Environmental Dystopias

A bit of academic musing for your Monday evening.

Note: This is an article that I wrote a few months ago after learning about the Anthropocene. Broadly defined, the Anthropocene is a newly-established geologic era in which human beings are the primary driving force behind environmental, biological, ecological, atmospheric, and geological changes. In other words, this is the epoch of history in which we have more power over the planet than ever before, and this necessitates a great deal of debate and discussion about how we ought to handle such a responsibility.

Unfortunately, the answers are far from simple and will vary widely from place to place and group to group. From agriculture to art to the industries and professions that dominate different societies, it is undeniable that the intersection of environment and culture will play a huge role. Ultimately, these factors will determine the ways that we respond to the challenges of the Anthropocene. Access to communication through technology or proximity to highly-populated areas; the cultural importance placed upon cooperation, ingenuity, tradition, and scores of other values; the availability of education to the general population; the historical interplay between nature and society as well as the influence of media on the overall narrative of the environment and how it should be treated: all of these components and more will vastly affect the approaches and attitudes of various groups in the face of a changing landscape. You just hope that in the end, the response will be one of empathy and not selfishness.

So without further ado, let’s take a look at the role of fiction in this changing world of ours.

Reading stories about futures where humans have failed to take action against climate change are often frightening. But whenever I encounter these fictional scenarios, I worry that the approach that many writers take with such narratives is undermining its message about the necessity of saving the planet.

Most of these tales depict the lengths that humans go to in order to survive even when the natural world is dying. They retreat into cities and compounds contained within glass domes or walls of concrete; they construct fake landscapes that mimic what has been lost; they even flee to other planets in search of a new habitat. These solutions are costly and difficult and accessible only to a tiny percentage of people; yet, they show that at least some members of our species can afford to continue ignoring the warning signs of the changing environment, only taking action when they are forced to by absolute necessity to ensure their own survival. In other words, a message is conveyed that runs counter to the author’s intentions: we don’t actually need to save the planet because we can find ways to carry on even when it has been destroyed.

This conclusion is not immediately obvious from reading the texts, and it is true that the characters are more likely to be shown as unhappy, unsatisfied, depressed, angry, and unfulfilled in their new way of living. Famine, pandemic, and war are not uncommon in these environmental dystopias. But the idea persists that we are not doomed forever if we do not take steps to reverse the effects of climate change and habitat destruction, and this presents a tricky challenge to authors. On the one hand, too many tales of utter devastation will eventually numb readers to the urgency of the issue; activists will be compared to the boy who cried wolf and taken less seriously because our society is not currently on the brink of crumbling entirely. However, presenting so many potential solutions to the survival of the human species allows audiences to relax knowing that we have options for self-preservation even if we fail to save the planet. The death of plants and animals is sad, but it rarely hits as hard as tales of the downfall of human society.

Writers must, therefore, tread carefully when they sit down to depict a post-climate change world. If they wish to avoid undermining their own message, I propose that they begin their story at its true beginning, rather than the middle. Commence by showing the path that society took to reach the point of no return; explain why we find ourselves retreating from the natural world and surviving day-to-day through a constant process of damage control and barely-stable coping mechanisms. If readers are dropped into a world where humans are already living in a way that is totally cut off from nature, they are unable to appreciate the difficult and terrible route that had to be traversed to achieve such a fragile existence.

A 2016 research article titled “Bright spots: seeds of a good Anthropocene” by Bennett et al. in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment also suggests that we need to alter the ways that we depict climate change and modern environmental challenges in our fiction. They write:

The scale, rate, and intensity of humans’ environmental impact has engendered broad discussion about how to find plausible pathways of development that hold the most promise for fostering a better future in the Anthropocene. However, the dominance of dystopian visions of irreversible environmental degradation and societal collapse, along with overly optimistic utopias and business-as-usual scenarios that lack insight and innovation, frustrate progress. […] Emphasizing hopeful elements of existing practice offers the opportunity to: (1) understand the values and features that constitute a good Anthropocene, (2) determine the processes that lead to the emergence and growth of initiatives that fundamentally change human–environmental relationships, and (3) generate creative, bottom-up scenarios that feature well-articulated pathways toward a more positive future.

In other words, instead of trying to scare everyone, we need to focus on the good things being done today while being cognizant of the processes at work that are affecting the environment. If our fiction makes survival look too easy, we risk creating an audience that lacks a necessary sense of urgency for saving the planet, and as a result, we are likely to be unprepared for the challenges that lie ahead. But if it paints a stable future as impossibly unattainable, it discourages progress and serves only to depress and frighten us all. Let’s take the optimistic yet practical middle ground: remember that there is much progress left to be made, but have faith that we will be able to do it if we work together.

Note: The movie Earth 2100 is particularly effective at depicting the journey from the beginning of the crisis to the “solution,” and consequently I found it to be especially successful at conveying the urgency of protecting our planet. The article It’s Not Climate Change – It’s Everything Change by Margaret Atwood is also a fantastic example of realistic depictions of the potential future of humans in light of a changing climate.

Another interesting point of discussion for teachers and families: If humans can survive despite being totally cut off from the natural world, do we actually need to do anything about climate change at all? Is there any point in protecting the environment when looking at things from a non-anthropocentric viewpoint?

[Cover image by Bryan Versteeg]


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