A guest post by Rice undergraduate Camila Kennedy, a sophomore majoring in Sociology.
It’s the year 2115, and the skyline of every major city looks like that of Manhattan. People have abandoned the countryside and moved towards modernized cities. Suburban sprawl eats up most of America’s empty spaces, and cities begin building upward—denser and denser until skyscrapers become the mandated form of architecture. Most people live in shoebox apartments in these high-rises, but the richest exploit and express their wealth by continuing the current forms of luxury living. Others live in communal arrangements, sharing utilities and space to maximize efficiency.
Energy production has changed—sort of. The companies that ran the oil and gas industries in the late 20th and early 21st centuries have monopolized alternative energy generation. The federal government has increased its use and promotion of alternative energy, as well. However, there is also an increase in decentralized energy; many people own their own solar panels and small wind turbines.
Subsidies for food have remained the same: the nation is still reliant on corn. Meat has become increasingly expensive because of the lack of green space for industrial agriculture, but there are alternatives: synthesized in factories for those who can’t afford the genuine product. Fresh produce is also more expensive, but there is an increased popularity in rooftop and community gardening. However, there is not enough roof space for everyone, so some people rely on canned and preserved foods for sustenance. The organic food craze has died because it was unaffordable for all but the super-rich.
Most Americans work in jobs based in science, technology, and engineering. There are new occupations focused on food security, sustainable design, architecture, and, of course, digital technologies. Many jobs have been phased out due to new technologies, but there is still high demand for doctors, engineers, and service workers. Jobs in education are decreasing, however, as traditional schooling is phased out—less centered on human interaction, and more on self-guided online programs. Children learn at their own pace and are encouraged to follow whatever interests they have—as long as they can do something “actually useful” with it.
The natural world has been transformed by urban sprawl and large corporate farming operations. What is left of wilderness and wildlife is confined to government preservations. Forests are irreversibly damaged and declining. People have little direct interaction with the environment. For the most part, they never leave the megalopolis.
This portrait of the future represents a combined projection of the world 100 years from now. It is a compilation of the imaginations of different Rice University students who answered a series of questions on their predictions for and visions of the future.
Images of dystopias and apocalypses are common tropes in the discussion and presentation of the future, and they are pervasive in our popular culture and media. We have shows like The Walking Dead, movies like Interstellar and The Hunger Games, and books like The Martian Chronicles that portray the future as bleak, war-torn, technologically advanced, or depleted of natural resources. These themes have been particularly apparent in the last decade, to such an extent that it seems nearly impossible to not have been exposed to one of these dystopian visions. How have these images affected the current college-aged generation who, during their formative years, have been regularly exposed to these novels, shows and movies?
The goal of this survey project was to answer several questions that I had about college student’s consciousness of the future: What picture does the collective imagination of Rice University students paint of the future with regards to the environment and technology? How do these visions compare to different works of popular culture? Where do they come from, and what impact do they have on environmental action (or lack thereof)?
To answer these questions, I interviewed seven Rice students between the ages of 18 and 21. Of these seven, four were male and three were female. Four identified as liberal, two as moderately conservative, and one as politically unaffiliated but socially progressive—because of the underrepresentation of conservative views, the results of this survey might be slightly biased. These students represented different academic disciplines and levels of understanding of environmental issues.
I began the interview by asking for a general description of the world 100 years from today and followed up by asking about different aspects of that world. Where are people living? What is the main form of energy and who controls it? What food are people eating? What jobs do people have? What is the education system like? What is the nation’s infrastructure like? What is the environment like? What are the dominant morals and cultural values? After answering these questions, students looked at a list of books and movies with environmental themes, checked off those that were familiar, and assigned each a score between 1 and 5 based on how much they were influenced by the environmental message (if at all). Some students gave additional examples of movies, books and other media that influenced their perceptions of the future.
For the most part, students I interviewed gave surprisingly similar responses to each of my questions, supporting my belief that there is a common vision of the future among my generation. All seven students believed that in 100 years, people will be living in cramped apartments in megacities. Several people mentioned that suburbia will become denser as it continues to spread out and occupy the surrounding areas. Six of the seven believed that the education system would become less classroom-oriented and more self-guided and technology-based. One respondent believed that we will never completely eliminate the traditional classroom, but the focus of the classroom will be more hands-on and project-based. All seven interviewees predicted that STEM professions will be valued the most, making education increasingly STEM-focused. All respondents held similar views that the environment would be seriously compromised over the next century.
Disagreements arose regarding the future of energy, culture, and morals. Although all students assumed that in 100 years, we will be transitioning to ‘greener’ forms of energy, not everyone agreed on the lifespan of oil and gas. While some felt strongly that we will have transitioned beyond fossil fuels by then, others felt equally positive that they won’t disappear for a long time because of how dependent our lives are on them. This difference probably arises from different understandings of economics and of the technologies available to oil and gas companies. When discussing the future trends in morals and culture, some respondents were more optimistic than others: some hoped that we will have learned from our current mistakes and will begin to appreciate and value the environment more; others felt that by living in megacities or endless sprawl, people will become increasingly distant from the environment so that it loses its emotional and cultural value.
