Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The feeling of living in a ‘dystopian’ present

You know that you are living in a “dystopian” or “degraded” era when virtually everything around you emits unmistakable signs that, whatever the underlying reasons might be, instead of signs of hope for a better future, those that signal a future we should perhaps fear (and perhaps feel guilty about), are slowly but surely accumulating.

Dystopian stories in written and cinematic form have been with us for a long time, but have you noticed that lately, they seem to have increased in number? Perhaps I am wrong about this, but consider that, in the last few years, these dystopian films have invaded our screens (and these are just some of them): Dredd, Oblivion, Elysium, Snowpiercer, Divergent, The Zero Theorem, The Hunger Games, The Giver, Mad Max: Fury Road, Insurgent, Transcendence, Terminator Genisys, The Road, and more. (Here is one of the sites where you can check it out).

In some of these films – in fact, in quite a few (think of Resident Evil, or of Doomsday) – a virus wipes out most of humanity, and the action is set in this post-apocalyptic world where the hero or heroine has to find a means of survival. I suspect that some people would shrug and say: “Sure, but this is fiction, and fiction that is made to sell, hence the dystopian themes – audiences love something that inspires fear and loathing”. I would readily grant such a point.

BUT – what do you make of reports like these: “What our descendants will deplore about us”, and even more sobering, if not chilling, “How to cope with the end of the world”. When my eye first caught the latter post on the putative “end of the world”, I assumed it was written somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but as far as I can make out, it is deadly serious. Take these passages, for instance, which follows on the matter-of-fact information, that this is one possible “chronology” after the collapse of civilisation as we know it:

“In the first few weeks you’ll probably have encountered pockets of other survivors. Treat strangers with a wary caution until you’ve found a small band you can trust and rely upon for mutual protection, and this will also greatly improve the effectiveness with which you can forage for supplies and scavenge what you need.

“By now, the urban area you started in is beginning to get pretty unpleasant. The stench of innumerable rotting bodies fills the air, and unfed pet dogs have formed into increasingly aggressive packs. In any case, a modern city is a grossly artificial bubble, supported only by the civilisation that constructed it.

“Without mains electricity to run lifts or lighting, natural water sources likely contaminated, and the ground itself smothered in tarmac and concrete, you’ll find life easier in a more rural setting. A traditional farmhouse with fireplaces for heating and cooking will be far more comfortable after the collapse than a modern high-tech apartment. You can always make scavenging forays back into the crumbling urban areas to restock supplies while you try to relearn how to make and do things for yourself.”

If the first paragraph of this quotation reminds you irresistibly of the dystopian sci-fi series, Revolution, where civilisation collapses because of nanotechnology gone wrong and wiping out all electricity sources, you would be forgiven. But worse, it might remind you of The Road, based on the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name, where – after the collapse of society , because of the prior collapse of nature – there is hardly any food left anywhere, and people have only one way to survive: cannibalism. Not a pretty sight.

The report on what our descendants will hate about us is similarly disconcerting and sobering, because it highlights the typical myopia of every generation when it comes to your “own” time – it is easy, in other words, to see how “misguided” or bigoted our ancestors were (for example, when you look at old photographs of shops with “Whites Only” signs in the windows), but invariably you don’t see the egregious practices of the present as being deplorable in any way.

One thinker consulted by Tom Chatfield in this report is Kate Raworth, an economist whose work focuses on the way that human economics is related to the encompassing ecological system. She believes that we are severely shortsighted about this relationship:
“One contemporary tenet that Raworth believes will soon become archaic is the insistence that evaluating anything from health to nature means quantifying its market value. ‘From the impact of HIV/AIDS to climate change, if you want your issue heard, get an economist to put a price on it… Future generations will be amazed that we were still putting GDP at the centre of national economic policy,’ she told me, ‘even while we knew we were running down the very social and environmental wealth on which it was all based. Rather than asking what is really going on, we’re happy to pretend that something doesn’t count if we don’t care to count it.’”

Another aspect of our present failings brought into focus here is the failure to alleviate the suffering of others, both human and non-human. Chatfield writes: “For the philosopher Peter Singer, this lessening of suffering is a moral imperative more urgent than any other – and one that should not be restricted to the human race. As he bluntly replied when I put my question to him, ‘the way so many of us wallow in our affluence while doing very little to help those in extreme poverty’ is one clear flaw that the future ought to deplore, alongside our treatment of animals, which ‘will (I hope) seem to [our descendants] as barbarous as the Roman circuses now seem to us’”.

A cultural thinker, Chatfield spoke to is Roman Krznaric, author of the book Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution. ‘The biggest future crisis our children (and their children) will have to face is declining social cohesion,’ he told me. ‘Communities are being fractured by growing urbanisation, and an overdose of free-market culture has ratcheted up levels of narcissism to record levels.’ As an antidote to this narcissism, Krznaric recommends a new form of emphasis on empathy as a fundamental human value: on promoting ‘the ability to step into the shoes of other people and look at the world from their perspective’ as the ultimate social glue. Only through building empathy, he argues, can we hope to thrive together in a future of increasingly scarce resources and escalating competition…”

Anyone who is reasonably informed about the state of society in South Africa, or in America, for that matter, would have to agree. There is scant evidence that social cohesion has improved in our country since the initial euphoria about a peaceful transition to “rainbow nation” democracy in 1994 started wearing off. On the contrary, we are more socially fractured than we have been for some time, as evidenced by the fact that even the once-unified ANC is torn asunder by irreconcilable differences within it. America, in its turn, has witnessed a presidential campaign like no other in its history – one where naked hatred was perceptible everywhere, and has even now, after the election of Donald Trump, not subsided. On the contrary (as one example), although he has disavowed them, white supremacists of the “alt-Right” have claimed that his victory has vindicated their dubious agenda.

I could continue providing instances that show, beyond doubt, I believe, that we live in a particularly degraded, increasingly “dystopian” time, which cries out for recuperation, as it were. The question is: Does humankind have the moral resources and the existential vitality to initiate such a process of recuperation?

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