Eco Utopia vs. Dystopia: Doomsday Scenarios

⌈WARNING: Post contains spoilers for recent movies, TV series, and books!⌋

2014-2015 has been for me a period of increasing worry and unease over the fate of the planet, intermixed with and further exacerbated by concerns over government/Internet surveillance, growing political extremism and polarization, big pharma and big agribusiness.

It’s not like I ignored all these issues before, but I seem to have for some reason become hyperaware of them, probably in large part due to expanding my daily reading and viewing diet, so to speak, via different, mutually unrelated platforms: whereas before I mostly subsisted on a combo of fiction and locally printed newspapers and magazines, in the last two years I went almost entirely online – from literature and forums on thyroid illness, to documentaries, to mainstream newspaper articles, to independent online art&politics magazines combined with cultural and literary criticism. The only things I read in print now are books, and even that might change soon, as I’ve just received a Kindle for Christmas.

I recognized a similar thread of growing alarm and anxiety over the fate of humanity weaving its way through recent fiction as well as non-fiction, both in TV series/films and in books. Broadly stated, the shared topics of concern seem to be: preoccupation with the looming destruction of the planet through climate change, exhaustion of resources, as well as overpopulation, and the role of science and technology in engineering our future; specifically, the concept of scientists as demigods with power for good and for evil.

Of course, this concern is nothing new, especially not in fiction. Already in the nineteenth century, Mary Shelley gave us Victor Frankenstein as the scientist doubly usurping the roles of mother and god. And H.G.Wells didn’t exactly plot a rosy future of technological advancement, either: over-reliance on technology has rendered us useless and helpless to the point of extinction in The Time Machine, and a technologically advanced alien culture finds it very easy to overpower us in War of the Worlds. Isaac Asimov and Arthur Clarke later added a further twist to this technological angst – the idea that machines, or artificial intelligence, would be the ultimate end of us (echoed later in Matrix).

Science fiction turned out to be a very natural extension and medium for our growing concerns and speculations regarding our future. It has given us free reign to play out our darkest doomsday scenarios born of unease with the explosion of scientific and technological achievements in the course of a mere 100 years, while at the same time letting us believe in the comfort and safety of our daily lives.

Not all reactions to new science and technology have been doom and gloom, however. A very interesting strain of what Adam Kirsch dubs “childish optimism” runs parallel to the deep anxiety. During the early twentieth century, the Italian Futurists gushed with unbounded enthusiasm over the advent of modern technology in all aspects of life, from art and literature to fashion, design, architecture, and even gastronomy. The same utopian projections were echoed by the relatively obscure German science fiction writer Paul Scheerbart in the same time period.

WW2 and the subsequent era of nuclear energy and Cold War fears seemed to have quashed much of that optimism, as reflected in the dystopian worlds created by Orwell and Huxley, until the re-emergence of hopeful scenarios in the hippie epicenters of the late 60’s and 70’s. Herbert Spencer’s Dune, an emblematic product of that decade, stands poised between the two opposed strains as it travels from initial eco dystopia to a vision of an eco utopia. As Hari Kunzru puts it, Dune offers an “era-defining vision of personal and cosmic transformation” through its exploration of concerns ranging from ecology to religion to economy and politics. It remains relevant to this day, and a significant portion of current fiction echoes as well as advances its themes, both on the optimistic and the pessimistic end of the spectrum.

Several recent TV series, books and films in the science fiction/dystopia genre have chosen to pick up and continue the strain of profound anxiety over humanity’s future, but keeping it close rather than projecting it as a very distant future. The anxiety generated is either biological in nature (The Walking Dead; World War Z; Under the Skin), technological/societal (Mr. Robot; Black Mirror), or ecological/political (Utopia; InterstellarThe Book of Strange New Things; Mad Max: Fury Road). What I find particularly interesting about some of these works is that they do not limit themselves to merely portraying a not-so-distant, problematic future society that serves as a warning to viewers/readers in the present, but they also offer more or less radical potential solutions for the various problems humanity is actually facing in the here and now.

In the wildly odd but brilliant British TV series Utopia, the very real problem is overpopulation of the planet and the resulting over-exploitation of resources that will culminate in food shortages, starvation, and species extinction. The solution, proposed by a shadowy organization led by top scientists, is to downsize the planet’s population and curb human reproduction through a series of flu virus and vaccine releases under cover of a world-wide conspiracy. The project reeks of eugenics, channeling the Bene Gesserit machinations in Dune.

