This cult 1970s sci-fi novel predicted today’s climate crisis

Smog-ridden cities. Endless war. Water so polluted that it cannot be drunk. Bad harvests. Acid rain. A pandemic of antibiotic-resistant diseases. Reduced life expectancy and human fertility. Vanishing bees, collapse of agriculture. Mass extinctions wiped out most birds and fish.

Only the wealthiest can afford quality organic food, while the poor subsist on laboratory-produced junk food (with added tranquilizers). A famous president peddles misinformation in tweet-like slogans. A disillusioned academic tries in vain to change things, while his supporters block roads and resort to terrorism.

It’s not a bad dream version of recent climate change headlines. It’s the dark vision in the 50-year-old dystopian novel, The sheep looks up, by John Brunner. A British author, Brunner was one of the few writers who were early advocates of environmental activism.

‘The Sheep Are Looking’.

more heroes

Experimental in style, dark in outlook, the novel lacks heroes and villains. The chapters follow 12 months in which the United States gradually crumbles as limitless pollution wipes out water and food supplies. Some of his best lines go to Austin Train, an environmentalist who tries to persuade others that they must act now to protect human life. But throughout the novel, he is mostly ignored.

The book is a reminder that the courage of activists such as Greta Thunberg and Vanessa Nakate should not be ridiculed or ignored, but celebrated for speaking truth to power. We must all heed their warnings and act now to reduce our impact on global warming. Western countries have become too dependent on outsourcing our pollution to distant lands. It’s time to stop outsourcing our dissent.

Failure to act

Brunner wrote his novel the same year the Club of Rome, an international group of policymakers, economists and business leaders, released its influential report The Limits to Growth. Using computer projections, he warned that the planet lacked the resources to support current projections of human consumption and growth.

As early as the early 1960s, there were signs that human activity was beginning to be linked to environmental damage. Author Rachel Carson wrote it to acclaim silent spring in 1962 – and in 1965 the report of the American scientific advisory committee wrote to the American president, Lyndon Johnson, on the dangers of air pollution.

‘Silent Spring’.

Brunner was surprised that more people weren’t alarmed. The sheep looks up warns of what happens when people fail to act in the face of an unfolding disaster. While the present may be bearable, the future will not be, as recent scenarios predicted in the latest IPCC report demonstrate.

As one of Brunner’s characters observed, “It’s the future, unless we stop it.”

Fiction Influencers

Some early readers made a grim analysis that environmental activism was futile, but many read it as a call to action. Brunner used science fiction as a form of social and political criticism, which was quite new at the time.

Abstract projections of emissions, droughts and pollutions can be difficult to grasp. But research shows that fictional narratives and metaphors play an important role in helping us understand complex social issues.

Storytelling helps us recognize the consequences of our decisions to act or not to act, as we track the impact of the choices made by the characters.

Around the world, psychologists and clinicians are now observing a condition called “climate anxiety” or “eco-anxiety.” As the name suggests, it is marked by anxiety, panic attacks, depression, and feelings of anger and betrayal. A recent global survey of 10,000 young people found that 75% felt the future was scary and 59% were very or extremely concerned about climate change.

But what some researchers and activists have also found is that anxiety decreases when people come together and focus on collective action.

Good storytelling is about revealing the choices available to us. And it’s all part of Brunner’s technique. It links the great 20th century dystopias of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley to the modern climate fiction of Margaret Atwood and Amitav Ghosh.

And then ?

Brunner’s dire predictions did not completely come true. Obviously, there have been dramatic and dangerous environmental changes, but also advances in knowledge. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the United Nations Environment Program and the 30th anniversary of the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit.

There have been significant achievements in the fight against pollution, from the Montreal Protocol to the Paris Agreement of 2015. And around the world, voices young and old are now demanding urgent systemic change, which could have surprise Brunner.

Dan Taylor is a lecturer in social and political thought at the Open University.

This article originally appeared on The Conversation.

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