Anti-Dystopian Non-Utopias

Literary, cinematic and gaming dystopias have been all the rage for a long time now, offering generational visions of the world in various states of post-apocalyptic disarray, either due to war, societal collapse environmental disaster or all of them combined.

With a recent history of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster or the Bento Rodrigues dam collapse in Brazil, or any number of environmental calamities  which conspire to damage the environment over decades (not to mention the societal strife they cause in the forms of poverty, terrorism and mass migration), it’s easy to succumb to the dire appeal of dark future visions.

Image from Bladerunner (1982) Source: Wikipedia

Image from Bladerunner (1982)
Source: Wikipedia

I was listening to the BBC this morning when I recognized a familiar voice speaking. Sir David Attenborough, the naturalist, writer and broadcaster who has narrated countless documentaries that have introduced viewers to a deeply respectful view of the natural world.

He was being interviewed at the start of the climate talks in Paris, and the questions posed to him went to the heart of the matter this week: Did he believe that nations could agree to the kind of action that needs to be taken to cut greenhouse gas emissions, and if so, did he think that action taken now would be enough to slow climate change.

Artworks created by Brandalism, placed in advertising spaces owned by JC Decaux, one of the sponsors of the COP21 talks in Paris. Source: BBC

Artworks created by Brandalism, placed in advertising spaces owned by JC Decaux, one of the sponsors of the COP21 talks in Paris.
Source: BBC

His answer was simple.

He said that effective climate change agreements require something of humanity that it has only achieved on rare occasion:

Seeing beyond all national borders and interests and embracing both climate and the natural world as unifying elements that we all share rather than territories over which we fight.

Paris poster Source: Brandalism

Paris poster
Source: Brandalism

Did he think an agreement could be both reached and then implemented?

Again, he said that although that kind of agreement would be virtually unprecedented, our increasing knowledge of our own impact and reliance on the global climate is also unprecedented. So, in a guardedly positive assessment, he said we might just see unprecedented agreement and action.

Disclaimer: I personally enjoy fictional stories of how humans react to dystopian collapse. Having said that, I feel that at this point, against a backdrop of ever larger challenges, they don’t inspire positive action as they might intend to do.

Image from The Matrix (1999)

Image from The Matrix (1999)

Rather, they prepare the ground for a deep resignation that whatever we do, things are going to get much worse before (and if) they get better.

And if that’s the case, if nothing we do will make any difference at this point, then we are absolved of any responsibility to make real decisions or changes in our lives, or in business as usual.

Still from Mad Max: Fury Road

Still from Mad Max: Fury Road

Dystopia was originally used as a counter-term to utopia, an imaginary non-existent place of near-perfect qualities.

I suppose it says a lot about humans that while many of our most popular stories are dystopian, very few are utopian because most people find utopias to be rather lacking in the challenges we think of as making for a good story.

High City Blowing Away Artist: Jacek Yerka via Saatchi Gallery

High City Blowing Away
Artist: Jacek Yerka via Saatchi Gallery

So, instead of dreaming of boring utopias, or indulging in the melancholy pleasures of dystopias, we can reach for something closer at hand: the very real challenges of our own world, somewhere between the two.

The stories we can create of surmounting our own history of limitations and, as Sir David suggests, taking unprecedented positive action on a global scale.

Let’s create these antidystopian, non-utopian stories as if our lives depended on it.

"Anything can happen" poster in Paris. Source: Brandalism

“Anything can happen” poster in Paris.
Source: Brandalism




The First Bee


The season’s first bee – well, the first bee I saw, I’m sure there were others – landed outside on our house wall a last week and dithered there for a few minutes before departing again. Then there were more, bumping clumsily into the window of my office and startling me, or just hovering and making a lot of noise.

So today I went to the back of the house and checked the spot in the roof where a colony of bees takes up annual residence. And sure enough, there they were, a small swam of them already busy with work in the upper eave of our house wall.

