Can we imagine a better future? On dystopias and hope

This post by Priscilla Stuckey was originally written for her blog This Lively Earth and is reprinted here with her kind permission and my photos. Priscilla’s critique of popular dystopian fiction and its role (if there is one) in meeting the climate crisis is nuanced and fair, and it speaks to many of the concerns and frustrations those of us who look to contemporary fiction for inspiration feel when we survey what appears to be a darkening literary landscape. 

A blog reader named Ray contacted me a while back to say that he shares a deep concern about climate change. In fact, he’s publishing a novel about it on his website. In his book the Arctic polar ice cap melts quickly (as we can already see) and causes more abrupt global warming than we expect. The rapid climate change leads to a collapse in agriculture, there is a surge of terrorism, and right-wing extremists stage a coup against the US government.

He was curious what I might think about his book.

I had to confess my discontent. I don’t enjoy dystopian fiction. And that’s putting it mildly. I usually don’t subject myself to it. These days, it’s getting hard to avoid, since dystopian visions always surge in popularity during a time of crisis. People sense that the world as they know it is dying, and they are frightened beyond belief—and I mean this quite literally. Climate-change denial of the extent that we have witnessed in recent years has to be fueled in part by a fear so big there is no name for it. And writers of dystopias are rising to the challenge, trying to portray our worst fears, to place them directly in our line of vision.

DSCF3889But here’s why I don’t enjoy dystopian stories. They tend to be well acquainted with horror. They often parade cruelty, showing people acting toward one another and other beings in the worst possible ways. And they may be celebrated as “manly” or “courageous,” as if staring at the worst possible version of ourselves takes a special kind of bravery. I understand the fascination with horror. I get the value of experimenting with doom and gloom. I just don’t need to hang out there.

And furthermore, as I told Ray, instead of being too hard, dystopia is too easy. Given our bedrock belief about human nature—that it is warped toward selfishness, greed, and cruelty—we find it easy to imagine ourselves acting badly. It is a whole lot harder to imagine a future where people behave with generosity and kindness, which may be why fewer stories explore these options. And why, when they do, they are labeled utopian, which means, literally, “no place,” an impossible ideal.

So I emailed Ray:

We tend to expect the worst of ourselves—one of the main themes in my book, and a pessimistic cultural attitude that I try to demystify by showing some of the history of it. But stories of coping and courage and resiliency? They seem harder to imagine.

Why show the worst in people instead of the best? I asked.

Ray responded with the excellent point that stories showing the best in people tend to conform to the hero storyline (quoting with his permission):

Tales of heroes saving the day tend to counsel complacency—somebody else, some extraordinary being, will take care of it. These tales say, (1) there, there, it’ll be all right or (2) if you’re not extraordinary, don’t bother. Dystopian fiction says, we can’t let this happen.

Point well taken. Dystopian visions can be wake-up calls—this is the road we’re on, and we’ll come to a nasty end if we don’t change course.

But I have to repeat: dystopia is not hard to imagine. With our assumptions about ourselves, tales of cruelty and deprivation and chaos are easy to dream up (if not easy to craft; they take a storyteller’s skill as much as any other kind of fiction). They are easy to imagine because we are more likely to be surprised when people are generous or kind than when they are not. I spent a good share of my new book exploring why this is true and showing how mistrusting our own human nature goes along with a jaundiced view of the rest of nature as well.

Our cynical view of ourselves no doubt contributes to a lack of imagination for addressing the climate crisis. Bogged down by pessimism, we find creative solutions immeasurably hard to fathom—in spite of the fact that we already have the technology and the know-how. We seem unable to imagine people working smoothly together over time to restructure their lives and communities, to dream up new ways of living.


And so we fall back, as Ray suggested, on the hero’s tale, where one or two or three resourceful people outwit, outplay, and outshoot the opposition. It’s as if our imaginations can handle only a few people at a time being brave or resourceful or wise.

Writer David Sobel points out in the current issue of Orion magazine that dystopian fiction rules in teen culture. He finds a great deal of hope in it, especially when, as in The Hunger Games, young people act heroically, challenging the status quo. He lauds the genre precisely for celebrating teen heroines and heroes because in a culture like ours, where adolescents do not undergo formal initiation rituals, they need to be able to picture themselves in the big roles, tackling the big problems and changing the world for the better. He writes,

If we want to avoid the environmental catastrophes and repressive central governments pictured in current dystopian fiction, we’re going to need more adolescents willing to be heroic. . . . If Katniss and these other heroines compel us to be heroic, then perhaps these books are part of the solution.

He may be right. But we need a new storyline as well—something beyond the tale of the isolated heroine or hero.

We need a new storyline about us. All of us. About how we can work together. About how we can share—because sharing is common, not rare, in nature. About the empathy embedded in our DNA as deeply as the greed.

It will take nothing less than a new story of nature. And for this we need big imaginations, bigger than we’ve exercised so far. Big enough to imagine solving the climate crisis, not just suffering from it. Because only with imaginations that spacious will we have the energy and courage to tackle the problem itself.

Can we imagine a better future? For a change? Literally.

Priscilla Stuckey’s most recent book is Kissed by a Fox: And Other Stories of Friendship in Nature.



