Enough With the Dystopias Already

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Dystopian Cityscape with Zombies, by Andre Thouin

“I think it’s okay to tell you that everything works out. That it’s okay. And it’s not easy all the time, not even here, because so much is broken, besides silence, but it is possible, it does feel possible. My friends and I feel possible all the time.”[1] A brief glimpse into a hopeful, however dystopian, post-capitalist future from Alexis Pauline Gumbs—queer black troublemaker, black feminist love evangelist, Afro-Caribbean grandchild, prayer-poet priestess, and time-traveling space cadet who lives and loves in Durham, North Carolina.[2] Her story, “Evidence,” appears in Octavia’s Brood, a 2015 collection of science fiction stories written by social justice movement activists.

There’s a soft spot in my heart for dystopian storytelling. Usually as the story begins, everything has changed. Governments have fallen due to climate catastrophes, pandemics or revolutions. Ruthless regimes, secret corporate cabals, zombies, or heartless machines rule the world. Protagonists struggle to survive, to overcome, or just to come to terms with their new reality. In Gumbs’ story the people have emerged out of a dystopian past in which “so much has been broken,” into a more healthy, creative, spiritually-grounded society. “My friends and I feel possible all the time.”

Writers of young adult mass market dystopian fiction sell millions of books which then become blockbuster movies. My son devours them: Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games, James Dashner’s Maze Runner, Veronica Roth’s Divergent. I’ve recently started watching the The Handmaid’s Tale, based on Margaret Atwood’s groundbreaking 1985 novel. A few years ago I couldn’t put down her Oryx and Crake series. I found Cormac McCarthy’s The Road disturbing but riveting. As a child I read George Orwell’s 1984, Neville Shute’s On the Beach, and Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, about a lone survivor of a zombie-producing pandemic which was the basis for the 1964 film, “The Last Man on Earth,” starring Vincent Price, the 1971 film, Omega Man, starring Charlton Heston, and the 2007 film, I Am Legend, starring Will Smith. (Speaking of Heston, let’s not forget Planet of the Apes.) I go back often to movies like the Wachowsky sisters’ The Matrix, Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and the Road Warrior films. I would be profoundly remiss if I did not mention one of the most influential books of our era, Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower, which takes place in the midst of a collapsing California. Its main character, a teenager named Lauren Oya Olamina, crafts a nature-based theology called Earthseed. Butler is often regarded as the mother (and sometimes the grandmother) of Afrofuturism. [3]

You may not know all these references. Dystopian fiction may not be your thing, but it is wildly popular. Some fans love it purely as a form of escape. Others are genuinely intrigued with the philosophical questions the genre raises: how would human beings live under certain extreme conditions—a vastly altered climate, a brutally oppressive regime, a failing or failed modern world? And still others turn to this genre to ask: how should we live now? Given worsening climate conditions, increasing corporate power and wealth, the loss of traditional work due to automation, the rise of authoritarian regimes, how should we live now? What kinds of decisions should we make now? What new ethics should we promote now? What sorts of faith, theology and spirituality do we need now?

I call this sermon “Enough With the Dystopias Already.” In using this title I don’t mean to suggest that those of us who love dystopian fiction should stop consuming it. And I also don’t mean in any way to downplay or deny the very real dystopian experiences in many peoples’ lives. If you live under quarantine in the Hubei province of China, or on the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship docked near Tokyo, you are living, at least temporarily, in a kind of dystopia. If you live in an area of the world beset by war, or the direct impacts of climate change, you are living in a kind of dystopia. If your community is recovering from a devastating natural disaster, you are living right now in a kind of dystopia. If your community endures high poverty, high crime, failing schools, widespread opioid use, high unemployment or limited health care options you may experience your day-to-day reality as a kind of dystopia. I don’t mean to disregard any of this.

When I say “enough with the dystopias already,” I’m referring to a tendency I observe in myself and others to catastrophize in response to troubling news, to overstate the severity of a crisis; to follow, for example, the news of the corona virus, and to worry incessantly about it here in the United States, without first trying to understand the data that actually exist. For most people who contract the virus the symptoms are very mild. The death rate, though significant, is much lower than that of previous corona viruses, and the flu is still a much more deadly disease. There are globally accepted best practices for containing dangerous viruses which the vast majority of nations are implementing. I’m not saying we have nothing to worry about. I’m not saying it won’t get worse—I don’t know that. I’m saying that given what health officials know, we should be concerned and cautious, we should pay attention, but there’s no reason to panic.

