Science Fiction Today – The Environment and Scarcity

Welcome back for another round of Science Fiction Today. Last time, I considered what thinking about things like the sequester would be like a bit further into our future. Hey look, that ended up happening… Oh, and in terms of virtual vacations, I was reminded that this is also somewhat the plot to (either) Total Recall.

For today, I wanted to tackle another sticky situation, one where I feel like we seem to be missing the point as we argue politically.

That would be the environment. What will that look like in the future?

the problem of scarcity

The reason why, thinking in terms of science fiction, that I feel like I can say something new and different about the environment is because if you look out far enough into the future, the problem we will run into is scarcity. Whether you feel that the market economy and technological advancement will solve this or not, whether you feel that global warming will make the point moot or not, scarcity becomes an issue.

The environment of our one planet, regardless of whether we are using it up too quickly or not, can only provide so much for us. That just seems like an issue to me. So what do we do about it?

The utopian solution – star trek

Tea, Earl Grey, hot. Found on

Tea, Earl Grey, hot. Found on

Of course, in at least one Sci Fi series, we clearly see how scarcity can be completely solved – and, if solved, the environment can become way better. Even after a nuclear war! That would be the replicators in Star Trek.

Just think: they make your food, and just kind of do it from energy. And luckily, there’s crazy powerful energy sources out there, like dilithium crystals. Oh, and then transporters for transportation, again just needing some energy. Flying shuttlecraft… Unfortunately, this is a science built entirely upon Unobtainium, and we’re left hoping our science can do as well.

But hey, if you’ve got a replicator, what’s the worst that can happen? As Douglas Adams might say, it might produce something “almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea” when you ask for your morning “Tea, Early Grey, Hot.”

The dystopian possibility – we do nothing

Sooner or later (not going to argue that one!), if we do nothing, we’re going to end up in a world where overpopulation (for the resources available) is going to hit us. Much of dystopian fiction looks this way. Not going to spend much time here: it’s a gloomy place. The Dark Ages again, really.

Okay, one last thought. I would like to hear environmentalists talk in terms of a science fictional future: tell me what the world you hope to bring about looks like. Does it look like an agricultural society, like the middle ages? If so, say so, and put forward the argument. Because short of that, it may take Unobtainium to make it out. Or…

The geeky solution – my thoughts from reading dune

Dune came out in 1965 – just as the environmental movement was really getting going. I have read reviews talking about it being a piece that really influenced a lot of people into being environmentalists. So how’d that work?

Dune tells a story not only of scarcity, but of universal scarcity. The best stuff in the universe – the Unobtainium of Dune, the spice Melange – is found on only one planet. It is an addictive drug that enhances intelligence, prolongs life… allows humans to be like computers in many ways, including charting out intergalactic travel. It makes the universe of Dune work.

And being on only one planet, that planet becomes the most important place in the universe – and the plot ensues. And continues – over and through a dozen or so books now. And throughout, this message: don’t threaten the spice, don’t restrict it, destroy it… the spice must flow.

So where am I going with this? Let’s take this example on a large scale, and make it small. As far as we are concerned, we’re on Dune, we’re on the most important planet in the universe, and we’re running into a question of the scarcity on this planet. If we leave it on this one planet, at some point, something will go wrong, scarcity will win, and we die off. Someday may be in a thousand years – but it exists in our science fictional future and we should think of it now.

So what’s the solution in Dune? Eventually, in the series, the plan is to reproduce what happens on Dune on other planets – to produce the Melange elsewhere. Ecologically difficult, but they put a lot of work into it.

And we need to think in the same way. Another planet – making it so we don’t have all of our eggs in one basket. So, I guess my environmental post has led back to an entirely different conclusion: present day, we need to fund space exploration.

5 responses to “Science Fiction Today – The Environment and Scarcity

  1. Pingback: The Twelve Days of Tabletop Day and other things happening on Comparative Geeks | Comparative Geeks

  2. Some versions:
    The environment of Blade Runner, and the closing scenes of Lucifer’s Hammer


  3. Pingback: The Universe of Science | SCIENCE-FICTION

  4. Pingback: Science Fiction Today – Geek Culture and Consumerism | Comparative Geeks

  5. Pingback: Science Fiction Today – Everything | Comparative Geeks

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