Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Living With Scarcity & Uncertainty: The Merits of 3% (Brazil)

Candidates have three minutes to make nine cubes out of a pile of blocks in the centre. Those who complete the puzzle in time will move on to the next test; those who don’t are eliminated and must return to the slums—their one chance at a better life dashed. Among the nine candidates in the room are Rafael (Rodolfo Valente), who steals a cube from another candidate to get his nine. Michele (Bianca Comparato), who initially out of kindness helps Fernando (Michel Gomes), who’s reach to the pile is limited, is in turn helped by him when she is shy one cube: at time-end, he cleverly piles her eight cubes into one large cube—the ninth—and she passes the test.

So begins Netflix’s 3%, a Brazilian dystopian thriller series created by Pedro Aguilera and directed by Cesar Charlone. In a kind of Hunger Games contest, candidates cheat in self-service; others violently impose Darwinian entitlement and survival of the fittest; yet others rely on reciprocal altruism.

3% is set in the near future after the planet has fallen into a divided haves and have-nots through some calamity. Three percent of the population live well on an island in the Atlantic Ocean, called Offshore (Mar Alto). The remaining 97% struggle Inland with poverty and scarcity. A selection process lies between them.

The first test... the cubes
Every year the 97% send their 20-year olds to undergo The Process, a grueling Hunger Games-style contest run by the Offshore elite to replenish their numbers. Only 3% of the candidates will be considered worthy. They must pass psychological, emotional and physical tests to earn a place in Mar Alto.

By the time Season 1 is over, candidates will have committed a full range of desperate and unsavory acts to make the cut—the stakes are high, after all: secure a position in the 3% elite or die in squalor and poverty. After being eliminated during the interview process, one youth throws himself off a balcony of the testing centre.

“It’s not so far from our own world, where the competition to get into a good school and land a good job drives many to self harm,” writes Matthew Gault on Motherboard. “In the 3%, as in our own world, society looks down on those who don’t achieve and there’s a certain kind of person who believes that life’s losers earned their place at the bottom.”

Inland is valued by the elite only for its reserve of youth to recruit Offshore’s strictly controlled population (you only find out how in the last show of Season 1). As for what personality and fitness The Process tests for is also uncertain. “You each create your own merit,” says Ezequiel, who runs The Process, to the candidates. “No matter what happens … you deserve this.” The corollary is that if they don’t have merit—value, as determined by Ezequiel’s Process—they don’t deserve to move Offshore. There is, of course, a resistance to The Process, called The Cause. They cause stirrings of unrest and may even be responsible for the first murder in Offshore in over 100 years—which puts Ezequiel’s Process under question. Ezequiel dismisses The Cause by suggesting that it operates “in the name of a false or hypocritical equality.”

Ezequiel confronts Fernando
There is no inherent equality or fair entitlement in a land of scarcity; there is only proof of merit to a limited resource. This meritocratic notion—and the need to prove one’s worth to be accepted—is so ingrained in society that not even the poor question it. American writer John Steinbeck argued that socialism would never take off in America because the poor see themselves as “temporarily embarrassed capitalists.”

We find out in the first show that the first murder in 100 years has occurred Offshore—which puts Ezequiel’s Process under question. And there are stirrings of unrest—some likely instigated by The Cause.

Main players to be the 3%
3% is a brutal commentary on the world’s rising income inequality and the lengths we’re all willing to go to improve our lot,” writes Gault. “It’s a world of extreme income inequality where techno-fascists rule with an iron fist…Brazil has some of the highest income disparity on the planet,” writes Gault. “São Paulo is a megacity where the ultra-rich travel the skies in rented helicopters and cruise the streets in bulletproof cars. It’s a city where the poor live in makeshift favelas that resemble something from William Gibson’s nightmares. It’s a city where plastic surgeons do a brisk trade in reconstructive ear surgery because kidnapping is common and the easiest way to prove you’ve got a mark is to send their ear.”

With each episode, 3% examines the motivations and paradoxes of heroism and villainy, sometimes turning them on their sides until they touch with such intimacy you can’t tell them apart. At its deepest, 3% explores the nature of humanity—from its most glorious to its most heinous—under the stress of scarcity and uncertainty. How we behave under these polarizing challenges ultimately determines who we are.

