You’ve heard of utopia – a place where everyone is prosperous and lives freely. Unicorns roam the streets and humans don’t murder, steal or cheat. The streets are clean and the wars are only a distant memory, a legend of an imperfect era.
Well, surprisingly, nobody really cares to think about this place anymore, especially in the last hundred years. Perhaps those two world-encompassing conflicts and the subsequent threat of total nuclear destruction slapped people out of their trances and the smell of reality came rushing back.
No, the hot topic of post-modern thought and literature is now focused upon utopia’s rebellious, infinitely more interesting cousin, DYSTOPIA. It is a world where fire rains down from the heavens, food is rare enough to solicit ambush and murder, women are raped, men are slaughtered, children are worked to death, and war and destruction are constant companions. Disease ravages the countryside. Smog canvasses the city. Fascist groups are jostling for power at the expense of the impoverished population. There is only one thing to which everyone clings: hope.
What can I say? I suppose humanity just loves a challenge.
Remember that awesome movie series that you watched far too many times? No? That was just me then? Okay.
Needless to say, Hollywood has had a field day with the concept of dystopia, where the unsung hero to defies the odds to bring some semblance of hope back to humanity. It’s a refreshing turn from the traditional “Hero kills every bad guy in a big explosion and miraculously, none of the good guys die” scenario.
However, I want to explore the fact that our world can still be described as dystopic.
Let’s first establish that Utopia is ridiculous. It is impossible on every level, to such a degree that no living philosopher that I know of believes in its possibility. It seems they all just gave up on it. Dystopia, on the other hand, is very real and easily applicable to large periods of human history. I’ve already described the futuristic, Sci-Fi version of dystopia. Now, let me describe the industrial revolution and then WW1 in England, and see what you make of it:
London is a seething mess, growing rapidly without an end in sight. The growing urban class is far too large and unemployment soars. Most young women resort to prostitution to make enough to survive. Their unwanted children are either aborted or grow up alone in the streets of London. They will probably end up either criminals or chimney-sweeps and will die of lung-disease within a few years. Alternatively, they are recruited to work in crammed coal mines for 18 hours of the day, where they will either die also of lung disease from the poor ventilation or be crushed if the mines collapse. Riots are common, but so are the brutal retaliations by the government, which seeks to repress the population for as long as possible to minimise labour costs and keep profits high. The skyline of London is filled with factory chimney smoke. There is no regulation. They produce uncontrolled amounts of poisonous waste that they dump in rivers. On many nights, ash rains down on London from the smoke released by these factories, colouring the snow a dark, murky grey. And just when these appalling conditions seem to have an end in sight, and the government takes notice of the horrible conditions of its country, a war with Germany seems imminent. The entire world is pulled into this conflict, which revolves purely around the multiple empires jostling for power over their colonies. What was first thought to be a three week affair turns into a five year nightmare. Leaders of the world don’t have a clue how to deal with it, and their attempts to prevent it from ever happening again will eventually lead to yet another, unimaginably worse war.
^^ So, does that look kind of dystopic to you? ^^ It happened less than 100 years ago.
Finally, the war is over. Six million men have died, mostly from gangrene and sitting in cold, waterlogged trenches where the tea freezes if you don’t drink it in 15 minutes and rats the size of cats steal your meagre rations. They come back home to England. Many of them have amputated limbs or have lost their eyesight to gas attacks. Others shake uncontrollably from shell-shock.
The authorities vow to make things better. They improve living conditions and assign more power to unions. Workers are allowed to protest and women are enfranchised. The world seems to be getting better. But don’t be fooled. All they did was assign the hard work to other countries in Africa, Asia, and South America, where the population is treated as sub-human, and worked to death just as the people of England were only a few decades ago. But you don’t know about it. You buy cheap steel and fruits imported from other countries and believe life is good. You can afford to buy a refrigerator, a motor car, a tennis racquet.
Don’t be fooled. For every person who lives a life of comfort, there are probably about 3 or 4 others who barely survive.
Now, here comes the difficult part to stomach. We like to give to charities, play our part in making the world a better place, try to help those less fortunate. Those are all familiar phrases which inspire good in us. And by all means, continue. The poor populations of third world countries could certainly benefit from this small, if somewhat inadequate leakage of resources back to their origins. However, a cold fact which we do not (read that as: ‘don’t want to’) acknowledge is that those people we see in dire need of water, food and shelter are in those situations because we live consumer lifestyles, because we use more water to bathe once than they do to live for a week. We eat more, drink more, consume more electricity and use more resources of every kind to fuel our lives.
Did you know that there is enough fresh water on Earth to sustain all 7 billion of us with surplus? Indeed, there is. There is also enough food, enough fuel, enough electricity and enough living space. But a small fraction of the world consumes almost all of those resources. That small fraction is you and me. The consumers, they call us. The elite, the prosperous, but most importantly, the lucky.
We live in this reality. We don’t bother to acknowledge it, and probably never will. We will give 10% of our salary to a charity and forget about it, but we will not live on a ration of water and food, use carpooling extensively, live ascetic, humble lifestyles so that others can do the same and think it a luxury. It’s quite sad, really. I feel guilty.
Here is the reason I condone it (at least I’m not a hypocrite), and still possess a smartphone (among many other consumer products) which I know was produced in a sweatshop where people work 24 hour shifts for terrible pay and try to kill themselves on a regular basis.
If we were to do what I previously mentioned and distribute resources evenly so everyone could be fed, it would also halt technological progress, which would be worse, because even if we did use our resources in moderation, if we didn’t have aggressive capitalism to develop technologies and find news ways to make our resource consumption more efficient, we’d eventually run out of something and the world would be plunged into the same economic chaos that the USSR experienced in the 80’s, and then this would happen:
So tell me, are we indeed living in a permanent dystopia? Because nothing’s really changed in the last 200 years. There is an elite class that lives comfortably with plenty (that would be us) and the vast majority of the world which lives in appalling conditions and is essentially enslaved to cheaply produce goods for us (the rest of the world).
Perhaps we’ll one day stumble on a submissive alien race so we can outsource our labour to them and finally experience prosperity for all humans. Would you be down with that? Then for every happy, prosperous human, there would be ten aliens somewhere working to death to produce our stuff.
Please share your thoughts in the comments. I want to hear your opinion.
- Welcome to Dystopia Now! (thebookwars.wordpress.com) – some 1984 stuff!
- Utopia in Reality (narrativedigital.wordpress.com)
- Which dystopia are we living in? (damiengwalter.com)