All our imagined futures

A Letter

“Could the world order survive without growing?” asks Eduardo Porter, writing in the Times as the Paris talks got underway in December. Porter here addresses the emerging leftist view that reining in climate change will require an end to economic growth. As an example of this perspective, he refers to a Canadian study that suggests the only way to dramatically reduce carbon emissions (a requirement if we’re to even come close to the 2° C warming target, let alone the recommended 1.5°) is to reduce Canadian’s income per person to its 1976 levels.

Of course, for most people in both Canada and the States, income has been more or less stagnant for decades (see here and here). And the same study that Porter refers to notes that poverty levels could simultaneously decline with this reduction, via strong welfare programs (which would—and this part is left unwritten—presumably work by redistributing wealth from those with too much to those with too little). But Porter thinks all this is a nonstarter. He writes, “The trade-offs that are the daily stuff of market-based economies simply could not work in a zero-sum world….In a world economy that does not grow, the powerless and vulnerable are the most likely to lose. Imagine Blade Runner, Mad Max, and The Hunger Games brought to real life.”

In an (unrelated) essay about hope and social change, Peter Wirzbicki notes:

Slavoj Zizek has a good joke about this: commenting on the popularity of apocalyptic movies he quipped that we can much more easily imagine the end of the world than we can imagine the end of capitalism.

Given that popularity, we have quite a number of apocalyptic movies to choose from, and they do not all present the same kind of apocalypse. So it’s interesting that Porter reaches in particular for these three movies. Blade Runner centers around the work of an apparently extra-governmental corporation whose products have run amok and takes place in a city with enormous ads projected on the sides of skyscrapers. Mad Max concerns a capitalist tyrant who controls the water (he brands it “Aqua Cola”), claims his wives and children as property, and instills in his people a worship of cars. Meanwhile, The Hunger Games features an absurdly wealthy capitol that exploits the labor of poor districts; the narrative centers specifically on the poorest district whose main industry is—wait for it—coal mining—this, of course, being the capitalist pursuit which kicked off the whole climate change problem in the first place.

No, an end to growth will not look like Blade Runner, Mad Max, or The Hunger Games. These movies imagine what happens when we do not end growth soon enough.

So what would an end to growth look like? Writing in Dissent last spring, Daniel Immerwahr doesn’t paint the rosiest picture, but he also makes clear the alternative:

Such cuts can be made more or less fairly, and the richest really ought to pay the most, but the crucial thing is that they are made. Because, above all, stopping climate change means giving up on growth.

That will be hard. Not only will our standards of living almost certainly drop, but it’s likely that the very quality of our society—equality, safety, and trust—will decline, too. That’s not something to be giddy about, but it’s still a price that those of us living in affluent countries should prepare to pay. Because however difficult it is to slow down, flooding Bangladesh cannot be an option. In other words, we can and should act. It’s just going to hurt.

There’s the rub: those of us living in affluent countries must pay. Porter presumes that technology can get us out of climate change without that payment—that nuclear energy, renewables, carbon capture, and electric cars will let us continue to consume at current levels as if nothing had changed. (As an aside: you can follow the American love of cars all the way to Immortan Joe’s citadel.) But I don’t think it’s likely we’re going to get off that easy. Carbon capture is still a pipe dream, nuclear energy will take too long to ramp up even absent strong local objections, electric cars are hardly a panacea, and renewables such as solar and wind, while certainly promising, won’t help much if we continue to pull coal and oil out of the ground at the rates we are now.

As it happens, though, I think Porter’s instinct to reach for science fiction to understand the future is a useful one. In Submergence, J.M. Ledgard’s novel of planetary depths, Danny remarks: “If this was happening in a science-fiction world we would see it clearly for what it is, but we don’t because it’s happening here and now.” Fiction, and science fiction in particular, can help us imagine many futures, and in particular can help us to direct our imaginations towards the futures we want. Imagining a particular kind of future isn’t just day dreaming: it’s an important and active framing that makes it possible for us to construct a future that approaches that imagined vision. In other words, imagining the future is one way of making that future happen. Writing in Essence in 2000, Octavia Butler asked,

So why try to predict the future at all if it’s so difficult, so nearly impossible? Because making predictions is one way to give warning when we see ourselves drifting in dangerous directions. Because prediction is a useful way of pointing out safer, wiser courses. Because, most of all, our tomorrow is the child of our today. Through thought and deed, we exert a great deal of influence over this child, even though we can’t control it absolutely. Best to think about it, though. Best to try to shape it into something good. Best to do that for any child.

Butler’s Parable of the Sower is, like Mad Max, a tale of the road. And, like Mad Max, it’s a difficult but hopeful one. Maybe Porter should read it.

The Butler quote above can be found on a number of blogs and forums, both on it’s own as well as transcribed with the entirety of the essay. Unfortunately, Essence does not maintain digital archives back to 2000, so it’s unavailable there. The official Octavia Butler site hosts a PDF that appears to be a scanned photocopy of the feature—but it ends abruptly with a note that the story continues on another page, before that quote appears. I can find no other official reference to it, so I’m left to wonder if it’s legit or if it is itself a work of fiction. Given that the rest of the essay appears properly transcribed in several places, I’m inclined to think it is legit, which is why I’ve included it; but I can’t say for certain.

In a two-part essay (1, 2), Mike Caulfield describes the principle of connected copies—a mechanism familiar to users of GitHub or BitTorrent or Napster and it’s many descendants. Unlike the web of today, where more or less everything exists at a particular address and, if that server goes offline, the content is lost, connected copies ensure that even if one person or company ceases to pay their hosting bills, many other copies persist. Caulfield compares it to a run of books: one library can burn, but odds are every book in its stacks exists elsewhere, so the loss to collective human knowledge is minimal. I couldn’t help but think of this in context of the rising era of platforms on the web and the increasingly dire consequences if (when) some of these systems eventually shut down. It’s very likely that our next Octavia Butler is today writing on WattPad or Tumblr or Facebook. When those servers cease to respond, what will we lose? More than the past is at stake—all our imagined futures are at risk, too.

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J. M. Ledgard

Escaping into Ledgard’s language is itself a kind of submergence—the book has a vaguely liquid quality as it moves between its characters and between the surface and the lower depths.