WikiJournal Preprints/Sustainability Through Sci-Fi: Visions of Future Cities via Popular Media and the Hedonistic Sustainability Movement

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Author: anon until publication


This paper examines sustainable cities and architecture as portrayed in science fiction media, and how they have changed with increasing awareness of global climate change. Assuming some truth in the adage "science fact, not science fiction", we explore what these changes can tell us about how to best manage our resources and infrastructure in light of predicted population growth and climate change. To answer this question, we apply the theory developed by Fiore et. al. (2014) which evaluates sustainable projects on scales of hedonomics, or level of comfortability/convenience, and their orientation towards others to three pieces of science fiction media. First, the 1962 television show, The Jetsons, is shown to adopt an individualistic and extremely hedonistic approach. Second, Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? unsuccessfully adopts an individualistic society with hedonistic and non-hedonistic elements. Finally, Ernest Callenbach's Ecotopia provides an example of a successful hedonistic and collective approach. These three pieces show the impact of historical context and awareness of climate change upon portrayals of the future in science fiction especially in regard to sustainability. In reality, current developments within the Hedonistic Sustainability Movement are also showing the promise of a hedonistic and collective approach, as is explained by Danish Architect Bjarke Ingels. Through fictional and real-world comparisons, this analysis suggests that cultural and temporal context was critically important in defining whether the fictional texts considered sustainability at all. Additionally, in the fictional and real world spheres, a collective and hedonistic approach seems to be the most effective in producing successful sustainable design, suggesting both that the real world influences science fiction and in turn, science fiction influences the real world.

Introduction[edit | edit source]

In 2016, for the first time in history, the urban population surpassed the population in non-urban regions.[1] In future decades, the number of people living in cities is predicted to increase along with a drastic increase in population globally. By 2050, the world’s population is expected to surpass 9.7 billion with a predicted 67% living in cities.[1] And yet, urban environments only make up 2% of the earth’s surface, calling into question: how can we manage this rapid growth of the urban population, while remaining sustainable? Much of our existing infrastructure is both insufficient in providing adequate resources for those who need them, and not environmentally friendly.[1] If unmanaged, these issues will lead to “flooding, water scarcity, water pollution, adverse health effects” and associated costs which would overwhelm the existing infrastructure of contemporary cities.[1]  Given the pressing nature of climate change impacts and the combined urgency of urban population growth, it is vital that we develop sustainable cities that can prevent and withstand future changes. A notable effort to do so can already be seen through the global projects of the architectural firm, Bjarke Ingels Group or BIG, led by the Danish architect, Bjarke Ingels. While environmental architecture provides valuable insight into present-day methods of sustainable development, we can also look to existing visions of cities conceived in fictional media and their consideration of climate impacts, or lack thereof.

Science fiction is often perceived as being separate from the study of science, however, research in a number of fields provides evidence for its credibility as an important tool for exploring possible technological futures, specifically due to its consideration of the social and ethical impacts of technology. In their article “Thinking longer term about technology: is there value in science fiction-inspired approaches to constructing futures?” Miller and Bennet explain that most ethical decisions regarding development are reserved for a small minority, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.[2] However, science fiction poses ethical questions to a wider audience by showing their readers the potential positive and negative impacts on entire built-worlds.[2] Historical examples of this have shown that science fiction does in fact have the power to shape real-life responses to development.[2] Notably, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein played a drastic role in shaping the public’s ethical perception of a number of issues including "test-tube" babies, eugenics, and genetically-modified "FrankenFoods".[3] In the emerging field of nanoscience where pure scientific discourse has proved insufficient, science fiction media has been shown to be a promising tool for bridging the gap between what is currently possible and what someday may be possible.[4] Additionally, George Orwell’s 1984 established the powerful symbol of an oppressive, totalitarian government through the character of  "Big Brother", providing relevant language to speak about the fight against mass surveillance and breaches of privacy.[2] More recently, the 1983 movie War=Games, in which a teenager hacks into the NORAD network and accidentally almost begins a nuclear war by engaging in what he thinks is a game.[5] This film introduced the possibility of juveniles committing crime online – a reality we have become accustomed to.[6] WarGames was one film that also introduced the idea that war could occur via video games and remote, sometimes unknowing, actors.[7][8] Since this time, the US Army has developed the freely available video game America's Army, which is used as a recruitment tool to increase enlistment.[9]

