Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Back to Nature?

One of the comments I received after floating the idea of 'Wild Futures' is that it would be highly undesirable to go 'Back to Nature.' My colleague had got the idea that I was suggesting an abandonment of technology and mass social organisation and a return to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

This triggered a certain amount of soul-searching about my personal aims, especially in terms of fiction.

There's no doubt that stories and novels can be used as vehicles for agendas, political or otherwise. A good example is Edward Bellamy's 1888 socialist Utopia Looking Backward, which inspired 165 Nationalist 'Clubs.' These clubs were devoted to implementing a number of proposals in the book.

My own fictions have a somewhat different aim. The 'agenda' is primarily metaphorical and imaginative, and the first priority is to tell a good story.

Science Fiction, in any case, is not really predictive. In her essay "Science Fiction and the Future," Ursula Le Guin stated that:

The future is part of [reality] from which...we are excluded. We can't even see it....When we look at what we can't see, what we do see is the stuff inside our heads. Our thoughts and our dreams, the good ones and the bad ones. And it seems to me that when science fiction is really doing its job that's exactly what it's dealing with. Not "the Future." Its when we confuse our dreams and ideas with the non-dream world that we're in trouble....  (In Dancing at the Edge of the World, p. 143).

This, broadly, seems a good way to approach stories and ideas in Speculative Fiction. Le Guin provides a first rate example in her novel, Always Coming Home. This is set in a far-future California where new Native American cultures have arisen. It is obviously not a predictive work, more an imaginative creation, like Tolkien's Middle Earth.

So literary Utopias, by and large, are not practical maps. They are more like thought experiments, or perhaps tools to prevent what Wade Davis called 'Cultural Myopia.' They do not have to be practical to serve their purpose.

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But to return to the original criticism: am I suggesting that we abandon everything and revert to Stone Age living? Absolutely not. This would seem both impractical and undesirable to me. My own preference is for some kind of 'Wild-Tech' future, where human beings successfully integrate a good, just and kind technological society into the biosphere.

The reason I do not think a return to 'stone age' living is practical is partly because someone has already tried this. I think the outcome of that experiment is very instructive.

In 1936 the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl went to the Marquesas with his wife Liv with the express intention of going back to a stone-age level of living. The youthful Heyerdahl loathed civilisation and saw Progress as 'synonymous with distance from nature (p. 14).'

They chose to settle on the Pacific island of Fatu-Hiva and built a house of plaited bamboo with a thatched roof of coconut palms. They bathed in a nearby mountain stream and ate a mostly vegetarian diet including sugar cane, plus some prawns from the river. They also befriended some of the local inhabitants, including Tei Tetua and Tahia-Momo, his adopted daughter.

The book's a terrific read and a classic of travel writing. Towards the end of their time on Fatu-Hiva they suffered a number of misfortunes and the island came to seem a trap as opposed to a tropical idyll. Eventually, Heyerdahl admitted that:

There is no road back all the way to the abraded point of departure. There is nothing for modern man to return to (p. 292).

He acknowledged that some of the products of civilisation had been necessary to protect and save their lives in the wilderness: for example, they had brought along mosquito nets that had prevented them from getting elephantiasis. 

Heyerdahl, however, remained critical of a blind faith in 'Progress:'

Any invention, just any artificial product or device, was progress. Each step away from the world of yesterday was progress. Progress became something determined by the clock and not by quality (p. 293).

And although they were both less contemptuous of the civilisation they had left:

Yet we had not gained full confidence in modern civilisation. We had seen how simple life could be, how perfectly relaxed and intensely happy a person could be…we did not want to be a single step further from nature than…necessary. Primitive life in the wilderness had filled us with a well-being, given us more than a city life as we knew it had ever been able to give us (p. 295).

This dissatisfaction and sense of loss is, I feel, as legitimate a finding as that of the experiment's impracticability. The failure of the 'return to nature' does not negate the general observation that natural environments can provide things that cannot be found in artificial ones. There is a burgeoning field of psychological research that bears this out.

This is why I think that there's a urgent need to think about Wild Futures as a serious, practical possibility. 'Nature' is not an optional, discardable extra. It is an integral part of ourselves.

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