3% joins the ranks of several other films and shows about near-future scarcity-driven societies, with two examples below:

  • ·     Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer—a stylish post-climate change apocalypse allegory. The train’s self-contained closed ecosystem of scarcity is maintained by an ordered social system, imposed by a stony militia. Those at the front enjoy privileges and luxurious living conditions, though most drown in a debauched drug stupor; those at the back live on next to nothing and must resort to savage means to survive. Minister Mason, an imperious yet simpering figure who serves the ruling class without quite being part of it, reminds the lower class that: “We must each of us occupy our preordained particular position. Would you wear a shoe on your head? Of course you wouldn’t wear a shoe on your head. A shoe doesn’t belong on your head. A shoe belongs on your foot. A hat belongs on your head. I am a hat. You are a shoe. I belong on the head. You belong on the foot. Yes? So it is. In the beginning, order was prescribed by your ticket: First Class, Economy, and freeloaders like you…Now, as in the beginning, I belong to the front. You belong to the tail. When the foot seeks the place of the head, the sacred line is crossed. Know your place. Keep your place. Be a shoe.” 

  • ·      Advantageous—Jennifer Phang’s “pre-dystopia”, where jobs have become heavily automated and opportunities for education are cutthroat. Women have been generally forced out of the workplace and onto the streets: the logic being that they will be less violent while living on the street than men. Artificial intelligence has supplanted most people in middle management. “The people you do see are either impoverished and disenfranchised or are hidden in the upper floors, the protected places,” says director Jennifer Phang. Unemployment is close to 50% and there are no public schools. The only options for a young girl—if she is not to end up on the streets, either as a beggar or prostitute—is to attend a highly selective free magnet school or a very expensive private school.

In his book Four Futures: Life After Capitalism, author Peter Frase considered effects of climate change and automation in possible outcomes of a post-Trump election America. Frase envisioned four scenarios based on abundance and scarcity and whether a society operated by equality (e.g., communism or socialism) or hierarchy (rentism, exerminism).

With scarce resources, socialism (aka Ecotopia) may arise within an egalitarian society if driven by altruistic notions of self-limitation. Ecologists describe such a self-limiting system as K-selected (see my discussion of K-selection and r-selection in “Water Is…”). A K-selected population is at or near the carrying capacity of the environment, which is usually stable and favors individuals that successfully compete for resources and produce few young. The K-selected strategy runs on a successive gradient of maturity, from initially competitive to ultimately cooperative. Competition is a natural adaptive remnant of uncertainty and insecurity and forms the basis of a capitalist economy that encourages monopolization and hostile takeovers. Competition results from an initial antagonistic reaction to a perception of limited resources. It is a natural reaction based on distrust—of both the environment and of the “other”—both aspects of “self ” separated from “self.” The greed for more than is sustainable reflects a fear of failure and a sense of being separate, which ultimately perpetuates actions dominated by self-interest in a phenomenon known as “the Tragedy of the Commons.” Competition naturally gives way to creative cooperation as trust in both “self ” and the “other” develops and is encouraged through continued interaction.

Exterminism (aka Mad Max) may arise under a hierarchical model, driven by greed and exacerbated by uncertainty in the environment—not unlike what we are currently experiencing with the planet’s system and cyclical changes. In this scenario, in which resources are both limited and uncertain, those with access to them would guard or hide them away with desperate fervor. Frase writes:

“When mass labor has been rendered superfluous [through automation], a final solution* lurks: the genocidal war of the rich against the poor.”

Gault says it best: “3% hits so hard because it seems bizarre and distant, but as the show unwinds and reveals its mysteries, audiences will come to realize that we’re already part of The Process.”

*the Final Solution was originally used by Nazi Germany as “the Final Solution to the Jewish Question”; the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews during World War II, formulated in 1942 by Nazi leadership at the Wannsee Conference near Berlin, culminated in the Holocaust, which murdered 90 percent of Polish Jews.

Frase, Peter. 2016. Four Futures: Life After Capitalism.” Verso. 160pp.
Gault, Matthew. 2016. “Netflix’s ‘3%’ Turns the Google Job Interview into a Dystopian Nightmare.” Motherboard, November 27: https://motherboard.vice.com/en_ca/read/netflix-3-percent-review
Munteanu, Nina. 2016. “Water Is…The Meaning of Water.” Pixl Press. 584pp.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice by Margaret Atwood.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Cities in the Time of Climate Change: Green is the Colour of Resilience

I currently live in Toronto, Canada, a city of three million people and 13 percent green space (with 2.8 hectares of city-owned or operated parkland per 1,000 people). Known for its conservative politics, Toronto—like many North American cities—is in a headlong collision course with change. I’m talking about climate change. Climate change will change everything. Toronto is going to get “hotter, wetter, and wilder,” says Blair Feltmate of the University of Waterloo. The liberal community of Vancouver, where I raised my family, can expect more of what it already gets: dry summers and wet winters. Just more.

