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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.