#17: We Might As Well Be Here
My phone camera works again all of a sudden! (Maybe it’s because I dropped my phone like three times in one day?) Anyway, it’s a May Day weekend miracle :)
The 2018 Swedish film Aniara, based on a 1956 epic poem by harry Martinson, has been described as the kind of space opera Ingmar Bergman might have made. The story follows the passengers and crew of a cruise ship shuttling people from an Earth plagued by environmental disaster (in the 1956 version they’re fleeing nuclear disaster, naturally) to a supposed, but never seen, safe haven on Mars.
After a near collision with space debris knocks the Aniara off course and damages the nuclear reactor, the crew is forced to purge all of the ship’s fuel in order to avert a meltdown. Thus, Aniara is set adrift in the vast expanse of space, with no way to turn back.
For a time, the ship is held together by MIMA, an AI designed to read human minds and replace troubling thoughts with soothing images of Earth as it was before being obliterated by climate change. Originally designed as a spa-like meditation treatment of sorts and rarely used on previous trips, the meditation-like MIMA room is soon overrun by passengers seeking the comforts of the life they once lived. Eventually, consumed by humanity’s sorrow and existential dread, the MIMA self-destructs, just like the idyllic Earth she was meant to mimic.
This is where the story truly begins—a story about how humanity endures when faced with a future in which that which was best about human life is no longer accessible. It’s a grim but worthwhile fable that frames humanity’s almost infinite ability to adapt to even the least humane of circumstances as a monstrous drive in the absence of a future worth living for.
Galvanized only by either the promise of salvation or hedonistic pursuits—two forces that remain fleeting for the entirety of the journey—the passengers are left with an empty instinct for survival, pursuing a future that is little more than an attempt to hold on to the empty normalcy of the lives they left behind—“a facsimile of the facsimile,” as one particularly fatalistic character describes it.
A similar attitude has taken hold in many people regarding our current climate crisis, despite the fact that we haven’t been set adrift just yet. While last year’s IPCC report made it clear that we would no longer be able to avoid the consequences of climate change, the clock has not run out to avert total doom. Unable to prevent disaster, we seem even more reluctant to make the sacrifices necessary to mitigate it, knowing that, no matter what we do, the future will never be the paradise we so desire. However, like the passengers of Aniara, it seems we’re all mourning a future that doesn’t exist.
“What do you think life on Mars is,” the main character asks as she attempts to console a passenger having a panic attack after the initial news of their fate, “some kind of paradise? It’s not. It’s cold. Nothing grows except for a small frost-proof tulip, this small [she holds her thumb and forefinger close together]...we might as well live here.”
And she has a point. When I consider the perils of living through the vast majority of history prior to this, I cannot think of a time when the future didn’t look as uncertain and full of apocalyptic possibilities as the present. By burying our heads in the sand when it comes to climate change, we’re forcing ourselves to compete with an impossible future in which no existential threat exists, when we might as well be here, fighting now, for a future that might be altogether different, and maybe even better than our not-so-wild imaginations.
There are a thousand different futures that lie between us and certain doom. The progress that can be made between now and 2030 when it comes to things like carbon sequestration, green energy transition, sustainable farming, and more is enormous, but I think our survival instincts might be stymying our ability to envision a better future for ourselves. We’ve evolved to prepare ourselves to handle future pain by engaging with catastrophic scenarios in our heads before they happen. We prefer stability and predictability to risk, even if the upsides are huge. Our inability to have faith in a future that isn’t a more terrible version of the present is a kind of coping mechanism. It seems safer to focus our energies on preparing for a future made certain by our own acquiescence.
It seems strange to me that we’ve pivoted from a world in which every climate solution presented to us relied on individual action, to a world in which so many are convinced that things like being “eco-friendly” and monitoring their carbon footprint are a fool’s errand forced on us by corporate PR agents who want to avoid responsibility as the major contributors to the climate crisis. And that is true, but it doesn’t mean that “reduce, reuse, recycle,” is no longer a useful conservation paradigm. We should still turn the water off when brushing our teeth and, I’m sorry, but those of you who take thirty-minute showers, especially in drought conditions, are still very much a part of the problem whether or not Nestle siphons municipal tap water, re-distributing it out of the local ecosystem and selling it back to us in plastic bottles.
I think many might watch Aniara and come away with some fatalism of their own, but I prefer to see it as a reminder that we haven’t yet reached the point of no return.
Other takeaways from Aniara:
Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that the same people so adamant about the inadequacy of individual solutions to manage climate change are also the ones insistent that voting is the most serious and necessary form of political action there is. Does the logic of aggregation not apply to carbon emissions? Or to any other form of individual action for that matter? Or are these people simply trying to squirm their way out of making any sacrifices for their own comfort?
Adam Kotsko writes, “The spontaneous ideology of middle-class Americans is to be absolutely fatalistic about the possibility of social or political change and over-optimistic to the point of magical thinking about the effects of willpower, attitude, and individual effort.”The spontaneous ideology of middle-class Americans is to be absolutely fatalistic about the possibility of social or political change and over-optimistic to the point of magical thinking about the effects of willpower, attitude, and individual effort.
It is implied that the passengers aboard Aniara are those who could afford to escape from Earth. They make the journey to Mars in relative luxury and, while some bear the scars of their run-ins with climate disasters, they seem less like refugees and more like tourists. There are arcades, batting cages, multiple restaurants, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, and apparently, a graphic designer on staff to render the captain’s presentations. They seem committed to holding on to every last ounce of normalcy through mindless consumption and I wonder if this attitude isn’t born of the same ideology Adam describes.
A less generous takeaway from Aniara is that there is no escape from the perils we have created—we have a death drive that compels us to pursue pleasures, no matter how empty or destructive they may be, to the point of exhaustion.
And of course, the buzziest news this week, for some reason, despite the fact that there’s a heatwave in India, a war still happening in Ukraine, and the fact that just two weeks ago it was revealed that almost a quarter of the volume of #Tesla related tweets were bot-generated, is that Elon Musk’s deal to buy Twitter had been finalized (which may not be true?).
At first, people worried that under Elon’s sole control, Twitter would become a haven for right-wing hate mongers and the kinds of misinformation that had flourished before Twitter began banning personalities like Trump. What would stop Elon from suppressing the voices of his critics, shadowbanning tweets from union organizers, and allowing hostile voices to harass progressives from the site? Where would dispersed, marginalized communities find each other?
And yet, through all of this doomsaying, no one thought to ask, who cares? About a month ago one of my favorite Twitter personalities was chased off after telling a joke about restaurant server syntax and I was shocked by how much less enjoyable I found Twitter. It seems that if my positive interactions on Twitter come from the words of a few, or else, people I know IRL, then everything good about Twitter will remain, even if the unbearable that remains takes over.
This Twitter thread/essay by Robin Sloan, captures this sentiment perfectly:
“There are so many ways people might relate to one another online, so many ways exchange and conviviality might be organized. Look at these screens, this wash of pixels, the liquid potential! What a colossal bummer that Twitter eked out a local maximum; that its network effect still (!) consumes the fuel for other possibilities, other explorations.”
I am convinced that a more deliberate approach to social media is necessary, based on communities of interest and relationships of trust. I see this manifesting in many ways. This is what the “Web 3.0” enthusiasts say will make blockchain social media platforms superior, giving people the ability to maintain the positive connections enabled by social media platforms without being beholden to them. So as long as they don’t run on DogeCoin, maybe we’re safe from Elon there.