Breaking the climate silence

Priscilla Stuckey has a vision: people in neighborhoods all over the country coming together on a regular basis to address the climate crisis from the inside out.

It’s a vision that runs counter to the prevailing view – that catastrophe can be avoided only by engineers and politicians brainstorming grand technological or regulatory fixes – but it is a vision very much in harmony with the counsel of history’s wisest souls, who’ve shown us by example that it’s our hearts more than our minds that are the key to our potential to overcome existential threats. What we do depends on who we are. It’s about being at least as much as it’s about doing.

I feel like I’ve known Priscilla for many years even though a mutual friend only recently put us in touch. Priscilla’s love of the natural world, interest in spirituality and passion for words are beautifully reflected in her blog, This Lively Earth, where this guest post first appeared. Read more about Priscilla Stuckey and her vital work here.

Since launching Climate Chronicle, I’ve heard a common refrain from the readers who’ve taken the time to correspond with me, and it boils down to this: “It’s terrifying and overwhelming. I feel paralyzed. What can I do?”

Priscilla gives her answer to that question here, to which I can only add, “Amen.”


We know it’s getting worse; we’re not climate deniers. We’re well informed and aware of the facts. And yet we go about our lives as if nothing has changed. We live the same way we lived five years ago, before the wealth of new climate science confirming that the situation is worse than first thought. Maybe we travel even more than before or live in a bigger house than we did then. (Guilty on both counts.)

What’s wrong with us?

We’re obeying the hush-hush rule on climate change. When the President can’t even utter the word climate in his State of the Union speech, at a time when climate change presents emergency levels of economic, health, and national security risks—and that’s just in this country, never mind the millions of people in other parts of the world whose homes and lives are already lost and endangered—you know something is seriously wrong. Even Stewart and Colbert seldom devote time to it.

Climate change—the elephant in the room. The one thing we don’t talk about—not to one another, and especially not to our children.

Photo by Rick Chamberlin

But not talking about climate change is not helping. In fact, it’s costing us. A lot. While Europe plans to boost its economy through tougher greenhouse gas emissions standards and China invests billions in renewable energy, we in the United States basically sit on our hands. And, worse, we clap our hands over our own and one another’s mouths. Climate change? Don’t go there.

Climate silence is a form of denial. Perhaps we are overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem and the grave consequences that loom if we continue as we are. But climate silence is costing us not just dollars and cents but also collective will and energy. This nation is in an emotional as well as economic recession, suffering from sapped energy and collective inertia. As psychologists—and business leaders—have long known, denial is a huge energy sink. Through our silence about the climate, we are hamstringing ourselves, preventing the release of energy, will, resources, and innovation that might actually get us out of this pickle before it’s too late.

A friend of mine, Annette, recently heard poet Gary Snyder speak. During Q and A, someone asked Snyder how people can be inspired to “save the planet.” Snyder thought for a few moments then said,

The planet doesn’t need us to save it. The planet needs us to save ourselves. If we learned how to be better people, we would be doing good work.

The roomful of activists sat in stunned silence, trying to absorb his words. He went on (as Annette wrote),

The planet, if we notice, takes care of itself. Watch a place for a while. Look to the seasons, the weather, the animals, our own inner rhythms. Walk trails and notice things. We don’t have to do a thing.

In the spirit of Gary Snyder, I am therefore pledging to do (almost) nothing. I am pledging only to break the climate silence.

I would like to gather a few people to form a climate support group. A group where we do nothing—on behalf of the planet—except receive and give support for being better people. We will not cook up lists of things to do. We will not brainstorm solutions. We will most certainly be involved in solutions, like planting gardens or closing coal plants or writing to policy makers or biking instead of driving, but we will not take planning those actions as the focus of our gathering.

We will instead practice opening our hearts—to each other, to the enormity of the climate problem, to the animals and plants and microorganisms who share our lives and our geography and will also share our fate.

Call it heartstorming instead of brainstorming. We will open our hearts to the reality of climate change.

And we will talk. By meeting together about climate change, we will break the climate silence. But we will not talk about solutions so much as provide support to each other for being more open, more truthful, more radically kind.

Because, as a wise person said long ago, the truth will set you free. And the truly radical acts will be those that sprout from the compassionate ground of an open heart.

I imagine our meetings might go something like this:

We will gather to laugh and talk and of course share food and drink. When possible, we will meet outdoors to commune with the hope that resides in the living Earth. One or two might bring a short piece of inspiration—something that gave hope this week, like a poem, a child’s drawing, a thought, a story of good news, the presence of a nearby tree or flower or rock. We will share each piece of good news slowly, giving it our full attention and drinking in the juice of hope. Then we will talk about the challenges we face in living more truthfully and kindly in the face of climate change. Together we will break the climate silence. Being truthful about the climate crisis will challenge us to bring our lifestyles into line with reality. How do we do that? How can we help each other be better people in the midst of climate crisis? How do we keep our hearts open?

I envision climate support groups happening in communities across the country—in various neighborhoods of every city. Bill McKibben says that building local community is one of the most crucial things we can do in the face of climate change. As the world changes, we will need the solidarity of relationships, the sweetness of affection and support.

But to build our communities, we’re going to have to talk together.

The climate silence is killing us. Literally. I’d like to help break it. How about you?

Photo by Rick Chamberlin