I live in an idyllic little Western town, rich in natural beauty and culture. I have a great family, no pressing health or financial worries – in short, it's a utopian life. And yet … somehow I can't leave it at that. I can't tune out the news, can't ignore economic and political injustices, and as a biologist, I really can't ignore climate change and what it will mean for the natural world I love. When I lift my gaze out of this valley, what I see is discouraging, depressing, and, on some days, downright terrifying: a dystopian future.
There's no question that far too many people in this country struggle to make ends meet. Still, many of us are lucky enough to live comfortably. We go through our days dealing with "first-world problems" – fender-benders, delayed airplane flights, slow Internet connections – all the while feeling in our bones that bad times are coming. And so we're irresistibly drawn to dystopian books and movies, obsessed by what might be over the horizon. Judging by what we watch and read, we're worried about three things: environmental collapse, corporate/technocratic domination, and zombies. Especially zombies. So let's start there.
Zombies are the monsters of the moment because they're … us. Awkwardly lurching, oblivious to their surroundings, incapable of human connection, always searching, never satisfied –– does this sound like any Bluetooth-wearing, text-messaging, video-game-playing, Web-surfing person you know? The proliferation of zombie movies and TV shows reflects our anxiety about ourselves and what we are becoming. In this brave new cyber-world, we wield untold forces of information. But are we losing our skills as human beings? What do you think? Hello? Hello?
Meanwhile, movies as diverse as The Bourne Identity, The Hunger Games and the new release Divergent imagine a world in which shadowy figures control the levers of power, and the rest of us dance to a tune we aren't even allowed to hear. A world, you could say, just like the one we live in. It's hard to argue with that, given our everyday reality of pervasive electronic surveillance, assassination-by-drone and corporations "too big to fail."
Finally, we play out our fears of a dystopian future with visions of environmental collapse. During the height of the Cold War, apocalyptic movies like On the Beach, Fail-Safe and even (spoiler alert) Planet of the Apes imagined a world laid waste by nuclear war. How old-fashioned! These days, we're much more worried that tomorrow's apocalypse will be environmental, either due to climate change, as in movies like The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, or through pandemics brought on by our meddling with the natural world, as in Contagion and I Am Legend. The trend is even clearer in books: A recent search on Amazon.com for "climate change fiction" returned 650 results; my favorite title was Hot Mess: Speculative Fiction about Climate Change.
The latest studies from the National Academy of Sciences predict a temperature increase of 4.7-8.6 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century if the current rate of emissions continues, and conclude: "If emissions of CO2 stopped altogether … surface temperatures would stay elevated for at least a thousand years, implying extremely long-term commitment to a warmer planet due to past and current emissions. ..."
I'm convinced that the world to come will look terribly damaged to me. But I don't want to live in dread of the future. I want to feel grateful for the blessings of my life. I want to believe in utopia as well as dystopia.
In this matter, as in so many other problems that defy a logical solution, I find an answer in poetry. The great English poet William Blake wrote,
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
The Japanese haiku master Issa
is a dewdrop world
yes … but. …
The flower, even if it's just a weed in a vacant lot, gives us beauty, a vision of heaven. The dewdrop may seem small and fleeting, but within it the world is contained and preserved. In the worst, most damaged corners of the planet, from the slums of Calcutta to the industrial wastelands of Detroit, I have found beauty. Amid all my fears about a dystopian future, I have one certainty: There will still be beauty. And there, in that small infinity, in that brief eternity, utopia will abide, waiting to be found.