn’t currently exist. But collectively dreaming up one that does means we can begin building it into existence.”

~

In the future I wrote in The Actual Star, in a thousand years, Wellesley does not exist. It’s a set of beautiful ruins in the forest, sloping down into a basin that used to be a lake. Maybe one of the ruins is used as a wayhouse—the walls of the chapel will likely remain, and the basement of Munger, because they’re both made of stone and not brick. 

When did it end and why? 

I will echo what Takis said in his welcoming speech to you. Don’t feel bad about receiving an education at Wellesley. I don’t. But I am aware now, in a way I was not before, that my experience here depended on a thousand other women not having it. So I like to think—because I know the power of imagination to shape reality—that Wellesley ended because comprehensive education became so radically, globally accessible; and at the same time, because education was no longer a prerequisite for the basic human rights of food, shelter, and security, that it no longer needed to exist. 

This is a terrifying moment in history. None of us has the option of leaving it. Paradoxically, I find tremendous freedom in that, and even joy. It’s not a matter of whether everything’s about to change. It is. It’s a matter of imagining our way through it—more radically, more bravely, and more creatively than anything anyone’s thought of yet. 

I can’t wait to see what you do.

Thank you.

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