This Week in Dystopia: The Planet's Scorched and the 0.1% Are Living Large

Find out which dystopia this week resembled most!

Apr 4 2014, 10:15pm
Screenshot: Elysium

This is dystopia, now. A bare bones dictionary definition of dystopia is "an imaginary place where people are unhappy and usually afraid because they are not treated fairly." A more classical conception might involve any number of the following stressors on a struggling civilization: environmental degradation, an elite, technologically advanced class that lords over an oppressed one, extreme inequality, or draconian laws that suppress free speech or assembly. 

Literary dystopias tend to imagine one or more of those ills magnified to a horrifying degree. What if [worrisome phenomenon X] were carried out to its logical conclusion? You'd get the Morlocks, 1984, Road Warriors, and the Hunger Games. Yet many of these cautionary cornucopias of bummer are produced almost exclusively by the privileged. I recently saw an astute tweet float through my feed: "Dystopian Lit is: "what if the government got so powerful that all the bad stuff that's already happening ALSO HAPPENED TO WHITE PEOPLE?" It picked up nearly 1,000 retweets.

Given that the wealth gap is rapidly widening worldwide, hundreds of millions of people already live in polluted environs, many more are impoverished, and still more are suffering under oppressive governments; given that the global income distribution looks like this—and given that everyone seems to love dystopias these days—it's worth highlighting a few of the myriad ways we're already trending towards the hell-hole fiction we've conjured up over the years. 

Just this week, hundreds of the world's top climate scientists published their synthesis of the last five years of climatology. They concluded, unequivocally, that human activity is contributing to climbing global temperatures—and that it's already bringing heat, floods, and famine to millions. Such a smoldering, drowned world has been a mainstay of dystopian fiction since, well, J.G. Ballard's The Drowned World

A key finding of that IPCC report was that thanks to warming, crop yields are declining (an estimated 2 percent per year) right as the population is booming—meaning large-scale, potentially conflict-inducing levels of hunger are on the horizon.

Meanwhile, the people atop the wealth pyramid will fare much, much better than the hordes below, who will eventually inevitably get stuck in some Elysium-esque scenario where the rich live it up in orbital pleasure barges. Or at least walled-off compounds, a la Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake. And if you think it far-fetched that the rich could muster enough resources to pull off such a feat of technological grandeur as traveling to the stars, well, maybe it's not. 

A new study published this week found that it's the super-rich—the top 0.1 percent instead of the 1 percent—that are reaping the economic gains these days. "At the risk of sounding a little melodramatic, this is how an aristocracy gets built," Jacob Weissmann writes of the report. One such member of the aristocrats nouveau is currently building a massive, record-breaking-in-terms-of-square-footage modern day castles. Next up, Virgin Galactic rides to the Space Station Luxembourg and drone-protected fortresses

Part of the reason that these future techno-oligarchs are faring so well today is that they've won themselves immense political influence. This week, the mega-rich solidified that influence when the Supreme Court struck down the last vestiges of the limits on campaign contributions donors can make to political candidates.

In a decision that has been decried as "scarier than Citizen's United," the Roberts court reiterated that money is speech, and that it does not believe that money corrupts—Dahlia Lithwick, writing at Slate, notes that "since the chief can find no evidence of silky burlap sacks lying around with the Koch brothers’ monogram on them, it must follow that there is no corruption"—and would therefore be unconstitutional to stop it from flowing forth like a gossip's logorrhea. 

And here's where that money is going: To keep in office a powerful cadre of industry-friendly, self-professed science illiterates who refuse to accept the crises that lay before them. The United States is the richest nation on earth, and those governing it decline to acknowledge that basic science says that we're warming the planet, very possibly disastrously so. Or that income inequality is an issue at all, for that matter. They are content to remain uninformed, overconfident, and lazy. The elites are, sure enough, slowly evolving into the slow-witted, naive Eloi; their ignorance can only go on for so long, because eventually the Morlocks will rise up and eat them. 

Some other dystopian doings this week: 

  • The police donned military-grade riot gear to patrol a sporting event, and ended up beating up college kids
  • Ai Weiwei snuck into the country he's been exiled from (for expressing dissent) to film a dystopian sci-fi film
  • Turkey is still trying to ban social media tools over the internet, though it seems to be failing
  • A black parent describes the impact of Stop and Frisk policies on his son, and of the structural failures of a system designed to profile minorities, in The Atlantic: "As a parent, I feared for his safety at the hands of the police—a fear that I feel every single day, whether he is in New York or elsewhere."

This should offer a snapshot, a slice of dystopian drift, all yanked from headlines that surfaced this week alone. It makes for a fairly bleak near-future image, no? Fade in on a throng of sunburned poor, greasing up the hydroponic farm robots and oil drill bits to keep the goods flowing for the rich; a militarized police on hand to keep them compliant, and from entering the nearby meeting halls of pudgy statesmen who are busy at work cutting taxes. Dystopia!

There's a push/pull here, to be sure; dystopias can be simultaneously symptomatic and palliative; cautionary tale and self-fulfilling prophesy. The world is ruined on our flat screen TVs and eReaders; of course we expect it to head to be ruined on the news and in our blog rolls. Whether you think we're heeding the warnings laid out by our dystopian culture products or succumbing to them is another question altogether.


Harry Harrison's 1970s classic of the genre would later be overshadowed by a Charleston Heston's hammy lamentation of cannibalism in the film adaptation, Soylent Green, but the original is more prescient.

Here, the Earth is too hot (the book contains one of the few early depictions of a greenhouse gas-choked world), too crowded, and too unevenly distributed. Only the wealthy are free to flit about in high rise luxury homes, sealed off (although not that well, as the plot soon reveals) from the outside world. The combo of climate change and wealth inequality, and the society that results is chaotic, tragic, and crumbling—certainly apt enough to make it our dystopia of the week.