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Our Dystopian Future?

Maybe. Maybe not.

So many spec fic authors have imagined humanity’s future as a dystopia.

I’m one of them. Guilty as charged.

Recently, I read an essay by Gareth L. Powell, a phenomenal spec fic author who writes  space opera. But he hasn’t confined himself to that subgenre. He’s written alternate histories and has ventured beyond spec fic into mystery. His latest release is the space opera Stars and Bones, and if you don’t have it yet, I exhort thee to hie thy butt to thy favored literary emporium to remedy thy lack forthwith. Gareth does not disappoint.

His essay posits that the world of the future does not have to be dystopian. While the effects of climate change have ravaged parts of the globe, Earth is still livable because engineers were–and are–finally free to do what they do best: Engineer stuff.

Here’s what he sees.

It’s 2100 C.E.

The greening of cities, filled with trees and vertical gardens adorning buildings. Transportation fueled by electricity, whether private cars or public transportation, which, by the way, has been re-engineered to be of the best benefit to all. Agricultural greenbelts surround cities, and massive reforestation projects have improved air and water quality, not to mention the landscape. Ninety-nine percent of meats are grown in vats, with little or no antibiotics, hormones, and other crap we give food animals now.

The world is livable. Wonderfully livable.

People don’t do much international traveling anymore because they don’t have to. The pandemic has given us a taste of that. When people do travel, the vessels are mostly wind-powered, and the rest with biofuels. There are vast solar farms, floating wind turbines, and power satellites that direct the sun’s rays to Earth-bound collectors, sources of clean energy and electricity. Government and commercial space stations operate in microgravity, great for science and manufacturing.

Earth got dinged, all right. The landmasses have shrunk. Venice is underwater and so is New Orleans, I would imagine. In fact, make that the entire Gulf Coast. Florida, definitely. But reclamation projects are underway. And there are orbital mirrors that reduce the amount of the sun’s heat reaching the planet. Take that, climate change!

All this is possible because billionaires stopped raping the Earth, abandoned space tourism, ditched plans to colonize Mars, and poured their benjamins into saving the planet.

I think Gareth’s vision is wonderful. And certainly possible. But I see one hitch. A big one. The billionaires. Some billionaires today may be still living in 2100 (I know I won’t be), but their children and grandchildren will likely be alive. I can’t see the billionaires today, who’ve built their empires with our money, abandoning their useless pet projects to help make our planet a better place for all. And I can’t see their children or grandchildren doing it, either.

People with that kind of money have a totally different mindset. Don’t like where you’re at? Go someplace where you don’t have to look at the ugliness. Travel in your private jet (biofueled or not) or by helicopter so the masses are out of sight and out of mind. Or sail away on your ocean-going yacht, a vessel big enough to give the Titanic a run for its money. Maybe outfit that sucker with cannons just for shits and giggles. And of course, there are plenty of islands for the owning.

Apples don’t fall too far from the tree.

And with that kind of money, their children and grandchildren will likely have the same mindset, and do the same things. Because they can. Societal attitudes change, but it can take a long time. Measured in decades and centuries. The U.S. Civil War was 160 years ago, and there are people in the South who are still pretty pissed about it. It’s been what, five or six generations? Seven, eight? There are people walking around today who think Black people are less than human, and were much better off as slaves. I’m not talking about old folks, either.

Here’s a factoid for you. My parents were born in 1934 and are alive right now. At their births, there were former slaves still living. As part of the WPA program during the Great Depression in the 1930s, people were sent out to record them before they all died. Check out the Archives in Washington, D.C. It’s all there. My point? Slavery in the U.S. is almost within living memory. Generationally speaking, it was like a year ago. Less, even.

So today, we’re still dealing with slavery’s legacy. Not to mention Indigenous peoples. This isn’t a catalogue of wrongs, but to illustrate there are people who have the same mindset their ancestors did a over a century ago. And that’s just the U.S.

The bottom line is that as long as the billionaires can just leave, they will. I can even see them putting those engineers to good use (for them) and build a low-orbit space station or nine so they can watch the Earth and the rest of us burn. Bezos has already blasted himself off in a giant dick, you know? Musk’s SpaceX company is ferrying payloads to the International Space Station even as we speak. Low-orbit space station? Piece of cake.

Generational change is like evolution. Slo-o-ow.

Forgive me, but I must digress. About Musk. He said we’d get to Mars in four years (not sure who “we” is, though). Yeah, it’s been longer than four years, but I have every faith he’ll get there. Why? 16 Psyche. The metal asteroid orbiting the sun in the asteroid belt. It’s estimated worth is $10,000 quadrillion. One followed by a bazillion zeros. Fifteen, to be exact. So he gets to Mars and establishes a colony. From there, to 16 Psyche. And then he starts his mining operation.

Oh, but he can’t do that, you say. The Outer Space Treaty, remember? Well, in 2015 Congress passed a law saying commercial interests can exploit whatever they want out there and everybody else can just fuck off. Green on, go! Musk will make Bezos look like a pauper. Maybe he’ll buy entire governments. Set himself up as King of the World. Why not? 16 Psyche is worth more than the economy of the entire Earth. And flooding the market with those metals will send the planet’s economy straight to hell. King of the World, indeed.

Of course Musk will have competitors wanting a piece of the action. But what does that mean? Does this take us back to the Age of Exploration, when anyone could plant a flag and claim dominion? AoE claims were in the name of the sovereign, but there’s no sovereign here. Just ol’ Elon. So…what? If he plants his flag, is it finders keepers? First come, first served? If so, just imagine the ramifications. A corporate sovereign. Would his competitors respect his sovereignty? Or would they fight for a share of 16 Psyche? Bloodshed may be bad for business, but with this much lucre at stake…I don’t know.

Okay. Back to billionaire mindsets. It doesn’t change within a generation or three. If there are people today still fighting the Civil War, you can be damned sure it won’t have changed by 2100.

The only way I can see that kind of attitude adjustment happening by then is if we reach a point where the moneyed dynasties find their riches can’t shield them from the storms. Until then, the world’s ills aren’t their problem. It’s everybody else’s problem.

I don’t want to live in a dystopia. I know Gareth doesn’t either. But I’m pessimistic. Because in my years on this planet, I’ve seen nothing to indicate we are headed anywhere else.

 

 

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