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.

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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.

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Sometimes you just gotta laugh

In the immortal words of Van Morrison, sometimes we cry. I’ve written a lot about how important it is for those of us who care deeply about the natural world to express our grief over how climate change is altering our world.

But sometimes you just gotta laugh.

Mike Mossman and Lisa Hartman have long shared a passion for laughter, nature, music and each other — not necessarily in that order. The couple was recently driving to a friend’s birthday party when they started talking about the unseasonably warm weather. As musicians, Lisa and Mike are usually adapting Celtic tunes or composing new ones in that tradition for their family band, Wrannock Celtic Trio (son Angus holds down the third corner). As experienced naturalists, they have a better idea than most people what we stand to lose as climate change continues to play out in Wisconsin and the world, and they worry about that. But the holiday spirit (or maybe it was the ghost of Christmas future) gripped them that day as they drove through dairyland, and soon they found themselves mixing a generous measure of levity into their lament. Before long they had written brand new lyrics to a holiday classic.

Angus, Lisa and Mike in the land of the wrannock

I was fortunate enough to be in attendance when the two debuted their hilarious if sobering climate carol at the Baraboo Range Preservation Association‘s annual holiday party on December 14th in Baraboo, WI. I hope to have some video or audio to add soon; meanwhile, enjoy the lyrics below and feel free to share them (with credit to Mike and Lisa, of course) with your friends and family.

Wrannock takes its name from a species of wren native to the British Isles. Mike is an authority on the birds of Wisconsin and shared this with me about the wrannock’s American cousin:

Wisconsin Winter Wrens are migratory, wintering in the southern US and breeding during the summer mostly in our northwoods. Here they occur especially among the complex structures of mature and old-growth hemlock and cedar forest, living among large fallen trees, stilt-roots, rocks, pools and moss.They also breed in isolated populations in certain heavily forested sites in the Driftless Area, especially in the Baraboo Hills, where their long, gorgeous songs characterize certain stream gorges and the talus slopes around Devils Lake. The Winter Wren is one of the species whose breeding ranges we expect to retract northward with climate change; although its winter range may also shift, making it somewhat more common during its non-breeding season, when it tends to stay hidden and rarely sings.

A winter wren

Like its namesake, Wrannock Celtic Trio shares its gay and haunting music with the residents of Wisconsin and the world.

The great essayist and novelist G. K. Chesterton, who hailed from the land of the wrannock, once wrote that angels can fly because of their levity but devils fall because of their gravity. So go ahead and cry about the changing face of winter, but don’t forget to laugh, too. By doing both, we humans may just manage to retain our place between the angels and the devils. Besides, it looks like we’re all going to need a sense of humor more than ever in the years ahead.

I wish you all the coldest and snowiest holiday season possible.

Walking in a Withered Wonderland

(Wisconsin version. Sung to the tune of Walking in a Winter Wonderland,
with new words by Lisa Hartman and Mike Mossman © 2012)

Sleigh bells ring, but are you draggin’?
Don’t you wish you’d brought the wagon?
The world’s rearranged
The climate has changed
Walking in a withered wonderland

Gone away is the new bird
Here to stay is the bluebird
He sings a lament
As our lakes ferment
Walking in a withered wonderland

In the meadow we can build a mud man
And pretend that he is Parson Brown
He’ll ask “Are you married?”
We’ll say “No man,
Cuz we don’t know why we should stick around”

Later on we’ll perspire
And we won’t need a fire
Our passions are high
Or is it July?
Walking in a withered wonderland

We’ll just go out and get some mo’ booze
We won’t need our skis or snowshoes
Rubber boots, a light coat
Maybe a boat
Walking in a withered wonderland

In the meadow we can build a mud man
And pretend that he’s a circus clown
We’ll have lots of fun with Mr. Mud Man
Wondering if he’ll bake or if he’ll drown

Makin’ way for new diseases
Cuz our world never freezes
Trading hemlocks and trout
For termites and drought
Walking in a withered wonderland

With all the driving and the fracking
And the polar ice cracking
Our pact with the devil
Means a rising sea level
Walking in a withered wonderland

In the meadow we can build a big camp
With all our extra money we can host
Oklahoma people who get thirsty
And refugees escaping from the coast

When it’s drizzlin’, it’s distressin’
It should teach us a lesson
Not to live in defiance
Of nature and science
Walking in a withered wonderland

Though the weather may seem crappy
Just adjust and be happy
Swim in November
Boil sap in December
Walking in a withered wonderland

So frolic and play
Our children can pay
Walking in a withered wonderland
Walking in a withered wonderland

We’re singing our song
Dressed just in a thong
Walking in a withered wonderland

We have seen the enemy…

… and it is most definitely not us. It is true that almost all adults are responsible for the greenhouse gases that end up in the Earth’s atmosphere. As an American I am responsible for a hell of a lot more of it than the average world citizen. Bill McKibben pointed out during his stop in Madison last week as part of 350.org’s Do the Math Tour that the good ol’ US of A has put more carbon into the atmosphere than any other nation (China recently surpassed us in total yearly emissions but we still emit more on a per capita basis).

But the average Jane or Joe American would be more than happy to use energy that came from solar panels, wind turbines or other clean energy sources instead of filthy, planet wrecking oil and gas. Millions of us have invested big money in energy conservation in our homes and are driving more fuel efficient cars than we were 5 years ago. Your run-of-the-mill CEO of a fossil fuel company, on the other hand, is doing everything in his power, up to and including lining the pockets of legislators and feeding those so-called leaders “model” legislation, to make sure we use as much of his company’s death-dealing product as possible. (Can something that drives species extinction at a rate unseen since prehistoric times, and ultimately breaks the systems that have cultivated and sustained life on this planet for the last 100,000 years really be called energy?

Most of us would be happy if our energy came from the sun and wind.

Would it not be more accurate to call fossil fuels anti-energy?) Big Oil and Big Gas have rigged the political, economic and infrastructural systems of our country to ensure that their product is the cheapest and most widespread fuel available (when you don’t count the ecological and societal costs, which now rise exponentially by the year). Even if we all drove Cadillac Escalades everywhere we went and owned as many homes as Mitt Romney, the industry would still be exponentially more responsible for climate change than the rest of us.

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