There is a self-evident link between sustainability, futurism and science fiction that we need not dwell upon – but at the nexus of fiction & reality there is a domain where we can imagine a world that could be, should be, or should not be. For a writer this can become a useful toolbox, an avenue to be pursued where other avenues fail. After a career of writing non-fiction books about energy, climate change & terrorism, Guardian Columnist Nafeez Ahmed’s latest book is a work of science fiction. We ask: is this a useful approach?
When we reviewed Noam Chomsky’s “Profit over People” it seemed perfectly natural to refer to the movie “Soylent Green” as it is a well-known sci-fi icon that encapsulated our fears about the future. A hot over-crowded planet where the 1% elite live in concrete towers surrounded by the 99% who live in misery. It is a vision recently revisited by the 2013 movie “Elysium” to which we shall return later. There is no great revelation in the link between great sci fi literature and celluloid and concerns about the future. Sci fi is an enabling tool box. One of the highest art forms there, it allows you to see the world in a way previously impossible. This is far from trivial, it is revelatory. Futurists come from a different school and it colours their entire world philosophy. Reading literature about the future makes you wonder about things to come – naturally. And naturally you will ponder the roadmap to such a future. If it is a desirable future (say, Gene Rodenberry’s “Star Trek”) then we ask “how do we get there?”. If it is less desirable (say, the movie “Elysium”) then we ask “how do we avoid that?”
Why is this a revelation? If you consider yourself to be, let’s say, a bit “green” you might be concerned about protecting green spaces from mankind’s intervention. This hypothetical, ‘traditional’, eco-activist is comfortable with using phrases like “green” and “eco” and assume that everyone regards these matters in exactly the same way they do. The ‘futurist’ is cut from different cloth. The futurist may well reach similar conclusions but for different reasons. From there they can also imagine a number of different roadmaps and, more importantly, a number of different outcomes in civilisation’s journey back to mass-sustainability. Some utopian, some dystopian.
Take as an example the universe in George Lucas’s “Star Wars” and the City Planet “Coruscant” – a planetary habitat completely devoid of green spaces. For an environmentalist this may seem like hell. But it is sustainable. It works, at least in fiction. There is more to this question than just protecting nature. The futurist can conceive of this as a possible outcome. But how could this be possible? The Star Trek franchise offers us a tantalising glimpse of what would be required.
To be sustainable without green-tech you would need the technology to turn matter into energy and then back again into matter. Secondly you would need the technology to travel between planets. If both of these possibilities become true then your species can overcome the constraints of living on a single planet with all the resource restrictions that come with that finite space. Star Trek goes one step further in offering a vision of a harmonious human species where war, poverty and want seem to have been eradicated. We don’t know how but this illustrates a third aspect of this utopia – a political solution to inequity.
Transition uses the technique of “back-casting” in helping communities imagine the future and work backwards to the roadmap they need to get there. It is a future of great personal wellbeing but it is not the one that some futurists might recognise. It can be, for some, dystopian. It is a low energy future with a somewhat muted version of our consumer society. This is an assumption built into the Transitioner’s toolkit because they normally have arrived at this destination via a climate change and peak oil narrative. It isn’t quite this simple. Our observations suggest that there is the dynamic of the environmentalist in many a Transitioner that may narrow their vision. They may wish for a resource-constrained future because it will somehow “protect” nature. The operating assumption is that nature is always the answer.
The language used is the biggest give-away. As an example we never use terms such as “environment”, “eco” and “green” to describe the work of Post-Carbon Living. These are unhelpful pigeon-holes that will not best prepare people’s expectations. Trigger words such as “eco” or “green” conjure up unhelpful stereotypes & clichés. Worse than that these words do NOT mean the same thing to everybody. As an example the word “environment” is a devoid of any meaning in our culture. You can conceal any crime you like against the environment inside your work on the ‘environment’. As such it is no longer meaningful – more a source of confusion and subterfuge rather than clarity and transparency. We must completely reframe the debate – instead try concepts like “futurism” and “wellbeing”. A post-carbon “superhome” must never be described as an “eco-home” or a “green-home”. It is always a “future-home” because it represents the future of all homes. It is an inevitable reality that we will all adopt, not a lifestyle choice of a minority concerned with the fate of the bumble-bees. Such use of language can seek to normalise sustainability into the operating system of our culture.
