The Other Columbus: How close to dystopia are we?

Scott Woods
Kevin Costner and Jeanne Tripplehorn in a scene from "Waterworld."

If the world feels like it’s getting worse during every news cycle, it’s not in your head. Politically, socially and naturally, the world is struggling. Assuming the world keeps devolving at the current pace, here is a running tab on how close we are to living in any number of popular dystopian futures. 

Fight Club (Book, 1996)

Self-disenfranchising white males who couldn’t get into fraternities using violence to express themselves is pretty on-brand for a bunch of folks who protested at the Statehouse a month ago, so this one isn’t up for debate. This is already happening somewhere.

Tipping points: Trump losing the election.

Timetable: About three months.

The Handmaid's Tale (Book, 1985)

The overthrow of the government that sets this story up isn’t what makes it dystopian; it’s the many ways in which women are subjugated by the social order. When you pursue this as an allegory of a possible future, you find we are frighteningly close to Margaret Atwood’s narrative as a society.

Tipping points: A Trump reelection feels like it would spark this world, but if we’re honest, we’ve been halfway there for decades. The dissolution of Roe v. Wade would put this in overdrive, but an ongoing lack of access to reproductive care, affordable childcare and not paying a living wage (while women remain the largest percentage of minimum wage earners), is pretty close to the way women are perceived in Handmaid’s already.

Timetable: Four years.

"Bushwick" (Film, 2017)

A mysterious, black-clad mercenary militia invades several cities in an attempt to Make The South Great Again. We were pretty close to this one with the appearance of unmarked, plain-clothed enforcers at Black Lives Matter protests this summer.

Tipping points: Increasingly violent and concentrated reactions by the state to dissent; unchecked militias and related causes activating into protests; Trump loses in November.  

Timetable: If protests keep happening in earnest or ramp back up, a year.

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"Dredd" (Film, 2012)

A world in which police are conferred instant judge/jury/execution powers is a totally unreasonable job description in any society pretending to hold freedom and justice as core values. That said, there are places where this happens, it just isn’t legal. It’s not really punished, but it isn’t straight-up allowed. Yet.

Tipping points: See “Bushwick,” then add the dissolution of all attempts or appearances at police reform. The election of hardcore anti-crime legislation in some urban centers in the interest of public safety. You don’t need a deplorable president to make this real; a really enterprising mayor could get it done if they run their city into the ground while looking like they aren’t.

Timetable: 10 years.

"The Purge" (Film, 2013)

Happy Purge Day! Every year we all get to commit crime for 12 hours, up to and including murder. You know, to let off some steam because we’ve basically given up on handling crime sensibly or changing indefensible social conditions.

Tipping points: Crime spikes under the wrong administration; the gun lobby accelerates legislation relaxing weapon acquisition; percentage of Black U.S. gun ownership spikes to 50 percent (24 percent in 2017).

Timetable: 20-40 years somewhere locally, 15-20 years after that nationally. Choose your congressmen and congresswomen wisely.

"Escape From New York" (Film, 1981)

In an attempt to consolidate prison costs and scare America straight, the government turns Manhattan Island into a self-sustaining prison.

Tipping points: The government doubles down on the prison-industrial complex; global warming.

Timetable: 40 years, assuming the sea levels from global warming hold. Once that happens, no one will want to live there, and turning it into 33 square miles of jailhouse rock will seem like a decent payout from all the gentrification they’ve been doing for generations.

Fahrenheit 451 (Book, 1953)

Ray Bradbury’s vision of a future in which books are illegal and firemen are charged with burning them isn’t about censorship, but self-censorship; about how technology and media make people not want to read at all. Also, robot spider-dogs that hunt down perpetrators. (None of the movie adaptations have ever captured these automatons, proving that books are indeed awesome.)

Tipping points: The dissolution of education as we know it through even more massive funding cuts; further privatization of schools; deeper and more addictive social media; continued culling of the print industry. 

Timetable: We’re already burning books as political theater now. As publishing and news industries are gutted deeper and deeper, the reliance on print media for information could evaporate in a couple of generations. 40-60 years.  

"Blade Runner" (Film, 1982)

You have to choose which part of the dystopia we’re talking about: the part where lifelike robots become our slaves, or the part where our world is transformed into one big pleasure mall by unchecked capitalism.

Tipping points: A Trump-like figure that knows what they’re doing, preferably with an Amazon portfolio. Don’t laugh: If Michael Bloomberg hadn’t been such a contemptible person who came in at the tail end of election fatigue, he could have been the antichrist of commerce.

Timetable: However long it takes for Republicans to figure out how to run someone on a purely capitalist platform without being a sickening person to boot. 30 years, tops.

"Mad Max" (Film, 1979)

The original Blue Lives Matter platter. The world of the first half-goofy entry in the Mad Max series features a society that’s chaotic, ravaged by over-industrialization but not yet war, like the rest of the series. It’s basically “Dirty Harry” with disaffected cops in modified body armor driving souped up Ford Falcons instead of three-piece suits. The movie opens with the text, “A few years from now.” It’s not wrong.