Given science fiction’s unique ability to explore technological futures through world building, it can show us both what we want our futures to look like, and what we do not want.[10] An examination of science fiction narratives provides us contrasting visions of our futures from technological utopias to desolated wastelands, specifically as they relate to the issue of climate change impacts. This paper will perform two analytical tasks, it will demonstrate first how cities in science fiction have changed with society's greater understanding of climate change and second, in line with existing models, how they can inform approaches to sustainable architecture today.

One lesson we see from authors and architects alike is that a sustainable future should include ways for humans to continue their lives largely as they have - without having to give up too much. Thus our argument is aligned with the hedonistic sustainability movement - which allows for sustainable development with limited sacrifices for city-dwellers.[11] Typically, the hedonism, or self-indulgent behavior and mass consumption, associated with cities is identified as being in conflict with the goals of the environmental movement, however, in their article, Fiore et al. explore the emergence of a new movement within sustainable development.[12]  This hedonistic sustainability movement emphasizes collective action as an integral component of successful design.[12] This means designs serve entire populations rather than individuals. Given climate change is a collective issue, it is logical that its solutions would address collectives as well. Furthermore, this ensures a more uniform response given no one individual can “fail” to behave sustainably. Accepting that people are generally unwilling to sacrifice their everyday conveniences, Fiore et al. suggest that by adopting a collective and hedonistic approach, individuals will bear less of a burden and continue to enjoy their everyday pleasures, making hedonistic sustainability an ideal solution to the aforementioned challenges associated with climate change and sustainable urbanism.[12] The “burden” of sustainability then falls upon architectural design and technology. As the Bjarke Ingels Group has shown, when collective action, hedonism and sustainability are prioritized, inventive designs emerge that allow all goals to be met.

Methods[edit | edit source]

Table 1: Matrix showing different approaches to sustainable design, adapted from Fiore et al.
Orientation Towards Others
Individualistic Collectivistic
Hedonomics Low Sacrifice for self

(Ex. Individual household turning off lights more often)

Sacrifice for others

(Ex. Imposition of sustainable standards on an office building)

High The design benefits the self

(Ex. Enjoyment of the natural environment)

The design benefits all

(Ex. An energy efficient office building which relies on windows for much of its lighting)

As we examine sustainability in science fiction and the real future, this paper’s analysis will focus primarily on the scales of hedonism and collective orientation developed by Fiore et al. in the article, “A Transdisciplinary Perspective on Hedonomic Sustainability Design”.[12]  In order to explain environmental approaches,  Fiore et al. use a matrix to compare strategies on levels of hedonomics and collectivity.[12] (See Table 1) Currently, most sustainable action falls under the category of individualistic and low hedonism by asking individuals to make sacrifices in their lives such as asking using less water or energy.[12] Examples of this would include asking individuals to use less water or energy, meaning they must give up some of their everyday comforts in the name of unsustainability. Conversely, developments which are collective and hedonistic could include projects like the Mountain Project designed by BIG in Copenhagen which combined an apartment complex, a public parking lot and a garden to maximize spatial efficiency and green space in the dense urban environment.[11] In our analysis,  we will borrow this matrix as we evaluate visions of the future portrayed in science fiction spanning 3 decades, and as we look to modern attempts at sustainable architecture. For the sake of the following analysis, the term “utopia” will be closely associated with a measure of high hedonomics, given a "perfect" society ought to allow humans to live with a high quality of life and limited sacrifice. Conversely, dystopia will be associated with low hedonomics as it relates to the sacrifice of everyday comforts and overall low quality of life. Its orientation towards others, essentially whether the strategy serves individuals or a collective, may vary depending on the media source provided. As such, utopias and dystopias can be individualistic or collectivistic.

