Existence, Economics, and Ecology – The Philosophy in Channel 4’s ‘Utopia’

By Neville Birdi

‘What do you think is going to happen when that oil and coal runs out in, say, a hundred years? When there’s ten billion living on a planet that can support only one?’

On the day of writing, it is a Monday, the month is February, the year is 2019. The average global surface temperature has increased by almost 1 degree Celsius since 1880 (but with two-thirds of the warming occurring in the past 25 years). The temperature of the planet is increasing at an exponential rate as a result of climate change. Species extinction rates, as a result of humans are 1,000 times faster than before humanity’s existence. Mother Nature cries out as her children walk and trample over her body, sapping her resources, and draining her dry… – or at least this is what Channel 4’s TV program ‘Utopia’ wants you to feel.

The program is an eerie, thrilling, and paranoid look at the issues of the Anthropocene. A rough synopsis of the show is as follows (warning: major spoilers ahead – I implore you to watch the show first!):

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Left to right: Becky, Ian, and Wilson.

There is a comic book (or as Becky likes to call it, a ‘graphic novel’) dubbed ‘The Utopia Experiments’. This manuscript has been rumoured to have foreseen pandemics and biological disasters. The comic also has an unpublished sequel, which details more predictions and insidious insights into medical experiments. This manuscript falls into the hands of fans of the original book, and they begin to be hunted down by a mysterious group called, ‘The Network’. The show focuses on The Network’s attempts to track down the group and gain the manuscript. It is slowly revealed that within the manuscript lies the information The Network needs to enact a plan to ‘solve’ climate change. The solution is:

  1. Hide a protein (called Janus) in a vaccine.
  2. This protein will sterilise the human it is injected into.
  3. Create a global epidemic scare, get everyone injected with the vaccine.
  4. The majority of humanity is sterilised thereby solving the problem of overpopulation and culling the cause of human-
    expedited climate change.

Wilson: It’s opening a door, all right, but what you don’t realize is that it’s opening a door… to reality.
Ian: What does that even mean, Wilson?
Wilson: I don’t know, I’m a bit drunk.

The group of protagonists (Becky, Ian, Grant, and Jessica) must prevent The Network from discovering whatever secrets the comic book harbours and stop the potential eradication or genocide that will be enacted on the whole of humanity.

There is a debate to be had here – both the group of protagonists, and The Network, believe they are the heroes of the story. The Network thinks they are going to save humanity, whereas our rag-tag band of misfits think they are saving humanity from a great pain and injustice. Who you side with depends on your ethical, political, and economic position…or does it? Do you have a choice in the matter?

The show spans two seasons, and the whole program is a must-watch, but for the purposes of this article, I’d like to pin down some key moments in the narrative and examine them under a philosophical lens. The key moments look at the impact humans have on the planet, how to solve the impact of humans via eradication, the possibility of mass sterilisation, and the threat of eugenics that arises from such actions.

‘His birth was a selfish act. It was brutal.’

A brilliant, yet haunting and repulsive scene in the final episode of Season 2 of Utopia sums up how The Network sees humanity’s impact on the planet. The scene opens the episode before the opening credits. A man (employed by The Network) sits at a bus station and gets chatting to another passenger and her child. The child is sneezing, clearly having a cold. The lady says how she’s taking the bus to France ‘for the environment’. He approves, pauses, and then asks her why, if she cared so much about the environment, did she give birth to another human?

Man: He will produce 515 tons of carbon in his lifetime. That’s 40 trucks worth. Having him was the equivalent of nearly 6,500 flights to Paris. You could have flown 90 times a year, there and back nearly every week of your life and still not have the same impact on the planet that his birth had.

Woman: Yeah but I don’t….

Man: Not to mention the pesticides, the detergents, the plastics, the nuclear fuel used to keep him warm. His birth was a selfish act. It was brutal. You have condemned others to suffering. In fact, if you really cared, what you’d do is cut his throat open right now.

The scene is cold and shocking; the dialogue comes out of nowhere stunning not only the lady, but the audience too. An ominous parting message is left by the man to the mother and child as he leaves:

Man: I hope he gets over that flu, but maybe he just shouldn’t.

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Wilson.

The mix of a polemic speech, violent and veiled threats slap the audience awake and evoke a deep sense of dread for the rest of the episode. Despite the violent and repulsive threats made by the man, his argument seems to be valid and sound. This adds to the uncomfortableness the audience feels – we know, as watchers, that we damage the environment, yet we don’t want to die! The audience is made to feel guilty for their mere existence.

The implication of the man’s speech indicates a kind of brutal paternalism: humans should disband their anthropocentric lifestyle and turn on themselves. What is advocated here is climate change mitigation, rather than adaptation. Humans are seen to be the cause of damage to the Earth, and so what better way to solve the problem than to eliminate the root: humanity itself. Now, there are some immediate objections to this – we all don’t want to be antinatalists or conduct speciacide. But the facts the man points out are compelling and make us question the gravity of humans’ impacts on the planet.