Tipping points: Vigilante-like police force using extreme force as a matter of course; ballooning budgets for law enforcement. 

Timetable: About two weeks from now.

The Hunger Games (Book, 2008)

Class War: The Series! Send your children into the wood chipper of rich folk entertainment to fight on your behalf and the state may feed you!

Tipping points: If one of our now constantly occurring recessions catches a stiff famine to go with it, we could see a tightening of regions into self-sustaining districts. The game show “Supermarket Sweep” has been around since 1965. You’re already primed for it.

Timetable: 10 years for a flag football version of this, another 30-40 years before we start letting people kill each other for the consolation prizes.

1984 (Book, 1949)

The media is no longer a check of government, but a function of it. No one can trust the messaging from your leaders no matter who the leaders are. We don’t even know if wars are happening anymore, trapped as we are in bubbles of despair, quarantined from reality altogether.

Tipping points: If we catch a pandemic that hurts even more than COVID-19 with a military coup d’etat kicker; mail goes away entirely; in-person schools become extinct; media becomes monopolized by the government; and a recession that isn’t combated, but fed by the state for the purposes of production.

Timetable: Big Brother will be watching you in about 30-50 years.

Ready Player One (Book, 2011)

Set in a future version of Columbus where everyone lives in trailer homes stacked on top of one another while experiencing the world largely through online platforms, this one hits a little close to home. Basically, it’s a world that has really let itself go so long as the Wi-Fi bill stays paid. 

Tipping points: A long-term quarantine; economic implosion; the decimation of affordable housing; social media evolution to virtual reality technology at affordable levels.

Timetable: 35-40 years.   

"Soylent Green" (Film, 1973)

It’s a trip how so many of these scenarios rely on climate change as the catalyst for the story. It’s almost like if we don’t do something about preserving the ecology of the planet, we’ll have to resort to turning poor people into food to compensate for what the world will no longer provide.

Tipping points: Extreme food shortage; explosion of pollution spoiling key resources; dismantling of farming/fishing industries; legalization of euthanasia; eradication of the middle class; amplification of riot-level policing resources.

Timetable: The conditions for this are all on deck, but even a cynic like me has to balk at any industry opting to use people as foodstuffs, even for money. 100 years from now, however, we’ll be knee-deep in another world, and something tells me we may not be so picky if things keep going downhill for another century.

"The Terminator" (Film, 1984)/"The Matrix" (Film, 1999)

These two worlds come out of the same origin story: humans create a superior artificial intelligence, the AI decides that people are a problem, war ensues. The only difference is in the decision made by the machines in how to deal with the human virus. In “The Terminator,” it’s simple eradication; in “The Matrix,” it’s a parasitic existence. 

Tipping points: The development of a truly human-like AI.

Timetable: Depending on how robust the social processing of such an AI is, I estimate it would take the system a year from its creation to get us plugged into a matrix. Any reasonable AI would come to an extinction agenda pretty quick, about five minutes after accessing the “What Are Humans?” downloadable pack.

The Road (Book, 2006)

Cormac McCarthy’s novel puts us squarely in a world that has experienced something cataclysmic, but we aren’t sure what. The effect is a shelled-out existence with no society whatsoever, and a world in which survival is the only item on the menu. Well, and the occasional child. 

Tipping points: Society-ending war; total dissolution of government.

Timetable: McCarthy told Oprah Winfrey that when conceiving of the novel, he envisioned what the world might be like in 50-100 years. That was in 2007. Another 37-87 years sounds about right.

"Waterworld" (Film, 1995)

As bad as the melting of the polar ice caps would be, “Waterworld” dramatically overstates the extent to which Earth would experience that in landlocked areas. If you live in Florida or New York City, sure, you may want to invest in some scuba gear. But for the most part, the effects of a total polar ice cap melt would destroy coastal lands, but not, say, the Midwest. That said, there are a ton of related disasters that come with that level of climate change which would affect your weekend no matter where you lived (shift in Earth’s rotation, longer days, decimation of wildlife and so on). At the rate we’re going this is almost a “when” situation with no “if” in sight, so if your children live on a coast, you may want to tell them to consider moving inland about 300 miles before their kids go to college.

Tipping points: Prolonged lack of environmental controls; unchecked global warming.

Timeline: To cosplay “Waterworld” in Florida or San Francisco, about 50 years. To do it at the OSU Horseshoe, never (though you may have to share your seat with one of 50-100 million displaced people).

"Star Wars" (Film, 1977)

When America’s newly minted Space Force gets off the ground, this is pretty much where we’re headed, except there is no way Earth won’t be part of the Empire. 

Tipping points: A functioning Space Force with an interest in interstellar travel. The good news? When you consider NASA’s budget (less than 1 percent since 1994, and dropping), even under an administration that believes in science, this scenario is perhaps the least likely one on this list.

Timeline: You won’t get to vote for a Palpatine/Vader ticket for another 5,000 years, if you’re lucky.