What can conservation learn from science fiction?

Ecologists used to believe that the systems they studied tended toward balance. During the 20th century, however, they realized that disruption is not a detour but a destination. Humans can of course do terrible damage to ecosystems, but the disturbance itself is not necessarily a problem; in most ecosystems the only stable state is a state of upheaval. Relationships between and among species, although indispensable and often enduring, are constantly changing, subject to small and large disturbances. The notorious “balance of nature” is more or less a mirage.

Science fiction writers and filmmakers seem to have reached a similar understanding. Dystopias and occasional utopias in classic science fiction are akin to what ecologists used to call climax societies—mature forests and other ecosystems that are believed to be stable until they are upended by an external force, the external force in science fiction being your faithful single hero. Perhaps because these either-or futures exist beyond the “final boundaries” of known space and time, they often take place in imagined Wests: science fiction and its variants have sent the frontier myth into space (Star Trek, among many others), turned it Pacific Northwest into an island splinter state (Ecotopia) and condemned Los Angeles to any number of high-decibel
disasters.

Although technology can solve some problems, it cannot transform human behavior, and it certainly cannot fix the relationship between humans and habitats or between humans and other species.

Later in the 20th century, some writers – including many who live and work in the West – began to construct more complex, less certain and, consequently, more plausible futures. “Got to redefine utopia,” recluse Tom Barnard in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Orange County trilogy, published in the 1980s and 90s. “It is not the perfect end product of our desires, (but) … the process of creating a better world, the name of one path history can take, a dynamic, tumultuous, painful process, without end.” The fiercely imaginative Octavia Butler, who like Robinson grew up in Los Angeles, set her prescient Parables series, published in the 1990s, in a California where violence is always present but never predictable. Lauren Oya Olamina, the flawed spiritual leader at the center of the series, preaches that “The only lasting truth / is change”—a creed that could have been written by an ecologist.

In Butler’s wake, writers such as Claire Vaye Watkins and Joy Williams have set novels in future Western landscapes, within societies that are fundamentally fractured yet continue to evolve. And today, a new generation of Western science fiction writers are exploring possible paths to better worlds. In her near-future novel January Fifteenth, Portland author Rachel Swirsky has imagined the individual and societal consequences of a universal basic income payment. The short story Tread of Angels, by New Mexico author Rebecca Roanhorse, uses its fantastical setting in an alternate-history 19th-century mining town to disrupt the predictable battle between good and evil, asking whether anyone really belongs on one side or the other. other side.

Tread of angels
Rebecca Roanhorse, Gallery/Saga Press, 2022

A Prayer for the Crown-Shy Becky Chambers, Tordotcom, 2022

The fifteenth of January
Rachel Swirsky, Tordotcom, 2022

Author Becky Chambers, who grew up in Southern California and now lives in Humboldt County, is known for her outer space adventure novels, but her latest series, Monk and Robot, is set in a society whose members have survived an excruciating transition from what they describe as the “factory era”. They strive to live less destructively than their ancestors, and they do so in many ways: their transportation methods are human-powered, their plastics are biodegradable, and their rivers and forests are recovering from past damage. Like some lucky Californians, they live in different communities; their gender identity is accepted without question and their vegetables are plentiful and fresh. They also drink a lot of tea, sometimes for therapeutic purposes, and they talk fluently about their feelings. Yet this gentle society is no traditional utopia; its members actively experiment with different ways of living and working together, and they deal with the lingering consequences of their past. IA Prayer for the Crown-Shy, the second novella in the series, sees the robot Mosscap visit human society after a long estrangement between humans and robots – making connections that, while largely joyful, rekindle a painful history.

In science fiction’s ever-expanding universe of subgenres, Chambers is considered a practitioner of “hopepunk,” a label she embraces. “You look at the world exactly as it is, with all its cruelty and all its tragedy, and you say, ‘No, I think it can get better,'” she said in an interview last year. “That’s punk as hell to me.” Like Robinson’s Tom Barnard, Chambers and writers like her are suspicious of utopias, placing their faith instead in the continued possibility of change. “Hopepunk is not pristine and immaculate,” writes fantasy writer Alexandra Rowland, who coined the term. “Hopepunk is dirty because that’s what happens when you fight.”

These stories of instability and opportunity are not prescriptions. They are experiments that test new technologies and social innovations by imagining the many different human reactions to them—reactions that are surprising, entertaining, and ultimately familiar, no matter how otherworldly the setting or extraordinary the circumstances. If ecology has taught science fiction about the permanence of change, science fiction might remind conservation that lasting societal change can only be brought about by humans. Although technology can solve some problems, it cannot transform human behavior, and it certainly cannot fix the relationship between humans and habitats or between humans and other species. In any future, that work—the dynamic, tumultuous, agonizing process—is up to us.

This review first appeared at High Country News and is reproduced here with permission. Top photo: Linda Pomerantz

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