Selling The Future

Trees? Where we're going we don't need trees.

Dear J.J. Abrams,

The fundamental problem for Environmentalists is envisioning the future. Selling it, if you will.

The people who are best at selling the future are the creators of Science Fiction. William Gibson typed Neuromancer on a manual typewriter — creating a technological dystopia — and inspired generations of computer scientists to make the stuff he described come true. Star Trek showed people using “tricorders” and many companies, Apple included, squandered billions trying to make one.

One of the big problems for the Environmental Movement right now is that the people who are selling us the future — notably you and James Cameron — are assuming that we’ll just go on burning high octane gas and — in Cameron’s case — destroy the world or — in yours — somehow everything will be OK. Indeed, James Cameron started out at the tail-end of Mutually Assured Destruction assuming we’d blow ourselves up with nuclear weapons, and then switched to assuming we’d live in an unending corporate dictatorship — presumably that’s what we have to look forward to if Sarah and John Connor ever actually manage to win. Star Trek has us burning prodigious quantities of gas for in our spare time, and antimatter in our day jobs. Awesome.

It’s fairly certain that — assuming some kind of sanity prevails — life in The Future will — for the lucky — just get better and better. But portraying a future in which everyone is continuing to waste natural resources and destroy the environment isn’t going to sell today’s people on trying not to. Wouldn’t it be nice if it were implied in Stargate Universe, for example, that The Ancients were really power efficient instead of good at pulling the guts out of stars to power their insanely (and pointlessly) huge spaceships? “Hey look, the Ancients have a gadget for recharging our stupidly inefficient flashlights” could be replaced with “Hey look, the Ancients have incredibly efficient flashlights”.

There’s no particular reason why we can’t have fantastic future lives and still live within an energy budget. Unfortunately, the only time Science Fiction portrays an efficient future it’s an unpleasant joke — think of Korben Dallas’s apartment in The Fifth Element, or poor people dying of asphyxiation after failing to put coins in their oxygen meters in Judge Dredd. I’m pretty sure that medieval people didn’t think the world would be so much better if they could just burn stupendous quantities of fossilized wood. Apocalyptic visions have their place — but if we’re going to be starry-eyed optimists (e.g. Trekkies) why not try to portray a future that makes sense?

Gene Roddenberry envisioned a future Earth without racism, sexism (until the network shut that idea down), or money. Instead of merely updating a 60s vision of the future (where problems from the 60s have been solved) with better special effects, why not refresh the franchise conceptually as well, and envision solutions to other problems we’ve discovered since?

Oh, and while your Star Trek remake was very well put together, could the plot of the next one make a little more sense please?