Thursday, September 6, 2012

Global Warming, Food Shortage, and Dystopian Futures

More coming out of late about impending food crises due to global warming and its decimation of crops in various parts of the world:

Two days ago, Andrew Sullivan linked to an article by David Frum, who is predicting 2013 will be "a year of serious global crisis" due to the extreme weather of the summer of 2012, which has destroyed crops in the breadbasket of the U.S., as well as in Russia, India, and Australia.  Frum notes that the impending crisis and the climate change that has produced it weren't even mentioned at the GOP national convention, and wonders if the DNC will do things differently.

And at Common Dreams yesterday, the Common Dreams staff summarizes the findings of a report just released by Oxfam International entitled Extreme Weather, Extreme Prices, which maintains,

The huge potential impact of extreme weather events on future food prices is missing from today’s climate change debate. The world needs to wake up to the drastic consequences facing our food system of climate inaction.

And as I read both articles, I can't avoid thinking of the novel I'm now reading, which a reader of Bilgrimage, Kathy Hughes, recommended to me: it's Octavia Butler's Parable of the Talents (NY: Seven Stories, 1998).  I blogged last month about the first of Butler's novels in her two part "parable" series, Parable of the Sower.  In that posting, I noted that Butler projects a nightmare scenario for the early part of the 21st century that seems to me increasingly imaginable--and increasingly compelling--in light of what we've seen happen to food crops this summer due to climate change.  

Butler imagines the U.S. of the early 21st century as characterized by breakdown of life-sustaining structures of food production and food distribution, with resulting social fragmentation and violence.  Into the gap, "religious" leaders and political parties that claim to stand for God and good, old-fashioned Christian values (including violence against stigmatized Others) step and wreak even more havoc with what's left of functioning social institutions.

In Parable of the Talents, Butler has her protagonist Lauren Olamina say in 2032,

The climate is still changing, warming.  It's supposed to settle at a new stable state someday.  Until then, we'll go on getting a lot of violent, erratic weather around the world.  Sea level is still rising and chewing away at low-lying coastal areas like the sand dunes that used to protect Humboldt Bay and Arcata Bay just north of us.  Half the crops in the Midwest and South are still withering from the heat, drowning in floods, or being torn to pieces by winds, so food prices are still high.  The warming has made tropical diseases like malaria and dengue normal parts of life in the warm, wet Gulf Coast and southern Atlantic coast states (p. 79.

To repeat: Octavia Butler wrote those words in 1998.  Reading them as the summer of 2012 ends, I can't escape the conclusion that, like many artists, Butler had a prescient sense of the future, providing testimony we desperately need if we want to retain any humanity as we slouch toward the dystopia she could see emerging as global warming ravaged crops and broke the chain by which food is supplied to many citizens of the globe.

I was struck by that same uncanny sense of prescience as I read another novel Kathy recently recommended--Hillary Jordan's When She Woke (Chapel Hill: Algonquin, 2011).  This, too, is a dystopian projection of the future of the U.S. set in an early 21st century in which climate change has produced not only major shifts in agriculture and food production, but in society itself.  As does Butler, Jordan finds it very possible that a United States seriously stressed by ecological imbalances and disruption of food supplies will trend towards outright religious dictatorship.

In her parable, which rings 21st-century changes on Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter, there's an official minister of faith-based relations advising the president.  Criminals are sent to chroming centers where viruses are injected into them to turn their skin various colors signifying their crime.  Anyone who has committed murder is chromed red.  Any woman who has an abortion is apprehended and subjected to the red treatment.  The lot of those who have been chromed is, to say the least, hardly easy in a world in which social dislocation increases the need of the righteous to target and abuse the unrighteous.

The government interfaces with faith-based groups to rehabilitate criminals.  These groups have virtually unlimited power to subject anyone hapless enough to fall into their hands to therapies based on "religious" strictures and norms designed to turn them into upstanding (read: evangelical-cloned) citizens.

Through their alliance with right-wing evangelicals and right-wing Catholics, Mormons play an increasingly influential role in the church-state coalition Jordan imagines.  As I also noted when I first wrote about Butler's work in August, these fantasies of a dystopian future are all the more powerful because they're believable.  Butler and Jordan are simply taking a present we might all see, if we opened our eyes, tweaking it slightly, and showing us what that present may very well become, if we allow it to trend in the direction they're predicting.

I think it's perhaps not accidental that these compelling and believable dystopian imaginations of our near future are being spun by an African-American woman and by a young woman who grew up in Texas and Oklahoma.  Both clearly write out of life experiences that give them a prescient edge that those inhabiting the inner circles of power in the world--the circles that have fostered and protected the structures producing global climate change--simply don't and can't have.

P.S. My apologies to readers that I've fallen far behind in acknowledging most comments here of late.  I'm juggling a number of responsibilities right now, and the juggling act is making it difficult for me to find sufficient time to keep up with email or responses to comments here--which I value very much, and from which I always learn.

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