I have a friend — brilliant and creative; the happiest guy I know. In fact, the tag line on his emails reads “The secret of life is to be happy.” Another of his favorite sayings is “Reality is overrated.” He follows all the latest developments in technology, but carefully avoids the news. He’s not just ignorant of current events; he’s innocent of them.
I have another friend, also brilliant and creative; also successful. He is deeply concerned and engaged with the problems of the world, and spends hours a day poring over the New York Times, watching Rachel Maddow, and listening to “Democracy Now.” He is not a happy guy.
Both men are financially comfortable, both in great relationships. But while one relishes his life in utopia, the other sees the opposite — dystopia — wherever he looks.
These two friends of mine are extreme cases, no doubt. Most of us are not so consistent. Speaking for myself — I have my utopian days and my dystopian days. The strange thing is, I can easily justify both views of the world. Considering only the content of my own life … well, it is utopian indeed. I have a wonderful family, no health problems, no pressing financial worries. I have access to great culture and incredibly beautiful natural surroundings.
But. But somehow I can’t leave it at that. I can’t tune out the news, can’t ignore economic and political injustices — and as a conservation biologist, I REALLY can’t ignore climate change, and what it will mean for the natural world I love. So, when I lift my gaze out of our utopian little valley, what I see is discouraging, depressing, and on some days, downright terrifying.
Far too many people in southern Oregon and northern California struggle to make ends meet, and that fact must not be minimized. Still, many of us are lucky enough to live comfortably. We go through our days dealing with “first-world problems” — fender-benders, delayed airplane flights, slow internet connections — all the while feeling in our bones that bad times are coming. And so, we’re irresistibly drawn to dystopian books and movies, to see what might be over the horizon. These suggest that we’re really worried about three things: environmental collapse, corporate/technocratic domination, and zombies. Especially zombies. So let’s start there.
Zombies are the monsters of the moment because they’re … us. Lurching awkwardly, oblivious to their surroundings, incapable of human connection, always searching, never satisfied — sound like any Bluetooth-wearing, text-messaging, video-game-playing, web-surfing person you know? I know I spend way too much time on my phone and computer — how about you? The proliferation of zombie movies and TV shows reflect our anxiety about ourselves. What are we becoming? In the brave new cyber-world, we wield untold forces of information, but are we losing our skills as human beings? What do you think? Hello? Anyone there?
Meanwhile, movies as diverse as Blade Runner, The Hunger Games, and the new release Divergent imagine a world in which shadowy figures control the levers of power, and the rest of us dance to a tune we aren’t even allowed to hear. A world, my dystopian friend would say, just like the one we live in. In fact, although the term “dystopia” is usually applied to an imagined future world where everything is horrible, it seems to me that the view of our present world depicted in many so-called “thrillers” is thoroughly dystopian. Films like the Bourne Identity and Mission Impossible series cast rogue government programs and/or untouchably powerful corporations as their villains — casting that appears all too plausible given our everyday reality of pervasive electronic surveillance, assassination-by-drone, and corporations “too big to fail.”
Finally, we play out our fears of a dystopian future with visions of environmental collapse. During the height of the Cold War, apocalyptic movies like On the Beach, Fail-Safe and even (spoiler alert) Planet of the Apes imagined a world laid waste by nuclear war. How old-fashioned! These days, we’re much more worried that tomorrow’s apocalypse will be environmental, either due to climate change, as in movies like The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, or through pandemics brought on by our meddling with the natural world, as in Contagion and I Am Legend. The trend is even clearer in books: a recent search on amazon.com for “climate change fiction” returned 650 results; my favorite title was Hot Mess: Speculative Fiction about Climate Change.
There is sadly little doubt that climate change — or more accurately, climate chaos — is going to drastically alter the world as we know it. The latest predictions from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) indicate a temperature increase of 4.7–8.6° F by the end of the century if the current rate of carbon dioxide emissions continues. I’m hopeful that the rate of increase can be slowed, but doubtful it will be enough. As the NAS report concludes, “If emissions of CO2 stopped altogether…surface temperatures would stay elevated for at least a thousand years, implying extremely long-term commitment to a warmer planet due to past and current emissions, and sea level would likely continue to rise for many centuries even after temperature stopped increasing.”
So, while I try to minimize my personal carbon footprint, and support urgent global action to reduce carbon emissions, I’m convinced that the world to come will look terribly damaged to me. But I don’t want to live in dread of the future. I don’t want to fail to feel gratitude for the blessings of my life. I want to believe in utopia as well as dystopia.
In this matter, as in so many other problems that defy a logical solution, I find an answer in poetry. The great English poet William Blake wrote
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
The Japanese haiku master Issa gave us:
is a dewdrop world
The flower, even if a weed in a vacant lot, gives us beauty — a vision of heaven. The dewdrop may seem small and fleeting, but within it the world is contained and preserved. In the worst, most damaged corners of the world, from the slums of Calcutta to the industrial wastelands of Detroit, I have found beauty. Amid all my fears and uncertainties about the future, I have one certainty: there will be beauty. And there, in that small infinity, in that brief eternity, I will find the utopia I seek.
Pepper Trail is an Ashland naturalist and writer. To read more of his work, visit his websites www.peppertrail.net and www.earthprecepts.net.