Our purpose is twofold - first, as above, we will examine how visions of the future in science fiction changed with increasing knowledge of global climate change. Second, we will use this information, coupled with real life examples of hedonistic sustainable architecture, to explore potential future directions in sustainable development that could arise from more collectivistic hedonistic strategies.

Results and Discussion[edit | edit source]

The Jetsons: Pre-climate Change Utopia

The television program, The Jetsons first aired in 1962, prior to the peak of the Environmental Movement in the late 1960s.[13][14] Because of this, its depiction of a utopian city is largely the product of the consumptive and individualistic viewpoint of the 1950s and '60s, without any considerations for how climate change would fundamentally alter our notions of future societies. As such, it fits into the category of a hedonistic utopia with an individualistic orientation. This is evident in its title sequence which shows the family riding in a flying car through a sparsely populated metropolis, a futuristic manifestation of sprawling cities, with buildings that hover on thin pillars so that the ground is altogether invisible and irrelevant.[13] (See Fig. 1) This also comes with the complete elimination of green spaces, rendering the city a purely technological environment. In this retro-futuristic society, the cultural symbol of the automobile, established with the rise of consumerism during the 1950s, has simply been reframed through the futuristic icon of the flying car. As such, the use of flying cars suggests the reliance on individual technology over collective infrastructure and public transportation as a means of societal distinction. The hedonism rampant within Orbit City, the Jetson family’s hometown, is enabled entirely via individualistic technology and design.

Despite technological advancements that allow the cars within The Jetsons' telesphere to fly and even compress down to become a handheld makeup compact, it seems evident that the show's creators did not consider the sustainability of the cars, suggesting that environmental impacts were not a factor within their future utopia, thus allowing the hedonism within the city to go unchecked by concerns of environmental impacts. This is visible in the show's very first episode, when George Jetson, patriarch of the family, makes a comment about the use of rocket fuel to support the family's frequent car trips.[15] Furthermore, in all scenes, exhaust is visible leaving the tail end of the Jetsons' car. (See Fig. 1)  Not only is their transportation unsustainable, but it is used excessively with no regard for conservation. The sparse layout of the city and a lack of connective networks between the floating buildings makes the use of cars a requirement for transportation. After coming home from school, the Jetson’s teenage daughter explains that she is traveling to Acapulco after school to go swimming with friends, an action which in reality would produce a tremendous amount of carbon emissions for an afternoon excursion.[15] All of this suggests that The Jetsons' universe is operating on a hedonistic and individualistic approach, as outlined by Fiore et al. however, without the integral lens of sustainability. Technology on the show is developed without regard for the environment and used in abundance to make the everyday lives of individuals like the Jetsons easier. While it depicts a city of the future, Orbit City serves primarily as a reflection of the values of the 1960s, such as the “better living through chemistry mentality” which prioritized pure hedonism with a lesser regard for the environmental consequences which would become more understood in subsequent years.[16]

It is important to note that the show was rebooted 20 years after its initial release in 1985, however much of the "unsustainable" features of the city remain the same, including the flying cars sputtering smog and highly congested airspaces.[17] We are unable to explain this, as we expected that, with increasing knowledge of climate change, the reboot would indicate some changes toward more sustainable practices. Perhaps, the show’s creators, even at a time when awareness of climate change was increasing, saw the fictional future as a realm untouched by the impacts of climate change. Alternatively, it is possible that, since this reboot occurred in the 1980s, the decade of "greed, for lack of a better word, is good,"[18] altering The Jetsons’ utopic and hedonistic setting was not a priority. It is also possible that the consistent branding of convenient future lives of The Jetsons figured more importantly into the reboot than did alterations for climate change.

