thoughtwisps One commit at a time

the dispossessed

Yesterday, on the train back home, I finished the last few pages of Ursula K Le Guin’s the Dispossessed (1974).

I’ll try not to spoil too much (if game-of-thrones-spoilergates are anything to judge by, we are living in a world, where our stories, just like our plastic, have become very much single use) by recounting an encounter that happens between Shevek, a resident of the planet Anarres and Keng, an ambassador from Earth to Urras, the sister planet of Anarres.

Shevek’s society is built on a form of non-authoritarian socialism:, while the society he visits on Urras, in the land of A-Io, is a tightly regulated capitalist society. At the end of the novel, through a series of unfortunate circumstances, Shevek finds himself asking the ambassador from Earth for help and in the conversation describes the world on Urras as a kind of hell. She says,

“Now, you man from a world I cannot even imagine, you who see my Paradise as Hell, will you ask what *my* world must be like?”

He was silent, watching her, his light eyes steady.

“My world, my Earth, is a ruin. A planet spoiled by the human species. We multiplied and gobbled and fought until there was nothing left, and then we died. We controlled neither appetite nor violence; we did not adapt. We destroyed ourselves. But we destroyed the world first. There are no forests left on my Earth. The air is grey, the sky is grey, it is always hot. It is habitable, it is still habitable - but not as this world is. This is a living world, a harmony. Mine is a discord. You Odonians chose a desert; we Terrans made a desert….We survive there, as you do. people are tough! There are nearly half billion of us now. Once there were nine billion. You can see the old cities still everywhere. The noes and bricks go to dust, but the little pieces of plastic never do -they never adapt either. We failed as a spceis, as a social species. We are here now, dealing as equals with other human societies on other worlds, only because of the charity if the Hainish. They came; they brought us help.”

I came to think of this phrase over and over again today as I thought about the findings of the upcoming report on the state of biodiversity in the world. It seems, that in 1974, we were already aware of the facts and we chose to do nothing, or not nearly enough to avoid the climate crisis we are in now. I remember being in school and making colourful cardboard posters about endangered species and climate change, copying those hard words from workbooks, and then standing in front of the class explaining what was what. A few years later, I started studying chemistry and Gratzel cells - the long weekends in the laboratory were driven by the need to make a way for us as a society to keep going as we were - consuming, flying, traveling more and more - without destroying the planet. Perhaps, I always had an inkling of doubt about our ability to make a sacrifice to keep our planet livable.

Interestingly enough, in Le Guin’s juxtaposed world of Anarres and Urras, it is unregulated consumption, not capitalism on its own, that is as the root driver of planetary destruction. When Shevek first arrives in A-Io, his guests take him around their country for sightseeing.

He was driven into the country in hired cars, splendid machines of bizarre elegance. There were not many of them on the roads; the hire was expensive, and few people owned a car privately, as they were heavily taxed. All such luxuries which if freely allowed to the public would tend to drain irreplaceable natural resources or to foul the environment with waste products, were strictly controlled by regulation and taxation. His guides dwelt on this with some pride. A-Io had led the world for centuries, they said, in ecological control and the husbanding of natural resources. The excesses of the Ninth Millenium were ancient history, their only lasting effect being the shortage of certain metals, which fortunately could be imported from the Moon.

But for our world, ever increasing consumption has become closely linked with out increasing obsession with growth under capitalism. Companies are supposed to post better and better quarterly results, for better and better share prices and dividents. Startups are supposed to grow at eye watering speeds. The adoption of social media technologies must keep increasing at all costs.

In the same class where we worked on coloured posters about endangered species and climate change, were classmates who read Ayn Rand and believed that climate change was a hoax designed to make them consume less. In fact, the first time I openly heard someone saying that climate change was a hoax, I was standing in the home of a former classmate. The door to the refuse bin was ajar and from there peaked the strap of a luxury handbag. I’d never seen anyone so casually dispose of a luxury good, just like I’d never heard anyone doubt the facts that we read in or science books.

Here we are, in 2019, and things have not changed for the better in the past 10 years. I know that there are limits to individual action: eating less meat, flying less, travelling with a smaller footprint, but I refuse to accept that therefore, these measures are pointless. If we do this together, we can reverse course before we make the livable Earth into something that only exists in the tales and myths of our future selves.