Another example of catastrophic thinking results from our perceptions of political polarization. Yes, polarization is real. Yes, relationships are breaking down over politics in ways we haven’t seen for generations. Yes, there is an ever-hardening tendency among our political leaders to refuse compromise, to resist the solid, pragmatic ideas at the center and hold relentlessly to ideological positions at the margins. But are we coming undone at the seams? Are we descending into chaos? Should we be panicking? Should we be despairing?

Last Sunday’s New York Times opinion section featured an extended editorial by the conservative columnist Ross Douthat called “The Age of Decadence.” “Everyone,” he writes, “knows that we live in a time of constant acceleration, or vertiginous change, of transformation or looming disaster everywhere you look. Partisans are girding for civil war, robots are coming for our jobs, and the news feels like a multicar pileup every time you fire up Twitter.” There’s a lot of catastrophic thinking going on, predictions of dystopia, but in Douthat’s assessment, catastrophe is not imminent. “The truth of the first decades of the 21st century … is that we probably aren’t entering a 1930s-style crisis for Western liberalism or hurtling toward transhumanism or extinction.” He says we’re not living in a dystopian age, but rather an  age of decadence. That’s not good, but it’s not dire either. Our decadent economy, if lacking in innovation, if unjust and unfair in many ways, is still highly stable. “The United States is an extraordinarily wealthy country, its middle class prosperous beyond the dreams of centuries past, its welfare state effective at easing the pain of recessions.” Yes, we face profound challenges. Yes, we live amidst profound contradictions. But “The decadent society, unlike the full dystopia, allows those signs of contradiction to exist, which means that it’s always possible to imagine and work toward renewal and renaissance.” [4]

Douthat is saying “enough with the dystopias already!” Enough with catastrophic thinking. Our society is more stable than we realize, and that means we still have the capacity to address our most daunting crises. I say “enough with the dystopias already” because the more we catastrophize, the more paralyzed we become, the more we fail to identify and exercise our power for the sake of renewal and renaissance, the more we lose the spirit Alexis Pauline Gumbs raises up in her story: “My friends and I feel possible all the time.”

Our February ministry theme is resilience. Catastrophic thinking about dystopian futures weakens our resilience. As I started contemplating this notion over the past few weeks, I began noticing examples of people who are not paralyzed or polarized, but trying simply to use whatever power they have to make our communities more resilient. At a recent meeting of the Manchester Community Services Council, Manchester Fire Department Battalion Chief for Fire-Rescue-and Emergency Medical Services, Josh Beaulieu, spoke about Mobile Integrated Healthcare, a way municipalities and fire departments are adapting to changes in the health care landscape.[5] Given that the majority of 911 calls are not actual emergencies, can paramedics be trained to deliver health care services that keep people out of the emergency room when they don’t need to be there, or redirect them to more appropriate and less expensive health care resources? Might such training help reduce the number of non-emergency 911 calls? Might it reduce the number of emergency room visits and unnecessary hospital readmissions? Might it enable a city like Manchester to provide better service overall to elders, to people with mental illness, to people with living with addictions?

As Mr. Beaulieu started talking about changes in the health care landscape, my mind moved automatically in a catastrophic direction. The health care system is broken! We don’t have health care justice in our nation! We have big insurance, big pharma and hospitals prioritizing profits above actual health care!  I was about to raise my hand, but it suddenly dawned on me his presentation really wasn’t about that. Here was a local fire official, aware of gaps in the health care system that impact his department’s capacity to fulfill its mission, asking, very simply, how can we make this better? How can we close the health care gaps we encounter in our day-to-day response to 911 calls? He’s not fighting zombies. He’s not curing pandemics. He’s not solving the health care crisis. But he is intent on  adapting to changing circumstances for the sake of providing better care. He’s interested in what is possible. Such engagement creates greater community resilience.