There’s a reassuring regularity to their annual return. It means life is taking its habitual course. The early seeds of springtime, each promising new life: Bees gonna fly, flowers gonna bloom and trees gonna grow. And it’s time to be planting the seeds of the season out in the garden.


A crazy corn variety, glass-gem corn, a non-GM corn variety. Created using tradition cross-breeding of US native corn varieties.
Photo: Greg Schoen

Sometime soon, the Brazilian parliament is going to be voting on whether seeds will continue to follow the age-old cycle of containing the life of a new spring. A bill to allow the use of sterile seeds has been in the pipeline since 2007, and is due for an imminent vote after being postponed late last year due to protests.

So-called Terminator seeds, or ‘gene-use restriction technology’, has banned around the world for its inherent danger and, dare I say, its inherent immorality. The genetically-modified seeds are programmed to die off after a single crop, which is to say, each crop is its own complete and finished cycle. Each new crop requires a new purchase from the seed company.

It’s not that most farmers don’t already buy their seeds from companies already, and it’s not that farmers and gardeners like myself haven’t been buying seeds from companies for the past century or more. And there are well-publicized conflicts when farmers replant patented seeds without paying the licensing fee – i.e. keeping back a seed stock from the previous year’s harvest for replanting. Still, the GM crops have an infuriating habit of spreading beyond their planting parameters and mixing with non-GM crops.

The proponents of the gene-use restriction technology in Brazil say the sterile plants would be for non-food crops only, and would be used only for medicinal plants and the fast-growing eucalyptus trees that feed the paper-making industry.

Glass-gem cornPhoto: Greg Schoen

Glass gem corn
Photo: Greg Schoen

But once a ban has been broken, it’s been broken. Even if the uses are meant to be limited, non-food, and ‘beneficial to humanity’, as Eduardo Sciarra, Social Democratic party leader in the Brazilian Congress, has said.

A handful of seed companies control 60% of all seed patents around the world. Many farmers, large and small, are already dependent on seed companies and the narrow range of seed crops they supply.

A loss of biodiversity and monoculture as well as economic dependency often result.

Seed companies like Monsanto and Syngenta hold patents on gene-use restriction technology, but have pledged not to implement these patents. If the door were to be opened, however, how long could each company resist the tug of economic activity? Adding the option of sterile seeds to this could initiate a disastrous cascade, the antithesis of the annual cycle of life heralded by the bee outside my window.

I encourage you to take a moment and join me in signing a petition to remind the Brazilian parliament of its responsibility, not just to its own people and environment, but to ours as well.

Last year’s bees.


Global Forest Map

A gorgeous new tool for assessing gain and loss in global forests was released this week by University of Maryland researchers, the result of a five year, broad-based collaborative project. The interactive map of Global Forest Change is powered by Google’s computing cloud will offer a means to establish forestry baselines around the world, with a great amount of detail.

Animation showing forest loss in Riau, on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Much of this deforestation was to establish plantations for pulp and paper, timber, and palm oil production. Click image to enlarge.

This excellent article quotes the project’s lead author Matthew Hansen on the map and accompanying study (published in Science): “This is the first map of forest change that is globally consistent and locally relevant. Losses or gains in forest cover shape many important aspects of an ecosystem including, climate regulation, carbon storage, biodiversity and water supplies, but until now there has not been a way to get detailed, accurate, satellite-based and readily available data on forest cover change from local to global scales.”

It didn’t surprise me that Brazil and Indonesia are among the top five countries with the highest level of deforestation since 2000. The policies of those countries favor development of heavily forested, biodiverse areas.

Global Forest Map The red areas indicate net forest loss. Click on the image for the interactive map. Source: Earth Engine Partners

Global Forest Map
The red areas indicate net forest loss.
Click on the image for the interactive map.
Source: Earth Engine Partners

As an Indonesian palm oil representative once told me, we shouldn’t worry about the loss of rainforest because it was mostly all cut down already, anyway. In its place, palm oil plantations. “Trees are trees, so we have offset deforestation with sustainable new forests.”

