Photo credit: Michael Lionstar
A few years ago, the science fiction writer Neal Stephenson complained
that science fiction writers, who used to imagine bold, exciting new futures, now write in a “generally darker, more skeptical and ambiguous tone.” Tomorrow, he said, used to be greeted with anticipation: Flying cars! Super-speed monorails! Cities on the moon! Now the overriding emotion is dread; the narrative default is Seedy Dystopia.
Why the switch? Writers have suggested many reasons. To Kazuo Ishiguro
, dystopia — “a dark, logical extension of the world that we know” — is a shield against “the fear of irrelevance
” that always accompanies creating something new. To Stephenson, the tropism toward dystopia is a reflection of economics
: it’s faster and cheaper for Hollywood and video game studios “to take the existing visual environment and degrade it than it is to create a new vision of the future from whole cloth.”
My hunch is that both are correct. But I also suspect that our current unwillingness to imagine a happy outcome to the human story is related to the second Copernican Revolution.
The first Copernican revolution occurred in the mid-1500s, when Nicolaus Copernicus
began the long process which eventually demonstrated that Earth was not at the center of the Universe. Far from being an exceptional place, our Earth was just a celestial body like other celestial bodies, governed by the same physical laws. Our human home, Copernicus was saying, is not special.
The second Copernican revolution took place in the mid-1800s, when Charles Darwin
and Alfred Russel Wallace
— especially the former — began the long process which eventually demonstrated that evolution via natural selection is the basic process governing the development of life. (I have taken this idea
from the environmental scientist Simon Lewis.) Fundamental to this idea is the axiom that the rules of evolution apply to everything from people to protozoa. Humans are a species like other species, governed by the same biological laws. We humans, Darwin was saying, are not special.
What does this tell us? If you take the second Copernican revolution seriously, it tells us we are in for a rough ride.
Since the development of fossil fuels, the human enterprise has expanded at enormous speed. Take any variable of human well-being you can imagine — longevity, nutrition, income, mortality, overall population, you name it — and draw a graph of its value over time. In almost every case the line skitters along at a low level for millennia, then rises explosively in the 18th and 19th centuries, as humans learn to wield the trapped solar power in coal, oil, and natural gas. Now take any variable of consumption you can imagine — consumption of energy, water, the world’s photosynthesis — and draw a graph of its value over time. All rocket upward in the same way.
Biologists have a word for this: outbreak.
Protozoa don’t stop halfway to the edge of the petri dish and reconsider their lifestyles.
An outbreak — I am borrowing my definition from the late, great biologist Lynn Margulis
— is when a species or population escapes the bounds of natural selection. Natural selection ordinarily keeps species and populations within certain approximately defined limits. Pests, parasites, and a lack of resources prevent them from expanding too much. But every so often a species escapes its bounds: zebra mussels
in the Great Lakes, tree snakes
in Guam, crown-of-thorns starfish
in the Indian Ocean, and locusts
in Egypt, for example. Populations explode a hundredfold or a thousandfold. It never ends well.
Think about protozoa in a petri dish. In natural systems, these single-celled creatures are constrained by their environment. But place a few by themselves in a petri dish full of nutrient goo, and it is a world of breakfast with no natural enemies. Gobbling up and using ever more of the resources in the goo, they proliferate at a fantastic rate — until they hit the edge of the petri dish, and bad things happen.
That’s a rule of life, biologists like Margulis say. That’s what living things do
. Put them in an environment with plenty of food and no enemies, and they’ll eat and reproduce like mad until they either run out of resources and starve to death or drown in their own waste. There are no exceptions. Zebra mussels don’t stop and ask what happens next when they’ve taken over half of a lake. Tree snakes on an island don’t stop eating birds and mice before they run out. Protozoa don’t stop halfway to the edge of the petri dish and reconsider their lifestyles.
The second Copernican Revolution says that on the level of biological law, humans are no different from the protozoa in the petri dish. What they do, we will do. We are not special, right?
If you take this idea seriously, it means that we are in an outbreak. It means that sooner or later — probably sooner — humanity will experience a disastrous crash.
There’s good evidence for this view. In all the thousands of times people have put protozoa into petri dishes, they have never saved themselves. Given all this, dystopia seems like a straightforward appreciation of biological reality.
Much or most environmental writing is a kind of science fiction. Writers describe some aspect of the present and extrapolate it into the future. Almost invariably, the consequences are dark. Ecological books usually blame human greed and shortsightedness for what happens. But the picture that is evoked — the human swarm sucking the planet dry — looks exactly like the protozoa in the petri dish. To this way of thinking, this predilection for dystopia stems directly from a contemporary awareness of ourselves as biological creatures, as one species among millions, as a fungible element of Darwin’s laws.
But what if we are
different? What if, in this respect, Darwin was wrong? What if the Second Copernican Revolution has to be walked back just a bit? It’s a comforting thought. But is it true?
Nobody can predict the future, but maybe there’s some reason from the past to believe it.
Escaping the consequences of our explosive growth — to climb over the walls of the petri dish — would require radical transformation of human society. But exactly such transformations have happened repeatedly in the past.
Consider the collapse of slavery, perhaps the most foundational of all social institutions, in the early 19th century. Slavery was so essential to the first states that the earliest legal codes
we know of were all about the rules for owning people. At the end of the 18th century, the historian Adam Hochschild has suggested
, “well over three-quarters of all people alive were in bondage of one kind or another” through “various systems of slavery or serfdom.” Eighty years later, slavery was illegal and accepted in no part of the planet.
Or consider the almost equally abrupt change in the status of women that began in the early 20th century. Since the beginning of our species, every known society has been based on the subjugation of women by men. In the long run, women’s lack of liberty has been as central to the human enterprise as gravitation to the celestial order. Nowadays women comprise the majority of US college students, the majority of the US workforce, and the majority of US voters.
Another example: 10,000 years ago, at the dawn of agriculture, societies mustered labor for the fields and controlled harvest surpluses by organizing themselves into states and empires. These societies promptly revealed a remarkable appetite for war. Their penchant for violence was unaffected by increasing prosperity or higher technological, cultural, and social accomplishments. The archaeologist Ian Morris has estimated that as many as 1 out of every 10 people met violent deaths
in the first millennium AD. Ever since, violence has declined — gradually, then suddenly. In the decades since the Second World War, rates of violent death have plunged to the lowest levels ever seen. Today, humans are far less likely
to be slain by other members of their species than 100 years ago, or a 1,000 — an extraordinary transformation that has occurred, almost unheralded, in the lifetime of many of the people who walk through the aisles at Powell’s.
All of these are astonishing changes. But if humankind pulls itself out of disaster — feeds everyone in tomorrow’s world, provides water for everyone, avoids the worst effects of climate change — well, that would be more remarkable still.
It would suggest that there are no known bounds to the future. Forget Darwin and dystopia! For us, the sky is the limit!
It would be a reason to begin imagining an optimistic future.
÷ ÷ ÷
Charles C. Mann
is the author of 1491
. His most recent book is The Wizard and the Prophet
. His Twitter feed is @CharlesCMann.