For a more balanced future scenario

Aalto University, 2022


View of Lapinlahti, Helsinki - photo from Madeleine 

        Below, follows an academic paper written during the Values in Design Futures course taken at Aalto University, the text focuses on the anthropocentric and pessimistic view often presented in science fiction or futuristic tales and seeks to propose new, more balanced views.


In the famous science fiction short story, The Machine stops, written by E. M. Forster in 1909, a dystopian world is described. In this world everything is extremely technological and impersonal, the natural world has been destroyed by man who has had to abandon it and shelter underground to survive. Everyone lives in their own room and only interacts through “The Machine”. People rely on The Machine for every need and the only way to interact with the external world is through an Air-Ship.

“The Machine Stops” short film by the Freise brothers

The author writes this novella in the early 1900s in England, years that saw rapid industrialization and great technological optimism. Foster’s vision is a manifestation of anxiety and skepticism about this increasingly technology-dependent society. And above all, a reminder to the importance of nature and our surroundings at the cost of an increasingly tech-driven society. However, as is often the case in Western thought, in describing this concept, Foster presents the natural and human worlds as two separate entities, where the natural world is seen as mere raw material and an ecosystem subordinate to the human one (Sema Mumcu, 2018). What are the values described and highlighted in the short story? The text does not present values necessary to achieve a more responsible future, as much as it speculates on values not to follow. In the writing of future imaginary, frequently related to environmental issues, this kind of apocalyptic and worst case scenarios are preferred with the intention of frightening the reader and inducing him or her to behave more attentively toward the issue being analyzed.

This essay will, therefore, analyze the man-nature relationship present in Foster’s sci-fiction story and try to critically understand why the point of view remains purely anthropocentric by putting the natural world in the background. Subsequently, I will present my perspective where apocalyptic and worst-case scenarios are not carriers of constructive and educational values, but how much more mere speculation. Finally I will present some examples of ecocentric rather than anthropocentric future scenarios.

Nature-man relationship in Foster’s story

E. M. Forster: The Machine Stops (1909)

At the beginning of the story, the author, described a typical room of the Machine:

“Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh.” (Forster, 1909: 1)

Foster in his description of the room creates a parallel with one of the most intriguing animal societies for humans: bees. Man has always been extremely fascinated by the social structure of Bees. A society where individuality and community coexist; everything is perfectly intersected in the structure of the hive. A perfectly uniform and functional architecture, formed by perfect system repeated in series where the various communal activities are carried out inside, from larval nursery, to pantry to message center. But it is also the place where the most individual bee behaviors can be observed. In the same way works the rooms in the machine: an inner structure that contains many hexagonal shapes room for one person, identical one to each other all around the world. The rooms are the setting for all activities, both individual and social, where all interactions are made through a button.

This is the only moment in the story where there is a comparison and proximity between the natural and human worlds. For the rest of the narrative, the natural world is described as a useless place since it lacks of resources useful to humans. There are no more benefits.

“But no advantage. The surface of the earth is only dust and mud, no advantage. The surface of the earth is only dust and mud, no life remains on it, and you would need a respirator, or the cold of the outer air would kill you. One dies immediately in the outer air.”
(Forster, 1909: 3)

Nature itself is seen as a machine, a storehouse of materials for human activity (Sema Mumcu, 2018). Foster places the human world on a stand: if nature can no longer give man anything, man does not need it anymore. This is a binary relationship, moving in a single direction. The human world asks nature for its willingness, but it does not give its own.

Throughout the story the reader, as well as the main characters, witness the natural landscape through theoretical lectures or from the window of the Air-Ship. Man is the spectator of the disaster he himself has created. The world is the relic of a sick and selfish society. Yet, from the point of view presented by the author, man once again is victorious: he is safe in his crystal tower as he watches the world crumble beneath him. Once again Foster presents us a purely anthropocentric point of view, where the natural world serves only as background.

However, the contact with nature is still dreamed of by some, such as the protagonist Kuno. Who in order to see the stars with his own eyes and not through those of the machine decides to go out without any protections and brave the air, described as deadly. The world outside the machine is a hostile, vile world. A world from which man must stay away, in order not to come to its same end. Becoming a Homelessness: this is how people who die are described by the machine.

Apocalyptic scenarios and the western thinking

Foster wants to emphasize human selfishness and the degeneration of a society too dependent on technology and human needs. But what are the values highlighted in the text? In addition to the sense of dismay and anguish that prevails throughout the text, no positive future value is presented by the author. Foster describes for us very well the point of no return, where not to arrive. He lets us imagine how we got there. But not how not to get there.

Future imaginary, particularly in the science-fiction genre, are often dystopian or post-apocalyptic narratives of climate crises that will leave humans in horrific science-fiction scenarios.

