Environmental Literature | Social Justice | Sustainable Futures

Anthropocentrism and Environmental Dystopias: Sending the Wrong Message?

February 23rd, 2017 | Posted by Margaret Overton in Uncategorized

Reading stories about futures where humans have failed to take action against climate change are often frightening, but whenever I encounter such a fictional scenario, I worry that there is another side of the narrative that undermines its message about the necessity of saving the planet. Most of these stories depict the lengths that humans go to in order to continue surviving even when the natural world is dying. They retreat into cities and compounds contained within glass domes or walls of concrete; they construct fake landscapes that mimic what has been lost; they even flee to other planets in search of a new habitat. These solutions are costly and difficult and accessible only to a tiny percentage of people; yet, they show that our species can afford to continue ignoring the warning signs of our changing environment, only taking action when we are forced to by absolute necessity to ensure our own survival. In other words, a message is conveyed that runs counter to the author’s intentions: we don’t actually need to save the planet because we can find ways to carry on even when it has been destroyed.

This conclusion is not immediately obvious from reading the texts, and it is true that the characters are more likely to be shown as unhappy, unsatisfied, depressed, angry, and unfulfilled in their new way of living. Famine, pandemic, and war are not uncommon in these environmental dystopias. But the idea persists that we are not doomed forever if we do not take steps to reverse the effects of climate change and habitat destruction, and this presents a tricky challenge to authors. On the one hand, too many tales of utter devastation will eventually numb readers to the urgency of the issue; activists will be compared to the boy who cried wolf and taken less seriously because our society is not currently on the brink of crumbling entirely. On the other, presenting so many potential solutions to the survival of the human species allows audiences to relax knowing that we have options for self-preservation even if we fail to save the planet. The death of plants and animals is sad, but it rarely hits as hard as tales of the downfall of human society.

Writers must, therefore, tread carefully when they sit down to depict a post-climate change world. One potential way to avoid undermining their own message would be to begin their story at the beginning, rather than the middle. Start out by showing the path that society took to reach the point of retreating from the natural world and surviving day-to-day through a constant process of damage control and barely-stable coping mechanisms. If readers are dropped into a world where humans have already learned to survive in a way that is totally cut off from nature, they are unable to appreciate the difficult and terrible route that had to be traversed to achieve such a fragile existence. If our fiction makes survival look too easy, we risk creating an audience that lacks a necessary sense of urgency for saving the planet, and as a result, we may be underprepared for the challenges that lie ahead.


Note: Stories like Interstellar and Earth 2100 are particularly effective at depicting the journey from the beginning of the crisis to the “solution,” and consequently are especially successful at conveying the urgency of protecting our planet.

Another interesting point of discussion: If humans can survive despite being totally cut off from the natural world, do we actually need to do anything about climate change at all? Is there any point in protecting the environment when looking at things from a non-anthropocentric viewpoint?

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