Paul P. Mealing

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Thursday, 10 September 2009

Utopia or dystopia

I’ve written on this subject before (Living in the 21st Century, Sep.07; and The Problem with Democracy, Jun.08 ) but a recent conversation (with Dino at Coffee Plus) in combination with reading about ‘dystopian fiction’ as a subgenre of science-fiction, has led me to revisit it. A lengthy essay I wrote called Human Nature (back in Nov.07) may also be relevant to this topic.

I’ve been reading The Science Fiction Handbook by M. Keith Book and Anne-Marie Thomas, which is a very erudite analysis of various ‘seminal’ works of science-fiction along with their authors. In particular, their analysis of Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis Trilogy (which I haven’t personally read) that works on the premise that humans appear genetically predisposed for self-destruction. H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine is another example, though Wells’ exploration is different: humans evolve into 2 species, the Morlocks and the Eloi, that symbiotically exist in an extreme master-slave relationship, or predator-prey relationship to be more exact.

But Butler’s scenario is that our hierarchical nature, in combination with our competitiveness and addiction to capitalism, will inevitably lead to overpopulation, war and nuclear destruction. I’m not so pessimistic, and perhaps Butler isn’t either – after all, it’s a cautionary tale. I’ve left out the main plot, an alien invasion by the ‘Oankali’, who incorporate their DNA into ours and create a new species, which is the major premise of the trilogy (or so I believe).

In an issue of COSMOS earlier this year, there was a feature article on the overpopulation of Earth and the consequences thereof. As I said in the introduction, I’ve raised this issue in earlier posts. The COSMOS article used an island metaphor which I thought was very apt. We are turning our planet into an island, but once we have over-resourced it we don’t have another island to go to. There are some people who believe that planetary colonialism will save us, but, if that’s the case, it means we haven’t addressed the problem, and, worse still, we aren’t seeking a solution.

There have been a number of mass-extinctions in Earth’s history, not just the dinosaurs, but at no other time has the rate of global species extinction been as high as it is now, and the cause is obvious: it is us. This is just one symptom, like climate change, that we are simply too successful (as a species) for our own good. If a species at the top of the food chain eats all the food then it ensures its own extinction. In effect, that’s what we are doing despite all of our harvesting techniques. We cannot live on this planet with only a handful of species to sustain us – it doesn’t work like that. Biodiversity means a healthy planet, and it’s no exaggeration to say that we are behaving like a disease.

In the last century, we have demonstrated, beyond dispute, that capitalism is the most successful economical model ever devised. But it, too, is too successful for its own good. In the recent economic crisis we have seen how the smallest dent in ‘growth’ is considered devastating. Unfortunately, economic growth means growth of everything, including: products, housing, infrastructure and, of course, people. You don’t have to have a PhD to see where this will eventually lead us, yet everyone appears to be in denial.

The ideal economic climate, as the recent ‘downturn’ revealed, is to maximise employment to maximise spending to maximise consumerism to maximise production to maximise employment, in an ever increasing cycle with no limit except the Earth’s capacity to sustain it. And it’s the last bit that everyone conveniently ignores.

As my friend Dino pointed out, in the ideal economy everyone should be in debt, which is what makes it so susceptible to bust-boom cycles, that we take for granted as being part of our modern environment. There is another side to this as well: I’m talking from my privileged position of being a member of a Western democratic society. We still live in a feudal society where the privileged few live at the expense of the massive poor, only the feudalism occurs on a global scale not a national one, so we don’t notice it so much. But just look at Africa and some South East Asian countries where goods and resources are provided at dirt-cheap prices for our wealthy consumption. The free-market is supposed to ‘flatten’ this inequality out, but I only see the converse: the rich get richer and the poor get poorer – the gap widens.

But even in our special, privileged society so many people are not satisfied; in fact, they actually hate their jobs, yet will be demonstrably upset if their job is taken away from them. Our world, in short, is full of contradictions, yet no one seems to notice, or, if they do, they pretend they don’t exist.

I strongly believe that the 21st Century is going to be crunch time, whether we want to face it or not, but it’s hard to imagine anything is going to change until nature forces us to. The result, I fear, will be wars on a scale we’ve never before witnessed, which leads one to consider Butler’s speculative fiction.

In an early post on this blog, I wrote an essay on Evil (Oct.07), whereby I proposed a thesis that evil is a logical consequence of our evolutionary heritage to be territorial, which is not unique to the human species. Predators are territorial for the very reason I gave above: they need to control their resources, and they do so by rejecting intruders. This is true of lions, magpies, apes and humans, along with innumerable other species. So humans are xenophobic by nature, as history demonstrates, but there is a counter-culture to this. Humans are also highly empathetic, as are other species as well, which creates a natural antithesis to xenophobia and has allowed us to develop multi-culturally in many parts of the globe. But it’s the constraint on resources that can turn tolerance into intolerance more quickly than you can say refugees.

In my essay on Human Nature, I make the point that there are 3 human traits that have shaped our modern world. The first is our need for social contact, without which, we wouldn’t even have language; fundamental to our ability to think. But this also leads to the tribalism and its inherent problems that I alluded to in the previous paragraph. The second trait is the natural search for leadership in any group endeavour. Our hierarchical nature, that Butler apparently sees as a genetic fault, is actually a strength if one allows the group to choose their own leader, which is the fundamental dynamic of democracy. The third is that every individual has a tendency to achieve their best in their chosen field. This wasn’t always the case, and still isn’t in many cultures, where discrimination based on class, wealth and sex were the biggest obstacles and still are in some places.

