After coming across Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s TED talk recently, and already being familiar with his stunning aerial photography, I was excited to see his film Home, about the Earth, and its dwellers. It is probably the most beautiful film I have ever seen. The BBCs Planet Earth is gorgeous, but Home is far better. Every scene is a piece of art, like his photography, but in motion. I would pay to see it in high definition. The first half hour or so is a kind of naturalistic creation myth: true, but poetic. The formation of the Earth. The rise of the cyanobacteria, and the oxygenation of our atmosphere. The eventual emergence of our own species and the journey we took from hunter-gatherers to pastoralists, to city dwelling, fossil fueled, rulers of the world.
But there it stumbles. While what it says is true, it is not enough. The truth alone is no longer sufficient. The film is blind, or nearly so, to the future that we need to see. It’s too easy, given the truth we have inherited, to envision a dark future. Vague assertions that the solutions are at hand are not enough. He exclaims, and rightly so, that “We don’t want to believe what we know.” For some reason, we are afraid to envision a bright future. Maybe it’s because throughout the 20th century, the bright futures we envisioned often turned dark. Social progress became World Wars and gulags. Technological progress became mustard gas, ICBMs and DDT. Economic progress became the Depression and the disingenuous promise of perpetual growth through the liquidation of our natural capital. I agree that we don’t have time to be pessimists, but fodder for pessimism seems to be almost the only content out there in the environmental sphere. And it’s getting old.
What we are in desperate need of, is the story of Earth 2100, and The Age of Stupid, and Home, told backwards from the future, and with the much hoped-for ending as the starting point. We have the solutions, but they have not been woven into a compelling narrative, while the Apocalypse narrative is one we are all intimately familiar with, and so it takes up residence in the front of our minds. The End has always been nigh in someone’s mind, and that doesn’t mean it isn’t right around the corner now, but because it’s a story we’ve told ourselves so well for so long, in one context or another, we are trained to it. We hear it without having it spoken.
This future history has to be believable, while at the same time not incorporating any wild technological leaps that we can’t necessarily count on, which isn’t to say that wild technological leaps won’t happen — they almost certainly will — but the space of possible technologies is so large, that depending on or waiting for any given one is foolish. This future history needs to be something to strive for, a destination we want to get to. It can be many threaded and non-deterministic; it can have multiple outcomes and decision points, but whatever form it takes, it needs to be compelling. The future needs to be a place we would want to live, with people that we loved. Here’s how I think it goes.
O wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world! That has such people in’t!
Humans moved to the cities. That’s where we lived. And the cities became as nations unto themselves, some jealous and some free. Coal was banned. Banned! Death trains no more. But still we had to block the sun for a while, and so we changed the sky again. In place of coal we harnessed the Atom and the Sun. Then we learned to keep the light and hold it in chemical bonds, like plants, but far better. There was an accident, and a city died, and with our newly stored sunlight we decided that nuclear reactions were best left far away. But still the seas did rise, and there was war and plague. Things stopped moving. Freight trains and container ships were stilled. From this fearful chaos we built cyclical economies, with materials running in circles. Rebuilt and decomposed again and again, biologically. An economy no longer a strong function of location. Labor prices largely equalized worldwide, for a given set of skills. Education the key to wealth, and available wherever you might be. Then one day freely moving energy, freely flowing information, but materials left in place. Landfills finally mined.
Why go anywhere? We go for people. For culture. Different cities, with different laws and different peoples. Cities built for people. Green and quiet but dense. The freedom to move between them as you wish. Distributed economic organizations. Live with people here, work with people anywhere (even here). Our human numbers shrank and our lifespans lengthened. Between the cities the forests could re-grow, with help, there were no longer mines. The wilds returned. We tinkered with our crops at home, for better or for worse. We lost many of our irrigated lands to salt, but with a little tinkering, we took some of them back again. A few people tended the cities of the plants, vast greenhouse worlds, intricate engineered ecosystems under compostable glass, collecting and meting out the rains, drop by drop, cycling nutrients with the help of domesticated bacteria and integrated livestock.
The wilds return. They encroach. We can easily hold them at bay, but know that destroying them means destroying ourselves. We have Enough. Slowly and by parts, the lost menagerie is found or mourned. The European lion and the American camel. The blue whale and the bluefin tuna. The moa and the mastodon. From bits and bytes we sought out or hid away. And if you so choose, you can eat a bit of that ancient meat, hunted on the slowly regrown plains or in the darkening forests, or fished from the reborn seas and emancipated rivers. But only if you take it as an animal, as a member of the wilderness, under your own power, and by your own wiles. Only if you know that you too, are meat.
One thought on “O Brave New World, Where Are You?”
The world is too big for me to think and plan for it all, or, at least it will take more than a few stolen minutes (hours?) at work to do so!
I think in Alaska this is one possibility – ridiculous fossil fuel prices lead to continued boom economy, especially for engineers, geologists, oil companies for a handful of years. Some prosper in services, some see an eroding standard of life as necessities become more and more expensive. Some relocation of people in the state around resources – esp. developed geothermal resources where industry and population can take advantage of more stable energy prices. Meanwhile, those with long term view form loose groups exchanging information, work etc on establishing permaculture/ecologically designed farms/residences/etc (among the many unsustainable new farms and infrastructure). An increasing share of food is grown locally as the wheat belt comes to us, as fruit growing knowledge matures in the state, at centralized potato storage and root cellars multiply. As the fossil fuel age dwindles, hopefully with the help of economic barriers to carbon, the population also dwindles, perhaps precipitously, as folks move back down south. Population clusters around sources of renewable energy – hydo, already tapped geothermal, wind. These are more prevalent and appropriate to the small populations than nuclear, which is thankfully ignored here. A lot of infrastructure on melting permafrost will likely be abandoned. Population centers will be a reasonable size – a few tens of thousands of people at most. Local economies will still involve the Alaskan mainstays of timber, fishing (hopefully something still lives in the oceans), etc. Permaculture farms of potatoes, grains, chickens, veggies, orchards will be prevalent near population centers. Connectivity of people across distance will probably be mainly by boat, perhaps rail? Farms will catch and impound water in sufficient quantities, nutrients and other resources will be locally recycled. Nature will readily recover from direct human abuse, as it was never high here in most places, but will be adapting to an inevitably warmer climate for some time. Sadly, I think the reality for native groups may be a relocated culture, as old ways become unreliable in a rapidly changing and adapting arctic. Groups move to where the energy resources are, and adapt as well, retaining skills to gain many resources from the land and prospering, many people joining the population centers and helping people learn to live more local lives. Music, story-telling, outdoor recreation thrive and make rich the lives of the people who continually feel even more attached to their beautiful home. A real culture with luxurious weight grows as people become more stable and rooted and dependent on their surroundings instead of the barge from Seattle once again. Although distances preclude large amounts of travel outside of Alaska, for most, resources are spared for electronic communication, and people remain in communication with the world. Neighborhoods put resources into building libraries that act as public spaces for residents to spend most of their free time in. These libraries are architecturally beautiful, well designed, require low energy inputs for physical comfort and serve as cultural and learning centers with books, internet, free lectures and music, kitchens and feasts, indoor play areas for kids etc. Most people continue to live in old era, or not as comfortable homes due to the lack of resources for individual houses, but these homes serve as a place to sleep under a warm blanket, or live and work in when the weather is mild, letting resources more efficiently go to keeping the community libraries comfortable during the winter days and evenings.
Not as inspired or creative, perhaps, as Zane’s but a direction I could want to go!