Can we imagine a better future? On dystopias and hope

A blog reader named Ray contacted me a while back to say that he shares a deep concern about climate change. In fact, he’s publishing a novel about it on his website. In his book the Arctic polar ice cap melts quickly (as we can already see) and causes more abrupt global warming than we expect. The rapid climate change leads to a collapse in agriculture, there is a surge of terrorism, and right-wing extremists stage a coup against the US government.

He was curious what I might think about his book.

I had to confess my discontent. I don’t enjoy dystopian novels. And that’s putting it mildly. I usually don’t subject myself to them. These days, they’re getting hard to avoid, since dystopian visions always surge in popularity during a time of crisis. People sense that the world as they know it is dying, and they are frightened beyond belief—and I mean this quite literally. Climate-change denial of the extent that we have witnessed in recent years has to be fueled in part by a fear so big there is no name for it. And writers of dystopian novels are rising to the challenge, trying to portray our worst fears, to place them directly in our line of vision.

But here’s why I don’t enjoy dystopian stories. They tend to be well acquainted with horror. They often parade cruelty, showing people acting toward one another and other beings in the worst possible ways. And they may be celebrated as “manly” or “courageous,” as if staring at the worst possible version of ourselves takes a special kind of bravery. I understand the fascination with horror. I get the value of experimenting with doom and gloom. I just don’t need to hang out there.

And furthermore, as I told Ray, instead of being too hard, dystopia is too easy. Given our bedrock belief about human nature—that it is warped toward selfishness, greed, and cruelty—we find it easy to imagine ourselves acting badly. It is a whole lot harder to imagine a future where people behave with generosity and kindness, which may be why fewer stories explore these options. And why, when they do, they are labeled utopian, which means, literally, “no place,” an impossible ideal.

So I emailed Ray:

We tend to expect the worst of ourselves—one of the main themes in my book, and a pessimistic cultural attitude that I try to demystify by showing some of the history of it. But stories of coping and courage and resiliency? They seem harder to imagine.

Why show the worst in people instead of the best? I asked.

Ray responded with the excellent point that stories showing the best in people tend to conform to the hero storyline (quoting with his permission):

Tales of heroes saving the day tend to counsel complacency—somebody else, some extraordinary being, will take care of it. These tales say, (1) there, there, it’ll be all right or (2) if you’re not extraordinary, don’t bother. Dystopian fiction says, we can’t let this happen.

Point well taken. Dystopian visions can be wake-up calls—this is the road we’re on, and we’ll come to a nasty end if we don’t change course.

But I have to repeat: dystopia is not hard to imagine. With our assumptions about ourselves, tales of cruelty and deprivation and chaos are easy to dream up (if not easy to craft; they take a storyteller’s skill as much as any other kind of fiction). They are easy to imagine because we are more likely to be surprised when people are generous or kind than when they are not. I spent a good share of my new book exploring why this is true and showing how mistrusting our own human nature goes along with a jaundiced view of the rest of nature as well.

Our cynical view of ourselves no doubt contributes to a lack of imagination for addressing the climate crisis. Bogged down by pessimism, we find creative solutions immeasurably hard to fathom—in spite of the fact that we already have the technology and the know-how. We seem unable to imagine people working smoothly together over time to restructure their lives and communities, to dream up new ways of living.

And so we fall back, as Ray suggested, on the hero’s tale, where one or two or three resourceful people outwit, outplay, and outshoot the opposition. It’s as if our imaginations can handle only a few people at a time being brave or resourceful or wise.

Writer David Sobel points out in the current issue of Orion magazine that dystopian fiction rules in teen culture. He finds a great deal of hope in it, especially when, as in The Hunger Games, young people act heroically, challenging the status quo. He lauds the genre precisely for celebrating teen heroines and heroes because in a culture like ours, where adolescents do not undergo formal initiation rituals, they need to be able to picture themselves in the big roles, tackling the big problems and changing the world for the better. He writes,

If we want to avoid the environmental catastrophes and repressive central governments pictured in current dystopian fiction, we’re going to need more adolescents willing to be heroic. . . . If Katniss and these other heroines compel us to be heroic, then perhaps these books are part of the solution.

He may be right. But we need a new storyline as well—something beyond the tale of the isolated heroine or hero.

We need a new storyline about us. All of us. About how we can work together. About how we can share—because sharing is common, not rare, in nature. About the empathy embedded in our DNA as deeply as the greed.

It will take nothing less than a new story of nature. And for this we need big imaginations, bigger than we’ve exercised so far. Big enough to imagine solving the climate crisis, not just suffering from it. Because only with imaginations that spacious will we have the energy and courage to tackle the problem itself.

Can we imagine a better future? For a change? Literally.

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