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Studies in Dystopia: Doomsday Possibilities for the UK

Paper ID: 504 Last updated: 31/01/2012 09:08:31
Criteria: bullet Impact:  Likelihood:  Controversy:  Where: Domestic/National When: 21-50yrs+ How Fast: Unknown
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Keywords: bullet dystopia authoritarianism disaster

Summary bullet

Examining societies’ “nightmares” about their own futures can provide us with telling commentaries about the preoccupations of the current age, and the vulnerabilities that we believe could lead ultimately to the demise of everything that we hold dear. This may provide us with a new lens through which to view aspects of modern life, and the assumptions on which we base our decision-making. This paper uses dystopian literature and science fiction to consider some of the elements of our current existence that we value and areas vulnerable to collapse or disaster.

Discussion bullet

While formal scenarios may focus on a consideration of the future at a macro or societal level, dystopian literature will often plot the effects of future change on the lives and fortunes of an individual or small group of individuals living within it, many of whom typically suffer impoverished lives. In many cases it is the individual ‘rebel’ who is seen as best placed to exploit the vulnerabilities found within possible future dystopias.

Modern dystopian literature began with the science fiction of the late 19th Century. [1] Central themes throughout this period include future technological change and the future development of capitalist or socialist societies. The themes of dystopias have changed since that time, reflecting the zeitgeist and specific concerns of those writing them. For example, many written in the middle of the last century were concerned with forms of totalitarianism, while more contemporary dystopias have focused on issues such as consumerism, environmental disasters, pandemics, and terrorism.

Dystopias often reflect our fears or concerns about the society we are living in. They may highlight particular aspects of our present society by giving them a dominant presence in an alternative future. Implicit within this is the assumption that these aspects of our current society could harm us in the future. This may be manifested in stories that see liberal democracies being replaced by totalitarian oligarchies, [2] large, unaccountable, corporations becoming more powerful in relation to a declining liberal-democratic state, [3] or in the possibility of formerly benign, liberal democratic states moving to a theocratic model as a result of the rise of religious fundamentalism. [4]

Dystopian societies often have real world parallels; totalitarian dystopias often caricature aspects of Fascist and Communist regimes of countries such as (Nazi) Germany, China and the USSR. Consumerist societies are modelled on western capitalist societies, or post-communist eastern block societies. [5] Iran could be seen as an example of a modern Muslim theocratic state, while elements of the Christian right in the United States could be seen as posing a threat to the country's liberal democratic political system.

In some cases, the latent fear revealed in the dystopia is about a future threat that may not yet have manifested itself within our present society such as a new form of virus, [6] a full-scale nuclear war [7] or the abuse of an as yet undeveloped technology. [8]

Dystopias may also tell us which aspects of our society and lives we value and would consequently miss most were they to disappear. Dystopian societies often lack the freedoms, wealth, community or moral code available in our present society. In some cases dystopias offer a critique of an idealistic world, suggesting that a single flaw in a theoretically ideal state may have unintended negative consequences. For example, in Huxley’s Brave New World, [8] the ‘Fordist’ society has high levels of approval from its citizens, but cannot satisfy contemporary understandings of what makes us human.

As dystopias typically focus on newly configured societies, it is debatable whether fictional scenarios dealing with a breakdown of society (perhaps after a natural disaster) could be classified as dystopian. Nevertheless these fictional accounts share with much dystopian fiction the value of highlighting our present fears and vulnerabilities and suggesting potential ‘worse case scenarios’ for our present society that need to be avoided.

Implications bullet

Natural disasters

Large-scale natural disasters such as super volcanoes can and have significantly affected the climate and human population of the planet, both due to through their immediate impact, and the 'nuclear winters' that follow. [9] One example of these is the Mount Toba eruption which is estimated to have reduced the human population to 10,000 people. One of the threats considered most imminent is that of the Yellowstone Supervolcano which, according to some, is overdue an eruption. [10]

Many recent dystopias such as the "The Day after Tomorrow" [11] suggest societies formed after natural disasters have led to a destruction of the previous political system; these may include unlikely but dramatic events such as large-scale tidal waves, [11] comets, [12] earthquakes, [13] or could be the result of factors such as pollution.