The drama consists in some characters being able to justify mass murder with a view of ultimately saving the planet, while others cannot condone it even if it dooms humanity. The solution reflects our current fear of a catastrophic outbreak, counterpointed by the anti-vaccine movement. Scientists are depicted as brilliant individuals with little or no moral compass playing god, which inevitably doesn’t end well for anyone.

In Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, humanity is already on the brink of extinction through food shortage, and the only remaining, desperate option is to abandon the planet for a new one. This is to be achieved either by catapulting scientists carrying frozen embryos through a wormhole to look for habitable planets, or by effectively turning the NASA space center into a Noah’s Ark that will use gravity for propulsion into outer space. Whatever the solution, humanity’s survival depends entirely on scientists, who are here shown as deeply flawed but ultimately just human. Perhaps it is this humility that ensures a happy ending in an apparent ecotopia.

Riding on this notion that we will be forced to leave the planet is Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things (which I’ve reviewed extensively here). Here, our future home planet has already been discovered and colonized, ostensibly for the purposes of scientific exploration and advancement. The trouble seems to rest just with the non-human natives, the only source of anxiety initially. The book thus first reads as an eco utopia predicated on successful scientific evolution, but the real reason for the colonization of a new planet is slowly revealed to be the imminent self-destruction of Earth through a political and economic collapse of society triggered by a series of natural catastrophes, which had apparently been foreseen by scientists, causing them to look for another planet to inhabit in the first place.

Scientists are here profiled against the backdrop of an alien planet and alien culture, and their behavior is observed and recorded by a pastor with a checkered past, sent to the planet in a missionary capacity. He doesn’t see them just as scientists, but primarily as human beings, whose previous failings on Earth make them uniquely qualified for a journey with no return ticket (as we find out later), but also haunt them, rendering them unqualified to start a new life and a new society on a new planet. Both religion and science are thus disqualified as solutions for the survival of humanity, and love is proffered, not as the ultimate solution, but rather as an open-ended question shot across the universe.

On different sides of the Atlantic, Mr. Robot and Black Mirror are both cyber dystopias about life in the digital age, played out almost entirely online, and completely controlled and dominated by technology. They tap into the 200-year-old, continuous narrative of fear of technology and its potential for bringing about the end of the world. Mr. Robot delves deeper into current concerns, introducing an unreliable narrator who poses as a cyber vigilante, and asking questions about online vs. offline identity, cyber security, identity theft, cyberstalking and bullying, and hacking. It then goes on to tear right into the fabric of neo-liberal capitalism, critiquing corporate culture, the financial industry, and our heavily indebted way of life.

The suggested way out of corporate/capitalist hell is a radical hack into the information system that brings down the existing structure of society by erasing debt records. The ensuing chaos and anarchy are celebrated on the streets as CEOs commit suicide publicly. Technology, which is still to be feared, now also acts as a moral scourge. The idea obviously recalls the Occupy Wall Street movement, which was also meant to free society from the shackles of debt but did little to shake the financial industry.

Black Mirror, referring to the dark, shiny screens of the various devices we now use to communicate with the world, is an altogether much darker, much bleaker affair. It simply projects one horrible future scenario after another while offering no solutions. What makes it even more unsettling, is that some of the scenarios are already dangerously close to becoming reality. (The first episode has, in fact, already been famously mirrored in reality.) The lack of solutions harks back to the earliest prototypes of science fiction, which served both as criticism of the then actual conditions in society, and as a warning about unintended consequences. It’s also a nod to the original Twilight Zone, which didn’t deal with possible futures, but simply reimagined the present using what was already there.

Back in the non-fictional world, doomsday scenarios are actually given serious thought by scientists in institutes created specifically for this purpose. I just came across an article about it in The New Yorker. It profiles Nick Bostrom, a Swedish philosopher concerned with the probability of artificial intelligence eliminating humans. While I appreciate any text that gives me food for thought, and I like reading about brilliant people, I’m also reminded of how much depends on the decisions of those selfsame scientists that I’ve discussed earlier. I wish we made such quantum leaps in emotional intelligence as we’ve made in science and technology.

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