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




Dickens, Luck & the Woolly Mammoth

A Mammoth tusk extracted from ice complex deposits along the Logata River in Taimyr, Russia.   Photo: Per Moller / Johanna Anjar  via Reuters

A Mammoth tusk extracted from ice complex deposits along the Logata River in Taimyr, Russia.
Photo: Per Moller / Johanna Anjar via Reuters

“Life is made of ever so many partings welded together.” Charles Dickens (born 7 February 1812), Great Expectations

So many of Charles Dickens writings are concerned with those who succeed and those who fall by the wayside. Usually in his novels, success (or at least, survival) can be due to a number of factors in life, chief among them being that fickle friend, Luck. Failure (or death) comes often enough in the form of hunger or at the hands of those stronger and more brutal.

And so to the survival or demise of prehistoric megafauna, the woolly mammoth, the cave bear, the giant sloth, the woolly rhinoceros, the great creatures that once wandered the planet and still populate our imagination.

A new study out in Nature set out to find a strategy to predict which creatures might survive the current climate change based on past extinctions. What they found, finally, was that Luck played as much of a role as human hunting and encroachment, habitat destruction, and changing temperatures.

A visit to my favorite tree-of-life site,, shows that only a fraction of the megafauna around 40,000 years ago are still with us today, with the numbers dropping regularly. The fact is that some species were just more fortunate than others.

Tall forb park, Swift Creek Research Natural Area, Montana. Photo: Susan Marsh / Bridger-Teton National Forest.

Tall forb park, Swift Creek Research Natural Area, Montana.
Photo: Susan Marsh / Bridger-Teton National Forest

The woolly mammoth, for example, had long been thought to have gone extinct due mainly to hunting. However, the study points to the woolly mammoth’s reliance on foraging for the protein-rich forbs, flowering plants, that once carpeted its northern territories. As the climate changed, the prairies and fields of forbs gave way to less nutritious grasslands. The woolly mammoth, like many of Dickens’ most virtuous characters, simply starved to death.

Dickens’ world was nothing if not unfair in whom it chose to favor.

From Sketches by Boz (1835), essays by Dickens on Seven Dials, a poor section of London. Source: Smithsonian Magazine

From Sketches by Boz (1835), essays by Dickens on Seven Dials, a poor section of London.
Source: Smithsonian Magazine

For the extinct heat-sensitive Eurasian musk ox, rising temperatures proved too much for it to survive.

For the dwindling number of elephants and rhinos still alive today, it may be a human hunger for their tusks and horns. For the polar bear, receding ice.  Some of them may just surprise us by proving more adaptable than expected.

But in the meanwhile, it might be a good idea to take a lesson from Dickens on the 202nd anniversary of his birth, and do all we can, for as many as we can.

Luck doesn’t have to be the name of the game.

Complex Bridging

Mobius Bridge design Source: NEXT

Möbius Bridge design
Source: NEXT

A new bridge project was announced in China this month, the Möbius Bridge. Designed by Dutch architecture firm NEXT, the complicated structure will span the Dragon King Harbor River in China’s Hunan Province.

NEXT describes the bridge as a “construction with the intersecting connections based on the principle of the Möbius ring,” which will “connect a diversity of routings on different heights.”

A different kind of bridge, the African Elephant Summit, was forged over the past few days in Gaborone, Botswana.

Convened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the government of Botswana, the summit ended with the successful signing of a list of 14 Urgent Measures to stem illegal poaching of elephants and the illegal international trade in elephant parts.

Highly prized African elephant (Loxodonta africana) tusks. © WWF-Canon / Martin Harvey

Highly prized African elephant (Loxodonta africana) tusks.
© WWF-Canon / Martin Harvey

The list includes Urgent Measure 6, which aims to “strengthen cooperation among law enforcement agencies in range, transit, and consumer states,” and indicates that this agreement bridges the states in which elephants are poached (among them Gabon, Kenya Niger and Zambia), the states known for ivory transit (Vietnam, Philippines and Malaysia), and the states driving ivory demand (China, United States and Thailand).

IUCN Director General Julia Marton-Lefevre was quoted as saying, “We are very pleased with the result of the summit, especially as it involves some of the most important countries along the illegal ivory value chain.”

© WWF-Canon / Folke Wulf

© WWF-Canon / Folke Wulf

She continued, “We hope that these outcomes will go beyond the summit’s focus on African elephants and boost broader efforts to combat illegal wildlife trade in other species which have been threatened by it, such as rhinos and pangolins.”

It will have to be combined with efforts to reduce poverty, corruption and demand, the triad of drivers in the illegal elephant trade, but the international agreement forms what will hopefully be a strong, multi-level approach of getting from here to there.

