14 November 2019
Utopia to dystopia.
By Neil Tidmarsh
“Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world, where none suffered, where everyone would be happy? It was a disaster.” –Agent Smith, ‘The Matrix’.
I remember wandering through a ‘Mediterranean landscape’ at Kew Gardens twenty years ago. The scent of thyme and lavender and the sight of olives and vines evoked dreams of idyllic holidays in Provence and Tuscany, Andalusia and Tunisia. But even more striking was what I learned from an on-site information board: that the Mediterranean basin is in fact one of five special zones around the globe favoured by similar, more or less perfect conditions – climate and geography providing nature (including homo sapiens, of course) with an ideal environment.
The other four zones are California, central Chile, the Cape region of South Africa and south-western Australia. Ah, of course. So it’s no coincidence that all five are top-of-the-list holiday destinations. And they’re the world’s top producers of wine, that most precious of the gods’ gifts to man (and at least four of them are top producers of that other precious gift, gold). How lucky, then, how blessed are the human beings who live in any of those five thriving heavens-on-earth!
But let’s take a look at what’s happening in each of those five paradises right now, November 2019. They’re certainly dominating today’s headlines.
Southern Australia. This October was been the hottest in the past century and the spring bushfires are the worst on record – bigger, more numerous, starting earlier than usual, spreading faster and burning with unprecedented ferocity. Three hundred new fires started across New South Wales in one day (last Tuesday). Much of the area is blanketed by dust and smoke. The city of Sydney itself is under threat (the fires have reached its suburbs). The government is being criticised and ridiculed for refusing to consider that the country’s severe and protracted drought and the current unusual weather patterns might be the product of human-created climate change.
California. Wildfires have similarly devastated large parts of California in recent weeks. Unusually high temperatures and high winds have produced the worst fires in decades. So far, more than six thousand fires have devastated more than a quarter of million acres of land. Power has been shut off (as a safety measure) to over one million residents, thousands of people have been evacuated, hundreds of properties have been destroyed, scores of people have been injured and at least three people killed. Even Hollywood and Los Angeles are under threat.
The Mediterranean basin. Southern Med: violent protests, demonstrations and riots (Algeria, Egypt); terrorism, civil war, people smuggling (Libya). Eastern Med: Syria’s civil war continues, dragging in all its neighbours; Arab/Israeli conflict festers (earlier this week, Israeli airstrikes killed an Islamic Jihad leader in Gaza; militants responded by firing 200 rockets into Israel); massive anti-government protests sweep Lebanon. Northern Med: Spain, Italy and Greece suffering economic stagnation and political paralysis; citizens emigrating to northern Europe for better economic opportunities. Climate change threatening the ecology of the whole region with ever hotter summers and stormier winters; the sea is awash with plastics and other pollutants and braved by multitudes of migrants fleeing economic collapse and political repression.
Chile. Massive anti-government demonstrations continue across the country, protesting against inequality, the high cost of living and the country’s privileged elite and demanding a more just division of wealth, social reform and constitutional change. Violent conflict as the army is sent in to help the police. State of emergency, national strike, the peso plunging to an all-time low.
South Africa. A change of president (Zuma out, Ramaphosa in) has done little to alleviate the country’s problems; poverty, violent crime, unemployment, low economic growth and inadequate public services all continue to get worse. Riots in central Johannesburg two months ago left at least twelve people dead; shops and businesses were looted and 680 people were arrested. Meanwhile, the worst drought in decades has hit the whole of southern Africa; animals are dying of hunger and thirst and millions of people across the region are suffering shortages of food and face the possibility of a huge famine.
It’s hardly surprising and surely no coincidence that man’s critical activities on this planet should come into the sharpest focus in these five ‘utopian’ zones. Paradise and the Fall of Man go hand-in-hand. No matter how perfect his surroundings, man will always go for the forbidden fruit (the more perfect his surroundings, perhaps, the more tempted he will be to pluck the forbidden fruit?) and have to suffer the consequences of his destructive act. The mess we’re making of these five heavens-on-earth – changing them from hospitable utopias to hostile dystopias via climate change, ecological degradation, violent conflict, social inequality and corruption – is simply the high-profile example of what we’re doing to that bigger Garden of Eden, the whole planet. We just can’t help messing up; we just can’t believe or accept or look after a good thing when it’s handed to us on a plate.
No wonder the machine Agent Smith was puzzled by the human race’s inability to accept the perfect world of the first Matrix: “It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops [of humans] were lost. Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from.”
We’re also reminded of an even older story – the biblical story of Adam and Eve and Milton’s retelling of it in Paradise Lost – and would do well to bear in mind the fate of “our first parents”. Will our planet – to save itself – reject our whole species? It’s certainly fighting back. Those terrifying fires threatening Sydney and Hollywood and Los Angeles – do they suggest the punitive “flaming sword which turned every way” wielded by the army of angels as they drove Adam and Eve out of Eden?
“… High in Front advanc’t,
The brandished Sword of God before them blaz’d
Fierce as a Comet; which with torrid heat,
And vapour as the Libyan Air adust,
Began to parch that temperate Clime…”