Is doomster fiction coming true?
Well, maybe Geneva has the answer
“American culture is now insane. In its cultural, social, and political behaviour, the United States resembles a baby […] almost uneducated and increasingly uninterested in questioning and education.”
That was the rebellious fantasy-author Kathy Acker in 1990, explaining why she couldn’t take seriously the big authors of the day: Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, John Cheever, Saul Bellow, etc.
“To analyze […] the faults of the American way of life in educated bourgeois terms and modes is a spurious exercise,” she wrote.
Switch your antenna now to what many in the media these days treat as the cultural opposite of the U.S.: China (I can remember when it was Japan).
The sci-fi slow-horror movie Three-Body, which began streaming in January 2023, has a theme song with the refrain: “Soon your planet will be punished.” We’ve been watching it on YouTube from the Chinese streamer Tencent’s WeTV. A big-budget American adaptation is due on Netflix later this year from the creators of ‘Game of Thrones’. So expect more sex, betrayals and brutality.
It’s a tale that, as well as being transposed to 2007 just before the Beijing Olympics, when the original novel appeared, also reaches back to the Cultural Revolution. A brilliant woman mathematician becomes one of the Revolution’s victims sent to work as a logger in a remote region. When her abilities are discovered, she is then transferred to a low-level job at a nearby top-secret radar station that she learns from a friendly official aims to disrupt all satellite communications by rival powers in space (i.e. “the West”).
The story is also partly about a revolt in 2007 among young Chinese intellectuals against all the environmental and technical destruction produced by unbridled technology and the industrial exploitation of natural resources.
Just as Kathy Acker found America’s real world of her time pictured in the futuristic imagination and fantasies of William. S. Burroughs, Liu Cixin‘s 2007 novel The Three Body Problem and its successors pictured a society equally phantasmogorical in China’s past and present. One character says: “I think it’s merciful to let humans try to destroy themselves.” (I’m trying not to let slip any spoilers).
The latest speeches by the UN’s Secretary-General seem equally doom-laden with regard to the 21st century’s past and our immediate future.
On 23 September the always reliable Edith M. Lederer of the Asssociated Press in New York wrote a report headlined: “As the world’s problems grow more challenging, the head of the United Nations gets bleaker.”
We are becoming “unhinged,” António Guterres said. We are inching closer to “a great fracture”. “A new Rubicon” has been crossed in artificial intelligence.
2023 he called “a time of chaotic transition.”
As for the UN, he said “it’s reform or rupture.”
Lots more bad news
We’ve had many reports lately to back him up, most recently threats of a U.S. federal shutdown (LINK).
- 13 Major Wars Happening Right Now — 24/7 Wall St, 15 September 2023 (LINK)
- Earth ‘well outside safe operating space for humanity’, scientists find in the first complete ‘scientific health check’ — Science, 13 September 2023 (LINK)
- UN Global Emissions Report: Chasm between climate action and scientific reality laid bare, 8 September 2023 (LINK)
- Half of Earth’s glaciers could vanish and sea levels rise 9 centimetres (3.5 inches) with 1.5 degrees of warming, 6 September 2023 (LINK)
- Invasive species costs global economy $423 billion per year — UN Report, 4 September 2023 (LINK)
- Stem cell therapies: they’re expensive, unproven and often dangerous, 14 July 2023 (LINK)
Need I go on? You can find many more examples on my nusereal site.
And let’s not even touch on the question of Ukraine (or see Being Volodymyr Zelensky on this site).
How to get into trouble
It may be foolhardy to read society from its cultural products. Remember T.S. Eliot’s and Ezra Pound’s proto-fascist statements at a time of mounting persecution of Europe’s Jews.
Cixin Liu, as English translations of his works style him, got himself and Netflix into trouble with Republican U.S. Senators for telling the New Yorker in 2019: individual liberty and freedom of governance is “not what Chinese people care about”, adding “If you were to loosen up the country a bit, the consequences would be terrifying.”
Into the coal mines
But a little background can go a long way: Liu’s parents were sent from Beijing to work in the coal mines in Shanxi Province during the Cultural Revolution, because his father had a brother who opposed the revolution.
He asserted democracy was not appropriate for modern China and supported the one-child policy and its actions against Uyghurs it accuses of Islamic terrorism in the western province of Xinjiang (LINK).
