Antony Gormley wrote, “Culture in the developed western world has always positioned itself in distinction to nature: now we have to discover our nature within nature,” in an article called
Art’s lost subject.
A segment of Western culture that springs from modern science has vigorously adopted the position that humanity is an integral part of nature. Garrett Hardin published The tragedy of the commons in 1968, which illustrated the dangers posed by humans and our capacity for deleterious impact on the biosphere. At about that time, people like Carl Sagan knew that green house gas levels were rising on Earth and the warnings about human-induced climate change began to be heard coming from scientists. The protagonist in Carl Sagan’s novel Contact had one question she’d like to ask an extraterrestrial: how did you survive the dangers of your technological adolescence? Scientists like E. O. Wilson continue to make pleas for consilience between the “two cultures” and action to protect the biosphere from human activities. Even some politicians (example) have caught on to the importance of human-induced climate change.
How can artists help awaken humanity to our place in nature? In particular, how can science fiction be used as a means to inform readers about issues like climate change and inspire useful changes in human behavior that will help protect Earth’s biosphere? I stress useful change because cultural works can impact human behavior in negative ways. Nuclear power is currently our largest non-green house gas producing energy source. Are important decisions made because of the best available information or because of emotional responses stimulated by fictions like The China Syndrome?
I’ve only written one story that includes a plot element related to climate change. In the science fiction story X-Seven, benevolent aliens help a few humans create a solution to rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. The story shows science being used as a tool for solving a serious problem that is confronting us. The particular “solution” in the story is a fantasy, but the theme of using our knowledge and know-how to solve problems is an important one. I’d never claim that technology can solve all of our problems, but we are foolish if we do not make use of all available tools to deal with our problems.
How many alternatives to our addiction to fossil fuels (such as better solar energy systems) might we already have if more young people were inspired to think creatively about science, engineering and technology? How many young people are turned-off from science by silly fictional “thrillers” that continue to perpetuate the tired idea that “science fiction is a pessimistic genre“? Like any tool, science fiction can be used to celebrate science and reason or it can be used to misinform and frighten people.
Until writers and film makers grow past The Modern Prometheus we are going to continue to struggle towards reasonable solutions to our problems. Industries with vested interests in the status quo are experts at fostering fear and doubt. The tobacco and oil industries have made billions in profits while inhibiting governments from making wise regulatory decisions. In the struggle to make wise decisions that impact human and planetary health, one fictional story like The China Syndrome can count for more than the informed views of the nuclear engineers who can make safe nuclear power plants. Artists, and anyone making cultural works, including movies, have a responsibility to work with knowledge and facts, not just emotions (profitable though it is to play on emotions).
Law Two. There is a radical idea that I plan to explore in my fiction. In answer to Ellie Arroway and her question about survival, I imagine that any life form that long survives as a tool-using species will have a set of rules to guide their behavior. I’m not sure that tool-using primates are suited to a world like Earth. Earth is one of the rare planetary gardens where life can appear and evolve. Maybe we need to think seriously about the idea that this is not “our planet”. There are many worlds out there where we can freely indulge our penchant for tool creation and use without having an impact on other species. Have we reached the point where our place in nature is some place other than Earth?
Related reading: Sarah Palin calls global warming studies “snake oil science.”