I don’t have any easy answers to this, but I see some contradictions that may eventually resolve themselves when we are forced to face them. There is no utopia, I only see evolution, but it may well be Kuhnian rather than Darwinian. To obtain a sustainable future without losing our ability for creativity and material progress will require a change to the paradigm of infinite growth, and that means population growth must become stabilised. In many Western cultures this has already happened with the changing role of women, and this should not be reversed. Feminism, in its own way, may well save the planet, but it won’t be enough. The economic paradigm needs to change so that recycling replaces raw materials, with incentives to have long-lasting products in lieu of short-life ones that currently drive the capitalist machine. Sustainability will be forced upon us, and it’s technologically achievable, but politically difficult. Corporations have demonstrated by their activities in third world countries that they are simply amoral without regulations to enforce environmental and health compliances. A more global society is slowly changing this ethic but by how much and how soon is not easy to judge.

Economic growth needs to be decoupled from population growth but there is no sign this is achievable and no one is attempting to provide a model that may facilitate it. I feel this is the biggest dilemma that we face as a global community. Technology will slowly erode the most mind-numbing and health-debilitating occupations, so humans can do what they do best, which is to think creatively, solve problems both individually and collaboratively, and facilitate with others. And machines will do the things that they are good at: crunch astronomical numbers, do repetitive tasks at high speed and precision, and work tirelessly with no sleep and without complaint at jobs we disdain. This is the future that I try to project into my science-fiction where the word economy doesn’t even exist – but that’s a real utopia.

Addendum: The COSMOS article that I linked is actually from 2005 (Issue 3) but it's possibly even more relevant. Please read it.


Paul P. Mealing said...

New Scientist, as of last week, have started a 4 part series to address some of the very issues discussed in this post. They've called it Blueprint for a Better World.

larryniven said...

"But it’s the constraint on resources that can turn tolerance into intolerance more quickly than you can say refugees."

I remember this from an anthropology course in college, actually - evidently there's a pretty strong historical correlation between natural disasters (i.e., resulting in shortages on some resource or other) and group conflicts. If you're interested, I may be able to dig up the source.

Coincidentally (maybe), I also took a course on utopian and dystopian fiction - most of it, unsurprisingly, was not very good. The one that might interest you in terms of its ideas was I think Looking Backward by Edward Ballamy (or someone). The writing's not great but it's pretty creative and surely has more ideological traction today than when it was written.

The trick, I think, is transitioning into an economy that produces almost entirely intellectual property. (This has been my pet theory for a year now, give or take a few months.) Computers obviously make this much more practicable than it would otherwise be, but there are definitely a lot of obstacles and sticking points - one of these is whether or not population control measures need to be adopted in and of themselves or whether they can be the result of other changes.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Larry,

This very day, our government has raised its forecast population figure for Australia to 35M by 2049 (according to Wiki, it's currently 21M). This is small beer, compared to say, our nearest neighbour) Indonesia, 237M. But, we are the second driest continent in the world (after Antarctica, I believe) and all our water resources are already stressed. I know this, as I've worked in the water industry.

The reason for the increase is because we have an ageing population (baby-boomers like me), so we are just making a bigger problem happen later rather than sooner.

There are all sorts of good reasons for increasing the population, including health, but mostly economic ones. But there is one bad reason - we are destroying everything else in the process: fisheries, forests, habitats, climate, species, you name it.

Regards, Paul.

April Sage said...

I enjoyed your blog. I found your analysis of human nature particularly insightful. I had identified two universal human traits from my own studies. I called them the desire to "be a part of" and the desire to "stand apart from" the group. The first is the social instinct that you've identified. The second is the creative urge to develop our talents. I believe this second one comes from our need to be useful, since it is often demonstrated by developing talents that are useful to our social group--though I believe that rebels can be influenced by this trait so strongly that they become isolated by their own alienating expressiveness.

Some psychological studies have found that people who do not feel part of a social group can literally die of loneliness. This is often expressed by the idea that they need to feel needed. Being part of a social group would encompass my first trait. Yet, I believe that feeling needed applies just as strongly to the second trait. We desire to have some ability to contribute to our social circle in a useful way, not just to be in the company of our fellow humans. These two traits are so interdependent, it is difficult to separate them completely. The tendency for elderly people to die shortly after retirement demonstrates the need to contribute. Yet, failure to contribute often leads to isolation, so that it also results in loss of social contact.

You have identified a third trait, the hierarchical tendency. I'm not certain that it is an urge that has such life or death implications, but I agree that it is a strong urge. It is just hard to know if it is really just one trait. One aspect of it might be what Nietzsche identified as the Will to Power. Perhaps some people, maybe most, desire to be the leader of their group. Or, perhaps this is one aspect of the urge to "stand apart" that makes us want to be the leader in our own particular area of contribution. A housewife may have as strong an urge as an industrial CEO, she may just demonstrate it by her indispensible skill in cooking and keeping her family organized. Thus, one need not aspire to be at the pinnacle of the hiearchical triangle to be a leader. This can explain how a democracy can be effective, since everyone may find their niche in an egalitarian hierarchy.

Thanks for your stimulating blog.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Thanks for your comment April.

I expect you didn't read my very lengthy essay on Human Nature (Nov.07) - it's the longest post on here. The point I make, which is not so clear in this current post, is: '...leadership only works when the people being led are actively involved in the process.'

Einstein made the same point (in a political context) as I quote him in my more recent post Einstein's Words.

As a writer, you may be interested in this post. I'd certainly be interested in any comment you may have to make on it.

Regards, Paul.