Writing science fiction can be strange.
There are many things the subconscious mind realizes that the conscious does not. Figuring out why something does not “feel right” can be an interesting process. What is the rational reason why this is wrong?
Take my recent effort to construct a future version of Los Angeles – about 100 years in the future. Wishing to avoid both the utopia and dystopia tropes, I found myself thinking “let’s see if we can keep it more or less the same as it is today.”
I promptly realized that this was impossible.
Adding shiny new superficial trappings like cosmetic genetic engineering was not enough to make Los Angeles feel “different enough” for the year 2015. Adding new architecture to its skyscrapers and a seawall to keep out the rising oceans didn’t help, either.
It was the socioeconomic structure that wasn’t right. And it was at that point that I realized that L.A.’s current socioeconomic dynamics – and those of America in general – are unsustainable.
We’ve all heard this claimed in theory: that our current lifestyle is unsustainable because one day we will run out of food, or descend into a horrible dystopia where people eat each other for sport. Alternately, we’re told by optimists that this very lack of sustainability will force us to evolve into a utopia, where everyone has food and housing and a high degree of respect for their fellow man.
It is one thing to hear this from statisticians who seem to live in a world apart from our own, or from activists whose self-righteousness often belies their cuase.
It is another thing to see it. To realize while attempting to envision our fairly-near future that the social dynamics of our current society cannot possibly remain as they are. That your own mind rebels against this idea for reasons that have nothing to do with abstract numbers and everything to do with what you can already perceive in your own world.
My own background in socioeconomic research gave me the groundwork I need to understand why a Los Angeles with the same wealth-power disparities we see today is physically impossible in the future.
Why my writer’s brain, my observer’s brain, told me, is that it didn’t feel right. Something was wrong, in the same way that something feels wrong when a character does something that is completely out-of-character because the author wanted them to. It didn’t work.
I could pick apart enough threads of why it didn’t work to connect this perception to some facts.
We know, for example, that wealth inequality has been growing in the United States for 30 years at a truly alarming pace. We know that the salaries of the top 1% of earners have risen at over three times the rate of our country’s median wage – and that the minimum wage has effectively not grown at all. We know that even as our median wage has risen by 60%, the cost of a college education has risen by 1200% over the same time period – effectively making college less attainable for the children of our median wage workers by a factor of 20. We know that the U.S. now ranks among the bottom third of world nations on the GINI coefficient – a measure of the equitability of resource distribution.
We know that NASA has published a study showing that the two conditions we are beginning to become aware of now – strained natural resources and an “elite” class separated from the daily realities of the lower classes – are the two conditions that portend the total collapse of a civilization within about 125 years.
We know that we can peg the “start date” for our current round of those conditions around the year 1980.
So perhaps my brain is onto something when it says that Los Angeles cannot exist as it is today 100 years from now. Combining NASA’s findings of 125 years with our findings on economic inequality really taking off around 1980, we can give the American civilization a tentative “complete collapse” date of 2105 – ten years before I’m trying to write this story.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be that way. We’ve turned it around before – our inequality growth profile was similar to today’s 100 years ago in the 1920s – right before the Great Depression and the comparably enormous changes of FDR’s New Deal and the boost that World War II gave our economy. From the 1930s through the 1980s, we reversed our inequality growth curve, creating the years of prosperity during which the middle class grew strong and became the basis for the idyllic American life – the America where everyone worked hard, contributed to society, and enjoyed comfort and freedom from that society in return.
Perhaps we’d better start figuring out how we achieved the Great Reversal of the 1930s – how we went from the fast-track collapse of the Great Depression to what we now look back on as the years of American prosperity so quickly.
Our actions now will make the difference between utopia and dystopia for the land our children inherit.
What actions do you think we should take to avert a future collapse?