What does it mean to us?

Urban Toronto
Over 80 percent of Canadians live in cities, disconnected from the natural world that makes up over 90 percent of our country. Mixed boreal forest occupies over 40 percent of Canada’s diverse wilderness and a third of the world’s boreal forest. But we don’t live there. For eighty percent of us, our ecosystem is urban height and sprawl. When we encounter urban trees or small parks, we aren’t experiencing anything remotely natural.

We don’t understand or appreciate what the natural world is or does (for us) by simply being: the life-giving flow of water vapour, tree aerosols and gases that we breathe in with every beat of our hearts; the communication and vibration of pure wildness that contributes to our physical and mental health—from smell to sight to touch and sound; the recursive oscillation of polarities that spark all life—from lightening to the soil beneath our feet; or the natural succession—from colonization to expansion to death and regeneration—that invigorates and defines all that ever and will live.

North American boreal zone
Why would we? We’re not ecologists, scientists, or activists. That’s someone else.

Ecology is the study of environmental relationships. We didn’t learn it or experience it in our homes, locked within a dense row of houses or on the tenth floor of an apartment building from where we commute to and from work. With the exception of some indigenous schools (which teach respect for the spirit of wildness), we certainly didn’t learn it in our schools.

We have no idea what the natural environment is.

And if we can’t even recognize it, how can we understand its functional role in the intricate well-being of this entire precious planet?

Bramble Cay melomys
It is no wonder then that most Canadians—though we may intellectually accept climate change and its effects on this planet (because we’re smarter than some)—likely do not viscerally understand or appreciate why and how it will drastically change our lives. For most of us, climate change—as with Nature—is something that is happening to someone else, somewhere else. From those far away calamities to the quiet struggles no one talks about. We hear and lament over the flooding in Bangladesh or the Maldives. Or the wildfires in northern British Columbia. Or the bomb cyclones of the eastern seaboard. 

Meanwhile, the polar bear struggles quietly with disappearing sea ice in the Canadian arctic. The koala copes quietly with the disappearing eucalyptus. Coral reefs quietly disappear in an acidifying ocean. Antarctic penguins silently starve with disappearing krill due to ice retreat. And while jellyfish invade the Mediterranean, UK seas and northeast Atlantic, the humble Bramble Cay melomys slips quietly into extinction—the first mammal casualty of climate change.

So, those of us who are enlightened speak of climate resilience and adaptation. We arm our cities with words like green infrastructure, stormwater management, urban runoff control, flood mitigation. Ecological literacy. But what are these things to us? They are tools, yes. Good tools to combat and adapt to the effects of climate change. But will they create resilience? I think not.

Resilience comes from within and through a genuine connection with our environment. Tools, no matter how proficient, are only as good as how they are used based on intention from a deep understanding. It isn’t enough to achieve the How of things; we must embrace the Why of things. And that comes from the heart. We must feel it in our hearts. Or it won’t work. And we quite simply won’t survive.

Marq de Villiers wrote in his book Water that water has become imperilled “not through the deliberate actions of evil men, the corporate rapists of ecological fantasy, but through the small doings of many—far too many—ordinary people, doing things in the way they have always done them. That’s where the real danger lies.”

Greenpeace blames Coca Cola and Nestle for the plastic garbage islands littering our oceans; but how did those plastic islands get there? who bought them and then threw them out without a second thought where they were going?

Canada's boreal forest
The answer lies with us, the ordinary people. With the choices we make every day. With the language we use. With the respect we give. With our heartfelt gratitude for this beautiful and still bountiful country we live in that gives us the water we drink and the food we eat.

Canadians celebrate our multi-cultural heritage. We pride ourselves in our tolerance and welcoming nature. Our national anthem speaks of our land. Our national symbols embrace nature with the maple, beaver, caribou and loon. Yet who of us knows the habitat of the loon—now at risk, by the way (climate change will impact much of its breeding grounds). Who knows what the boreal forest—which makes up over half of our country—is? How it functions to keep this entire planet healthy, and what that ecosystem needs, in turn, to keep doing this? Who understands that we all live in a watershed with an associated water cycle and what consequences water diversion, removal, squandering or pollution will have on it?

Rosedale Ravine, Toronto
Ecology isn’t rocket science. Ecology is common sense. Ecology is about relationship and discovery.

Open yourself to discovery. Go find Nature, even if it is in the city. Connect with something natural, green and wild. Find the wonder of it.

Find something to love.

When you do, you will find yourself. And that is where you will find resilience.