Philip K. Dick and the Technological Dystopia

In stark contrast to the utopic vision of The Jetson’s Orbit City, Philip K. Dick's sci-fi novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, provides a dystopic viewpoint of a future San Francisco, destroyed by human conflict and environmental impacts. Like The Jetsons, it envisions a future in which natural ecosystems and organisms are replaced with technology; however, these changes are shown to be harmful and reduce hedonism within the city, reducing it to a dystopian state. This desolation and low hedonism is contrasted by new human-run colonies on Mars, which the fortunate inhabit after abandoning the ruined Earth, suggesting that hedonism post-climate change is only available to a select few and providing support for the benefits of a universal and collective approach to sustainable societies.

The obvious difference between the portrayals of urban futures in The Jetsons and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? can likely be attributed to the period of time that passed between these portrayals  and the rapid growth of the environmental movement, during which the hedonism and consumption of the early 1960s became directly linked with the degradation of the environment. In the 6 short years between the premiere of The Jetsons in 1962 and the publishing of the novel in 1968, Rachel Carson's novel Silent Spring (published in the last quarter of 1962) gained mass readership and spurred on the burgeoning Environmental Movement,[16] The Clear Air and Water Quality Acts both passed, the Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act set automobile emission standards, and the iconic “Earthrise'' photo became a crucial symbol in uniting the environmental movement.[14] As such, Dick's novel reflects both the threat of environmental harms and the historical context of the ongoing Cold War via a hazardous “dust” produced after nuclear warfare, resulting in the extinction of nearly all living animal species and the clearing of many major urban environments due to deaths and migrations.[19]

Although the “dust” is not directly referencing climate change, in many ways it serves as an alternative to the realities of anthropogenic climate change with similar consequences on living species and ecosystems. As a human-created “plague” with no country of origin, the dust serves as a reminder of the global consequences of human actions and as such can be considered a vision of climate impacts upon the urban environment.[19] The dystopian portrayal of the post-climate change city can be seen in the novel’s main character, Richard Deckard’s residence in “a giant, empty decaying building which once held thousands”.[19] Unlike the crowded apartment buildings which house the Jetsons, the built environment in San Francisco does not adapt to environmental hazards as they arrive and so the once densely-populated urban region is left completely empty, leaving behind the frame of the city’s infrastructure in place without the inhabitants needed to truly make the space a “city”.  The consequences of the changing climate requires those left on Earth to sacrifice their comforts and live in a ruined city in line with a low hedonomic categorization as outlined by Fiore et al. These sacrifices are also evident in the replacement of living animals with machines, after animals are rendered extinct by the dust.[19] The elimination of green spaces and living organisms make the city’s design reflective of a lower hedonomic option. This is further evidenced by Deckhard’s contempt towards his electric sheep and constant desire to acquire a living animal.[19] Environmental challenges force the remaining citizens of San Francisco to make individual sacrifices in line with the individualist and low hedonic approach, given a lack of sustainable technology and oversight by leadership, who have abandoned Earth altogether.

The book explains that as Earth is degrading from the emergence of the dust, some individuals are able to migrate off of Earth to new colonies on Mars.[19] This demonstrates an unfortunate reality of the present and future of climate change: the ability to migrate successfully is often linked to class as those who are financially able to move will, and those who cannot will both be forced to face the consequences of changing climates.[20] In the novel, those who are able to move off of the "contaminated Earth" to the Mars colonies are able to enjoy a life of high hedonism which is "rich with every imaginable possibility".[19] These alternative colonies embody the hedonistic utopia of The Jetsons which is enabled through technology and allows humans to start anew on Mars. However, the novel explains that this society is only accessible to those who pass a mental test which makes them worthy of migration.[19] Overall, Dick’s dystopian universe presents two distinct urban environments, one abandoned and ruined by climate change and the other a post-climate utopia, completely detached from a ruined Earth. The division between these two is reinforced primarily by class and mental capacity, revealing insight into how climate change can alter the social order of our urban environments, leaving some to benefit and enjoy the hedonism enabled by technological advancements and free of the consequences of climate change, while others are left to suffer. In fact, this prediction has become reality, as the UN reports that it is the disadvantaged groups globally who will suffer disproportionately more as a result of climate change.[21] The unequal division between the low-hedonistic dystopia on Earth and the high-hedonistic Mars colonies predicted in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? reflects the importance of ensuring that sustainable development approaches are accessible and employed universally across societies to avoid perpetuating existing inequalities such as class division.

