Putting the life back in science fiction

Dystopia or Utopia: Either way it hurts
April 10, 2020, 2:05 am
Filed under: disasters, futurism, Hot Earth Dreams, Uncategorized

I’m doing fine, asymptomatic at the moment and hoping to stay that way until a working vaccine shows up.  Hope you’re the same, or better yet, that you had a mild case and are now immune.

Anyway, good wishes aside, I wanted to say something I haven’t dared say for weeks: as bad as this crisis is, I suspect it’s a training wheels exercise for what we’ll have to do to deal with climate change.  What I think right now is that if we seriously try to flatten the curve on greenhouse gas emissions, that effort is going to be like what we’re going through now, but longer and more thoroughly disruptive.  It pretty much has to be if we’re going to avoid a mass extinction.

However, if you’re an artist looking for inspiration out of the darkness, that isn’t a bad thing.First, the bad news.  No, not the Covid-19 economic induced coma.  I’m talking about the Nature paper that came out yesterday (link to an article about it).  Basically, it says we’ve got about 10 years until we see tropical ocean ecosystems (coral reefs) start to collapse wholesale.  If you know anything about mass extinctions, you know that the disappearance of biogenic reefs in the fossil record is the classic sign of a major/mass extinction event.  So that’s maybe 10 years off, although the reefs are mostly in bad shape now.  By 2050, the ecosystem disintegration will reach the temperate zone, and the mass extinction will swing into high gear.  When I talk about bending the curve, trying to avoid a mass extinction in 10 years, with which will start with the loss of a huge amount of fish that’s feeding hundreds of millions of people, that’s what I’m talking about avoiding.  It’s about stopping the death of the coral reefs, and stopping the spread of the disaster.

Now if you use the paradigm I’ve used for the last ten years, you can assume this disaster will definitely happen, and that leads to Hot Earth Dreams land and the high altithermal starting in a decade.

But let’s look at the other side, where people survive however many waves of Covid-19 we go through until we get to a vaccine, and that breaks the inevitability, makes us think that maybe we can actually make a difference in the world.  Scientists get respected enough again, and air quality improves so radically that people decide, not as a unified movement but en masse, to get serious about not dying due to climate change.  The air quality improvement is quite real, and there’s enough footage of nature bouncing back (pandas mating, coyotes howling in San Francisco’s North Beach) that it’s just possible that people will get the idea that we can actually make a difference.

And so we start to bend the curve on climate pollution, let our fasts from consumerism get longer and longer, listen to the experts more than the reality stars, alternately slack and scramble to survive.  Fantasy?  You’re living it now.

I’m not going to portray this as easy.  People are going hungry right now, whole careers and industries are in limbo.  People are dying around the world, and we don’t even know what’s happening in the slums.  While we have serious economic disruptors, people taking science seriously, and people showing their best in times of adversity, we also have predatory capitalism at it’s worst, with the current U.S. administration possibly behaving more like mafiosi than leaders.

And that’s the point, especially if you’re looking for disaster to inspire art, trying to figure out what will get made out of the broken shards of 2019 consumer culture, starting in 2021.  Take all the disruption right now, the kleptocracy and vulture capitalism, the suffering of the essential workers keeping us alive, the kindness, heroism, and acts of creativity, the disruption of whole economic sectors surplused and gone, the world gone strangely silent and healing itself.  Now ramp that up by orders of magnitude.  That’s what flattening the curve on greenhouse gases will look like in the 2020s.

Now it’s not easy, but it’s not dystopian either.  It’s a bit different: science is in charge, people are struggling to make a better, solve the problems that are killing us now.  That’s a classic science fiction theme.  But I’m pretty sure that struggle will involve as much suffering as failing and letting the world die.

As the sign in the psychotherapist’s office says, either way it hurts.  Death from climate change will be slow, horrible, and painful, with you living to watch everything you care about get destroyed around you.  Fighting climate change will be slow, horrible, and painful, as you watch everything you grew up with either fall apart or change into new forms that will survive.  If they’re equal, why not choose change.  Why not struggle against huge forces to keep the world from being totally destroyed, give the coral reefs a chance to come back, the forests a chance to regrow without migrating to the poles.   Why not struggle for a civilization that doesn’t kill itself?

Why not let this inspire you?




2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Hello Frank, Hope you and yours are well.This comment is off topic for this post but very much in line whith what you have posted before. You seem to know a lot about urban design … I live in a very rural area … hence ignorant of cities. I keep seeing posts about post crisis plans for increased bikes and decreased mass transit like this one


Is this really a thing? Even in car crazy places like Calf? Perhaps on your next post you could speculate on what kind of society is coming?

Comment by ArtDeco

Thanks, I might take you up on that offer. London, I think, will be easier to use bikes in than will southern California. The basic reason is that London’s an old city. It’s been retrofitted for cars, but it’s bones are in the cart era, and that makes a difference. Southern California, for the most part, was laid out around the automobile, so work is widely separated from home (this also allegedly for sanitary and other reasons). The upshot is that people may well have to bike 20 miles or more each way to and from work. That’s hard if your company has a dress code, worse if you have to take kids to school, and so forth. This isn’t news to urban planners around here, but there aren’t a lot of good, short term solutions.

You might think of it as non-mystical karma or historical inertia embodied in concrete and rebar: the design of southern California is based on mass importation of fossil fuels, water, and to some extent food. It’s not a sustainable system, so it won’t last much longer, one way or another. The two likely futures in order of decreasing likelihood are near-total abandonment (which has happened to many cities in the archaeological past) or radical metamorphosis. There’s nothing wrong with radical metamorphosis into some bizarre solarpunk future, but it’s unlikely. Worse, that process really needed to have begun 10 years ago, and we’re still dealing with the planning baggage of the 1990s and earlier.

I wish I was more optimistic, but that’s where I am at the moment. Thanks for the question.

Comment by Heteromeles

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: