When we think of the future, what does mainstream media show us? On the side of the dystopic: behemoth brutalist architecture bathed in glaring neon billboards, holographic advertisements flashing through steam and smoke. Roaming drones and militarized robots. On the utopic: hermetically-sealed structures just as goliath but perhaps designed with a more open, translucent façade. Glass and steel intertwined with trees and ferns to suggest eco-civilized harmony; pristine white interior design with the occasional pop of green from an austere, well-placed bonsai. In these fictional hyper-Anthropocene futures, we grapple with our anthropocentric anxieties: resource scarcity, severe deprivation, and economic quality of life.
But where is nature, the very literal bedrock of our future, in all of these imaginings? In our global culture of capitalism and consumerism, nature has been reduced to a commodity and the futures explored by our most revered storytellers maintain this status quo of leaving the land out of the future. How can we disentangle capitalism, nature, and our narcissistic vision of the future? How is the concept of progress corrupted by imperialist capitalism? And what does a future look like with nature at the fore instead of our own “standard of living”?
A STOCKROOM PLANET
In the 70s, the terms “natural capital” and “environmental services” were coined. “Natural capital,” says the CBD Secretariat, “can be defined as the world’s stocks of natural assets which include geology, soil, air, water and all living things.” In a report of the Study of Critical Environmental Problems, environmental services included insect pollination, fisheries, climate regulation, and flood control. If that corporate language regarding our land, water, and fellow beings doesn’t make you shudder, there is your first problem. As Donna J. Haraway writes: “It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties.” But the commodification of nature and the language we refer to it with, of course, extends far back into human history.
In Stephen Mrozowski’s paper, “Colonization and the Commodification of Nature” he writes “As the Europeans carried out their often violent conquest of the New World, Africa, and Asia, their notions of the natural world were being recast to account for the exotic new landscapes and peoples they encountered. Nature … was perceived as a separate domain in need of cultivation. The growth of abstract space aided this process. Abstractions like maps, for example, served as guides for exploration and material conquest, conquest that translated into political power in Europe. The accompanying emergence of capitalism gave rise to other forms of abstraction, like credit, money, and most importantly for the purposes of this paper, concepts of space. Land, which had long been a currency of wealth, was now viewed in the abstract, something to be measured, categorized, and exchanged.”
That evolution of abstraction to better dominate, possess, and destroy wielded by people both against nature itself and their fellow man, was and continues to be the seat by which we commit vast social and environmental injustices. Separating nature from humanity and humanity from humans has been fundamental to our stubborn downward spiral as a society. How do we unwind the tangle of these abstractions and decontexualizations from our projections of the future? Demanding equal quality of life for our fellow man goes without saying, but what of our deeply inculcated societal abstractions regarding nature?
Anthropologist Elizabeth Fisher’s Carrier Bag Theory, as popularized in Ursula K Le Guin’s essay, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” posits that “the first cultural device was probably a recipient … a container to hold gathered products and some kind of sling or net carrier” as opposed to the weapon. In the same manner of refactoring our perceptions, Indigenous knowledge offers an old-to-us but new-to-many theory on how we perceive nature: as a being/s worthy of dignity and the right to thrive.
“Wild rice sues to stop oil pipeline,” reads a headline today on High Country News. Thanks to the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, this legal action enacted in 2018 upheld manoomin’s (wild rice) right to exist and flourish as established by tribal law. In 2019, making similar efforts to protect nature, the Yurok Tribe declared rights of personhood for the Klamath River to stave off pollution and protect the waning salmon population.7 In 2017, the New Zealand government adopted the Rights of the Whanganui River, stemming from a treaty process with Māori iwi. These were the first of many actions taken by Indigenous communities around the world granting personhood status to the water and land. The perspective that nature has inherent rights is longstanding among Indigenous peoples who have a close association with the natural world.
So rather than abstracting nature into capital and services, what does a future look like where our core belief is to honor nature as one of us? If the term animism grates, what about hylozoism? Even if one doesn’t believe in the spiritual aspect of nature’s personhood, what kind of change would come about in the societal psyche if we shifted the language we use on a corporate scale? What does a world look like where “nature, in all its life forms, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles?” How does a society develop laws and socio-economic structures with planetary personhood as a foundational element?
UNIVERSAL BASIC IMAGINATION
Some hallmarks that come to mind when one thinks of science-fictional societal progress are universal standards of living, international peace, green technology, and furthering human colonization of the solar system. A well-known and rather hopeful theory called the environmental Kuznets curve (EKC) posits that after a turning point, economic growth will be negatively correlated with indicators of environmental degradation. The rationale here is that once society eradicates widespread poverty and raises material living standards via economic growth, “the demand for improvements in environmental quality will increase, as will the resources available for investment.”
However, a recent 2020 study showing the relationship between economic growth and environmental degradation measured by CO2 emissions during a 36 year period for 44 individual countries, has produced grim results. Only 9 out of the 44 individual countries were found to have a relationship between growth and the environment in favor of the EKC hypothesis.
In Ritual: Power, Healing and Community, Malidoma Patrice Somé writes: “Western Machine technology is the spirit of death made to look like life. It makes life seem easier, comfortable, cozy, but the price we pay includes the dehumanization of the self. To sleep in a cozy home, a good bed and eat great, chemically produced food you must rhyme your life with speed, rapid motion and time. The clock tells you everything and keeps you busy enough to forget that there could be another way of living your life. It has made the natural way of living look primitive, full of famine, disease, ignorance and poverty so that we can appreciate our enslavement to the Machine and, further, make those who are not enslaved by it feel sorry for themselves.
