A million years from now: On the sandy beaches of the Galápagos Islands live furry remnants of humanity. Human childhood lasts nine months. People have no illusions about deities or fate. “They learn very quickly,” writes Kurt Vonnegut in the novel Galápagos, “what kind of a world this really is, and it is a rare adult indeed who hasn’t seen a careless sibling or parent eaten alive by a killer whale or shark.” Vonnegut published the novel in 1985. It’s a fun alternative to recent dystopian Hollywood fare like 2012, The Road, Book of Eli.
Vonnegut describes civilization’s demise. Rampant greed. Celebrity obsession. Widespread poverty. Financial collapse. Sound familiar? Then disease strikes. A handful survive. After millennia of evolution, their progeny are seal-like humans, who live shorter, sustainable lives within the food chain. Our charming traits remain: “People still hiccup as they always have, and they still find it funny when somebody farts. And they still try to comfort those who are sick with soothing tones of voice.”
Bittersweet, ain’t it? Humans retain compassion, flatulence and humor. We lose Twitter, Tron remakes and indoor plumbing.
Doomsayers have been saying doomish things forever. That said, many humans have been living large lately, thanks to fossil fuels and cheap Asian labor. Now the resource clock is ticking. Maybe we believe in a higher power that will save our greedy Earth-wrecking asses. Maybe we believe in a superhero or a last-minute technological panacea. We cope by concocting/consuming hopeful future scenarios. Thank you, Misters Bay, Lucas, Spielberg and Cameron.
Friedrich Nietzsche begins The Gay Science by noting, “I always find [people] concerned with a single task … to do what is good for the preservation of the human race. … Nothing in them is older, stronger, more inexorable and unconquerable than this instinct.”
Hollywood humanism is dandy. A humbler attitude might acknowledge our species’ symbiotic role on the planet. We are animals or, actually, we are entire communities of creatures. American philosopher Alfonso Lingis notes how human animals live interdependently with other living things from rice to wolves and tiny bugs. The human body has 100 times more microbes than it does cells. Hundreds of anaerobic bacteria species in our mouths neutralize plant toxins; hundreds more in our intestines make digestion possible. “Microphages in our bloodstream hunt and devour trillions of bacteria and viruses entering our porous bodies continually. They replicate with their own DNA and RNA and not ours. They, and not some Aristotelian form, are true agencies of our individuation as organisms.”
The self—adored and pampered by Western culture—is an anomaly. Yet we give short shrift to this organismic reality. From news media to blockbuster films, we invoke Hero Protagonist and the Overcoming of Obstacles. Vonnegut is one of the few holistic storytellers. When the novel’s plot involves an exploding missile, Vonnegut explores this event from the perspective of microbes who benefit from an increase in decaying organic matter. “Truth be told, the planet’s most victorious organisms have always been microscopic.”
Discarding the hubris of individualism doesn’t negate human responsibility. In fact, our interconnectedness offers more reasons to live meaningfully. Our actions ripple outward, for better or worse. Vonnegut believed in human responsibility for political and environmental activism. Howard Zinn described Vonnegut as “gloomy about the ongoing destruction of the planet, but [having] faith in the capacity of ordinary beings to resist stupidity.”
At the end of the novel, Vonnegut the cosmic optimist imagines future Earth in safer straights. “It is so peaceful here […] Every island has become an ideal place to raise children, with waving coconut palms and broad white beaches—and limpid blue lagoons. And all the people are so innocent and relaxed too, all because evolution took their hands away.”