A large-scale natural disaster such as a series of earthquakes across the Western World [13] could completely overwhelm the capacity of any state to respond effectively; an issue explored in John Christopher's "Wrinkle under the skin". This could mean a reversion to different ways of living, for example, in tribal, hierarchical structures with little access to technology. This may mean a development of smaller scale societies that are more isolated from each other. Some may continue to function despite forfeiting some of today's values and principles such as rationalist thought and democratic decision making, [14] while others may descend into anarchy, tribalism, barbarism and cannibalism [13] as portrayed in Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel, ‘The Road.’ [50]

The risks of new technologies or drugs are not always clear. Science fiction author Bruce Stirling has popularised the Wexelblat disaster where a natural disaster is followed by a secondary and more dangerous situation caused by a failure of human technology. [15][16]

Computer modelling is currently being used to predict how civilisations collapse. [17] Agents’ behaviour can be defined by material, social and psychological parameters and researchers can set up the relevant conditions for different historical societies, adapting the model to fit around known historical facts. These methodologies could be used in the future to predict what triggers might be needed for our present civilisation to collapse.

Asimov developed scenarios where mathematical modelling was used to predict and even shape future societies through the use of “psycho-history”. [18] By putting the necessary conditions in place, politicians may be able ensure that future societies follow the desired models; something that could have both positive and negative consequences.

Climate change

The serious impacts of climate change on societies may result in a situation in which government becomes more authoritarian. [19][20] Parallels can be found in the developing world for example with the human rights abuses linked with the policy and implementation of China’s One Child Policy (a policy in part influenced by resource scarcity). Dystopian scenarios suggest that previously democratic regimes may begin to restrict press freedom [19] or rig elections. [20]

Climate change could also radicalise some environmental groups into becoming terrorist organisations. In some scenarios the majority of the population begin to favour authoritarian politicians offering short term comfort and ‘sound bites’ rather than longer term but perhaps less appealing explanations and solutions. Environmentally induced disasters may increase immigration pressure on Britain, [21] that could lead to the overburdening of essential infrastructure, resource scarcity, ethnically fuelled violence and the collapse of government.


Climate change could lead to the flooding of Britain's population centres. [22] The flooding of our cities could disproportionately impact on the poorest members of our society. [23] The unequal effects that flooding can have on poorer and more vulnerable groups was demonstrated in the August 2005 floods in New Orleans. Despite the lack of government planning for the disaster, and a government response that was largely considered to be inadequate, the response by the people of New Orleans can be seen as a source of optimism. [24]

Large and complex societies are poorly equipped to deal with extreme levels of flooding as a result of climate change, [22] and in extreme cases a lack of available land may lead society to water-based societies, with land becoming an increasingly valuable commodity. [25] Such a society is considered in Will Self’s Book of Dave [26] where, in 500 years time, England lies under raised sea levels and small groups living in feudal hierarchies huddle in a patchwork of islands.

Disease or health dystopias

Since the SARS outbreak in China, the threat of pandemic flu has become a common theme in dystopian and science fiction. There is a general consensus that an outbreak of pandemic flu will occur in the future and the ever increasing complexity of western society may increase our vulnerability to such an event. [27] For example, only a small number of people are involved in sectors such as food production and distribution, and energy production.

Pandemics are also often seen as a likely cause of anarchy and lawlessness especially when the state is no longer able to function, but some scenarios suggest more positive futures as time passes, and the survivors regroup. [6] “Earth Abides”, [14] by George R Stewart imagines a society of pandemic survivors slowly retreating from a scientific society where humans are specialists in their field, to a superstitious hunter gather society where specialist knowledge is lost. The author predicts a complete breakdown of the rational society within two generations, despite the survivors’ efforts at educating their children.

Dystopian scenarios suggest a virus could cause a particular threat if manufactured by terrorists or governments as a weapon [28] either to threaten or attack human populations. Particularly contagious viruses may induce governments to isolate or even attack civilian populations to halt the spread of the disease. [29] The use of martial law to combat the risk of a virus may threaten key aspects of our present form of liberal democracy, and could be exploited by authoritarian regimes. [[30] Furthermore, authoritarian societies lacking democratic freedoms may be more vulnerable to disasters such as famines [52] and pandemics, given the importance of a free press acting as an early warning system against disaster. The absence of a free press in China assisted the spread of SARS, [31] while the effects of the 2004 Tsunami in East Asia were worsened by the lack of an effective early warning system. [32]


The potential dehumanising and alienating threat of technology is a constant theme throughout dystopian literature. Many dystopian scenarios focus on the capacity or technology to alienate of humanity (and workers in particular) by rendering skills redundant. [33] The machine’s ability to replace our skills may dis-empower and dehumanise us. Technologies may also affect society so that we lose aspects of our present society that we may feel are particular valuable to us. [8] There are large areas of consistency in our fears about the threat of technology while the nature of the technology has evolved quickly, often in unexpected directions.