This is what Utopia, in my opinion, is trying to do – mixed into fictious violence is a clear, cold message, that humanity must wake up and realise that if they carry on this path, the only options left will be one’s as violent as the man states and forebodes. In any case, this speech sets up a wonderful entry into the rest of the discussion about anthropocentrism as a way of life.

‘You know the person who had the greatest positive impact on the environment of this planet? Genghis Khan, because he massacred 40 million people.’

In an earlier moment in the series, to give the group of protagonists their call to adventure and make them realise the gravity of their situation, a captured member of The Network (Letts) tells the group about The Network’s plan to sterilise the human race.

Letts: Janus effects 90 to 95% of the population, leaving only one in twenty fertile. We predict population will plateau at 500 million in just under a hundred years. By then, normal breeding rates should resume, but on a planet that will feel empty.

Ian: You’re f[***]ing insane!

Letts: To do nothing is insane. You accuse us of being genocidal? Not acting is genocide. Where do you think your food comes from, Ian? A third of the world’s farmland is now useless due to soil degradation. Yet we keep producing more mouths to feed. And what’s your answer to that? Energy-saving light bulbs?

Ian: But we’re doing things, we’re changing things.

Letts: You know the person who had the greatest positive impact on the environment on this planet? Genghis Khan, because he massacred forty million people. There was no one to farm the land. Forests grew back. Carbon was dragged out of the atmosphere. And had this monster not existed, there’d be another billion of us today, jostling for space on this dying planet. Yet Janus massacres no one. It’s without violence.

Wilson: This is why you did this to me, this is why you killed my father.

Letts: And there are a thousand other crimes on my conscience. But you know what I see, Wilson? A planet turned into a desert. A thousand million souls starving, dying. And we can stop this, with Janus.

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Philip Carvel and his manuscript.

There are two ideas posited by Letts that solve the problem of overpopulation (which has caused climate change): cleaving the number of humans on the planet via murder, or by sterilising the majority of the human population. As Letts points out, the effect is roughly the same, yet Janus, the sterilising protein, will be ‘without violence’.

There is an ethical dilemma here: what is more valuable, the continuation of the human race, or the rights of those currently alive to reproduce and live without interference by exogenous actions? Letts would argue that the continuation of the human race far exceeds the, in comparison, minor desires of the living population to reproduce. Afterall, as Letts says, in 100 years, reproduction rates will return to normal – it is only one or two generations that cannot reproduce, and they make a small sacrifice for the good of humankind.

However, there is an objection to this. The cost of reproduction is not small or insignificant. Ultimately, this ‘solution’ would strip away bodily autonomy from 90% of the world’s population – they do not consent to this, and it is a deep violation of the personhood. Now, I will grant that the continuation of humankind is very high in importance, however, I am reluctant to agree that stripping away reproductive rights from the majority of living humanity is a small sacrifice to uphold such a great end; rather, I think it is a great sacrifice, albeit for a great good. However, I do not think the two are equitable in value. On the one hand you have billions of peoples’ autonomy, and on the other you have the right of existence for the unborn generations of the human race to come (for if humanity overpopulates further and causes its own extinction, no more can be born).

Although I cannot posit a good reconciliation of the conundrum, I find it pertinent that I cannot decide where I stand: I know Letts’ intentions are best, yet I do not agree with the execution or consequences of the said intentions. This is what makes the show so entertaining – the audience is reluctant to side with the supposed villains, The Network, yet find themselves sympathising with their cause. The result is extreme uncomfortableness and a crumbling of one’s own moral compass.

‘There are certain genetic traits that are undeniably advantageous. Now I believe I’ve isolated a group of people who are genetically stronger…’

There is a horrible realisation the audience comes to in the first episode of Season 2. The episode flashes back many decades (and is even set in an old 4:3 aspect ratio). Here, the audience watches the story of the development of Janus, the sterilising protein. The protein cannot target the whole human race, that would cause its extinction, the very opposite of what is wanted, and so the lead scientist, Phillip Carvel, needs to ensure that a certain sect of people survive.

The original thought is that the protein could be engineered so that it would not take effect if it entered a body with a certain random genetic code – a code that is estimated to be contained in roughly 5%-10% of the world’s population. The genetic code is innocuous and therefore it would effectively be like selecting 5%-10% of the global population at random.

But Phillip, being the visionary that he is, sees an opportunity not just to ensure the continuation of the human race, but to improve it. Now a grim realisation reaches the audience: The Network could be operating under motivations caused by eugenics. The show even has the assistant to Phillip shout, ‘that’s the Third f[***]king Reich’, acknowledging the horrible connections between Janus-eugenics and the despicable practices carried out in Nazi Germany.

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From Season 2 Episode 1 – the whole episode is displayed with heavy saturation, film grain, and 4:3 ratio.

