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    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Fiction and . . . fiction
September 30, 2011 - 3:01pm

Earlier this week, I saw part of the premiere of the new program, Terra Nova. It started on a world that reminded me of Blade Runner (but without the rain, and the sheep) but soon shifted to a kind of Jurassic Park in reverse (the dinosaurs are on the outside of the fence). I thought it might be worth watching on the basis that two of the producers are Rene Echevarria and Brannon Braga (Star Trek TNG, The 4400), but I notice that they're only two out of a whole lot of producers. Could be good, could easily be too many cooks. We'll see.

What really caught my attention, however, was the fact that the series's main premise is that Earth has become uninhabitable. Unsustainable behavior has pretty much wrecked the planet. The number of children in a family is strictly limited, and American society has become repressive in a lot of other ways. Kind of what us sustainability wonks have been predicting for quite a while. Except that this series is on FOX.

Now I understand the difference between the fiction presented on Fox's entertainment networks and the fictions they present as news, but still I found myself marveling at the elision from climate change as entirely fabricated to climate change as common knowledge (to the point of being implicit).

Maybe popular fiction (including TV) is a good venue for the sustainability message, hidden in plain sight. I know my personal concept of sustainable society was initially based in part on a pulp speculative novel from the 1950's or early 1960's. Titled something like "The Day the Earth Stopped" (I haven't been able to find reference to it on the web, and I certainly don't know the author), it told of a huge electromagnetic pulse (as I recall) which caused everything electric to stop working. Exhibiting the triumphalist optimism of those times, it described the changes in society engendered by a shift back to mechanical devices, steam power and the like. My thoughts on social sustainability have evolved since then (for the better, I hope), but one aspect -- limitations on social scale implied by communication and transportation, thus coordination, difficulties -- has remained.

As it happens, I recently started reading a similar story, depicting a similar social situation albeit triggered by a totally different plot device. World Made by Hand, by James Howard Kunstler. Less pulpy and more guarded in its optimism. Also, better grounded and more subtle in its understanding -- and projection -- of society. But then Kunstler, besides being a novelist, is a well-known social critic and proponent of the "New Urbanism". I'm looking forward to learning the rest of the story, as well as reading a bit of his non-fiction writing.

Certainly, American society is ripe for a certain degree of dystopian entertainment. Faced with the failure of established paradigms on so many fronts simultaneously, we sense we need a profound revolution but the very thought of that scares us half to death. Or more. Similar instances of social cognitive dissonance have produced influential (if not always especially well-written) works of fiction in the past. Not that Kunstler is any Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Not by any means.

But maybe someone is.


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