The study and writing of dystopian futures has been quite a parade of unsettling images. I think what disturbs me most of all is the consideration of the level of plausibility in the landscapes of the different novels I have looked at when contrasted with the world in which I now find myself. Perhaps it is because the images in the novels I have read still loom so fresh in my mind that I see news programs or documentaries and say to myself, almost as reflex, “Look! It’s happening!” And in consideration of today’s world, looking at it with a glass-half-empty point of view, I wonder how we as a species will manage to avoid creating our own dystopia.
In The Hunger Games, we read the thoughts of young Katniss who explains the reasons why the world became as it became. There were natural disasters that led to the oceans swallowing the land which led to wars for what was left. I watched “Cosmos” the other night which focused on humanity’s carbon footprint and global warming–a topic that always chills me to the bone. Then turned the channel to watch a paleontological dig in a South American coal mine. The diggers uncovered a bone from the spinal column of a snake that had been previously unknown to scientists of the field.
The snake they discovered was found to be an ancestor of the Boa Constrictor and Anaconda snakes we have sliding around the jungles today. But bigger. This snake was absolutely gigantic. Put it this way, one of the scientists explains to his colleague that if this snake was alive today and tried to get into his office, it would have to squeeze itself through the door! What has this to do with my topic of dystopia? Well, here it is. This enormous Boa-type snake lived in a patch of jungle that evolved in what became South America, but after the asteroid event that killed the dinosaurs. There is a period after the dinosaurs became extinct, about 10 million years, where scientists know very little about, as one scientist put it, “what was here.” By ‘here’, he means ‘Earth’.
As they dug further, fossils of plants began to emerge–avocado, chocolate, palms, etc. And this bone from the Boa. But huge! They compared the leaves they found to leaves of the same species today, and our leaves in this era are dwarfed by the fossilized leaves. Likewise, the Boa dwarfs the largest Anaconda on record. The Green Anaconda, the largest snake on Earth, grows around 16-22 feet long and the longer ones weigh in around 150 lbs. The fossilized Boa they found, named the Titanaboa, was about 42-43 feet long and weighed about 2500 lbs. This snake was at the top of the food chain, eating crocodiles and big turtles–basically anything it had a hankering for.
The researchers wanted to know how this creature lived on land and, with its sheer bulk, negotiated with gravity. They decided, upon further consideration, that it couldn’t have lived just on land. It had to have lived at least part time in the water. Then they looked to solve the biggest question–how did it get so big? With snakes, the older they are, the longer they grow–provided that they have two things: space to grow, and warmth to grow.
So, because the jungle that developed after the dinosaurs was, what they believe to be, an good sized piece of land that was filled with swamps and rivers, the Titanaboa had plenty of “space” to grow. It also means that the Earth was warmer than than it is now. They estimate, when looking at the size of the fossils, that the whole Earth was five degrees warmer than it is now–which explains the huge snakes and other reptiles they have now found in this region. They found, for instance, a turtle whose shell was the size of a pool table. The reason why the Earth was so much warmer was because of a greenhouse effect caused by large amounts of carbon in our atmosphere at that time. I am not a scientist, but I can add two plus two. Too much carbon in the atmosphere equals a warmer Earth–the ice melts, the oceans warm up, the climate shifts, species go extinct, Earth becomes unbearably hot, and we all die.
On Cosmos, they discussed the surface of Venus compared to the surface of Earth. Venus’ atmosphere is filled with carbon caused by volcanic eruptions. Millions of years ago, its oceans evaporated into space. What happened to Venus, happened naturally. On Earth, we are doing it to ourselves. We are in what they call the “Goldilocks Zone” of our solar system–not too hot and not too cold. We are just right. And to stay “just right” we need to maintain an atmosphere that is 2 carbon particles per 10,000. Today, that measurement is rising. We release billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year, and then cut down the trees that eat the carbon. It’s like boarding up our doors and windows, and then setting the house on fire. But really, there’s nowhere to escape to. After all, where are we going to go if not here? And so we are trapped on an Earth on fire, because in all the universe, this is the only home we know of. It’s sobering, and it’s happening. A dystopian future seems to be gaining on us. If we know it’s happening, why don’t we do something about it? It’s in our power to save ourselves.
In Hunger Games, the evil President Snow says that hope is more powerful than fear. I disagree with him. Money is more powerful than fear. If the human race relied on solar energy–energy that is clean, free, and will be abundant as long as we have our sun–and if we have the ability to develop and begin using the sun’s energy, then why don’t we? What is stopping us? To be more direct, who stands to lose if we rely on solar energy rather than on dangerous fossil fuels? That is the question, isn’t it? The oil and gasoline corporations who become mostly redundant. It seems like it is the greed of a few who are going to destroy us all if we don’t heed the warnings all around us because in the dystopian novels I have read, the dystopia is the aftermath of human folly, and the poor choices made by a few that effected everyone everywhere. Such a tragedy and so unnecessary.
When I was a young girl, I watched an episode of the old “Swiss Family Robinson” TV series. Anyone remember that one? In this episode, the boys found buried treasure–gold coins and jewels–on their island. They began to fight over it and avoid their important daily chores because they were “rich”. The parents said that the treasure was not as important as maintaining their life on the island. To demonstrate this, at supper time the boys sat hungrily waiting their meals. The mother brought a pot to the table, dipped a big ladle into it, and spooned gold and jewels onto their plates. “Bon appetite!” What is the use of having all the money in the world, if the world is gone? Long before scientists discovered global warming, writers of the dystopian novel showed us what the world might become if we aren’t careful. I think I’m going to plant another fruit tree this weekend. Plums, I think.