Ecotopia: The Environmentalist's Utopia

Written in 1975, Ernest Callenbach's Ecotopia serves as an idealistic vision for a future utopia which is both sustainable and in line with the environmental movement of the late 1960s and 70s. As such, it adopts a collective and progressive approach to sustainability, which is closely linked with the other social movements of the period, namely the anti-war, feminist and counterculture movements.[22] In this way, Callenbach’s Ecotopia most closely resembles the vision of the Hedonistic Sustainability movement and its collective vision, outlined by Fiore et al., by incorporating technological innovation with social welfare and collectivism. Like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the book takes place in a future San Francisco, now part of the country Ecotopia, which has seceded from the United States.[23] However, unlike Dick’s dystopian view of the ruined city, Callenbach presents a sustainable utopia with limited sacrifice and well-managed resources and public spaces. Upon entering the Bay Area on a magnetically powered train, William Weston, a journalist visiting the country from New York, notes that the once crowded Market Street

has become a mall planted with thousands of trees. The “street” itself, on which electric taxis, minibuses, and delivery carts purr along, has shrunk to a two-lane affair. The remaining space, which is huge, is occupied by bicycle lanes, fountains, sculptures, kiosks, and absurd little gardens surrounded by benches. Over it all hangs the almost sinister quiet.[23]

The novel, in line with the organic and hippie movements common in Northern California, Oregon and Washington (the regions which now compromise Ecotopia), depicts a complete restructuring of the urban environment to reject the noise and constant movement common in other American cities. Despite prioritizing sustainability in this way, it does not reject material beauty, as shown through the restructuring of the populous streets to include “sculptures”, “gardens” and “benches”. This reflects the fact that the Ecotopians have successfully balanced their goals of sustainability with the desire to incorporate hedonism and beauty in everyday life. The crucial role of public spaces such as gardens and fountains as well as public transportation reveals a commitment to collectivism which is missing from media like The Jetsons. In this society, there are no gas-powered flying cars but rather electrically powered taxis and minibuses.[23] As an outsider, Weston views this as “absurd” and “sinister”, signaling that the rest of the United States has not adapted such practices and instead adopts a pro-oil and pro-gas sentiment, in conflict with the goals for sustainability.[23]  Unlike the loud, highly congested country Weston is accustomed to, the quiet and lack of density in San Francisco suggests that adapting a collective and hedonistic approach to sustainable city design has been successful within Ecotopia to manage density and preserve green spaces. Furthermore, much of Ecotopia produces their food on small farms located just outside of prominent cities.[23] This highly independent ecosystem allows them to be fully sustained on local produce, while the rest of the United States suffers from “shortages of fruit, lettuce, wine, cotton, paper, lumber” and more.[23] In emphasizing this point, Callenbach calls attention to the need for local food production and green spaces in urban environments while also criticizing the globalized food production industry which causes the rest of the United States to be dependent on the Western States for its goods. Despite Weston's initial apprehensions at the stark contrast of Ecotopian living, by the end of the novel, he chooses to abandon his life in New York and live in Ecotopia permanently.[22] This drastic change in the main character’s viewpoint shows Callenbach’s support for the Ecotopian way of living and suggests that while sustainable living may at first seem foreign to those used to living a highly unsustainable life, in the end, it will only allow us to live more enjoyable lives. Although this novel drastically predates the emergence of the Hedonistic Sustainability movement, Callenbach’s utopia embodies the key vision of the movement in its collective and hedonistic approach. As such, the novel reflects the environmental movements of the 1970s and while also providing a prediction for the sustainable architectural projects of the present-day Hedonistic Sustainability movement.

