Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The value of dystopia

I've been spending some time recently with colleagues in English and Sociology (John Sitter and Andy
Weigert). We are creating a minor in sustainability--an entirely new entity for my university--and a new introductory course for students in this field. We're going to teach the course with multiple faculty, with multiple perspectives, because no one can embody alone the lofty idea of sustainability and all its challenges and opportunities. So, among other things, I've been learning from my humanist colleagues about literature and how people use stories to envision sustainability. And here is where I've learned about the importance of science fiction in environmental policy and decision-making. Think 1984. Think Fahrenheit 451. Narratives about the future--good futures and bad ones--are critical to helping us decide what world we want and what one we want to avoid.

We are going to ask our sustainability students to read T.C. Boyle's novel, A Friend of the Earth. So I just read it myself. For an ecologist and climate change researcher, this is a really distressing book. It describes a world of extreme weather and widespread species extinction and habitat loss. The novel's main character, Ty Tierwater, struggles with this degraded world at the end of a life of radical environmentalism. A life that clearly did not achieve its aims. Because humans failed to preserve the natural world, Ty himself fails in a personal and debilitating way. Through his personal struggle, Ty invites us to ask--is this the world that we want? If we don't want this world, we will have to take corrective action now. The kind of corrective action that Ty himself couldn't convince us to do.

My colleague, Andy, tells me that Boyle's kind of futuristic storytelling is a useful, emotional tool that can guide our decisions and values in the present. Consider the idea of Peace: How do you know how to get it if you can't visualize it? You might never truly get there, but we can aspire to Peace if we can visualize it. The same goes for futuristic dystopia. How do we know what world we do *not* want if we can't visualize that too? I'm now realizing that the narrative description of profound climate change could be much more compelling than "2-6 degrees Celsius by 2100." (What's that? And that doesn't sound so bad...)

My final thought is that good dystopian literature should also tell us what to do to avoid getting the undesirable. But Boyle doesn't really do this. Without a call to action and a sense that dystopia is inevitable, I just end up depressed.  Looking forward to asking students if they find any hope in Boyle's portrayal of the future.

1 comment:

  1. Andy Weigert's thoughts:
    "Futures "exist" in our stories, and dystopias vs utopias vie for likelihood. You scientists tell us if extrapolating from present trends and causal configurations finds sustainable ecosystems supporting species survival/prosperity/misery. Stories of imagined (aka backcasting) futures tell of a range of possible if not probable futures. So I'd add a "utopia" story, eg, Ernest Callenbach's "Ecotopia." Can't hurt?"

    And John Sitter's:
    "Your observation about Boyle and dystopias at the end reminded me of something Chinua Achebe has his character, a writer, say in Anthills of the Savannah in response to the position that third-world novelists “must not stop at the stage of documenting social problems but move to the higher responsibility of proffering prescriptions.” Ikem answers, "Writers don't give prescriptions...They give headaches!"