Twitter feeds and mainstream media home pages have started to read like teasers for the latest post-apocalyptic Netflix series. No wonder there is a glut of fiction with themes of disruption, chaos and war brought on by unruly, destructive weather, fires and flooding; epidemics; economic collapse; civil wars; displaced populations; oppression; or [fill in the blank]. To explain this trend, as well as its appeal, literary critics have had to come up with some glib theories.
The latest comes from Sam Sacks, writing in the Wall Street Journal’s “Books” section for April 8-9, 2017. He assures readers that “vogues for dystopian literature are usually a sign of national health.” As evidence, he cites the mid-20th-century anxiety about nuclear weapons and the Cold War that produced works like “On the Beach,” and says “they were also the fruits of widespread prosperity.” He wraps up his argument with two neat aphorisms:
“The more people have, the more frightened they are of losing it all.”
“These novels are what happens when a comfortable culture has a midlife crisis.”
This is a shallow, unimaginative diagnosis. It’s like a doctor recommending NyQuil as a treatment for lung cancer.
For starters, Mr. Sacks assumes that prosperity is widespread. Is he not aware of the growing gap in this country between haves and have-nots? Does a single mom with two jobs and three teenagers have the luxury of going through an actual midlife crisis, let alone caring about a cultural one?
It helps to remember that his audience is the WSJ demographic—upwardly mobile, middle and upper middle class, plus the very wealthy and the 1%, if they even have time or inclination to read about books.
Worse, such a simplistic diagnosis misses the bigger picture. I’m having trouble seeing anyone, wealthy or struggling, as comfortable right now. Many, if not most, systems and institutions that we have long taken for granted are under assault or in active breakdown. Nobody says this with more clarity and bravery than the “Dark Mountain Manifesto”:
“We live in a time of social, economic and ecological unraveling. All around us are signs that our whole way of living is already passing into history.”
In the face of the overwhelming evidence of this—and the insane insistence on business as usual—even well informed, caring, environmentally-minded people may speculate that it’s just too late for us humans. Soon, the earth will soon shrug us off like a dog with fleas. I swear, the next friend or relative who says this to me is going to receive a wallop upside the head with a big bunch of kale.
The great theologian and ecological thinker Thomas Berry reminds us that, far from being a cancer on the earth, humans are an intricate and beloved part of the complex, wondrous whole. My dear friend Lisa Bardack, who is a heart warrior for renewable energy and sound climate science, wrote recently:
“The deep and extraordinary revelation for me when I read Thomas Berry’s The Dream of the Earth was his eloquent explanation of the human as intentionally born onto the Earth and into the universe to serve as a conscious mode of reflection. . . I felt it deeply as the Earth’s dream, that she would bring forth a being that could consciously take in and celebrate the beauty and wonder that is the living earth; a being that could feel moss below its feet, take in the smell of the lilac, the taste of a perfect strawberry, the loveliness of bird song, the magic of the forest, the awe of the stars. Then sing, dance, paint, write about it. Celebrate the splendor of the Earth!”
The myopic Modern gaze takes in only human beings and human-made systems, and blinds us to the vast web of life of which we are a part. With such a narrow focus, we are cornered into human-centric explanations for our anxieties: Someone wants to take our material prosperity away from us. And, far worse, we believe that any solutions to these only-human-sphere problems must come only from human systems, institutions and leaders bold enough to stand up and claim their heroic role.
To paraphrase Einstein, the thinking that got us here will not be able to take us anywhere else. No wonder that an increasing number of people worry that we are trending towards apocalypse. There is a great collective intuition that there’s no way out. It takes more effort and imagination to mine the insights beneath and beyond the surface of this great cultural, economic, and political breakdown. But doing so yields greater perspective and the possibility of creative response. Which is a refreshing change from the existential paralysis that spawns dystopian narratives.
I love stories that immerse me in an unfamiliar world and cause me to see my own world with fresh eyes. Having just read “The Underground Railroad” and “Americanah” in quick succession, my consciousness around race and racism and white privilege has been challenged and stretched. It is a gift to see American culture through the eyes of an immigrant, and to see history as lived by individuals with loves and hopes and ancestors and the surprising ability to endure even the most horrific abuse. This is the power of storytelling.
The “Dark Mountain Manifesto” continues with a suggestion that I wish everyone, especially writers and cultural critics, would heed: “We will face this reality honestly and learn how to live with it.” Fiction writers are missing a great creative opportunity. There’s a whole other genre we could be exploring, as our answer to the wave of dystopias. Think of it as pre-apocalyptic fiction.
These are stories that acknowledge the breakdown of modern civilization as we’ve known it. Stories that dare to revel in bewilderment and mystery and questioning: the upside of a turn to the local, to activities that go back generations, like helping one another and enjoying simple hand-hewn pleasures. Other narratives could expose the shabbiness and poverty of the guardians of our culture, who still cling white-knuckled to stories of scarcity, hyper individualism, competitiveness that excludes compassion, ruthlessly enforced hierarchies that no longer make any sense, and progress at any cost, to name a few.
These pre-apocalyptic narratives would be a fine way to investigate what life would be like if we shifted just a little bit towards living as one small part of the vast web of life. If we actively sought to integrate the best of our modern sensibilities with ancient understandings of who we are and why we are here. Stories could be set neither in blown-out dystopian landscapes, nor in utopias—which tend to be overly rosy and difficult to take seriously—but instead in protopias. In places that are for something: life, connection, justice, creativity, humility, and belonging.
So instead of saying things like: “These [dystopian] novels are what happens when a comfortable culture has a midlife crisis,” we could ask: What happens when a pathologically self-absorbed culture finally realizes that there’s other life out there with which we can engage, then takes the first tentative, humble steps towards re-connecting?