When it comes to care and sustainability of the environment and our species’ place in it, it can be argued pretty strenuously that our approach needs work. How’s that for an understatement? There are environmental disasters, unsustainable practices of all kinds, and global climate change-related weather damage all threatening to make our planet look less like How Green Was My Valley, and more like the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
There. I think I made up for the understatement.
Luckily, I think one thing we’ve got going for us is that we’ve imagined other worlds for ourselves. This isn’t to say that they are a replacement of our current, and vital world. But, rather these worlds we’ve read about in fiction, seen on TV, or in the movies, is our expression that our imaginations may be our best tool to take the best of those worlds and apply it to our own.
Anyway, I’ve gathered 7 such worlds, some inspiring, some frightening, to illustrate how worlds in popular stories down through the ages may be an arrow pointing to our world of the future! Here they are.
1. The Shire
Imagined and brought to life by J.R.R Tolkien, The Shire is one of many aspects of his own invented Middle-Earth which shows a symbiosis with nature, while also celebrating the creature comforts. Tolkien himself was concerned with the industrialization of Britain around the time he wrote the Hobbit. So, in creating a race of peoples for his books, he had them living underground, in homes that were a part of the countryside, not a threat to it. And one thing it did was to inspire others to create Hobbit-inspired green built homes of their own!
In contrast, Saruman’s Isengard, and Sauron’s Mordor, both with ruined landscapes, and with trees (literally!) as enemies, it’s not hard to see which side Tolkien was on when he crafted the Lord of the Rings books later on. These aspects of Middle Earth serve as a warning to us, when we treat the world purely as grist for the mills of our own ambition.
2. Dagobah (Yoda’s Planet)
When Luke Skywalker guides his sleek x-wing fighter craft into the atmosphere of this murky and mysterious world, the planet would literally swallow his ship. A test of his skills would be in front of him to get it back. Is this is a metaphor for nature’s supremacy over technology? Well, maybe, maybe not.
But it’s on Dagobah that Luke learns that he’s connected to nature, not separated from it, and that it follows that what has influence on nature has influence on us as people, too. That’s a lesson more important than being able to move a spaceship with your mind. Although, that skill might come in handy, too.
3. The Planet of the Apes
Long after the destruction of the world as we knew it, lower primates and human beings shift places in the hierarchy of the animal kingdom . The apes establish Ape City, a capitol that sure does look like the outskirts of Los Angeles in the 1968 movie version of Pierre Boulle’s book The Monkey Planet, on which the movies, TV series, and other movie, are based.
This is a world that is one big metaphor for how tenuous our grip is when it comes to nature, when nature can turn the tables if we’re not careful. In the words of George Taylor, Charlton Heston’s cynical astronaut captain, “WE REALLY DID IT! WE BLEW IT UP!” Yet despite the actions of the human race, without us, the earth becomes a green world again, which is a sobering thought.
The link between nature and what can be considered the spirit (whatever that means to you, gentle reader) is a big theme in C.S Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles. In Narnia, animal life and trees are sentient, and are considered citizens by human rulers, not as resources to be exploited.
The villains in this series are those who seek to control the environment, and its inhabitants, rather than to embrace it, like the White Queen who ensures the ‘always winter, never Christmas’ conditions. The stories ask us which side we’re on; domination and self-serving agendas, or the respect of living things and natural environs that we can call our home.
5. Arthurian Britain
There have been so many versions of the medieval stories of King Arthur over the centuries; from the original Arthurian romances that date to the 12th Century, to T.H White’s The Once and Future King, to Walt Disney’s The Sword in the Stone, to the modern 21st century renderings on television, like the Merlin TV series.
But, one thing that remains is that in all of the stories is that the rule of the king and the state of the natural world are always held in balance. When they’re not, trouble starts. In the poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, nature gallops right into Camelot to challenge the worth of the knights in the form of – you guessed it – a huge Green Knight. How obvious a metaphor do you need?
How about the search for the Holy Grail, or the story (or stories) of the Fisher King? These are more metaphors for how nature and civilization are lawfully connected, yet are divided, and that there is a need for reconciliation to the benefit of both.
James Cameron’s Avatar has had all kinds of cultural impact, including an impressive showing at the 2009 Academy Awards. I think one of the reasons for this, besides cutting edge computer animation and all that other neat stuff, is the thematic content that, once again, has been with us since the Arthurian stories in the 1100s.
The human race in the film is depicted as being short sighted in the whole ‘we are connected to the natural world’ stakes, seeking to plunder the idylic planet Pandora for its mineral wealth. All of the hype of the movie aside, once again this ‘green’ world in popular storytelling holds up a mirror to the flawed idea of the natural world as raw property, and not as ‘home’. We see that this idea leads to the road to disconnection, and ultimately death.
7. Earth (Star Trek version)
To balance things out, it’s important to remember that that visions for a future where we are at peace with our surroundings is just as much a part of our stories as warnings of doom and gloom are. One of the most important ‘green worlds’ in this respect is the world of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, and the concepts and ideals of the worlds that are now associated with it.
Roddenberry meant the world depicted in Star Trek to be inspirational to the efforts to make our own world more like it, including control of overconsumption, and commercial exploitation. Even built into the Star Trek myth, we’re reminded that it was a long road to get to that place.
It seems that the consciousness found at the heart of the green movement has been at the core of many of our most influential mythic patterns in the stories we’ve told, and heard. And the lessons about responsibility to our environment having a direct correlation to our well-being as a civilization is a pretty powerful idea that is all too relevant today.
Stories are powerful. They give us warnings. But, they also give us visions of how we can transform our world for the better.