Tropical Futurism Envisions the Climate of Our Fate

Futurism has failed. It’s time for an alternative. In the era of climate change, tropical futurism reimagines a different relationship to the earth.

By Alex Quicho
January 9, 2022
Article for WIRED Magazine

Alex Quicho is an Associate Lecturer in Foresight and Speculative Futures at Central Saint Martins and Head of Cultural Intelligence at the research agency Canvas8. Her first book, Small Gods (Zero Books, 2021), explores the violent and spiritual dimensions of drone technology, and her essays and criticism appear in The New Inquiry, The White Review, Bookforum, Real Life, C Magazine, and others.

Is the future over? To some, it has been for some time. Ten years ago, the late critic Mark Fisher wrote of “the slow cancellation of the future” in his book, Ghosts of My Life, attributing cultural stasis to our collective inability to “grasp and articulate the present.” To Fisher, the future was already lost, not only to the fragmentation and acceleration we now accept as part of life shaped by the internet, but to “a general condition: in which life continues, but time has somehow stopped.” Such stasis ran counter to how Fisher’s generation understood the future as the destination at the end of an arcing arrow, ushered in by the pursuit of knowledge, liberty, and technological innovation. The future had been a myth whose certainty was owed as much to Marxist dialectics as to Henry Ford's assembly line: We once rubbed sticks together to make fire and lived in feral chaos; soon, we will travel in inter-dimensional spacecraft and eliminate mass suffering. That myth has all but disappeared, as we have witnessed the eruption of past, present, and future into one simultaneous, repetitive, and famously uneven plane.

But wait—haven’t we witnessed leaps and bounds in innovation since Ghosts of My Life? Haven’t we since strapped into our VR headsets, watched esports championships in packed stadia, and sunk our wages into shadowy blockchains? How could the future have been over then, if it was to arrive for us now? Nearly a decade before Fisher, queer theorist Lee Edelman had something to say about that in No Future. In it, Edelman argues for a more specific cancellation: of “reproductive futurity,” or the organization of society and politics around generational succession.

Reproductive futurism and what we can think of as the “corporate futurism” of traditional innovation both favor superficial progress and narrative sequencing, “not toward the end of enabling change, but … of turning back time to assure repetition,” writes Edelman. Under reproductive futurity, we are collectively biased towards non-disruptive and incremental change, and against the radical, queer, or truly revolutionary that threatens the so-called “natural order” of biological sex, family values, and economic growth. So-called realism has trapped us in an interminable present, where even the most daring innovations fail to envision a better and more equitable world—and in fact depend on the failure of our imagination for their successes, if you consider how Amazon’s delivery-on-demand has merely set a precedent for further deteriorating working conditions; or that Elon Musk’s Hyperloop only makes sense in a future without public access to transit; or how Meta can only envision alternate-dimensionality as an office-cum-mall that hasn’t even corrected for landlords.

There is much to love about Edelman’s perspective, the way we’re urged to embrace “the queer death drive” and turn away from the horizon of the future entirely. He closes a chapter with the slogan: “The future stops here.” If reproductive futurism is fixated on meaning-making, as in, drawing existential poignance out of the illusion of progress and succession, then Edelman’s proposition encourages the rejection of meaning and determinacy itself in the pursuit of ideological liberation. Yet it isn’t this liberatory orientation toward the now, but rather a conspiracy of forces—the demands of survival, a pessimism of political will, a systematically undermined working class and racialized underclass, and so on—that traps so many of us in the present, keeping the future in the stewardship of globalized corporations to whom its domestication remains a top priority. No doubt you’re familiar with the kind of consultants who have dubbed themselves futurists without a lick of self-consciousness, promising to whisk you through the risks and opportunities of tomorrow like wand-wielding tour guides. Even financial futures—that is, derivatives—depend on predictability, even if volatility is part of the mechanism.

Which returns us to the point, by Lee Edelman’s successor, Rebekah Sheldon, who writes: “In the name of the future, we must be protected from the future.” As we contend with the prevailing uncertainties of climate chaos and narrative collapse, and reach new heights of capitalism-cynicism, we’ll see increased interest in futures beyond the affliction of normative futurisms; futures which break rather than perpetuate the status quo. If normative futurisms value difference only in order to exploit or overcome it, continuously reduce social relations to the unit of the individual, and coerce us into thinking planetary problems—such as hunger, extinction, and climate disaster—are practically unsolvable, how can we then construct a future constituted of difference and collectivity? In the words of the artist Sin Wai Kin (fka Victoria Sin), “How do we envision a future that isn’t a way forward, but a way down?”

In recent art and film, ideas around divergent futures have crystallized in the form of ethno-futurisms, such as Sinofuturism, indigenous futurism, and contemporary Afrofuturism. Many present alternative scenarios to Western progress predicated on revising history or reimagining geopolitics. Indigenous futurism and Afrofuturism, for example, raise the query, what would science, technology, and industry look like if it did not depend—as it does now—on environmental extraction and human subjugation? Yet others, such as Sinofuturism and Gulf Futurism, simply ask, how would we see the future if the core concepts of “progress” arose from somewhere that wasn’t the West?

Ethno-futurisms today are largely seen as progressive, thanks to the mass popularization of Afrofuturism in particular, and the production of many of these futures in left-leaning artistic circles. But even as these visions warp the trajectory of our present around fresh coordinates—adding more information, so to speak, to the predictive data set—the strategy itself remains strangely ambivalent. Sinofuturism, introduced as a clever meta-commentary by artist Lawrence Lek and musician Kode9 in 2016, has since been unironically adopted as a kind of “diasporic fantasy” of China’s dominance, losing much of its original anti-colonial critique. Meanwhile, Gulf Futurism, coined by artist Sophia Al Maria and musician Fatima Al Qadiri in 2012 isn’t a futurism per se, but a way of thinking about how the Gulf states’ “petro-capitalist economy” already resembled Western notions of dystopian futurity. (Cue William Gibson’s omnipresent “here, but unevenly distributed” tagline.) And to the far-right of the spectrum, the Ethnofuturist Manifesto, published in 2020 by conservative Estonian MP Ruuben Kaalep, uses the romanticized view of ethno-futurism as a connector between future and ancestral past to startlingly racist effect.

