First, let me say that if you haven’t read Windup Girl and Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi you should make an effort to do so soon. They are bitter to read, but in the way of the very darkest chocolates, after you’ve savored them, you won’t want anything lighter. Both novels are set in world where calories are scarce and oil has long since peaked, and most people’s standard of living are basically the same as that of sewer rats. People call Bacigalupi’s novels dystopian, but that’s not accurate. Too often a dystopian setting is just a way for an author to put her or his characters into interesting and stark situations, primarily for purposes of creating epic conflict and secondarily so that those characters actions can point out something about the human condition.
While reading Windup Girl, I got the feeling the Bacigalupi couldn’t care less about telling an epic story (although it is), or saying something about the human condition (which he does). Rather, Bacigalupi is writing you, me and everyone an intervention. We’re dancing and gorging ourselves on our grandchildren’s suffering backs, and he needs us to know how depraved and criminal that is. He’s trying hard to help us break through our false consciousness that this lifestyle we’ve achieved for ourselves is even remotely perpetually sustainable. Right now, for an all too brief moment in history, we’re able to use technology to stave off the Malthusian nightmare of too many mouths and too few calories only by burning though natural resources with desperate abandon. Once those resources are gone, no matter how clever we are, we will eventually collapse into entropic war, plague and massive starvation.
Bacigalupi manages to convey that message persuasively in his narratives more so than futurists are able to in essays because we as readers are used to being sold dystopias and apocalypses. The genre of science fiction, even bitter and hard science fiction provides a buffer that gives the reader the mental sandbox to work through ideas that would be too overwhelming if they were forecasts of our own future. Once we’ve considered those ideas in Bacigalupi’s imaginary worlds, we’ll be more willing to look at them in our own. And we have to look at them, because we’re running out of more than just oil. Any non-renewable substance with industrial use will have peak outputs followed by ever increasing scarcity unto depletion. We’re like bacteria in the petri dish. When we’ve consumed the agar, its game over.
Of course, we’re not bacteria, but men and women who sometimes allow ourselves to consume mindlessly like bacteria. The only reason we in the developed nations are able to consume at the rate we are is that we have oppressed the rest of the world systemically stripping them of their natural resources, period. If the whole world were Americans we would suck this world dry. I’m not excluding myself from this. I stick a straw in the world every day and get out all the juice I can. And it’s a sick thing to do, if you let yourself think about it. If you make yourself think about it. But realistically I’m not going to leave the grid and grow kale for the rest of my life, so if I’m going to be able to look at myself in the mirror every day, I have to do something. The something I’ve decided to do is become an Epicurean.
An Epicurean, what the hell? They’re hedonists who consume the worlds finest things right? Pleasure seeking snobbery is your answer to eating the future?
No, Epicureanism is the opposite of hedonism. Epicureanism is a philosophy the aim of which is the reduction of fear, a state called ataraxia. The path to this tranquility is moderation in all things, and a deep awareness of what it is that really makes you happy. Classically, the two things that Epicureans valued were contemplation in their gardens and friendships, but those should not be thought of as prescriptions. You can live in the polis and still be an Epicurean so long as you are dedicated to moderation and tranquility. So often, when we don’t know what it is that we are lacking, or yearning for, we will in its place consume that which is readily available. We all have our default consumptions. It’s not our fault. We’ve been raised in a mass market economy, which has conditioned us to relate happiness with consumption.
It is, however, our fault if once we realize we are consuming as a replacement for tranquil happiness we selfishly and brutishly persist in doing so.
Epicureans do care only about the finest things in life, but that doesn’t mean the most expensive watches, esoteric sexual practices or drinking only coffee from beans partially digested by Asian palm civets. It means finding what makes you happy and doing only that, while minimizing that which will cause you to suffer. Some things would seem to give happiness, (eating a whole pie) but when reflected upon will only cause suffering (ugh, I ate a whole pie). Friendship and contemplation were deemed to be the best things because they did the most good and the least harm, but again, if you come up with different peak happinesses, that’s great. The hope is that if we stop reflexively consuming, we’ll take up fewer resources. If we focus on what really makes me happy, we’ll need less to get us through the days. This isn’t the only solution, but it think it’s a good start.
For now, why not take a few minutes to think about what it is you reflexively consume? When do you move mindlessly through your day? What makes you happiest, when you feel the more tranquil and farthest from suffering? How can you minimize your suffering, while in turn maximizing your access to the two or three things that make you happiest? If you can answer those questions, then maybe we can try together to eat less of the future.
For Further Reading:
Epicurus: His Continuing Influence and Contemporary Relevance