The new Global Forest Change tool accounts for this as well, with layered levels of data allowing users to see whether the forests in question are old growth, diverse habitats, or newer second-growth utility forests.

It did come as a surprise that Russia has lost more forest than any other nation, and that the top five are rounded out by the United States and Canada.

From, “Improved understanding of the state of forests through tools like these should boost the ability of decision makers — from lawmakers to business leaders — to establish policies that better protect forests.”

Unraveled Threads

Gustav Klimt Tree of Life tapestry Source: The Tapestry House

Gustav Klimt Tree of Life tapestry
Source: The Tapestry House

Ecosystems that have evolved over millennia are bound to be as complex as the most intricate tapestry, with interrelationships and connections that might not be readily apparent amidst all the color and noise of the larger pattern. As with a tapestry, pulling on one thread, or even two or twenty, might harm a small part of the picture but the tapestry itself would remain intact.

As it turns out, some ecosystems might be more akin to a fragile piece of lace.

A channel billed toucan perched on a forest palm.  Photo: Lindolfo Souto via Smithsonian Magazine

A channel billed toucan perched on a forest palm.
Photo: Lindolfo Souto via Smithsonian Magazine

In a study published in Science, researchers examined 9000 seed samples taken from 22 palm plant populations in Brazil’s Atlantic forest. Palm plants seeds are large and tough – the bigger the seed, the more likely the resulting palm plant will be robust. The only creatures able to carry and distribute these large seeds are the large indigenous birds like the toucan.

And with the decline of these birds due to habitat disappearance and hunting, the palm plant populations are changing. Trees that are growing now produce smaller seeds, smaller trees, which in turn produce smaller seeds.

The smaller palm plants that result from smaller seeds might, in the long term, be unable to help sustain the tapestry of life which depend upon their presence in the forest.

This relationship between large seed distributors, large seeds and the forests that depend on them has been studied in other regions, notably with elephants in Congo rainforest.

There will undoubtedly be some kind of forest remaining even without large birds and palm plants, much as there is still a tapestry even if several threads have been unraveled. My question is, which thread is the Brazilian Atlantic forest in the overall Earth tapestry, and what unravels if we lose it?


Science studyFunctional Extinction of Birds Drives Rapid Evolutionary Changes in Seed Size by M. Galetti, R. Guevara, M.C. Côrtes, R. Fadini, S. Von Matter, A.B. Leite, F. Labecca, T. Ribeiro, C.S. Carvalho, R.G. Collevatti, M.M. Pires, P.R. Guimarães Jr., P.H. Brancalion, M.C. Ribeiro, P. Jordano

Smithsonian Magazine articleWhen Large Birds Disappear, Rainforests Suffer by Rachel Nuwer

Sideways Vessel

Design: Rosenbaum

Design: Rosenbaum

Well, this could save numerous trips to the recycling center as well as to the supermarket. Such a simple, elegant solution to urban gardening, something that is do-it-yourself and requires no land. The materials are readily accessible, the soil requirements are minimal. Even the tutorial offered by the Brazilian design firm that originated this vertical garden is simple and elegant.

Design: Rosenbaum

Design: Rosenbaum

I haven’t tried this myself, but I suppose the planting bottles drain out the suspension holes at the bottom. Certainly bottle color and size could be varied.

Design: Rosenbaum

Design: Rosenbaum

There are so many things to like about this, but what I would really like to see is what the garden looks like once it is mature. I imagine a wall of sweet pea plants would look very fine indeed.

Looking at this, if a gardener wanted to make efficient use of water. a drip watering system could be installed along the suspension wires to avoid waste and minimize exposure of the supporting wall to water damage.

And to anyone thinking of doing this themselves, I would encourage them to plant seeds bought from independent seed companies, or bought locally from nurseries. This would be a lovely way to support local seed varieties and producers. It’s even a way to feed and support pollinators like bees in an urban environment, provided that some flowering plants are included.

Finally, there’s this miniature version for any stray caps left over from all the bottle cutting.

Bottle cap planters with basil sprouts Via:

Bottle cap planters with basil sprouts