The Cycle of Coming Home
by Phoebe Wagner
In 2018, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) produced a new report with an ultimatum nearly beyond comprehension let alone action: by 2030, a forty to fifty percent reduction in global emissions. If global emissions continue to rise, as they currently are, the report also describes what overshooting a 1.5 degree Celsius change means for the humans and nonhumans (“Summary for Policymakers” 6). Of course, many folks beyond scientists have imagined where a capitalist consumerist culture would ultimately lead, such as Kim Stanley Robinson, Octavia Butler, N. K. Jemisin, Jeff Vandermeer, Rebecca Roanhorse and on. The speculative genre (comprised of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and numerous sub-genres) has always imagined where humanity might end up—whether on Mars or in Area X. While inspiring, these writers do not always provide practical solutions to modern issues such as the climate crisis. Rather, their work tolls a warning. At this point, humanity is beyond warning, but as US society approaches what one might describe as a dystopia, speculative fiction can provide a map to a new future, if humanity chooses to follow the trails left by iconic characters, such as Ursula K. Le Guin’s anarchist-physicists Shevek. In The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974), Ursula K. Le Guin describes the future foretold by the IPCC’s report. If humanity can acknowledge the battle lost, perhaps there’s another path—anarchy. Rooted in environmental thinking from Edward Abbey to Winona LaDuke, environmentalism has always understood that humanity belongs to a greater system than government. If one accepts the coming future, The Dispossessed becomes a literary tool, a map, and a warning: Here’s how to create anarchy and here’s how to keep creating it. This paper will argue for a new environmental anarchy described by Le Guin’s novel, a theory of cyclical anarchy which encompasses human and nonhuman.
Ultimately, The Dispossessed is about voyage—going out and returning home. The alternating chapter structure follows Shevek as he grows up on the anarchist planet Anarres and as he leaves Anarres to study physics on the lush, capitalist planet, Urras. The book unites at the end as the final chapters feature Shevek preparing to leave Anarres for Urras while the older counterpart Shevek leaves Urras to return to Anarres. More episodic than plot driven, the novel traces Shevek’s developing life and shifting views on anarchy, thus adding the ambiguity to Le Guin’s utopia. While The Dispossessed has been explored for its circularity—particularly by Darko Suvin—it is often tied to the physics of the novel rather than anarchy. In two moments, the novel breaks the circularity through the introduction of minor characters—a woman from Earth (the Terran Ambassador) and a Hainish character who follows Shevek home to Anarres. While anomalies, their presence at the end of the book suggests their importance. Indeed, the Terran ambassador Keng fulfills the dictum of voyage and return by allowing the reader who has voyaged to these planets to “return” home to earth. When Shevek calls Urras in all its wealth a hell, Keng describes the current state of Earth:
“My world, my Earth, is a ruin. A planet spoiled by the human species. We multiplied and gobbled and fought until there was nothing left, and then we died. We controlled neither appetite nor violence; we did not adapt. We destroyed ourselves. But we destroyed the world first. There are no forests left on my Earth. The air is grey, the sky is grey, it is always hot. It is habitable, it is still habitable, but not as [Urras] is. This is a living world, a harmony. Mine is a discord. You Odonians chose a desert; we Terrans made a desert.” (Le Guin 347-348)
Uncontrollable appetite, war, grey skies, the heat, desertification—each element of Keng’s description is already happening and now nearly unstoppable unless the capitalist powers have a change of heart in the next twelve years. As Keng says, the US multiplies and gobbles without true restriction. Today, humanity lives in one hell, as described by Shevek, while heading for another hell described by Keng—a circle surrounding the reader. Yet, Le Guin offers the reader a way out by going home.
Yet, to go home in The Dispossessed means to return to a new place. A locality never remains static, nor does the returning person. For an anarchist, home goes beyond the definition of an owned structure or a place that belongs to a person. Rather, the relationship to home becomes an oscillation of going and coming—a cycle. In one of the earliest uses of river imagery, and only the second philosophical river image, Shevek connects his idea of voyage and return to rivers and the physics theories governing the novel: “You shall not go down twice to the same river, nor can you go home again. […] You can go home again, the General Temporal Theory asserts, so long as you understand that home is a place where you have never been” (Le Guin 55). The idea of home and the ever-cycling river become connected by their lack of sameness. Like Shevek’s physics theories, this idea of not remaining the same can be invisible. A river and a home may seem familiar or unchanged but transformation exists, even if beyond human sight. Attempting to remain static pushes against the reality of rivers.
