Scenarios are useful ways to imagine possible futures. Recently novelist Kim Stanley Robinson offered two powerful and starkly different scenarios which are both remarkably accessible and enormous in scope. This happened on the Radio Open Source podcast, which I recommend in general.
Ten minutes into a conversation about global warming and the author’s latest novel, New York 2140, host Christopher Lydon asks Robinson, “Can you share your vision of two endings…?” He means endings for the present environmental, political, and social crises.
The writer responds: “I mean, there’s the simple utopia, dystopia [pairing]”. Allow me to transcribe and annotate lightly:
The utopia is that we actually get a grip and create a sustainable civilization that’s in balance with the planet. And that means that fully 8 billion humans could live at adequacy and very happily, with all the rest of the biosphere including all the rest of the big mammals.
And there would be, you know, E.O. Wilson’s half Earth idea that a lot of land be left to the animals, while the humans congregate in the cities. And clean tech, social justice, women’s rights (which actually stabilizes population very quickly), and then a post-capitalist system that regulates all this and makes it work. That’s the utopian possibility that is quite possible in terms of physics.
Got it? Readers might recognize glimpses of this in some of Robison’s earlier fiction. Against this comes its extreme opposite:
Then the bad one is simply a mass extinction event, where we kill off all the large mammals except for our own domestic beasts, and we ourselves are hammered, agriculture goes south, the oceans go south. The first food crisis – world culture will be so stressed, that it will become a fight of all against all. Probably it will be so bad that you only get a few decades of absurd badness followed by a post-traumatic attempt to recover. And also: you can’t come back from extinctions. That’s the dystopia. Mass extinction event.
Listen to the podcast to make out the speaker’s barely suppressed rage.
Taken together the two visions constitute a powerful dyad, and I think it’d make for a good discussion and thought prompt.
Yet Robinson doesn’t stop there. Usually opposed scenarios lead us to consider the most likely future to be a blend of the two in some way, or a path that winds between the two. Not here:
But these are extremes… The middle, where you sort of think it’ll be halfway between these two – that doesn’t work. It falls off… sharply, one direction or the other. There isn’t a middle zone anymore. Because if we stumble along like we are now, we’re gonna tilt off into dystopia. If we fix things we’ll slide off into utopia. We have come to a bad moment, where we have to change.
That’s a huge, huge claim about our present and our short- and medium-term futures. I think it would also make for a fine discussing and thinking prompt.
Is Kim Stanley Robinson right about our choices?