Sci-Fi Encourages Us to Protect Our World

by Jonathon Park

Sci-fi is a very peculiar vehicle for fiction. While it has the remarkable ability to transport you to a completely foreign, often fantastical reality, it’s never supposed to take you beyond the outermost bounds of possibility. Good sci-fi pushes that boundary by planting wildly imaginative ideas in the fertile soils of actuality and posing the question: Could we really do that? For example, one of the first ever precursors to modern sci-fi, written by a Syrian author in Ancient Rome, explored the idea of traveling to the moon. Although that was obviously considered an impossible voyage in the 2nd century, it was done to parody contemporary travel writing, making it accessible and, in part, believable, for average readers. Today, thanks largely to the imaginative musings of science fiction authors, interstellar space travel is a very real thing. In fact, when you think about it, many of our miraculous modern technologies, such as nanotech, and some of our very concepts about reality, such as the idea of a utopian society, were hatched in sci-fi novels, movies and comic books. It makes me wonder what direction present popular sci-fi is steering us in. Specifically, how will the science fiction of today influence the natural environment of tomorrow?

In my opinion, the sci-fi genre tends to encourage environmental appreciation and promote sustainability. Ironically, popular sci-fi often cultivates positive ecological perceptions by creating and summarily destroying civilizations, cultures, ecosystems and even entire planets.

That scene from “Star Wars: A New Hope” comes to mind, when the Death Star launches a lethal green laserbeam at Alderaan, instantly annihilating Princess Leia’s home planet. As a young boy, it was terrifying to watch the planet of Alderaan — which bears a striking resemblance to Earth — get blown to smithereens. Before that, I had never even imagined that the whole world could go up in smoke. The fact of the matter is, and the reason why the Death Star was such an awesomely terrifying weapon, that situation actually is possible. Our planet could die, and life as we know it could end (although probably not by way of a planet-sized, laser-hurling space station). That seemingly obvious, albeit potentially depressing realization is an absolutely necessary premise of environmental conservation, and one the general public might be less willing to entertain if not for the apocalyptic themes and events commonly illustrated in popular sci-fi. Without the understanding that our precious planet is perishable and destructible, what reason would we have to consciously protect and preserve it?

One could argue that the casual death and destruction, coupled with the apparently limitless array of alternative, habitable planets that are depicted in sci-fi has the opposite effect on people’s perceptions of the environment. After all, in “Star Wars,” Princess Leia goes on to lead a happy life after her home planet was devastated. In other famous sci-fi stories themed around intergalactic space travel, such as “Star Trek,” “Interstellar” and2001: A Space Odyssey,” interplanetary migration is treated as an almost natural and sometimes necessary response to existential or environmental threats.

In the realm of sci-fi, our universe is teeming with life-supporting planets. Some are inhabited by extraordinarily advanced, altruistic, alien civilizations, while others harbor intergalactic criminals and pirates, and still more are pristine, uncharted gems, just begging to be claimed by humankind. With so many conceivably suitable homes for humanity, one might wonder why we are so attached to this one. Cast in this light, it would seem that sci-fi actually discourages long-term environmental sustainability, or conservation, because it sends a message that our planet is just an unremarkable drop in the celestial bucket. The logical corollary is it doesn’t matter whether the Earth gets blown up by a Death Star or rendered uninhabitable by climate change, because there are plenty of other suitable homes for us in the galaxy, and we’re smart enough to find them, eventually. However, I think this argument ignores the heavy influence that sci-fi environments have on shaping the lives, beliefs and agendas of sci-fi characters and cultures.

Take “Mad Max: Fury Road,” for example. After a nuclear holocaust transforms the world into a desert wasteland, civilization devolves into tribal hordes of horribly disfigured, perennially thirsty, basically psychotic and fundamentally violent people. The only hope for reclaiming their humanity lies in finding, or creating, a better environment. Myriad examples like this one can be found throughout sci-fi, supporting the idea that life, human or otherwise, is inextricably linked to and influenced by the environment. Stories like “Mad Max” and “Interstellar,” which portray the possible future fate of humanity under degraded environmental and climatic conditions, give insights into what might become of us if we don’t take proper care of our natural world.