Ray Kurzweil’s ‘singularity’ [34] describes a point at which technology has advanced to the point where it becomes important to separate us from the technology we use. Nano technology may give us increasing control over our biology, to the point where illness and death could be conquered. The scenario also suggests that differences between virtual reality and the ‘real world’ become increasingly meaningless. Iain Banks [35] explores these scenarios in his novels and debates the ways in which technologies may reduce our sense of self or conversely, empower us to articulate ourselves in a way that is not currently possible.

Similarly, some cyberpunk novels suggest the potential for technologically induced alienation. Cyberpunk novels predict future technologies influencing every aspect of individuals’ lives for example, through a combination of humanity and technology. Cyber space may be accessed directly through one’s brain, and to be cut off from cyber space effectively destroys the individual’s ability to be a member of society. [36][37]

A common vision of the near future features a hierarchical social structure constructed on the basis of genetic advantage. [38] Such a situation may develop through the increased use of technologies to screen and alter embryos genetically, perhaps eventually leading to 'posthumans' (technologically evolved humans). [39] Some scenarios consider how genetic determinism could threaten our sense of meritocracy, thereby highlighting the importance of this concept within our present society. [38] It may also force societies to develop a new understanding of human rights as technological changes our understanding of what constitutes a human individual. [40][41] A potential key challenge to our present concept of individuality might occur if humans are cloned. Humans might even clone for the sole purpose of acting as organ donors. [42]

More extreme examples of dystopias of technology misuse to its extreme have been explored. In the near future, a breakthrough in technology may allow physicists to create weapons that operate at the level of fundamental particles. The unleashing of these weapons triggers a complete disintegration of natural and predictable physical forms, and the emergence of grotesque and nightmarish new entities, as well as some more appealing ones. [43] A number of dystopian societies, such as the one described in "We" written by Zamyatin emerge as the result of a war that allows authoritarian regimes to take power. [44]

Another threat of new technologies lies in their potential misuse by authoritarian regimes. George Orwell’s 1984 [2] is perhaps the most famous example of this, where the use of surveillance technology allows the suppression of almost any subversive thought or action. A more contemporary account of the use of surveillance is the recent BBC series “The last Enemy”, [45] where technology that is currently available or likely to be developed in the near future is used in an authoritarian manner as a response to terrorism. In both cases the use of technology is combined with careful monitoring of individuals actions to provide government with a detailed profile of individuals.

Modern, liberal democracy is a resilient socio-political arrangement that has, over the last century or so seemed relatively resistant to threats as diverse as Spanish flu, Nazi invasion, and terrorist threats, but many dystopian visions are able to extrapolate from current vulnerabilities as the source of more sinister future problems. [3][4][5]

Some commentators suggest that the complexity of our present society, our reliance on technology, and high levels of specialisation make it particularly vulnerable to collapse. [16] [46] A recent New Scientist article [27] points to the structural weaknesses within complex, technology-driven and intricate societies such as Britain that could, occasion a collapse in key infrastructure (for example, power, food supply) in the event of a shock such as a flu pandemic or a large-scale natural disaster.

Should society suffer a serious shock and suffer collapse, there is a strong tradition of modern thought from Hobbes [47] to John Gray that suggests humanity would quickly abandon morality and civilized modes of behaviour. More positively, Thomas Homer-Dixon argues that governments can increase society’s resilience by an effective assessment of present vulnerabilities. [47] In fact the threats that we currently face may encourage states and societies to renew their democratic and economic systems.

Early indicators bullet

Development of new weapon/ technologies.
Natural disaster means that state is unable to function.
Technological change redefines liberal value system.

Drivers & Inhibitors bullet


Natural disaster.
Environmental collapse.
Resource scarcity, pandemics.
Rapid technological change.
Authoritarian governments exploit instability.
Complexity and specialisation of modern society.


Role of the hero.
Core values remain.
Fundamental decency.
Inventiveness of humans and their ability to adapt.
Low risks to societal collapse could lead to greater strengthening.
Renewal of present society.
Adaptability of British political system.

Parallels & Precedents bullet

Collapse of previous civilisations such as the Roman Empire, due to environmental, cultural and societal change.
Totalitarianism in Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, and Communist China. [1][2][3][4][5][6][7][8][48][9][10][11][12][13][14][17][18][19][20][21][22][23][24][25][26][27][28][29][30][31][32][33][34][35][36][38][39][40][41][42][43][44][45][37][15][16][46][47]

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