The audience becomes even more conflicted – of course they want the human race to survive, but now they not only have to stomach mass destruction of reproductive rights, but also a global eugenics program in which the weak lineages are scourged from the Earth. The show moves onto another ethical debate, this time concerning eugenics and genetic engineering (this debate overlaps significantly with arguments concerning ‘designer babies’). Hypothetically, if one could ensure all the best genes and eliminate all the worst genes for all of humanity, would that not be beneficial? Even if it meant discriminatory sterilisation? To me, the idea is intuitively repulsive and there are many rebuttals on principles, however, the practical argument is strong, if not extremely radical and invasive.

The episode ultimately acts as a prologue for the entire series, but with this element of eugenics thrown into the mix, the audience are left in a bitter taste in their mouths.

The show has cleverly led watchers down a dark path:

You to sympathise with the problems occurring due to overpopulation and climate change,

… so you to agree that overpopulation and subsequently climate change must be mitigated,

…so you now feel pressured into supporting the only proposed solution left, mass sterilisation,

…and, if you support that, then you may as well streamline the human race, via eugenics, to ensure that it is the best it can possibly be.

The show’s viewers have been pushed down a slippery slope from which it is difficult to escape.

‘World’s full of love. Billions of people loving billions of others. All that love will turn to dust when our resources die. I’ve seen what people are capable of when they feel they’re losing everything. Look around.’

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Philip Carvel – the scientist obsessed with Janus-eugenics.

I’m averse to killing or sterilising the majority of the human population in order to stop global overpopulation and climate change…so, what’s the solution? Well, unfortunately, there isn’t an easy one. Either, everyone, has to act in a small capacity, or a small group of people need to act in a big (radical) capacity.

The choice is between all of us using bags for life, turning off the lights when we leave the room, companies cutting down on CO2, switching from fossil fuels to renewables, and more, or a small group, like The Network, has to invoke sterilisation projects. The choice seems almost simple at an individual level but coordinating everyone’s involvement in small lifestyle changes is tough. What emerges is the ‘freeloader’ or ‘free-rider’ problem. People will benefit from changes others make, so they themselves do not bother to act, and so no one acts, waiting for the first person to do so. The free-rider problem is tough to crack and has bothered economists and philosophers for decades. Perhaps a solution would be to coordinate such lifestyle changes through legislation, such as the UK banning the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2040, forcing people to switch to electric vehicles.

Whatever solution is desired, it will be difficult to act out and coordinate – the solution of coordination could be solved by legislation, but the free-rider problem exists on an international level as well. Furthermore, domestic coercive legislation on lifestyle is very unpopular and requires heavy political capital to ratify. Utopia benefits from being in a fictional universe, as in reality, even the most radical solutions are nigh impossible to enact.

‘Therefore, send not to know For whom the bell tolls, It tolls for thee.’

George Carlin does a brilliant stand-up routine on global warming and climate change: although many have called him a climate change denier, what he is actually saying is that humans will die due to their own pollution and wars caused by resource degradation. The planet, in his eyes, will be fine, it is humanity that will suffer. Carlin says that ‘the planet will shake [humanity] off like a bad case of fleas’ (Jammin’ In New York, 1992), and all that will remain of humanity will be some ‘Styrofoam’ (Ibid.) left behind. His conclusion can be drawn with a parallel to a host and virus. A virus uses a host’s resources to survive, however, via its reproduction, it creates an uninhabitable condition (such as a fever and too high temperatures), as a result, the virus dies out, and the host survives.

The implication is thus: humans, via overpopulation, have created soon to be uninhabitable conditions – the planet is effectively defending itself against humans, and humans, should they continue to reproduce, will actually cause their own extinction. The Network’s solution only prolongs this inevitability – reproduction rates will return to normal 100 years after the sterilisation and the population will grow until another culling is required. Humans must face the fact that either they will eradicate themselves, or they must change their lifestyle so that they can live harmoniously with the planet. An overhaul in the philosophy of humanity appears to be required from anthropocentrism to a style of ecocentrism.

What such an overhaul looks like…I will admit, I am unsure about. We have a duty to ourselves, not the planet, to ensure our sustainable survival. Humans, like a foreign-body in a host, must try and lower their effects on the Earth so that its self-defence mechanisms will not initialise to the extent to which humans cause their own extinction. Therefore, I would propose, with an ethical impetus, that supranational organisations impose global, binding legislation in order to limit nations from further degrading the environment. Attempts have been made with the EU ETS scheme and the various COP summits held by the UN, however, their effects have been limited at best. I am in danger of suggesting more radical solutions – but does that push us closer to becoming like The Network? Surely not…?

Whether humanity changes or not, the Earth will always outlast humans – so, the message should not be ‘save the planet’, but ‘save ourselves’. Yet, the question still remains…how?

References

Jammin’ In New York. (1992). [DVD] Directed by G. Carlin. New York City: HBO.

Utopia. (2013). [TV Programme] Directed by D. Kelly. United Kingdom: Channel 4.

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