Moving “the future” away from ideologies of dominance and control has become imperative. One promising model can be found in the collective known as the Tropical Futures Institute, founded by designer and gallerist Chris Fussner. Based on the party island of Cebu, Philippines, the “institute” is in fact a decentralized, roaming think tank that produces exhibitions, provocations, talks, artworks, trend reports, music compilations, and some very good T-shirts. Their Instagram has been a primary mode of outreach, and it catalogs a variety of research materials, from cultural critic Rahel Aima’s proposition of “warm water solidarity” to images of man-made islands and floating reef hotels, though the collective has since migrated to Discord and is tentatively considering becoming a DAO. Still in process of defining what “tropical futures” really means, perhaps in a way that is ever evolving, the Tropical Futures Institute nonetheless sets down preliminary coordinates from the inside, on the ground. In a statement for a symposium they hosted this year, they mentioned: “It is good to talk about the tropics since we’re all from the tropics. Rather than wait for some cultural institution from the ‘center’ to harvest from the periphery once again [or] be a footnote in someone else’s historical narrative.”

Imposed from the outside, “tropical futurism” could have looked like a party in the face of disaster: a twisted return to Lee Edelman’s provocation in the era of climate change. When someone commented on the institute’s Instagram, “Is the whole world not destined to be tropical?” it was tempting to fantasize about an emergent world of white sand crescents, charcoal BBQs, and beachside sound systems. But the possibility of Earth’s transformation into a tropical monobiome, with boiling oceans and super monsoons, only transfers the sense of extremity that one already experiences living in the Philippines into a precarious universal, creating a terminal beach out of every shoreline.

In homage to the Tropical Futures Institute, I have a couple of ideas about what these tropical futures—as in, soon-to-be-everywhere futures—could look like from the inside, evading our presupposed fate of planetary destruction. First, a return to indigenous thinking and pre-colonial history, as Stephanie Comilang uses as the basis of her sci-fi documentary film Lumapit Sa Akin, Paraiso (2016). Comilang turns the primordial, otherworldly landscape of Bohol into the motherland of a future, fugitive matriarchy, referencing how the Philippine islands were ruled equally between genders before Spanish colonization. In doing so, she shifts a narrative around present-day Filipina domestic workers in Hong Kong outside of the trauma that is so often reported about their lives, creating, instead, a film about female power, gendered labor, and the emotional demands of migration.

To mitigate the runaway consequences of extraction, pre-colonial practices have become a lodestar for systemic change. Indigenous land relations—which have long taken a reciprocal attitude to land use—are useful to guide development, or so-called “terraforming,” onto a firmly ethical and ecological track. Animism provides a philosophical framework for understanding how to live alongside, rather than in command of, living and non-living entities—even artificial superintelligence. And equitable forms of community governance, as Comilang touches on in her film, can inspire models for collective organizing. As “north stars” or possible scenarios, tropical futures are in step with wider calls to decolonize technology, governance, and society at large; and to innovate with, rather than against, nature.

Since Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, the future has been nearly synonymous with acceleration, an attitude likely to change over the coming years, as “slowdown” or “deindustrialization” emerge as rational solutions to climate change. As Filipinos contend with the realism of rising sea levels, consistent poverty, and territorial disputes, artists such as Ronyel Compra are turning to ad hoc tropical technologies to envision a slower future. His project The Habak: Majority World Survivalism documents and tests tried-and-true practicalities that blend ecological and synthetic materials, moving the vision of tropical futures away from ultra-sleek air-conditioned developments and oil rigs perched on top of coral reefs, and into the provinces of semi-passive farming, spearfishing, and seed banking. Considering that the world’s wealthiest 10 percent produce nearly half of its carbon emissions and consume nearly 80 percent of its resources, “majority world” strategies are not only increasingly useful survival tactics for an ultra-hot planet; they will provide a road map for reducing consumption while raising living standards for humanity globally. While it began as a satirical documentary focused on uncovering moments of funny ingenuity in the grind of day-to-day life in the tropics, The Habak has since grown into a comprehensive meditation on ecology, indigeneity, and survival, envisioning a tropical future that depends on the floating connectedness, and community scale, of the archipelago.

Finally, a tropical future could be a “regenerative future”—a trending term, to say the least, but one worth considering in earnest in order to move from an extractive society to one that humanely participates in the complex system called Earth. In a recent article about food equity, the collective A Growing Culture argues as much, pointing to the major city of Belo Horizonte, Brazil, where hunger was “virtually eliminated” by “political will, the strengthening of governance systems, declaring food as a right of citizenship, and correcting for hunger as a market failure.” Secured without costly technology or traditional corporate “innovation,” these victories refute face-value tech solutionism. They underline the necessity of redefining “innovation” to discard old-school ideas of market viability, and to focus, instead, on total system transformation that does not see “political will” as a skippable step. Consumer culture itself was a fabrication; the mountains of discarded clothing, hyper-dense landfills, and gyres of oceanic plastic that make up our “natural world” were not an inevitability, but rather a product of strategic decisionmaking and its consequences. To implement de-colonization and slowdown at scale, we will still need invention. We will just need to change the conditions of its necessity.