These scenarios, in addition to bringing no positive reflective insights and values for the viewer to be inspired from, also give a distorted view of the present and are the fruit of a purely Western thinking. Indeed, dystopian scenarios of pollution, deprivation, and oppression that may seem distant to the average citizen of the global North are all too familiar in other parts of the world and currently available in much of the global South (Heise, Ursula K. 2012). Moreover, such narratives can erase certain populations, such as Indigenous peoples, who approach climate change having already been through transformations of their societies induced by colonial violence (Kyle P. Whyte, 2018).

Another consequence of Western thinking is to see the natural and human worlds as two separate entities. In fact, in many nomadic peoples and Eastern cultures there is a much more balanced and respectful relationship with nature. For example, Flint et al. (2013), in their study of typologies of the human–nature relationship in different cultures found that the notion of humans as separate from nature was mostly absent from the Japanese human–nature relationship. 

A scenario is a story who present to us, the reader, different but equally plausible futures. Scenarios don’t have to be truthful, they are meant to be provocative and helpful in strategy formulation and decision-making. Evaluating a scenario is not about revealing the truthfulness, but rather demonstrate the trust, reliability and credibility (Selin, 2005).

Assuming that by judging a scenario we are not evaluating its truth or authenticity, then what becomes interesting is how scenarios convey authority and trustworthiness. How do scenarios lead people to action, succeed in making them change their worldview or influence decisions? Therefore, my argument is aimed at finding a different way to build a scenario on environmental issues based on future values that can help people build a more sustainable and equitable relationship with the natural world.

Below I have listed some examples where these values are respected in the description of future imaginaries.

More positive and ecocentric scenarios

This different understanding of the human-nature relationship at the level of storytelling can be seen particularly in the films of Miyazaki, one of the most famous exponents of Japanese animation. These films provide a means to provoke and contribute to debates about the environment and offer audiences a way to find meaning in the human world and its coexistence with other ecosystems through an animated landscape. Many lessons can be learned from the anime proposed by Studio Ghibli: the complexity of environmental conflicts, respect toward nature and vice versa from nature toward humans, overconsumption, and even insights into ecological economics (Sema Mumcu, 2018) Despite the descriptive medium used by the author, which is animation, it must be noted that most of Miyazaki’s recent work has been directed at more mature audiences, which allows him to explore more complex themes that include violence and coercive power. The scenarios proposed by the Japanese animator start primarily from the director’s own personal reflection on Japanese culture and in particular from the book Cultivated Plants and the Origins of Agriculture by Sasuke Nakao (1916–1993), great inspiration for the filmmaker. Indeed, in this book it is recounted how the enormous oak planting activity in Japan did not turn out to be a problem for the other living species coexisting with the forest, for example, animals, fish or other types of plants. But on the contrary, it reinforced the presence of other living species. Since then, Miyazaki has held a deep love for the world of plants as a symbol of complexity and diversity, and reflects his love by incorporating it into his films; such as My neighbor Totoro (1988) and Princess Mononoke (1997).

Miyazaki, unlike the thinking in the text The Machine Stops, is mutually aware of the relationship between the environment and humanity. His ideological growth toward the environment and his passion for the art of animation have brought about remarkable changes in environmental education, across a wide range of audiences. Very important is his notion of environmental “ courtesy” whereby he not only helps us understand the difficulties of our world, both human and natural, but also presents us with a humble humanity with which to deal with it.

“We need courtesy toward water, mountains, and air in addition to living things. We should not ask courtesy from these things, but we ourselves should give courtesy toward them instead. I do believe the existence of the period when the power of forests was much stronger than our power. There is something missing within our attitude toward nature”
(Miyazaki, 1996)

My Neighbor TotoroHayao Miyazaki (1988)

Princess Mononoke, Hayao Miyazaki (1988)

Another example of storytelling in which there is a less anthropocentric and more ecocentric view can be found in the books by Italian botanist and academic, Stefano Mancuso.

The scientist with his book La Nazione delle Piante (2019), puts the largest and most populated nation in the world, precisely the nation of plants, at the center of the discussion. Indeed, without these, life would not exist and therefore neither would man. Stefano Mancuso imagines the basic principles of a true constitution, thought of and dictated by plants. In the age of the Anthropocene man is at the center of everything; he is the Lord of the Earth. But where does such sovereignty come from? Mancuso proposes two possibilities. The demographic option: man dominates the planet because he is the most numerous species. Or the aristocratic option: he is the best species. Both of them are wrong.

In Mancuso’s stories, not only do we finally see the natural world rise to the forefront of the environmental sustainability debate, but all information is based on approved scientific research. He proposes a new way to avoid a catastrophic future for humanity: to look at plants in a new way, to use them not only for what they have to offer us, but for what they can teach us.

“The name of our species, on the other hand, is sapiens, which, as is evident, immediately describes the main characteristic that sets us apart: presumption.”
(La Nazione delle Piante, 2019)

These are just a few possible examples of how to construct alternative future imaginaries to science fiction to talk about the climate crisis and environmental related issues, and educate people about a more balanced and respectful human-nature relationship.