To my mind, most popular sci-fi carries a common theme: While we possess this amazing ability to shape the world around us, our core identity, and the source of our tremendous powers, lies in that world. I believe the tacit implication is that in order to take care for ourselves and realize our full potential, we must also care for and cherish our natural environment. Just as science fiction has inspired the development of game-changing technologies in the fields of space exploration, communication and kitchen appliances, I believe it will likewise lend insight to how we can mitigate and adapt to climate change, and how we can solve the plethora of other pressing, environmental problems we face today. Overall, I think the genre of sci-fi cultivates positive, appreciative, environmental sentiments, and its influence will help us to imagine, and then realize, a cleaner, more sustainable and more compassionate future.

 

Sci-Fi Desensitizes Us to Reality of Environmental Decay

by Evan Teng

The warp drive hums as the last survivors of humanity speed toward a distant planet at faster-than-light speed. Despite the odds, humanity has somehow managed to make it thousands of miles after rendering the earth’s surface unlivable for humans. The same theme repeats itself as humans establish a habitable space station far above the dying earth’s surface. It repeats again as humanity avoids certain destruction by hiding underground or in concrete bunkers as nuclear explosions destroy the world.

Sci-fi movies have often insinuated that humans are at least partly responsible for the destruction of the environment, whether that’s through corruption, lack of government regulation, mismanagement of natural resources, a power struggle or overpopulation. Sci-fi warns us of our ability to impact the environment while often assuring us of our ability to cope with the results of our actions. This serves as a double-edged sword — people are warned that humans have the ability to impact the environment, yet we are also assured that we will be able to deal with the consequences, creating the assumption that we can do whatever we want without having a long term impact.

This false assumption is present in something as seemingly innocent as Pixar’s “Wall-E.” In the movie, despite having destroyed the Earth’s environment, a small portion of humanity still has a Get Out of Jail Free card in the form of a giant spacecraft that hovers above earth. This introduces the dangerous idea that humans can afford to damage the environment, since future generations will be able to come up with solutions to the problems we are creating. Eventually, the problems that we create will be far too big for any generation to solve. We need to resolve and prevent the problems facing us now in order to avoid an environmental future that resembles those seen in sci-fi movies.

By treating these technologies as a certainty rather than a possibility, sci-fi invites its viewers down a dangerous path. Sci-fi gives humanity a false sense of security as we are continually assured that we will invent, engineer or think ourselves out of the environmental catastrophe were creating.

The constant destruction of environments in books and film desensitizes us to the gravity of the act. By seeing the environment destroyed again and again, we are increasingly unperturbed by the state of the environment with each subsequent viewing. As a result of the increased exposure, we pay less attention to environmental issues. Researchers have observed that people can become desensitized to violence after being exposed via media. The same thing could happen in sci-fi films, except it would be with the environment instead of violence. Environmental destruction is also not given an appropriate amount of attention. It is often used as a footnote in order to propel the plot forward or give a reason for the main protagonist to go on a journey. In addition, environmental destruction is also blamed on factors that are not controlled by humans. In “Interstellar,” the destitute windblown land is said to be created in the words of the main character “a blight,” hardly something that humans could control. In “Oblivion,” it’s the predatory aliens that are responsible for the perceived environmental destruction.

In the end, popular sci-fi is a mixed bag, just like everything else in life. While it does emphasize the danger that destroying the environment can pose to humanity, its overemphasis on our ability to escape the damage that we cause and wait out the storm far away from Earth negates that initial warning. It implies that we will be able to escape certain doom by using technology of the future, but unless we stop and face the problems today, there will be no recognizable tomorrow. The words of Cooper, the main “Interstellar” character, serve as an important reminder of how our space capabilities and survival could be affected if we look in the wrong direction: “We used to look up in the sky and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” Right now, humanity needs to stop looking at the sky and worry about how our actions affect the earth that we live on.

In the end, I decide to believe in hope. Not hope that we will be able to invent ourselves out of the problem — whether through vehicles that can fly faster than light or by creating a new society that will survive despite the mistakes of the generation before it — but that we will realize there is only one place that we can truly thrive. We should realize there is only one place that we can call home: Earth, with its blue skies, towering trees, sparkling lakes and wondrous ecosystems. We will realize that this is a place worth fighting for with everything we have, instead of abandoning it in the pursuit of another planet. We will realize that this push to keep Earth vibrant and beautiful must start now. By making a stand today we are shaping the future. I believe we will make a stand as a community, as a nation and as a species to preserve this world. Even though this may sound like science fiction, I believe it will become reality. In short, I choose to believe in humanity.

letters@chronicle.utah.edu

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