With a concept like Coruscant in our minds we can simply reframe the sustainability debate as being a narrative about the limits of human technology in our time and place. Since we are unable to overcome those limits within a meaningful timescale then we have to use the “tech” we have address the limits of growth. Environmentalism typically frames this discussion differently (as a return to nature) hence they struggle to normalise their belief system because it is not a universal vision. They start from a position of ‘mankind-as-a-problem’ and assume ‘nature-is-the-answer’ because their personal perspective is that nature is, for want of a better word, “nice”. It leads to the language of “mother nature”, “awe” and the Gaiain perspective. This world-view holds the idea of “overcoming nature” with disdain preferring instead to “work with nature”. This will not win over the Realpolitik of how our lives are run. It relies too heavily on what a minority WANT rather than what we all NEED.
Instead we should talk about what is possible and what is not. We must adopt the position of Nature as “Capital” not simply as a means of making it relevant to neoliberal ideology but also it give it real value to all of society. Greens have reached for the natural capital argument only after all others have failed. But if they continue in the belief that ‘nature as-is’ is the solution then they will always butt-heads with those who wish for a future where technology is the solution. Hence the endless battles of Nuclear Power, Fracking and Genetically Modified Organisms. Few grass root Greens seem equipped with the understanding and language to debate these issues clearly. They start from a point of view that they are “unnatural” and derive their narrative from that one, narrow, world view.
We would contend that there is nothing unnatural about any human technology. All the three above mentioned ‘tech’ has significant issues before they harm a single bumble bee. The Achilles-heal for Fracking and Nuclear is the lack of foundation for their long-term economic soundness. The argument about GMO’s is one about human rights and the right to eat. It concerns monopolistic powers over ownership of basic self-reproducing crops. It is about rights and responsibilities. If you can free your mind from the simplistic “nature is nice” cornerstone then you can imagine a different future.
For example GMO foodstuffs would be a great enabling technology for the expansion of organic farming. Imagine crops that require less fungicides, less fertiliser, less water, less herbicides, less pesticides? Now compare that to how Monsanto have actually used the technology: to ensure that their crops are more resistant to the greater appliance of Monsanto’s own Roundup weed-killer. This is a blind-alley in the use of the technology as it only encourages more soil inputs and more poisons in the environment and our food supply chain. But this is the fault of Monsanto and our economic system, not the fault of the technology. Likewise this is true of Nuclear and Fracking. These are all human problems.
Science Fiction helps us to see this and allows us to see beyond the horizon. Above is a picture of a Ferengi – a bizarre alien species from the Star Trek franchise. In the Star Trek Universe the Ferengi are the neoliberal capitalists. In their culture mercantilism is everything. Their lives are dominated by profit and trade. One might wonder why they are portrayed as stunted, short and ugly? It says a lot about the universe the Gene Rodenberry created that Ferengi values do not “fit” with human values. The Ferengi never appeared in the original 1970s series. They were a later franchise invention for the “Next Generation” series launch in the 80s. As such they are closer to social commentary then Spielbergs’ imaginary ET. Such a species forces us to ask about where a specific ideology can take us. If it can dominate our lives so much, for such a long time, can it not only become normalised in the economic sphere; but also in the cultural one? The you ask, well… Is that what we want? Most of us would naturally say ‘no!’ and would recoil at the Ferengi cultural model. It is not one we would want. We aspire to such much more.
Take another example from an old favourite Douglas Adams: the Vogons who blow up planet Earth to make a hyperspace bypass are not like the Ferengi. Nope, the Vogons are the Universe’s civil servants, the bureaucrats. Before he died Adams wrote a script that was eventually to become the “Hitchhikers Guide the Galaxy” movie. It took us to Vogsphere the Vogon home planet. That planet is infested with a subterranean lifeform that leaps out of the ground and slaps you in the face if you have any original thought or moment of inspiration. The Vogons are the result of millions of years if evolution in which they have learnt not to think. Hence they follow pointless rules to the letter because they are unable to question them. They are puzzled by species who seem capable of independent or imaginative thought.
Of course this is all hilarious but one wonder if Adams meant the Vogons as social commentary? Certainly we are meant to think so because Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect start the original story in a battle against mindless and petty council bureaucrats who are building a bypass through Dent’s home. This dominates the very first chapter of the original Hitchhiker book.
What to learn? Well, this is all fun fiction but when you spent your youth reading and watching this stuff it becomes un-nerving to see that the world really is run by Vogons and Ferengi. Neither are a species that we would hold in high regard. But versions of both run our lives and we do not question it. Where will it lead?
The Tristar Pictures’ “Elysiumrich elite escape the grinding poverty of the 99% by living in a utopian space station. The movie depicts life on Earth as human existence on one massive slum. It is hot and dry. Criminal gangs do battle with robot cops whilst the elite only need these feudal peasants as cheap labour in the factories where the robots are made. This is social commentary writ large but, being sci fi they set it in the future and use space ships & hi tech gizmos.
