Late in this year’s strangest California film, “Palm Springs,” middle-aged Roy (J.K. Simmons) sits in his Irvine backyard and advises Nyles (Andy Samberg) on coping with an apocalyptic reality. 

“You’ve gotta find your Irvine,” says Roy, surveying his Orange County idyll.   

 “I don’t have an Irvine,” replies Nyles, who is in existential despair.

“We all have an Irvine,” Roy says. 

The apocalypse, for Roy and Nyles, is the result of wandering into the wrong Coachella Cave, after which they find themselves stuck re-living the same day. Roy, furious at their “Groundhog Day” predicament, at first spends this endless time loop traveling to Palm Springs to torture and kill Nyles, over and over again. 

But later, Nyles  finds Roy unexpectedly content. Roy explains that he has learned to embrace re-living the same day at his Irvine home with his wife and children. 

Do we all have that place, our own Irvine? How do we find contentment as the world collapses around us? 

It’s hard to be optimistic, and not just because the median home price in Irvine exceeds $900,000. And the endless purgatory of “Palm Springs,” while frightening, is nowhere near as scary as California’s future prospects. 

Earlier this fall, the Institute for the Future, a Palo Alto-based think tank produced four post-pandemic scenarios. The visions are pretty dark.

The “Growth” scenario shows fiscal stimulus restoring the economy, but without badly-needed structural change. Employment would recover slowly, with companies automating work rather than re-hiring workers. Educational and income divides would grow, and the benefits of the recovery would go predominantly to rich and powerful sectors, like tech and airlines. Low-wage workers would be shadowed by greater debt, mental illness, and unstable employment.

A “Constraint” scenario envisions the reorganization of society around data systems and algorithms that entrench existing wealth and racial inequalities, and introduce new inequalities. This would be a segregated health dystopia. Under the guise of protecting society from disease and new pandemics, society would segment into geographic and digital clusters, or “germ pods,” separating those with access to testing and treatment from those without. The resulting discrimination—with separate schools, jobs, and public facilities based on your health status—would be justified on the basis of protecting public health and safety. 

That sounds like paradise compared to the darkest scenario, “Collapse— Ungoverning,” in which military-style confrontation becomes routine in our streets. COVID-19 triggers more systemic collapses across the country, and the battle lines are drawn: “Red Hats against Blue Masks, militant police against unprecedented numbers of protestors, armed vigilantes against all calls for unity and a new order.” Mass deaths becomes acceptable, and with Red Hats dominating government, every city sees blue guerilla warfare. Police and military organizations divide, and fight each other. 

“By 2030, the union is mortally fractured along political lines: cities, states, and regions are governed not by a single sovereign nation, but by a thicket of tenuous inter-jurisdictional agreements and looming violence,” the scenario map document reads.

The only ray of light comes from the “Transformation: Social Solidarity” scenario, and it feels improbable. Under this scenario, systemic breakdowns during the pandemic inspire a renewed public commitment to broad social agendas, and to greater collective well-being. The mutual aid arrangements of today evolve into new income and health supports, and society begins to transform and redesign its broken systems. Public education is reinvented around experiential learning, while new digital governance structures, including data unions, protect privacy and marshal digital power for civic purposes.

By 2030, a Global New Deal has emerged around “universal basic assets—every human’s right to the core resources that are essential to well-being.”

All four scenarios suggest that the future will turn on how we address our broken systems and faltering institutions. And the Institute for the Future argues for replacement over repair of systems. “Whether we simply shore them up as best we can or make major structural changes, will largely determine whether we see a decade of renewed growth or collapse, a reckoning with long-term limits to growth, or a deep shift in both economy and culture,” reads the Institute’s map of the scenarios. 

The next decade, the map adds, “will call on us to find our way through the multiple collapsing systems.” And as these systems fail, “they also open pathways to something new—to truly bold visions of transformation that reinvent the way we work as a society, as an economy, and as friends and neighbors.”

California does have success in creating master planned communities—like Irvine. Now we need a plan for recreating essential social systems. In other words, our Irvine isn’t just sitting out there waiting for us to find it. Instead, we’ll have to imagine and build new Irvines for ourselves. 


Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.