Booking the future

A crystal ball? Tea leaves? Astrology? How do we predict our future? The negative effects of climate change are increasing and will only escalate. Fortunately, fiction can provide creative ideas to deal with this challenging future. This article provides a synopsis of some speculative novels that do just that. These works are categorized as ecotopias.

However, before discussing these books, we should concede the limitations of speculative fiction. A large number of adults are simply not book readers. A 2018 Pew Research poll found that one in four Americans hadn’t read a single book in the previous year. Even many book readers don’t read fiction as shown by the 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts. This study found that of all readers, only 44.4% had read novel in the previous twelve months.

Another hindrance is that speculative fiction is labelled science fiction, and this is a turn-off for many. An informal study by Mark Niemann Ross found on the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers website reported that only twenty-one per cent of respondents had read science fiction.

Thus, the vast majority of Americans don’t read speculative fiction. However, it is still worthwhile to consider these books as they provide examples of improving social and environmental conditions. To fight climate change and promote social equality, alternatives to fossil fuels, deforestation, toxic petroleum guzzling agriculture and industry, and wasteful consumption, etc. must be found. Speculative fiction can spark ideas as to how we might accomplish this.

Speculative fiction includes various stories set in the future. Stories are very effective methods of communicating, and the climate change movement has found that stories, as opposed to mere facts, reach many more people. The Viable Cities program in Sweden features Per Grankvist as “Chief Storyteller.”

Grankvist discusses the importance of stories when motivating people to act on climate change. He states: When you tell stories effectively, you have the power to change peoples lives for the better by connecting with them emotionally to make them rethink needs and behaviours, and to engage in being proactive in the inevitable change to climate-neutral cities. It’s about engaging the heart and the mind.

Ecotopian stories envision cooperative, egalitarian, and environmental futures. If choosing to read only one book, Journey to the Future—A Better World is Possible—An Ecotopian Novel by Guy Dauncey is highly recommended. The story is written from the perspective of Vancouverite Patrick Wu, who slips through time to explore the city of June 2032. Egalitarian and environmentally sustainable practices are the basic principles of society. The novel is so fact-based that a bibliography and almost one thousand endnotes based on contemporary research and practices are included.

In Dauncey’s novel, the global effects of climate change have increased. However, Vancouver has taken active measures to slow down the calamity. The use of fossil fuels has decreased. Solar power, including solar photovoltaics, huge solar floating installations, and wind farms are major sources of energy. Canada has mandated that new construction must follow passive solar guidelines. Pollution is reduced. Agriculture includes organic farming and permaculture. Garbage is composted. Social conditions have improved with the economic system emphasizing cooperation. There are four-day workweeks, and a guaranteed basic income. Healthcare, food, transportation and childcare are affordable.

Maintaining egalitarianism is essential to citizens. One of Wu’s sources, particularly interested in equality, refers to various historical examples of egalitarianism.

For example, the Penan people of Borneo felt that the most significant transgression that people could make was “sihun,” which means failure to share. Squamish elders said that “the very thought of owning more possessions than another when someone was in need was inconceivable.”

A major criticism of Dauncey’s work is that it includes myriads of computers that are pervasive everywhere. The book ignores their vast negative environmental and health effects. These effects include the destructive ramifications of extracting natural resources, particularly toxic metals, that are used in manufacturing computers. The health effects of handling and disposing of computers are also neglected.

Another inspiring novel is Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach. In this novel, Northern California, Oregon and Washington seceded from the United States. Twenty years later newspaper journalist Will Weston travels to Ecotopia to report on the new country. He finds a much more ecological society with less pollution. Energy is solar-based, and plastics are produced from plants rather than fossil fuels. Urban sprawl has been replaced with densely populated cities that are surrounded by forests.

Besides environmental improvements, Weston finds a more egalitarian society. The economics of the country are very progressive. Ecotopians work a twenty-hour week, and they use their extra free time to pursue educational and artistic endeavors. Businesses are worker-owned. Women are politically powerful, and racial minorities control their communities.

People are physically fit because of both increased walking in their daily life and the use of free bicycles that are found scattered around urban areas. Railroads are another primary form of transportation.

Many readers have criticized the violent team games of younger adult males. However, since the contests are fought with spears, no harm is done to either the environment or to civilians. Military preparation is exclusively defensive, and the country does not engage in regime change.

Dragonfly’s Question—Principles for “The Good Life—After the Crash is another recommended ecotopian novel. This novel by Darcy Hitchcock is set eight years into the future. Tess, a resident of Portland, is visited by Joe, her conservative businessman father. Tess is a consultant who helps her clients become more environmentally sustainable. Her father is extremely critical of her lifestyle, and she educates her father on the ways of life that are an improvement on the standard American lifestyle.

Fewer consumer goods are purchased. Thus, people need to work fewer hours. Fewer toxic chemicals are manufactured. Permaculture methods are common, and many people grow organic gardens.
Less waste is produced. Instead of disposing of used products, they are reused or recycled. Rather than everyone owning the same tools, they are borrowed from the local tool lending library. Graywater, from showers, sinks, and washing machines, is filtered on-site through artificial wetlands. Sewage is sent to local biogas plants which produce gas used to generate electricity.

Through the Eyes of a Stranger by Will Bonsall is another recommended novel. After Yaro Seekings, the main character, flees his country because he is falsely accused of murder, he becomes a refugee in Esperia.