Elvers, Economics, and the Decline of the American Eel

Life cycle of the American eel From: The Fish Site

Life cycle of the American eel From: The Fish Site

The world market for the magically-named ‘elver’, the young glass eel that is an immature stage of the American eel (Anguilla rostrata), has recently skyrocketed, though not for the first time. The small, clear squirmers, approximately 5 centimeters (2-3 inches) long, used to sell for USD 25 / pound. The current price is up to $2000 / pound. The appetite for young eel is high in Asia, mostly in Japan, and over the past few decades, they have fished up and consumed (Japan accounts for 70% of the world’s eel market). Local eel stocks of the Anguilla japonica are considered depleted, hence the market for the American variety – the glass eels are sold and shipped not just for direct consumption, but as stock from which to grow adult eels.

The problem for eels and their continued survival in the wild is their complex and lengthy maturation cycle (the females ony reach sexual maturity after eight years). The creature is a wonder of movement and change, and as a result, not much is known about its entire life cycle when it comes to habitat and needs. This makes it difficult to breed and farm, which is why the adult eel have been overfished, and the young are being harvested to farm into adulthood.

Full disclosure: I have consumed and enjoyed eel, from Japan to New York City to Hamburg and Paris. The only kind of eel I did not enjoy was young eel, which I had served to me in Kawasaki, Japan back in the 1980s: A seedy local bar, a large countertop fishbowl, a sieve that scooped out the wrigglers before my eyes and splashed an entire lot of them, unordered by me and also still alive, directly onto a hot grill and then onto my plate a few seconds later. Suffice it to say I’m glad I wasn’t sober at the time.

Challenges for the survival of the American eel are more manifold than a simple sieve and a hot grill, but just as lethal.

The elvers that bring in big money tend to aggregate in narrow coastal areas where they are easily accessible by anyone with a net; they are harvested prior to sexual maturity, so their reproductive potential is removed from the ecosystem; annual harvesting means that generations of potential breeding stock is lost. Add to this other environmental factors due to climate change and habitat encroachment (esp. hydroelectric turbines, dams).

What interests me here, though, is the way the Anguilla rostrata’s economic viability provides a pristine window into the intersection of global markets, poverty, lack of biological study, and biodiversity.

The American eel is a fascinating creature, and I suspect that much of the mystery still surrounding it is due to its snaky appearance, its nocturnal habits, and the instability of the economic market for the stocks. Also, it moves around, and isn’t easy to track. What role does the eel play in terms of its long life and travels through a variety of systems? It feeds on insect larvae and small fish, it is a main food source for top tier predators such as eagles, and as for the rest of it, well – that would require more study.

The native Asian stocks of local eels are all but gone due to overfishing. The little that is known about the wild stocks of American eels, and it isn’t much, indicate the species should be listed as endangered. This process is difficult, however, because currently the issuance of fishing licenses, as well as the control over stocks, is on a state-by-state basis rather than under federal jurisdiction.

So when the price of eel goes up, all kinds of people who have never fished for an eel except maybe by accident, or using elvers as bait for larger prey, are out at night with a flashlight and a net, hoping to strike it rich. Gold rush thinking at this level is rarely the territory of the rich – it is those living on the margins, for whom a quick windfall could be life-changing, who are wading into frigid and treacherous waters at night. Lack of oversight combined with deep financial need is never a good thing for fragile species or ecosystem, whether it’s eels, exotic hardwoods, or elephant tusk, or shark fins.

In a neat narrative twist, many of the elvers harvested from the shores of Maine or South Carolina, currently the only two US states that allow for more than a handful of fishing licenses on an annual basis, may end up on American and European plates after being shipped to China for farming into adulthood and then back to Western markets for sale.

By the time more is known about the eel, it may be too late. They remind me a bit of the sad oyster dilemma faced by the Walrus and the Carpenter in Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass:

The Walrus and the Carpenter

The Walrus and the Carpenter

“‘I weep for you,’ the Walrus said:

      I deeply sympathize.’

With sobs and tears he sorted out

      Those of the largest size,

Holding his pocket-handkerchief

      Before his streaming eyes.

O Oysters,’ said the Carpenter,

      You’ve had a pleasant run!

Shall we be trotting home again?’

      But answer came there none —

And this was scarcely odd, because

      They’d eaten every one.”

There are a couple of excellent articles out now on the topic, including this beautiful piece by Susan Hand Shetterly, The Incredible Edible Eel.

A post about traditional cultures fishing for glass eel in Taiwan. The threat of overfishing from a Japanese culinary perspective.

For me, though, this is one more case of learning to try and eat locally, in season, and ignore food fads.

As for those driven to the water in search of writhing glass gold, I hope our economic future has more to offer them than we do the American eel.

UPDATES: Here, here, and here.