Monday, February 13, 2017

Our Non-Crapsack Future

Adam Rakunas, author of two of my favorite new sci-fi novels (Windswept and Like a Boss), suggested recently on Twitter that the dystopian trend in modern science fiction comes from authors’ following the path of least resistance. We can easily imagine the world falling apart, cities burned down, coastlines drowned, civilization replaced with anarchy or worse, because that's just entropy in action. It takes more effort to imagine the world becoming a better place, our current troubles yielding to what Rakunas calls "a non-crapsack future." Positive predictions become even harder for people raised in a conservative, anti-utopian era, trained to believe that social change will almost always cause more problems than it solves. Add in the very recent history of the developed world, notably Brexit, the American election, and the likelihood of fascist electoral victories in France and Holland, and one finds it even harder to imagine the world won't simply get worse and worse. 

Charles Stross, another of my favorite SF writers, has recently yielded to this temptation. He projects a hellish near-future in which a new Fascist International revives the declining hydrocarbon industry, pours millions more tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, and uses militarized national borders to bar out refugees from countries ravaged by flooding and “black-flag weather.”* With nowhere else to go, equatorial refugees will have to stay home and die, by the hundreds of millions. Presto! Global genocide, without the need for expensive armies and death camps. 

I like Stross’s work a lot, but in this essay I think he commits a graver error than simply elevating entropy above human agency. In his famous essay on the alarmist author James Burnham, George Orwell observed that a common problem among intellectuals was their rock-solid faith in historical inertia. Burnham always assumed that the great events taking place in the world right now (i.e. 1940) would continue in the future, that trends visible in the present would necessarily and always come to fruition. Stross, I think, feels the same way about the nascent White Fascist International aborning in Europe, North America, and perhaps Australia. He fears and despises our new political leaders, but sees them as beneficiaries of trends that non-fascists can only resist with great difficulty and peril.

I won’t assume that the struggle against modern fascism will be one we can win through complacency. Complacency in the face of suffering - suffering by working-class whites who voted for DJT, and by demoralized minority voters who stayed home on Election Day - helped give Americans our current Gropenfuhrer. Viewing fascists as an awesome threat powered by historic inevitability will paralyze us just as thoroughly. Let me offer some contrary, and I hope reassuring facts.

Our nightmare future.
First, modern authoritarian or totalitarian states tend more toward fragility than stability. Their leaders cannot draw upon the talents of all or even most of their citizens, and must privilege the survival of the regime above policies that might strengthen the nation. Soviet Russia, the colossus that James Burnham so feared, faced severe food shortages by the 1960s and only survived by virtue of giant oil and gas discoveries. Even with all the new hydrocarbon money coming in, by the 1980s the Soviet regime had become an economic dependency of West German bankers. Maoist China suffered an inter-factional civil war (the Cultural Revolution) in the 1960s, followed by a near-total collapse of the centralized economy. The regime survived, barely, at the cost of radical economic liberalization. Fascist Spain lasted for 35 years, but by the end of Franco’s life the country suffered from chronic terrorism and regional separatism. His successor, Juan Carlos, chose democratization and regional devolution as the alternative to regime collapse. Fascism and its left-wing equivalents are dangerous ideologies, as their millions of victims can attest. One still cannot build an enduring polity upon them. Entropy affects all human systems, especially, it seems, the evil ones.

Second, the pages of both futurological non-fiction and science fiction are littered with imminent disasters that never quite materialized. For nearly half of the twentieth century Westerners anticipated a Third World War which would involve nuclear weapons, the wreckage of world civilization, and possibly the extinction of humanity. The number of sci-fi stories, novels, and movies with this theme ranges into the high hundreds. The nukes themselves stayed in their silos, as the Soviet Union and the United States found other outlets for their Great-Power aggression that did not entail regime suicide. In the 1960s and ‘70s, overpopulation and famine stalked the pages of non-fiction bestsellers like Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb and novels like Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! (basis for the film Soylent Green). The Green Revolution and artificial fertilizers largely solved the food shortage, and economic development in the former Third World slowed the rise in fertility rates that so worried Ehrlich and his contemporaries. More recently, authors like James Kunstler and Robert Wilson raised a hue and cry over Peak Oil and the forthcoming collapse of industrial civilization. New technology, in the form of hydraulic fracturing and inexpensive solar panels, gave us instead a surplus of cheap oil and a dying coal industry.

This future won't happen either.
Human beings have faced the possibility of self-induced extinction for over seventy years, and speculating on it makes for some dramatic fiction. In real life, the sky rarely falls on us quite so heavily and finally as it does on the page. Change, whether in demographics or economics or warfare, almost always happens slowly enough for us to find an alternative to an unsustainable course. The alternatives carry with them their own costs. The proxy wars and post-colonial conflicts that we got in place of World War Three killed about forty million people,** the agricultural revolution that saved billions from famine also produced enough nitrate runoff to poison billions of fish, and hydraulic fracturing threatens water supplies throughout the United States. The alternatives that humans find to destroying the world’s climate – and we will find them, because a hydrocarbon future no longer benefits elites in some of the world’s most powerful nations (like China and Germany) – will create externalities and chaos of their own. So will the collapse of the Neo-Fascist International that Vladimir Putin and his Western stooges want to create. I never said the future was going to be boring.

* A meteorological term employed by Frank Landis in his excellent Hot Earth Dreams (2015), referring to days when heat and humidity reach fatal levels for humans without air conditioning.

** Piero Scaruffi includes in his list 11 million fatalities during the Cultural Revolution - Frank Dikotter revises that down to 3 million - and the deaths to famine during the Great Leap Forward, which I don't include because it was less a deliberate atrocity and more a giant, ideologically-driven SNAFU.