The projection about what would happen after the Earth most of its resources was also split upon optimistic/pessimistic lines. The optimists believed that we will develop technologies that allow us to live in space or even colonize other planets. One student suggested that “chemistry will be able to create a lot of the resources we need through manufacturing… eliminating much of the need for natural resources.” The pessimists, on the other hand, believed that this technology will not be developed in time, and it is much more likely that “we die out before finding another planet to live on.”
None of these survey results shocked me—probably because my own predictions for the future fall into a similar mold. I expected people to mention hyper-technologies (especially driverless electric cars), increasingly centralized government, corporate control, renewable energy, etc., because they are common themes in discussions and portrayals of the future. The biggest surprise came when people began talking about the cultural changes that we would go through in the next 100 years. They either believed that society would become much more individualistic, with people competing to fend for themselves, or that it would become much more communitarian. I was surprised at how strongly some people believed that the United States would be able to flip its current focus on individualism in favor of communal values.
Similarities to Pop Culture
The strongest connection between the students’ interview responses and popular culture was their dystopian imagery. None of the students presented visions of utopian societies. Instead, they painted a picture of a future with horrible overcrowding of cities, irreparable environmental damage, and government/corporate corruption—all qualities that can be found in the works of authors such as Paolo Bacigalupi and movies like WALL-E and Avatar. A second clear connection to literature and film appeared in the discussion about what would happen to humanity after we have exhausted the planet’s natural resources. The optimism of the students who believed we could colonize other planets paralleled science-fiction authors like Ray Bradbury. The Martian Chronicles describes how humanity survived the end of the world (on Earth) by founding colonies on Mars. WALL-E is yet another example of a narrative centered around the ability of people to survive in space. However, WALL-E adds a more pessimistic spin because it suggests that this future vision of life is not actually a viable or possible solution. It suggests that the root of our humanity is found in our physical connection to the Earth. The question of whether or not we can colonize space is not just a logistical question—it is a philosophical one.
I asked students to explain the impact each of these movies/books had on them: WALL-E, Avatar, The Lorax, An Inconvenient Truth, and Interstellar. Of these, almost all had seen WALL-E and Avatar, and only a handful had seen/read The Lorax, An Inconvenient Truth, and Interstellar. When asked which films impacted them the most, the highest scores went to WALL-E and Interstellar. (This might explain why several of the students brought up the subject of interspace travel and colonization during their interviews.) The lowest scores went to the remaining three movies/books. Many people did not pick up on the environmental message of Avatar—either claiming that they just saw it as “pretty visuals” or as a “commentary on western expansion and colonization of indigenous people.” Few people had read or watched The Lorax, and those who had explained that they were too young to understand its message. However, when asked to reflect on the story, they claimed it presented a “very strong” moral argument against American consumerist exploitation of the environment. An Inconvenient Truth garnered a similar response: when asked to reflect on the documentary, several students explained that it was informative and spiked their interest in global warming. However, a couple stated that its execution was a little dry, preventing them from fully engaging with the film.
Although many students gave these films/books low scores and didn’t believe they were hugely influenced by any one in particular, I would argue that exposure to these narratives affected them subconsciously. Because the responses to my survey were so similar to these science-fiction narratives and to each other, I am led to believe that there is a collective force of media influencing this generation’s imagination of the future.
What, then, does this mean? What are the effects of sharing these predictions of the future? As I see it, having a collective imagination of the future that is (at least partially) based on science-fiction narratives has both advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, science-fiction narratives usually have moralistic undertones and offer valid critiques of modern-day lifestyles. They point out what we are doing wrong—overconsuming, relying on fossil fuels or polluting, for example. However, the disadvantage comes from the fact that most of these works of fiction don’t address how we fight and resolve these misbehaviors. They don’t offer solutions to our current actions, which prevents us from critically thinking about how to improve the future. Instead they lead us to assume, as one student put it, that the “future will suck.”
Utopia and Action
One explanation for these pessimistic attitudes is the under-representation of utopian themes. As I mentioned earlier, none of the survey respondents gave examples of utopian futures—in fact, one student stated that “utopia is never possible.” Because of this lack of exposure to utopias, our collective imagination lacks an understanding of positive futures. Utopian societies have become extremely difficult to imagine and are often deemed “unrealistic.” However, it is important to keep in mind that what we decide to call “realistic” or “unrealistic” is socially constructed; it is a product of both culture and history.
The utopias mentioned in books like Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time might not be culturally accepted as logistically possible or even plausible, but they do help spark thought about alternative lives and lifestyles. By isolating some of the facets of a “utopia,” such as the idea of community gardens or alternative education, we at least have something to strive for. We can feel a little more optimistic about the future because we can understand that there are some structural changes we can make to improve society. Both utopian and dystopian science-fiction dramatize environmental problems, allowing us to transform the collective imagination of the future into a collective movement of environmental activism.