In reality such a future might actually be the far-from-worse-case-scenario. If mankind genuinely has the resource to build an enormous space station (and travel up to it in comparative comfort & ease) then that would be some achievement. It is still beyond our wildest dreams. The film depicts an over-populated planet of utter poverty – but nobody seems to be starving. There is law and order, albeit draconian, and there are functioning public services like hospitals and public transport. Two hundred years from now this could be somebody’s idea of a dream if we screw up our future path.
The only comfort we take from these stories is that they continue to confirm what we have in common about our dreams and our nightmares. Few can disagree that Vogsphere and the Earth depicted in Elysium are horrid. Few can find a Vogon or a Ferengi adorable. The elite in Elysium aren’t even space aliens but they are the bad guys. It seems that all we need to do is take everything that is wrong on Earth today, fictionalise it into another place or time, and we can all agree about the rights and wrongs. Where we struggle is where the fiction merges into today’s realities. Somehow our judgement is blurred.
Which brings us back to Nafeez Ahmed’s “Zero Point” which he describes as
“…a political science fiction thriller set in the near future. It imagines the dawn of a world which hasn’t taken much stock of the chorus of scientific warnings that business-as-usual is leading us toward environmental, energy and related catastrophes. […] The story is inspired by real-life events, down to a lot of details – from the historical evolution of the US intelligence system, to clandestine efforts to weaponise quantum physics.”
He goes on to write that “The way to people’s hearts is through stories“. Stories do allow us to portray the world as it is. We may not be comfortable dealing with the brutal reality but we can conceptualise a fictionalised version. Just look at how many political thrillers take US political corruption as a plot device. We view it as normal in story telling. But how many of us are willing to go beyond that Hollywood veil and witness the reality? As we saw, for example in Greg Palast’s “Vultures’ Picnic” the truth about corruption in our modern world is horrific and it effect politics everywhere all of the time. Even when books like “Vultures’ Picnic” lift the skirts it seems that nothing really changes. We are more comfortable with the fantasy.
Simply pummelling people with reality isn’t enough. If you really need to reach out and touch more people you need to get noticed. Using the genre of sci fi is almost perfect.
“…we need to start creating new stories that inspire readers to see the world the way it is, even in the process of reading to escape the doldrums of everyday life. Because through the medium of fiction, through works of art, we’re sometimes able to witness the magic of reality…”
Ahmed is rebelling against the relentless propaganda of the western sphere of influence the drums into us day after day that we are the “good guys” and THEY are the bad guys. The Hollywood thriller can do very little about this straightjacket of ideology. Recall “Airforce One” (1997) with Harrison Ford and the conversation between the terrorist and the President’s daughter? To paraphrase: “Have you ever wonder why those poor people on your TV need guns?” This was a genuinely good question, but the moment was fleeting, gone, to be replaced by more shit-blowing-up. It was an action thriller after-all. How many get to the truth? Some flirt with it. Maybe ‘Syriana’… but each is trapped within the doctrinal system of our culture. Put it simply: people don’t want to know that we are the bad guys – that our Government is evil. We want to be a little scared, but like a rollercoaster ride we want to be assured that the danger is not really-real.
So, can “Zero Point” be successful? Can stories change the world? Writes Ahmed:
“Zero Point subverts this subliminal neo-imperial narrative with a story arc that slices through the traditional binary polarisation between ‘us good’ and ‘them bad’ in traditional thriller writing, opening up the complexity of ‘deep politics’ – the extent to which the inherent corruption of the system is its greatest asset, and simultaneously our own worst enemy…”
He certainly hopes that his book will avoid “gushing propagandistic fantasy” and there is no doubt that, given his track record, this will be the result. We certainly hope that the sci fi-buying public will take to this kind of ultra-reality fiction. Those of us who like sci fi and enjoy Ahmeds book will already be fans. But the general public? Somehow we suspect that they prefer the gushing propagandistic fantasy. Time can only tell.
Whether not this specific book is a hit or not the principle holds true: stories can change the world. Just look at the myths spun around globalisation. With stories we can lie to ourselves or hide ugly truths inside fantasy. All things to all men. For every Elysium there will be the glorious cartoon techno-kill garbage of Iron Man. Do we have faith in our culture to believe that people can tell the difference any more? We have to try and we have to keep trying – by any means possible.
If there is one positive outcome from this barrage of ideas it is this: somewhere out-there, there is a young reader of sci fi who is learning to see the world differently. That youngster may well grow up to be somebody who matters. When enough people, with influence, see the world differently then maybe, just maybe, the stories they read will change the world.