Hedonistic Sustainability in Action

These three pieces of popular media provide three different visions of future societies, each fulfilling a distinct position within Fiore et al.'s matrix : The Jetsons anticipated a technological utopia by the year 2062,[24] while Philip K. Dick predicted that San Francisco would be a technological ghost town by 2021.[19] Ernest Callenbach's Ecotopia envisioned an independent environmental nation in the Western United States by 1999.[23] Although none of these urban visions have been fully realized, Callenbach’s Ecotopia closely resembles the collective and hedonistic approach to sustainable cities which is adopted by the emerging Hedonistic Sustainability movement. As Bjarke Ingels, the architect credited with starting the movement, explains, “Architects have to be designers of ecosystems”.[11] In this sense, both the architects involved with Hedonistic Sustainability today and the Environmentalists of the 1970s like Callenbach are interested in producing comprehensive sustainable “ecosystems” which extend beyond a single building or piece of infrastructure, hence the collective approach adopted by both. One such example of this is the CopenHill Power Plant designed by the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG).  (See Fig. 2) At its creation in 2011, the project was the largest environmental initiative in the country, costing 3.5 billion DKK.[25] To this day it remains the tallest building in Copenhagen.[25] Its complete design serves both a sustainable and hedonistic function with the building serving as both a source of sustainable energy for the city and a year-round ski hill, open to the public. The factory is currently the cleanest waste-to-energy plant in the world, however it still produces some CO2.[11] To address this, BIG designed the smokestack to function as an art piece, releasing a ring of CO2 from its main chimney. Each ring accounts for 1/10th of a ton of CO2.[11] Ingel explains that this design functions as a didactic tool to hopefully inspire further mitigation of CO2 emissions by helping residents of the city visualize the impact of their carbon emissions.[11] By considering the complete design of the factory as well as its accessible contribution to the city, BIG considers both collective needs and hedonism. The factory is sustainable and embodies the notion that we don’t need to make sacrifices in our urban environments in the face of climate change. Its success as a sustainable power plant and a ski hill provides support for the merits of Hedonistic Sustainability. BIG’s architecture provides a preview of a world under Hedonistic Sustainability. In many ways, the adoption of Hedonistic Sustainability ideals in Copenhagen today resembles the vision outlined by Callenbach in Ecotopia and provides hope for the future of sustainable design, if the appropriate strategy is employed.


As Fiore et al. explain, we can evaluate approaches to sustainable design on their hedonomics and orientation towards others.[12] However, this paper demonstrates that such a model can also be used to analyze fictional cities and their approach to future climate change impacts. From such analysis we see that The Jetsons adopts an individualist and hedonistic approach which is largely motivated by its context within the consumerism and American culture of the 1950s and early '60s. Contrastly, Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? takes environmental impacts in account to suggest a deeply divided future which, due to its individualistic approach, separates citizens between non hedonistic life in Earth cities and hedonistic life in colonies on Mars. Finally, Ernest Callenbach's Ecotopia reflects the viewpoints of progressive environmentalist movements to envision a sustainable utopia, based on a collective and hedonistic approach. This approach, preferred by Callenbach, is also realized in the real world through the Hedonistic Sustainability movement. All this can be used to support the notion that science fiction media serves as a reflection of its temporal and cultural climate while also providing visions of possible futures towards sustainable cities.

Additional information[edit | edit source]

Acknowledgements[edit | edit source]

Special thanks to Emily Wild for her guidance during the research and review processes of this paper.  I would also like to thank Martin Tomlinson for providing additional valuable research materials.

Competing interests[edit | edit source]

The authors have no conflict of interest to declare.

Ethics statement[edit | edit source]

This research analyzes existing media and literature, thus did not require the approval of human or animal use committees.

References[edit | edit source]

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