I am part of the problem.
I drive a car. I fly across country in fuel guzzling jets. And even though I make an effort to recycle faithfully, I am part of the dominant throwaway culture.
When the world succumbs to runaway mutant viruses and the ice cap melts and life as we know it vanishes without so much as one last desperate Tweet tapped into a dying iPhone, you can blame me and the millions of people like me, who feel concerned about global warming and the loss of habitat wrought by too many humans wreaking havoc upon the natural world but lack the ability to do much about it.
At times like these I turn to science fiction. Before the days of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, the first authors to enjoy popular success writing about imagined worlds, there were always writers and thinkers who tried to see into the future.
But not until our own era, when powerful computers and vastly improved technology have given us the tools to actually see and measure some portion of the universe in which our planet is but a “pale blue dot,” as Carl Sagan famously noted, have we been able to really get a sense of what a mess we’re making of this former paradise.
Such a perspective could have made us take stock of the very small niche we occupy in the Big Picture. But you know how it is. The movie ends, you walk out, and within minutes hunger, boredom or fatigue divert attention from weighty ideas such as planetary survival.
When I was younger I was never much of a sci-fi buff. I read “1984,” “Fahrenheit 451,” and “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”. I read “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” which, while not exactly hard science fiction, derives much of its humor from twisting the limits of scientific understanding.
We do know a lot more about the universe now than we did in 1898, when H.G. Wells wrote “The War of the Worlds.” Fat lot of good it seems to do us. Our inability to get along with each other remains a huge stumbling block to every sort of progress.
Some people have suggested that video games such as the immensely popular World of Warcraft help humans to work out their frustrations without shooting real people. I wonder. Some of us carry our anger around just under the skin. The slightest bump or scratch and out it comes.
As we enter what could be an end game era for our planet, it would behoove us to get serious about science. Beliefs can be comforting. But they can also lead us into states of confusion, and at this point, with sea level rising measurably every year, it’s time to stop ignoring the data.
This ain’t no video game. When the lights go out all over the world this time it will be a bit late to start brainstorming about brilliant ways to charge up the batteries.
I’m currently reading “The Windup Girl,” a disturbing science fiction novel by Paolo Bacigalupi about a time on Earth after climate change and runaway gene manipulation have led to devastating loss of diversity and worldwide starvation. Not exactly a fun read. But as a cautionary tale it’s right up there with “1984” and “Fahrenheit 451.” When those books were written the ideas they described were considered far-fetched. Surely there would never be a time when a Big Brother government could follow your every move and thought, or when books would be banned for fear the ideas in them might spark revolt against tyranny.
The truly sobering facet of science fiction is how frequently science fiction evolves into science fact.
I am, of course, a dreamer. A Pollyanna in the face of peril. I’d like to believe that even now some brilliant team of nerds is working on a plan to reverse the carbon overload in the atmosphere, to turn back the clock on global meltdown.
Maybe it can only happen in science fiction. But at least that’s a start.