Liu was later sent to his ancestral home in Henan, North China, because of the violence between different factions. He worked as a computer engineer at a power plant after graduation in 1988 at the age of 25. He published his first novel, entitled China 2185, the year after. He kept his engineering job till 2012, became the first Asian writer to win a Hugo Award in 2015, and now lives in Shanxi Province where he spent his early years.
Early traumas and experience of violent turmoil in society can leave a permanent need for security in your social arrangements.
‘Expository writing is so dull’
Gertrude Stein warned creative writers against documentary writing in 1940: “Expository writing is so dull because it is all remembered. […] The minute your memory functions while you are doing anything [in writing] it may be very popular but actually it is dull” (What are Masterpieces?).
Kathy Acker herself said: “I am not sure I like my essays. […] I trust neither my ability to know nor what I think I know. […] To write down what one thinks one knows is to destroy possibilities for joy.”
‘Just a good story’
Liu himself has dismissed the idea that fiction can serve as a commentary on history or current affairs and told the New Yorker writer: “The whole point is to escape the real world! I’m just trying to tell a good story.”
Some watchers of totalitarian societies have considered statements like this a safety measure to avoid getting into trouble with the authorities.
But of course in using their imaginations fiction writers draw on what they imbibe from the world around them, often unconsciously.
China’s Vice-President in 2015 apparently showed Liu his copies of the author’s book, “dense with highlights and annotations”.
Later, China’s aerospace agency invited Liu to address technicians and engineers about the way that “sci-fi thinking” can produce more imaginative approaches to scientific problems.
His earlier book SuperNova Era imagined a world where a supernova kills everyone over 13. The children have to run what’s left. “Fun” becomes an organizing principle. Think about it.
How to read science fiction
Sci-fi’s pictures of social interactions can often tell us much about ordinary folks’ experience of everyday relations.
For example, it is clear from Three-Body that much in China has changed since Liu Cixin was born 60 years ago.
Intellectuals are no longer sent to carry out manual work in the countryside far from the capital, with a non-stop militaristic chorus of songs forced on the work squads proclaiming China’s ambitions to end poverty and discrimination across the world.
Instead we see a bumptious cop berating the general in charge of an intelligence division, a dedicated nanoscientist allowed to explore his ideas without hindrance, and an ‘enterprising’ rookie reporter who makes contact with reluctant interviewees by running her scooter into their parked cars.
Between then and now we learn of military projects abandoned because of the cost to post-Maoist China. A young woman achieves power through launching a business venture. The detective and his associate have to take the train to a possible crime scene because of budget constraints while their suspects can take a much faster luxury car.
The series has many debates among the protagonists about scientific theories, with no-one arguing that any idea has to be ideologically correct.
Some echoes of 1960s China remain. A woman in charge of an important research facility orders it shut down after a cursory visit and her order is immediately obeyed after one ineffectual protest. Two opposing factions seem to be operating in present-day China and we have no idea which one the Supreme Leader favours, and nor do they, it seems.
Slowly coming into the real world
Liu himself has visited the U.S. many times. I even saw what looked like a group of Chinese visitors/tourists (all dressed in black) being guided round Erschmatt’s botanic reserve the other day.
The awkward subtitles for Third-Body, though the New York Times reviewer said they were accurate to the book’s translation, indicate that China still has some way to go before it meets global media standards.
The New Yorker piece on Liu listed the 2019 tensions between the U.S. and China in the Trump era, and quotes the President of recently sanctioned Huawei as telling Chinese media: “I’ve sacrificed myself and my family for the sake of a goal that we will stand on top of the world. To achieve this goal, a conflict with the U.S. is inevitable.”
Let’s hope Joe Biden’s efforts to ease tensions appeal to the rational rather than paranoid segment of China’s — and America’s — elites (LINK). China’s spokesperson described the three-hour meeting as “in-depth, candid and constructive”. But there are lots of contradictory indications.
In July, Guterres said the world is marked by the most intense major power competition in decades (LINK)
Why we need enemies…
The Italian sci-fi writer Umberto Eco, who warned us of Prime Minister Berlusconi’s tactics even before Trump ascended to the White House, wrote in 2008:
“Having an enemy is important not only to define our identity but to provide us with an obstacle against which to measure our system of values and, in seeking to overcome it, to demonstrate our own worth. So when there is no enemy we have to invent one”.
