In 1988 Volkswagen approached a number of notable thinkers and asked them to write a letter to the future. It was part of an ad campaign they were to run in Time magazine, and they wanted some words of advice to those living in 100 years time. Many agreed, including novelist Kurt Vonnegut.
I was thinking about that future today as I watched my niece Hannah deal with disappointment during her birthday party. She had planned to hold it at Silvermine – a rocky valley that has been flooded with natural spring water to create a reservoir, set in an immense mountain-side nature reserve. People picnic on the banks, and the whole set up is perfect for kids’ birthday parties.
If the weather is right.
Cape Town can go through all four seasons in a day. And have different simultaneous weather systems of either side of the peninsula. The mountain was covered as I drove towards it – thick swirling mist and the water in the reservoir was dark and icy. Jasper was already there with his father – swimming gamely: but the cloud was a few feet from his head. There was a cold wind as well … not ideal conditions for a swimming party. So we decamped to Newlands Swimming pool. Newlands is one of those old-fashioned public baths – huge, concrete dressing rooms, no frills, only cold water – but it is Olympic sized and has a separate diving pool. There are lawns and trees, and you get some protection from the wind: the perfect place for a group of 11-year-olds to spend an afternoon.
Hannah didn’t think so. And I found her sitting dejectedly on the side of the pool, with some of her friends trying to console her. I took her aside: “This is the time to be elegant, my love. It’s not ideal – but you need to rise above it, make it work and show your friends a good time.” Which, I am proud to say she did: despite the clichés.
Vonnegut’s advice to 2088 was on my mind as I watched the girls (and Jasper) play. They are all healthy, strong creatures with big appetites and plenty to say. There were other kids around watching them. Trying to hone in on the goodies offered – but our bunch wasn’t having any of it. Discouraging any interest with disinterest … and, for some reason I didn’t quite understand, mocking repetitions of the word: “Duuuude”.
A world within a world.
I wondered what Kurt would make of it all? This country that I live in, where we have so much yet share so little. Where race is the ever-present tripwire. Where we have become experts at one step forward, three steps backwards politics – forgetting the struggle it took to bring us here. Where our wildlife is slaughtered to bolster the libido of men who live thousands of miles away. Where people don’t eat every day, or every second. Even back then he’d asked: “Who could wax wise with so much bad news pouring in?”
But he had a go, and on this windy night, in this most beautiful of cities, at the edge of this screwed up continent – with no inspiration of my own in reach: I thought I would share his thoughts. Happy Birthday Hannah, this is for you.
“The sort of leaders we need now are not those who promise ultimate victory over Nature through perseverance in living as we do right now, but those with the courage and intelligence to present to the world what appears to be Nature’s stern but reasonable surrender terms:
- Reduce and stabilize your population.
- Stop poisoning the air, the water, and the topsoil.
- Stop preparing for war and start dealing with your real problems.
- Teach your kids, and yourselves, too, while you’re at it, how to inhabit a small planet without helping to kill it.
- Stop thinking science can fix anything if you give it a trillion dollars.
- Stop thinking your grandchildren will be OK no matter how wasteful or destructive you may be, since they can go to a nice new planet on a spaceship. That is really mean, and stupid.
- And so on. Or else.”
(Note: this is an excerpt from Vonnegut’s letter. Read the whole piece here and keep an eye out for the book Letters of Note. Source: TIME, 1988; Image: Kurt Vonnegut, copyright Mike Schroeder. Beautiful image of the Swimming Spaniel is copyright Regine Lord – see more of her photos and read her blog here. Other images in the public domain. )