I think similarly about how we respond to the climate crisis. Learning about climate change very easily leads to catastrophic thinking, and a feeling of helplessness. This isn’t wrong: we’re facing a very real, very urgent crisis, and the big things that clearly have to happen—the big reductions in carbon emissions, the big infrastructure transitions to renewable energy sources, and the requisite international agreements—seem so beyond the power of local communities to address. The challenge is not to become paralyzed or overwhelmed. There are still thousands of actions we can and must take both to prevent further global warming, but also to adapt to already inevitable changes. We still need to work at transforming our local culture to support local food production, recycling, conservation, sustainable design and development. I’ve recently been learning about the Freecycle Network, a grassroots, global network of people who give and get used stuff for free in their neighborhoods and towns. The point is to reuse items rather than throwing them into landfills.[6] Our UUS:E Sustainable Living Committee has just introduced a similar program called the Library of Things.[7] Our members and friends can now borrow tools and other items from each other in an effort to reduce consumption, resource depletion, and pollution as well as, we hope, foster an even deeper sense of community. It’s a small effort. It’s not winning the Hunger Games or resisting Big Brother. It won’t solve the climate crisis. But it is something we have the power to do here and now, one of thousands of adaptations necessary for living well in the midst of climate change. Such engagement creates greater community resilience.

One more quick story. A white supremacist organization recently plastered its stickers all over a local town. A member of our congregation witnessed this, and took it upon themselves to remove the stickers. No heroics. This person wasn’t solving the problem of white supremacy. But they also refused to succumb to fear or despair. They recognized they had the power to do something, and they did it. Such engagement creates greater community resilience.

In Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ story, “Evidence,” Alexis after capitalism writes an encouraging letter to her younger self, Alexis during capitalism: “It is on everyone’s mind and heart how to best support the genius that surrounds us all. How to shepherd each of us into the brilliance we come from even though our experience breaking each other apart through capitalism has left much healing to be done. We are more patient than we have ever been. And now that our time is divine and connected with everything, we have developed skills for how to recenter ourselves. We walk. We drink tea. We are still when we need to be. No one is impatient with someone else’s stillness. No one feels guilty for sitting still. Everybody is always learning how to grow.”[8]

Gumbs offers a wonderful vision of a future beloved community. She is also advising us how to live now: patient, centered, still and always learning how to grow; not solving every problem—life is still hard—but each of us slowly adapting to changing conditions. After all is said and done, I’m not sure there’s any other way to persevere through hard times. I’m not sure there’s any other way to transform our culture of decadence into a culture of vibrancy, sustainability and liberation. In this late winter season, let us be mindful of our capacity to grow, “to feel possible all the time.” Let’s hold the space for each of us to feel possible, to contribute what we can. And may this be the outward sign of our inward resilience.

Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] Alexis Pauline Gumbs, “Evidence” in Brown Adrienne Maree and Imarisha, Walidah, eds., Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements (Oakland: AK Press and the Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2015) p. 40.

[2] Brown and Walidah, eds., Octavia’s Brood, p. 288.

[3] Interesting sidebar: In Butler’s sequel, 1998’s The Parable of the Talents, “a violent movement is being whipped up by a new Presidential candidate, Andrew Steele Jarret, a Texas senator and religious zealot who is running on a platform to ‘make American great again.’” See: Aguirre, Abbey, “Octavia Butler’s Prescient Vision of a Zealot Elected to ‘Make America Great Again,’” The New Yorker, July 26th, 2019.

[4] Douthat, Ross, The Age of Decadence, New York Times, Sunday, February 9, 2020. See: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/07/opinion/sunday/western-society-decadence.html.

[5] Mr. Beaulieu has an article about this on his Linked-In page. See “The Need to Adapt Fire-based EMS to Today’s Healthcare Environment” at

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/need-adapt-fire-based-ems-todays-healthcare-joshua-beaulieu-mba-lp?articleId=6473040885041946624#comments-6473040885041946624&trk=public_profile_article_view.

[6] Check out the Freestyle Network at https://www.freecycle.org/.

[7] Participate in UUS:E’s Library of Things at http://uuse.org/SUSTAINABLE-LIVING/LOT/#.XkReCWhKjIU.

[8] Alexis Pauline Gumbs, “Evidence” in Brown Adrienne Maree and Imarisha, Walidah, Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements (Oakland: AK Press and the Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2015) p. 40.