The Machine has made itself look beautiful by making other ways of life that have existed for tens of thousands of years look silly, shameful and uncivilized. But the truth is that the Machine must eliminate every alternative to itself and focus every attention on itself because it knows that its purpose is not to give life, but to suck the energy out of it.”
Most people, myself included, don’t have faith in global society’s ability to reach these so-called utopic goals without desolating nature’s resources and racing to the economic and environmental bottom; it seems our assumptions are accurate. So if economic growth and a supposed rise in living standards aren’t going to save us from our accelerating death spiral, if the foundation of what we view as “progress” is actually destroying our potential futures, perhaps we need to re-envision the capitalism-soaked concept of progress itself just as we need to re-envision what we consider worthy of “personhood.”
Instead of “progressing” to a more technologically focused, hermetic future awash in abstractions leading us away from land and humanity and expanding our anthropocentric culture beyond Earth, I want us to rewire our imaginations from the hard circuity of the capitalocene to the slime mold malleability of a natural future: a future that places our roles in ecological symbiosis at the fore instead of our theoretical cultural structures.
In Abi Andrews’ essay “A Novel Is a Medicine Bundle: Writing from Down in the Dirt,” she writes “What then would this rewilded novel look like? I’m not sure. It would undoubtedly cascade into myriad forms: growling, snorting, joyfully feral kinds of stories. The form as well as the content would open up multiplicitous worldings, enter into nonhuman, uncivilised logics, and bring these together …I think of Adrienne Rich saying this is the oppressor’s language/ yet I need to talk to you; such a phrase feels pertinently humanising, and this is important … Because we must know the nonhuman other in order to widen our circle of compassion, to be compelled to enact care, and to place ourselves within complex positions of relation.”
Some may imagine these futures to be “simplistic”—without a focus on technology and economy, how can we thrive and progress?— but that is where we need a revolution in imagination and storytelling on the ground floor of our perceptions.
One of my favorite examples of a natural future is Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, which follows Lilith lyapo, an Earthling saved from a man-made apocalypse, who awakes from a centuries-long sleep to find herself aboard the vast spaceship of the Oankali. The Oankali are extrasolar people driven to seek out new lifeforms and “trade” genetically with them to keep themselves from overspecializing and stagnating. They travel between the stars in immense living ships and frequently plant living communities. After saving every surviving human from the dying Earth, healing the planet and their collection of survivors, the Oankali begin the process of rehabilitating and reintroducing the humans back to Earth to form a new, ecologically healthier civilization. Throughout the trilogy, we follow the humans as they struggle to overcome violent and destructive behaviors their—our—culture has ingrained in them in order to build a non-suicidal future. It’s one of the most intimate and thoroughly empathetic explorations of humanity, its potential, and its capacity for cruelty and addiction to violence. It’s also a beautiful imagining of what we could be as people in Butler’s wonderfully constructed Oankali; a people whose culture is built on the honoring of symbiotic balance and a focus on building off the potential of the natural world.
In Butler’s imagined future, there are no massive moon bases and sky-piercing metropolises, there are villages made of living, responsive organic matter. There’s slow growth and simple but balanced lives. Part of why our current imagined futures are so enrapturing is because they speak to all our worst aspects: our consumer-indoctrinated dissatisfaction, greed, our hunger for the next shiny, bright, massive thing, our desire for instant gratification and convenience. It seduces us by painting a future full of fulfilled wants but leaves out our needs, elevating flare over function. A natural future would put our needs first and that future may lack the splash and sparkle of other types of futures—but at least it might exist.
The Xenogenesis trilogy was originally published in the 80s, which is impressive but also disappointing in that it remains one of the leading examples of radical futures—for humanity and nature—in fiction. I find the current scope of our imagination still remains firmly entrenched in both destructive cultural and narrative traditions. In Seo-Young Chu’s wonderful scholarly dive into SF, “Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep? A Science-Fictional Theory of Representation,” she writes “What most people call ‘realism’ … is actually a ‘weak’ or low-intensity variety of science fiction, one that requires relatively little energy to accomplish its representational task insofar as its referents (e.g., softballs) are readily susceptible to representation. Conversely, what most people call ‘science fiction’ is actually a high-intensity variety of realism, one that requires astronomical levels of energy to accomplish its representational task insofar as its referents (e.g., cyberspace) elaborately defy straightforward representation. Realism and science fiction, then, exist on a continuum parallel to the above-mentioned continuum where every object of representation has its place—from shoelaces, dimes, and oak leaves to cyberspace, trauma, black holes, and financial derivatives. Although the distance between realism and SF may be vast enough for the difference in degree to amount to a difference in kind, the distance will never be so vast as to render ‘science fiction’ and ‘realism’ each other’s antonym. There is no such thing as the opposite of science fiction. Likewise, there is no such thing as the opposite of realism.”
With that in mind, I believe we can imagine much more fantastic and dynamic futures if only we took the time to refactor our base perceptions, cultural assumptions, and capitalistically-cultivated desires. I won’t speak to the psychic or material impact fiction has on people or the world at large as that’s a whole other essay but I do believe we can, at the very least, stop putting up boundaries between the imagined and the real. A world without capitalism, without corrupt power structures and constant violent colonization sounds fantastical but it’s simply reality that requires a lot of energy to accomplish. Energy we have and that can change the substance of our world if directed appropriately.
At the risk of being trite, I still find this call to action from Einstein sadly salient: “A human being … experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
There is no such thing as the opposite of humanity, there is only a spectrum of us, worldings, vying for life, for the right to thrive, waiting to be brought into our symbiotic circle of compassion. Compassion that can cross species, elements, space and time, into a natural future where we can, for the first time perhaps, experience something like true progress.