Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Oil and Water

In 2007 - now 8 years ago - I played an alternative reality game called WorldWithoutOil. It wasn’t what most people would consider a game. It was closer to being "a massively collaborative imagining of the first 32 weeks of a global oil crisis" that was spearheaded by Ken Eklund (Game Designer, Creative Director and Producer) and Jane McGonigal (Participation Architect).  I can’t find evidence of it now, but one of the first acts of creation I took on as a participant of WWO was a Livejournal quiz that asked the question,“Which Science Fiction writer Are You?” I remember sharing my response online somewhere with ‘Ew, I’m a man with a beard.’ After carefully considering my responses, the quiz had determined that I was Frank Herbert, author of the 1965 science fiction classic, Dune.

While I read a tremendous amount of Ray Bradbury in my youth, I never had much affection for science fiction. Other than the Hitchhiker Guide to the Galaxy series, I don’t recall reading much else in the genre (unless you count Vonnegut). I do remember trying to read “Stranger in a Strange Land” and being disgusted with the vacuous Bond Girls in the book and thinking, "well if this is the best of science fiction then I want nothing more to do with this". But over the years I kept stumbling upon references to Dune. Friends would drop references to the book. So I decided that I would read it during my first week of summer holidays.

By the time I reached the second or third chapter, I realized that Dune was a work of fiction about politics as much as it was about anything else “science”. In spite of having to learn the hallmarks of multiple civilizations in a widely expanded universe, I found Dune was especially good in developing political intrigue. I’m just over a third into the book at this point and things are starting to get trippy. Before I move on, I just wanted to get down my thoughts about Dune and politics before Frank Herbert possibly takes me elsewhere.

The setting of Dune is the planet Arrakis, which is the only source of the "spice" melange, the most important and valuable substance in the universe. But the planet is barely inhabitable on account of its scarcity of water. As such, the culture, customs, technology, and power of those who live on Arrakis are framed around this scarcity and constant mindfulness of our dependence on water.

The water conservation culture of Arrakis sounds so very foreign and exotic and the politics so very brutal. And then you think about the world that we live that has built on oil.

Our fuel. Our transportation. Our food. Everything made of plastic that surrounds us. Is oil.

I would argue that at every level of politics in our world, you can find the politics of oil. The nations that control the world’s oil set the stage for the world’s political dramas. The states and provinces that depend on industry for employment and tax revenue become beholden to keep energy prices low. And municipal politics seems to exist to feed the insatiable appetites of road maintenance and traffic congestion relief, leaving every other social service a beggar.

After I read Dune (I have not decided yet to take on the Trilogy), I am planning to read the other science fiction work that, again, friends have told me is a remarkable work of political thinking: The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin. 

Like Herbert and Dune, I keep stumbling upon Le Guin in my readings, like this passage here from the article Why Climate Change Is Not Inevitable from Rebecca Solnit,

It was the most thrilling bureaucratic document I’ve ever seen for just one reason: it was dated the twent-first day of the month of Thermidor in the Year Six. Written in sepia ink on heavy paper, it recorded an ordinary land auction in France in what we would call the late summer of 1798. But the extraordinary date signaled that it was created when the French Revolution was still the overarching reality of everyday life and such fundamentals as the distribution of power and the nature of government had been reborn in astonishing ways. The new calendar that renamed 1792 as Year One had, after all, been created to start society all over again.

In that little junk shop on a quiet street in San Francisco, I held a relic from one of the great upheavals of the last millennium. It made me think of a remarkable statement the great feminist fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin had made only a few weeks earlier. In the course of a speech she gave while accepting a book award she noted, “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”

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