His example: “See what happened in the United States when the Evil Empire vanished and the great Soviet enemy faded away. The United States was in danger of losing its identity until bin Laden, in gratitude for the benefits received when he was fighting against the Soviet Union, gave [George W.] Bush the opportunity to create new enemies, strengthening feelings of national identity as well as his own power.”
On the other hand…
But some skepticism towards fiction writers’ generalizations is justified. They’ve even told us so.
To quote wikipedia:
“The [2020 US] election saw the highest voter turnout by percentage since 1900, surpassing Barack Obama’s record of 69.5 million votes from 2008. Biden received more than 81 million votes, the most votes ever cast for a candidate in a U.S. presidential election.
“Biden’s running mate, [Kamala] Harris, became the first African-American, first Asian-American, and third female vice presidential nominee on a major party ticket.”
This hardly seems a crazy society, Kathy.
On 25 September 2023, the Christian Science Monitor headlined: “US economists said unemployment would spike. […] They were wrong.” It observed: “The central bank may achieve a rare and difficult ‘soft landing’ — the taming of inflation without triggering a deep recession. Such an outcome would be far different from the last time inflation spiked, in the 1970s and early 1980s.”
The Capitol-monitoring service The Hill ran an op-ed on 24 September 2023 entitled “What makes the US economy so resilient?“.
— The historian Heather Cox Richardson reported on 26 September: US returns to anti-trust action abandoned under Reagan (LINK).
Now for the good news from Geneva…
By this time you may be ready, too, for some happier news from Geneva and Swiss organizations.
On 2 October 2023 a ‘Sustainable Finance Summit‘ took place in Geneva, part of the 4th Building Bridges edition at the CICG conference centre, with meetings continuing until 5 October.
It was hardly a top-level summit, in fact, but the Building Bridges Action Days showcased “over 70 crowd-sourced events planned by more than 120 organizations to address climate impact, innovative finance, nature finance, fintech, and other trending topics.”
Billing itself as a key place to network with other professionals in the field, the third edition in 2022 gathered 1,850 participants from 50+ countries. With private Genevan banker Patrick Odier chairing Building Bridges, the event has backing from many powerful Swiss financial institutions.
Where should the smart money go?
On 16 October in Dubai UNCTAD staged its 8th World Investment Forum. It brought together “8,000 participants, including government officials, international organizations, policymakers, 700 CEOs and investors, sovereign wealth funds, sustainable stock exchanges and key capital markets actors,” UNCTAD reports.
On the first day the forum issued a call for urgent action “to transform agrifood systems amid a global hunger crisis affecting over 735 million people.” It said: “$680 billion is needed annually from now until 2030 to revamp agrifood systems in low and middle-income countries” (LINK).
The 5-day forum later unveiled a suite of new investment policy instruments, including the identification of 50 SDG model special economic zones, the launch of a multi-stakeholder platform on international investment agreements reform, and a collaboration with the UN World Tourism Organization to establish guiding principles for sustainable tourism investment.
“In addition,” UNCTAD added, “the forum saw the announcement of several strategic partnerships. These include collaborations with the African Sovereign Investors Forum, regional partnerships for sustainability reporting in Asia, the Gulf region and Eurasia, and an agreement between the stock exchanges of Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand to launch a central sustainability platform for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations region.
“To kickstart investment, the forum introduced two new donor-funded technical assistance programmes. First, a funding partnership with the German International Climate Initiative and GIZ, the German development agency, to support sustainability reporting and climate disclosure in developing countries.
Digital government tools
“Second, a €2.8 million partnership between Europe, the Organisation of African, Caribbean and Pacific States and UNCTAD, aimed at bolstering the capacity for investment facilitation in Angola, Gambia, Nigeria, Suriname, Vanuatu, Zimbabwe and the wider African, Caribbean and Pacific group of countries.
“This partnership will provide essential support through digital government tools such as information portals and single windows, streamlining administrative procedures for investors and fostering inclusive development.”
