Dystopias are Realistic? I’m Not so Sure Paolo…

January 7th, 2011

There was a recent short NYT article called “The Dark Side of Young Adult Fiction” by Hugo-Award winning Paolo Bacigalupi that said:

I suspect that young adults crave stories of broken futures because they themselves are uneasily aware that their world is falling apart.


…our children will inherit a world significantly depleted and damaged in comparison to the one our parents handed down to us. And they know it…

Teens want to read something that isn’t a lie…

OK, this might turn out to be true, but I’m calling BULLSHIT.

This reads like Paul Erhlich’s Malthusian call about overpopulation as looming doom (especially with the word “depletion” which is a red herring in my informed opinion), or any other prophet of the end of the world.   Remember the ozone hole, or the Y2K problem?   We recognized those problems and fixed them before they did us in.   Climate change is a problem we’re aware of, and might solve simply and quickly with geoengineering if we can’t solve it in a more prudent manner.   If something gets us, I bet it’s a black swan we won’t see coming, and this kind of futurism pretending to be fact is just someone’s personal pessimism given too much credence.

Science fiction is good at the cautionary tale.   It sucks at prognostication, and I suspect Paolo is no better than anyone else at this impossible task.   I’d make a case, a strong case, that despite some obvious problem areas, most people are better off now than in the past and we have been able to work our way out of holes through regulation and technology.

I’m personally an optimist and think that my life is a lot better now than in past decades, even if I wasn’t making so much money.   Entertainment choices and the internet alone beat the shit out of mail-order shopping and 4 TV sucky tv channels and no video games.   Industrialization brings lowered birth rates, and if we can get over the current hump we might just self-correct out of over consumption and pollution.   Or maybe not.   I’m saying my vision is plausible, but I won’t get arrogant and call it the “realistic” future.

Now, doomsayers like Paolo serve a useful purpose, and may make their view of the future less likely by calling it realistic.   Useful doesn’t mean right.   As a scientist, I’m skeptical of this sort of prognostication and roll my eyes at the folks who are so certain everything will be great or everything will be terrible (they never change their opinions no matter what happens).   All I can do is make myself and my part of the world better, and know that there are others like me.

What do you think?   Is the future going to be awful?   Or better?   Or is it stupid to pretend that you know?


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