Director Susan Kucera’s documentary, Living In the Future’s Past (2018), produced and presented by Jeff Bridges, is an exploration of our human ontology. Sharing the screen with thinkers and scientists, including: Timothy Morton, author of Being Ecological (MIT Press, 2018), Leonard Mlodinow, physicist and author of Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Time of Change (Bantom, 2018), Daniel Coleman, author of Emotional Intelligence (Bantom, 1995), and the recently deceased scientist and astronaut Piers Sellers, Bridges engages in a discussion that offers a new way for us to think about our planet and our relationship to it.
In conversation with PopMatters, Bridges reflects on the personal resonance of the documentary, the concept of time and truth, and the heartening ideas of Buckmister Fuller.
From before participating in the documentary to now, what have you taken away from the experience that is continuing to influence your perspective?
One of the interesting things was the concept of emergent behaviour. That was new to me. I’ve been fascinated when I’ve been skin diving, where there have been shoals of fish, or watching flocks of birds, starlings, and how they flock together like that. [In murmurations.] How do they know to move like that? Why are they moving?
So by learning about what emergent behaviour actually is, this idea that there is a super organism, a larger entity that is made up of smaller little bits, and an ant for instance isn’t an ant hill, but you get a bunch of ants together and pretty soon boom, you’ve got an ant hill. This idea of super organisms and emergent behaviour, looking at our own species, you can see that we are a kind of super organism that has gone haywire, that is devouring its home-base, its planet.
An aspect of being a human being is we have imagination, and we have the capacity to curb our desires and have a longer view, and that’s of the things we have got to work on — this long view. This is one of the things the movie points out, that the long view is also looking back, seeing what makes us tick, why we behave in the way we do.
So that was one thing I learned from the movie and also about this oil we’ve got, this toxic, precious oil that’s under the ground that we’ve been using rather capriciously, when we should be — and this is my view — using it to create an alternative system that is more sustainable. We are going to need that power to do that.
The concept of time for the Incas was of past, present and future running in parallel, which contrasts to our notion of time. Is our perspective too chronological and would seeing time in more flexible terms be to our advantage?
I don’t know if time even exists. I’m a big fan of the present moment, and the past, it is all very dreamlike; it all seems pretty dreamish to me at the moment. When you really get down to it there’s no now. As soon as you say “now”, that’s gone, that’s the past. It’s really tricky stuff, time, so I just think you do the best you can do with what you have at the moment.
Alongside time, there is the Buddhist idea that there is no such thing as truth. Would you agree that these terms are oversimplifications of a world that is decidedly more complex?
Yes, I do. I like that objective ontology, which was something that I learned from the film, too. I thought that was fascinating, how basically everything is valued the same from the perspective of the universe, or whatever you want to say. But as individuals we create importance and it’s interesting how things turn out.
What is the critical mass that’s created by our emergent behaviour as a species? I think a lot of this kind of thinking is pretty new and you’re throwing it into the cauldron to see how that’s going to effect the outcome. I wouldn’t say I’m hopeful, but I would say that I’m on the side of lets create a beautiful thing, a beautiful place to live. Everyone’s got their own idea of that.
Are you a fan of Buckminster Fuller?
Bucky Fuller was an inventor, a scientist, and a philosopher. His most famous invention is the geodesic dome. He’s a wonderful example of how individuals affect society. He paints a picture of a giant ocean-going tanker and the engineers were challenged by how to turn the rudder, to turn the ship. They found that huge rudder took too much energy and so they came up with a brilliant idea of putting a small rudder on the big rudder, and they call that small rudder a trim tab. So that little rudder, the trim tab, turns the big rudder and the big rudder turns the ship.
Bucky says that in fact we are all trim tabs. We are all attached to large groups of people, who have other talents than our own and who might be more powerful than us. This is how we can affect society, by our little rudder turning the larger rudder, and that rudder turning the ship.
On his gravestone he has engraved: Call me trim tab [laughs]. He says we are all trim tabs and that’s a very heartening idea to me, and I try to live my life according to that.
I’ll brush up on Bucky.
Oh, he’s a brilliant guy. Oh man, you’ll see. He’s no longer around, but he’s got great videos and I just recently participated in a documentary on him. He’s a wonderful guy and he had a very famous book out in the sixties called Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (1968).
One of the more optimistic feelings I have is how, as individuals, we can feed into a shared discussion and construction of a shared knowledge. Sadly, politics and economics create borders or divisions, but in spite of these we have an opportunity to find unity.
It’s funny, I don’t know why I’m so resistant to declaring myself as an optimist or a pessimist. I guess this sounds weird and I hope you don’t take it the wrong way, but I’m a lover, man! I’m not a optimist or a pessimist. I’m a lover of the mystery of what is, of what’s going on and it’s interesting how it moves me, and how I respond to that love.
Living in the Future’s Past is released theatrically in the US on 5 October 2018 in New York, Los Angeles, and markets by Vision Films and Trafalgar Releasing, with a nationwide event theatrical release on October 9 2018. For more information visit: www.livinginthefuturespast.com.