Science fiction and the future
CERN held its 2nd Science Fiction and the Future Days on 28-29 September (LINK): “We invite SF-writers, philosophers, futurists, designers, anthropologists, political scientists, sociologists, psychologists, historians, engineers and (selected) physicists to attend. By invitation only.”
Its web-page highlights 3 projects that bring sci-fi thinking into practical projects:
- Inspired by wind-tower cooling systems, Aemula provides a protective layer to wear in the event of a ‘wet-bulb spike’, when humidity rises above 100% and temperatures go above 35C, as they have recently (LINK).
- Crystal Genesis provides clothing against painful eczema and bacteria expected from increased salinization of rivers and soils while keeping the material lightweight enough to be comfortable (LINK).
- Crescendo “proposes a new method for colouring fabrics and clothing that is sustainable and can be made accessible for all. By isolating the colour molecule and then injecting it into a cotton seed we would be able to grow pre-dyed cotton fibres. We chose to work with cotton since it is a resistant, versatile and durable natural fibre that can be easily recycled or repurposed” (LINK)
Summit for the Future
In September 2024 the UN stages a Summit for the Future. It’s billed as “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to enhance cooperation on critical challenges and address gaps in global governance”.
The Cologny-based World Economic Forum (WEF) organized a series of Sustainable Development Impact Meetings in New York on 18-22 September, bringing together more than 1,000 leaders from politics, business and civil society “to accelerate the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals”. It produced “23 key things to know”.
On World Maritime Day, 28 September, the Global Trade Review held its 2023 GTR Commodities bash in Geneva, “the premier gathering for the global commodity financing sector” (LINK). It brought together 360 commodity shippers, traders and financiers in 2022. Its topics included supply chain shifts, energy transition issues, sustainability, and ESG (Environmental, social and governance) tech and financing.
And Lausanne’s ‘MIT’, EPFL has several projects. Its latest report:
— With 29 September named International Food Loss and Waste Awareness Day, EPFL has put the spotlight on its efforts (LINK). According to the WWF, the average Swiss household throws out over 600 francs worth of food per year. EPFL’s restaurants have taken several steps to improve the university situation under Bruno Rossignol, the head of its food services department, appointed in 2019. The average CO2-equivalent emissions of an EPFL restaurant meal have decreased from 6.1 kg to 4.1 kg in two years. “The goal is to reach 2.5 kg by 2030,” EPFL declares.
— Toilets serve as concrete examples for industrial restructuring. Through an innovative project in Sri Lanka, an EPFL researcher and a Sri Lankan researcher have demonstrated that construction practices in transition economies can operate more efficiently, sustainably and responsibly.
On 28 September EPFL reported: Researchers have uncovered a fundamental flaw in the training of machine learning systems and elaborated a new formulation for strengthening them against adversarial attacks. By completely rethinking the way that most Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems protect against attacks, researchers at EPFL’s School of Engineering have developed a new training approach to ensure that machine learning models, particularly deep neural networks, consistently perform as intended, significantly enhancing their reliability. (LINK)
From my news feeds I also took note of this from the US National Public Radio on 25 September 2023 (LINK):
With climate misinformation on the rise, here’s how to spot it: Play Cranky Uncle.
The truth is out there, in video games, just as Three-Body tells us.
In Three-Body, you won’t be able to figure out some of its major conundrums until the United Nations New York building appears in the game with a Secretary-General who looks to me like a cross between Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un of North Korea.
Some Chinese obviously have high expectations of the U.N.
Positive environmental stories
For life’s inveterate optimists, Euronews has a section entitled all the positive environmental stories from 2023 and one of those stories is from Geneva:
— “Geneva’s community pantries use the sharing economy to prevent food waste” (LINK).
You can share your unused groceries in free-to-use community fridges. The first fridge helped save around three tonnes of food from going to waste last year. Geneva now has four fridges, strategically placed around town, with a fifth one planned before the end of the year. Run by nonprofit FreeGo — whose name riffs off the word ‘frigo’, a colloquial French term for refrigerator — the programme costs about €36.5K to run each year. It is funded by charity groups and the city government.
