Of everything I have read, some of the best, or at least most illuminating, novels touching on the nature of mankind have been science fiction. Of course. The genre frees up a speculative future based on the common denominators of our current experience, extrapolates it into space or time and niggles there forever in the reader’s consciousness.
If the narrative was dull or lacked credibility, it probably wasn’t going to stick around for long. Which left us with authors from Doris Lessing and Faye Weldon to Arthur C Clarke, Mary Doria Russell and the Star Trek television series.
In 2014, with a typically intricate silver-bullet solution, blockbuster writer Dan Brown neatly despatched the problem we currently face – a planet wearing out under the strains of global greed and the prospect of 10 billion of us scratching or competing for survival someday very soon.
So it was with interest that I seized, a few weeks ago, on sci-fi author Kim Stanley Robinson’s article in the Guardian’s Overstretched Cities series.
“There’s one obvious way to save Earth – empty half the planet of its humans,” went the headline. “Happily, modern tendencies mean the process is already well under way.”
A world that currently has nearly eight billion inhabitants is already an accidental experiment that’s destruction-testing the planet’s ability to meet our needs and absorb our many wastes and poisons, Robinson says, pointing out that so far, it’s not going well and we are, as a result, effectively stealing from future generations.
However, our millennia-old tendency to graduate to cities creates a great opportunity.
“Cities emerge from the confusion of possibilities as beacons of hope. By definition, they house a lot of people on small patches of land, which makes them hugely better than suburbia. In ecological terms, suburbs are disastrous, while cities can perhaps work.”
Nor would the solution have to be imposed by extremes and absolutes of definition. Or of any idealistic principle, he says.
“It’s happening anyway. It would be more a matter of managing how we made the move, and what kind of arrangement we left behind.”
Perhaps the most telling prescription is one that improves living standards for all citizens – a change of culture currently being put forward by New Zealand’s Labour Government as a more inclusive future model for local government.
“Robust women’s rights stabilize families and population,” Robinson says during a week in the life of the world when the West seems immune to pictures of mothers and children murdered by chemical weapons and driven from their homes by internecine atrocities.
“Income adequacy and progressive taxation keep the poorest and richest from damaging the biosphere in the ways that extreme poverty or wealth do.
“If we managed urbanization properly, we could nearly remove ourselves from a considerable percentage of the planet’s surface. That would be good for many of the threatened species we share this planet with, which in turn would be good for us because we are totally enmeshed in Earth’s web of life,” he says.
Carbon-neutral agriculture and working landscapes existing alongside empty land – and seas – are part of Robinson’s prescription for a robust permaculture and a fundamental respect for current and future generations as well as the other creatures of the earth and sea.
It would not be ‘wilderness’, as such, but depopulated working landscapes where pasturage and agriculture might still have a place but with corridors for humanity’s fellow creatures to get around “without being stopped by fences or killed by trains”.
Robinson’s green cities also sound surprisingly doable, capitalizing on our tendency to gravitate towards them anyway. They would require decarbonised transport and energy production, white roofs, gardens in every lot, full-capture recycling and the many technologies of sustainability, law and justice that are already under development.
“Peace, justice, equality and the rule of law are all necessary survival strategies.
“All this needs to be done if we are to make it through the emergency centuries we face and create a civilized permaculture, something that we can pass along to the future generations as a good home.”
Although Robinson’s own most notable novels are a trilogy set on Mars, Earth’s options have “no plan B”, he says.
“There is no alternative way. We have only this planet and have to fit our species into the energy flows of its biosphere. That’s our project now. • Liz Waters