The time is five centuries after the “Calamitous times” of the 21st century.

In Esperia, collectivism is favored over individualism. People live communally in small “households.”

These households are expected to be self-reliant regarding food production and generation of household energy. For example, every family has its own windmill. With the exception of honey production, the country is vegetarian. Each household specializes in producing several items, which are bartered with other households. Their mixed economic system includes communal families, co-ops and private businesses which aren’t allowed free reign. One example is that different products made with slave labor are banned.

Entropia by Samuel Alexander is about a small Pacific island isolated from the rest of the world. Society is egalitarian with everyone eligible for both a guaranteed income and housing. A maximum income is maintained through the tax system. There are many provisions from their “Charter of the Deep Future” that could be adopted to make societies more ecological and egalitarian. Some examples are: “We affirm that providing ‘enough, for everyone, forever’ is the objective of our economy. … We affirm that property rights are justifiable only to the extent that they serve the common good, including the overriding interests of humanitarian and ecological justice.”
The entire island is run in an environmentally sustainable manner. Food production is local and organic. Wind and hydro systems provide energy. Water is very carefully conserved. A major source of water is provided by rooftop tanks. Greywater is recycled, and composting toilets are replacing old flush toilets. The ending is a bit perplexing. The islanders were not aware that the society had been set up by the government of New Zealand to determine if a better environmental society could evolve. After the egalitarian and ecological community developed, a New Zealander official visits the island. He convinces the residents to disperse over the globe to teach other countries how things could be done better.

The way the island was set up was manipulating and misleading, and when it was disrupted, it was extremely disappointing. If this kind of thing happened in the real world, people would become devasted facing the truth of their existence and then having to disperse all over the globe.

The social support networks of their community that they had relied on their whole lives would no longer exist. The previous ecotopias are forms of utopias and are the opposite of dystopias. In speculative movies and novels, dystopias are much more prevalent than ecotopias. Dystopias tell of societies that collapse because of various calamities, and they are dehumanizing and dreadful places where people can barely survive.

Dystopias might not be effective ways to influence people. Dr Denise Baden, professor of sustainable business, points out that dystopias are poor motivators for change, and they provoke fear of the future. Baden states: Research increasingly suggests that trying to promote behavioural change through fear can be counterproductive, leading to anxiety or depression that results in an issue being avoided, denied or met with a sense of helplessness. However, in education, news and fiction, stories with positive role models and which focus on the positive outcomes of solutions are much more likely to inspire action to solve it.

Even though dystopias are filled with gloom and doom and hopeless scenarios, real-world evidence paints a different picture. Catastrophes actually bring out the best in people. Humanity is not necessarily doomed to a violent, nasty future as depicted in movies and dystopian fiction.

Contrary evidence to the dystopian view of humanity is provided by A Paradise Built in Hell-The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster by Rebecca Solnit. The book is filled with inspiring examples of people’s positive response to disasters. Solnit states: The image of the selfish, panicky, or regressively savage human being in times of disaster has little truth to it. Decades of meticulous sociological research on behavior in accidents, from the bombings of World War II to floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, and storms across the continent and around the world, have demonstrated this. Solnit goes on to point out: Studies of people in urgently terrifying situations have demonstrated—as Quarantelli [Sociologist Enrico Quarantelli, who pioneered the study of disasters] puts it in the dry language of his field—that instead of ruthless competition, the social order did not break down, and there was “cooperative rather than selfish behavior predominating.” Quarantelli states that more than seven hundred studies of disasters demonstrate that panic is a vanishingly rare phenomenon. Subsequent researchers have combed the evidence as meticulously—in one case examining the behavior of two thousand people in more than nine hundred fires—and concluded that the behavior was mostly rational, sometimes altruistic, and never about the beast within when the thin veneer of civilization is peeled off. Except in the movies and the popular imagination. And in the media.

Solnit provides many examples of people throughout history spontaneously helping others. For example, immediately after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, many average people instinctively did valuable and cooperative things such as setting up public kitchens. One of the many other examples scattered throughout her book is that two hundred thousand people volunteered to take in homeless Katrina hurricane survivors. She also reports that “crises and stresses often strengthen social bonds rather than breed competition and isolation.”

There are several books that are neither ecotopias nor dystopias. These novels depict societies after horrendous environmental disasters that cause suffering and death. However, these stories are heartening because they suggest that humanity is capable of surviving terrible catastrophes and doesn’t necessarily have to run amuck.

Threshold by Susan Feathers is an inspiring book set in Tucson, Arizona. This recommended novel includes the calamities of a dystopia but the decency of an ecotopia. Tucson has experienced a heatwave and drought lasting many years. Several elderly vulnerable residents have perished, and the ecosystem has been devasted.

However, the main characters are kind and decent people who struggle to adapt to horrendous changes in the ecology of the region. Some even blossom.

New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson is another suggested book that is neither ecotopian nor dystopian. Manhattan has been overridden by the rising ocean. Water damaged foundations cause buildings to topple over. People drown during storm surges. It is disappointing that greedy people and businesses are allowed to take advantage of a disastrous situation. However, most Manhattanites quietly adapt by becoming more giving and cooperative, and some even thrive.

Thus, literature shows that even though climate change will cause many to perish and will drastically change their lives, it is possible to create more resilient communities. People don’t necessarily have to act out a Hollywood dystopia with survivors going rogue.

Lenore Hitchler

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