Other positive stories:
— Wind and solar could produce 33% of global power by 2030 (LINK)
— Brazil Amazon deforestation drops 34% under Lula (LINK)
— UN adopts world-first treaty to protect marine life in seas outside national boundaries (LINK)
Vans for life — from Geneva to Ukraine and back
As for Ukraine, the Geneva non-governmental organization Vanforlife, started by two Swiss brothers of Italian-Slovenian descent, has been delivering humanitarian aid to Ukraine and bringing back temporary migrants since 2022. Their ordinary business is high-end limousine rental, complete with drivers and personal assistance to the wealthy clientele. Their secondary business is a van rental company.
Their initial expectation was that they would raise enough material and funds to take a van or two to Poland, and deliver some aid. But the response of Swiss and other private citizens was so strong they were able to raise donations in five figures and several tonnes of clothes, medical supplies, and food and started the NGO (LINK, in French).
Since 20 March 2022, Vanforlife has sent dozens of tonnes of aid, including medicine, wheelchairs and fuel oil, delivered by volunteer drivers. The NGO has brought out at least 155 Ukrainians and found them homes in Switzerland.
Swiss Government chooses Vanforlife for de-mining delivery
Because of its reputation the Swiss Government chose the foundation to deliver a remote-controlled mine clearance machine and equipment worth CHF1.2m in all to Ukraine in September (LINK).
On 29 September 2023, the Federal Council also approved a CHF100m package over the next three years to demine civilian and agricultural areas in Ukraine and aid the country’s recovery. The Federal Council observed that one third of Ukraine – a 174,000 km2 area larger than England, Wales and Northern Ireland combined – is estimated to be contaminated by mines and other explosive ordnance.
“The situation is making it impossible for Ukraine – long known as the ‘breadbasket of Europe’ – to resume agricultural production. The civilians who were forced to flee their homes in the wake of the Russian invasion are now returning at considerable risk to their safety,” it pointed out.
Geneva is home to the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD), which over the past decade has provided Ukraine with training, strategic support and technical advice to strengthen the capacity of its government institutions. Swiss authorities have already allocated CHF15.2m for 2022 and 2023 to support CICHD and the Fondation suisse de déminage (FSD) operations.
The Web has a number of sites that specialize in nicer news, even one with that title.
The Good News Network has been going since 1997. It tends to feature individual stories of achievement.
The Good Times tends to be more immediately useful. It was launched nearly 15 years ago by a Geneva friend, Fabienne Stassen, a former senior editor at the WEF who now runs the communications and editorial service, EditOr Proof, from Geneva.
Fabienne says: ” I do indeed aim for the articles to be useful (plus uplifting and inspiring).”
Einstein was right: even anti-matter is subject to gravity
If your interests are strictly scientific, check out The Brighter Side of News. It reported on 30 September: “Groundbreaking study reaffirms Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity” (LINK) because CERN’s Antimatter Factory showed antihydrogen atoms (a type of antimatter) are influenced by Earth’s gravity in the same manner as regular matter.
And for some even easier news…
Of course, you can always ignore the hard news sites and rely on Flipboard’s selections of what to read. My version this week had:
— Good Housekeeping, 25 September 2023: At 48, Charlize Theron Shows Off Her Super-Toned Legs In A Leather Miniskirt And Combat Boots In IG Pics. Good Housekeeping?
— 7 best watches presented at Geneva Watch Days 2023 (sportskeeda, 25 September 2023).
— Better Homes & Gardens: Now’s the Perfect Time to Buy Outdoor Patio Furniture (25 September 2023).
— House Digest: The 6 Best Pet-Friendly Couches Dog Owners Swear By (24 September 2023)
— “I’m a millennial homeowner — I have the best gadget in my kitchen next to our vending machine, it’s great for happy hour: an $8,000 stainless steel eight-bottle wine dispenser” (The U.S. Sun, 24 September 2023).
OK. These I understand. But this?
— Slovenly-dressed Sen. John Fetterman was left red-faced last week after his attempted dig at coverage of a New York Times columnist’s viral tweet about inflation got a rigorous fact-check. (New York Post, 25 September 2023).
Somehow Flipboard knew I’m a terrible dresser. How did that happen?
Images from Wikipedia, websites and screenshots.
UNCTAD. World Investment Forum 2023 ends with strong call for greater private and public investment. 20 October 2023 (LINK)
UNCTAD. World Investment Forum 2023: Global leaders urge action for sustainable development. 16 October 2023 (LINK)