The Dystopian Dance

The issues of peak oil and climate change can both come across as having a certain millennial taint. Humanity, in its stupidity, is punished by nature. Or, as James Lovelock would put it, we are seeing the ‘Revenge of Gaia’. The Millennialists, however, see a happy ending at the other end of the tumult—at least for the chosen, enlightened few—while those of an atheistic or agnostic view of the world are condemned to a permanent descent into dystopia. No escaping ‘the end of days’ for them in a society under collapse.

Nonetheless, the fact that dystopias have frequently been the province of cranks does not mean they are not worthy of closer inspection. Prose writers have traditionally been the first ‘unto the breach’ when it comes to contemplating what the man (or woman) on the street deems unmentionable. Wells, Huxley, Orwell and Burgess come immediately to mind when we think of technological or political dystopias. Who having read Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘1984’ could not be a little more aware that a government (from any part of the spectrum) offering a political utopia may not instead transform our lives into a permanent dystopia.

Back in the 1970s, I read Nevil Shute’s ‘On the Beach’ and the completely abstract concept of a nuclear exchange had a little more meaning in one teenager’s mind.

With a novel, it is very difficult to throw the epithet ‘alarmist’; the writer is not telling us with certainty what will be but rather imagining what can be. And it is the description of a possibility that will alter our brain’s cognition of risk more than any number of reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report (as I touch on in my last post here).

To date Peak Oil has brought out better works of fiction than climate change (although usually climate change has a walk on part). James Howard Kunstler’s ‘World Made by Hand’ and ‘The Witch of Hebron’ both bring home in vivid colours the day-to-day struggles in a world with no easy access to cheap oil. Like many such works, though, there is a strong thread of the irrational. Religion (although not as we traditionally know it) and magic become a greater part of life’s mix in the author’s eyes, as a result of the failure of rationalism as embodied in science.

Kunstler is still somewhat a cult figure and has not acquired the literary fame of two other novelists that have dealt with dystopias head on: Cormac McCarthy and Margaret Atwood. The environmental campaigner and journalist  George Monbiot even had these words to say about McCarthy’s ‘The Road’:

“It could be the most important environmental book ever. It is a thought experiment that imagines a world without a biosphere, and shows that everything we value depends on the ecosystem.”

Both McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ and Atwood’s ‘The Year of the Flood’, however, start their stories after some unknown cataclysmic event. The reader may be left with a sense of unease, as was my teenage mind with Shute’s ‘On the Beach’, but an unease with what (with Shute I knew exactly)? Genetic engineering, global capitalism, advanced technology, pandemics, climate change? Tellingly, the publicity shot below from the movie ‘The Road’ has recently been wheeled out to accompany press articles on the potential impact of a euro break-up; the movie has become a generic metaphor for collapse, and climate change has to get in the queue.

Personally, I believe climate change has yet to find its Tolstoy. We see such luminaries from the world of science as Martin Rees openly contemplating the catastrophic potential of climate change, but this has had little resonance in the arts—or at least art that has caught the public’s imagination. Bill McKibben, the founder of the campaigning organisation 350.org, contrasts the situation with HIV, which produced “a staggering outpouring of art that, in turn, has had real political effect” (here). McKibben’s frustration is palpable:

Here’s the paradox: if the scientists are right, we’re living through the biggest thing that’s happened since human civilization emerged. One species, ours, has by itself in the course of a couple of generations managed to powerfully raise the temperature of an entire planet, to knock its most basic systems out of kilter. But oddly, though we know about it, we don’t know about it. It hasn’t registered in our gut; it isn’t part of our culture. Where are the books? The poems? The plays? The goddamn operas?

McKibben goes on to lists some of the reasons artists have not effectively engaged: diffuse perpetrators, disbursed victims, different time frames—in fact, a nightmare plot to narrate. But despite the difficulties, I believe that until we get the ‘goddamn operas’ communicators of climate chance science will have an uphill battle in changing people’s minds.

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