2015 Already Reads Like Dystopian Fiction

We're not even through January yet, and 2015 is shaping up to be an exceptionally apocalyptic year.

Brian Merchant

Brian Merchant

​Metropolis screenshot.

We're just a few weeks into 2015 and already the dire warnings are piling up; we've seen ticking doomsday clocks, hottest-ever years, and yawning inequality gaps. Last week alone was marked with more blunt apocalyptic imagery than most YA writers could hope to conjure up in an entire career. With our pop culture so saturated with grim dystopian lit—cult fare like Snowpiercer and mainstream hits like the Hunger Games—it's jarring to watch the real-world headlines announcing our ecologic and economic state of affairs run warped laps around our fantasies.

Since it's a morbid hobby of mine to check in on how well reality is lining up with our classical dystopias—especially those marked by widening wealth divisions, ecological collapse, and industrialization run amok—I couldn't let this week idly go by. I mean, here was a week in which a scientist earnestly announced in Washington DC, "This is about the end of civilization as we know it."  

For starters, NASA and NOAA announced that 2014 was the hottest year ever recorded. If El Niño kicks in, 2015 could be even hotter. Oh, and the oceans are boiling (okay, not boiling but rapidly growing hotter than ever). I couldn't help but picture the wasted lagoon and risen seas of JG Ballard's Drowned World, and, naturally, the crumbling ruins of the advanced civilization that it swallowed whole.  

Sure enough, climate change is roiling the globe, and scientists say it's clear human activity is to blame. And the warmer it gets, the more disruption we'll see: drought, falling crop yields, and mass migrations. It's enough to spook the steely-eyed warfarers at the Pentagon, but not, alas, our elected officials—in typical dystopian fashion, they bumble uselessly in the face of impending disaster: Congress reluctantly agreed that climate change was "not a hoax," but a majority failed to acknowledge that humans were causing it. The absurd scene, played out by politicians gleefully incompetent in the face of calamity, could have been straight out of Dr. Strangelove.

Shortly after, citing the failure of world leadership (like that ​anti-science Congress), the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the hand on their infamous Doomsday Clock closer than it's been to total blackout for humanity in over sixty years.

Image: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

"It is now three minutes to midnight," Kennette Benedict, the executive director of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, said at its news conference, also noting unchecked nuclear proliferation. "The probability of global catastrophe is very high… World leaders have failed to act with the speed or on the scale required to protect citizens from potential catastrophe. These failures of political leadership endanger every person on Earth."

It's hard to get more dystopian than that.

Now take that hotter-than-ever globe, that poorly regulated pile of nuclear weapons, and bake in skyrocketing income inequality. An Oxfam report published this week shows that the planet's megarich—its most-loaded 1 percent—will own one half of the world's wealth by next year. The poorer 80 percent controls just 5.5 percent. 

Meanwhile, in Ohio, yet another bridge collapsed, as the taxpayer-funded infrastructure depended upon by all those without private helicopters continues to erode. The disaster came at about the same time that the most expensive apartment ever sold was hocked in New York City. A deal was inked for a $100 million, $9,000 per square foot condo on Park Avenue—"the most expensive single family home purchase in NYC history"—a pretty stunning record for the richest city in the richest country on earth. Naturally, it's just the beginning: "I think this is a record we're going to see broken several times over the next two years," Ben Benalloul of RLTY NYC told the Daily News.

Meanwhile, the middle class is poorer than it's been in three decades—the gap between the rich and the poor is officially larger than at any point since I've been alive. It all paints a pretty Metropolis—esque picture, of the megarich flitting around in luxury future-cities while the grease-stained poor toil in the polluted underworld. Which is about right: It turns out the rich don't care much about climate change—in a poll given in Davos this week, where the world's CEOs and leading politicians mingle, concerns about climate change were so low they didn't even make the list of priorities

You're getting the picture. I don't even need to throw in the new NSA revelations from the Snowden leaks, which reveal that the spy agency is, according to Der Spiegel, "planning for wars of the future... with the aim of being able to use the net to paralyze computer networks and, by doing so, potentially all the infrastructure they control, including power and water supplies, factories, airports or the flow of money." But for the sake of adding a little requisite Orwell into the mix, I will.

So that checks all the boxes, I think: Inexorable environmental devastation, nuclear weapons at large, widening income inequality, and a new breed of mass government surveillance. What a perfectly ominous dystopian stew we end up with!

Which is precisely what makes the medium useful—the likes of The Hunger Games wrap these threats into entertainment narratives, while works like Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy more thoughtfully chart and contextualize our precarious trajectories—to a point. As Naomi Klein has noted, there's a thin line between provocative dystopia and all-out apocalypse fiction: Art should critique and inspire, not merely crush our will. 

That's important. Because unless climate change is addressed, it could well become the most debilitating phenomenon the human project has yet encountered. Nuclear proliferation hasn't been adequately tackled since the cold war—when, incidentally, classic dystopias like Mad Max and A Canticle for Leibowitz warned us of the threat it posed. Wealth inequality tears at the fabric of society, and prevents us from the collective cooperation needed to tackle both—there's a reason that our best dystopias tie more than one travail into their doomsday knots; our Oryx and Crakes, our Snowpiercers, our Elysiums—they portend a future marked by hubris, greed, and a dying planet. 

Dystopias lend narrative to our existential angst, offer us a simple vehicle for our anxieties—which goes some ways in explaining why they're so en vogue right now. Ideally, the message, simplified and made neat, are rendered more graspable and surmountable. Whether or not we're moved to heed the warnings they portend, the grave headlines we've seen in 2015 will no doubt be ported into tomorrow's batch of dying earth fiction—after all, you can't make this stuff up.