This definition of voyage-return as home connects to the novel’s anarchist theories through Odo, the anarchist thinker and revolutionary who founded the Anarresti way of life. When Shevek is taken sightseeing on the capitalist planet Urras, where all the Anarresti emigrated from, he visits Odo’s grave. While one might expect a revolutionary thinker jailed for her writings might have something equally revolutionary written on her gravestone, Odo’s marker simply states: “To be whole is to be part; true voyage is return” (Le Guin 84). This sentiment is the only piece of Odo’s writing the reader experiences without the lens of conversation or interior monologue. In this moment, the reader can connect with Odo’s work on her terms. In the following chapter, written from young Shevek’s point of view, he realizes Odo never fulfilled the ultimate voyage-return. She never reached Anarres: “[S]he had lived, and died, and was buried […] among people speaking unknown languages, on another world. Odo was an alien: an exile” (Le Guin 101). Because no other Anarresti has left the planet since they emigrated, Shevek’s journey becomes a turn of the cycle started by Odo, who started the voyage, but ultimately, Shevek brings the return. This cosmic cycle at the novel’s heart becomes paramount to the anarchic thought. Even though the Anarrestis took the desert moon as an anarchist experiment, their belief in the individual’s right and will to act had become meaningless because they did not want Shevek to return to Urras. It caused anarchy to the Anarresti way of life, to their system, thus starting another cycle.
If The Dispossessed can become a lens for transforming the impact of the climate crisis across the US, then voyage-return becomes central to developing a cyclical anarchy. The American Dream leaves little room for coming home. Indeed, when a millennial returns home, often that person is considered a failure. Of course, reasons abound for why one might not return—abuse, sexism, homophobia, racism—but home can be expanded to where a person feels at home or to a locality that becomes home. As the millennial generation struggles to stay in one place or stay in a single job, the idea of calling somewhere home seems alien. While not the first to call for homecoming, Wendell Berry connects the need for young people to return to their communities as a way of fighting the climate crisis. In The Art of Loading Brush: New Agrarian Writings, Wendell Berry describes homecoming as vital to reconstructing sustainable community: “The primary vocation probably is the call to go home, to go where one’s gifts and one’s work can be offered to one’s family and neighbors, to one’s home place—to ‘what is actually loved and known,’” (ch. 2). Like Le Guin in The Dispossessed, he links vocation and homecoming. From early in his life, Shevek is tasked by his mentor to complete his work in physics (Le Guin 58). Only, Shevek discovers, the Anarresti don’t want his theory because of the change it would bring, so he must complete Odo’s journey and go home, to the planet of his people. Much like the idea of home is not limited to possession, this cycle of return cannot be limited only to ideas of journey. If to be applied to the climate crisis, the cycle of return must include previous practices. Since the Industrial Revolution especially, humankind have been on a racing arc of technological development. While environmental thinkers argue over the legitimacy of a wholesale return to primitivism or developing new environmentally friendly tech (and every argument in between), a cyclical anarchy allows for such seasons of development but requires a return to previous practices. Like Shevek—whose physics theories create a piece of technology that can instantaneously communicate through faster than light travel, thus reconnecting the whole of the universe, including Anarres—technological development can become part of the cycle as long as it returns home, granted, a home changed by such technology. Wendell Berry writes: “As soon as I know that you and the other predictors are securely stowed away in the future with your computers, computer models, statistics, and projections, fearing now the fearfulness yet to come, I light out for home, where everything I love is suffering a long-established, still-continuing damage right now” (ch. 2). While there are seasons of waiting, Wendell Berry and the IPCC claim it is a season of doing. As governmental systems fail to transform capitalist consumerism, perhaps a cycle of anarchy focused on the local, the home, could create a ripple of change.
In 1974, the need for change seemed distant in regard to the climate. Indeed, the bleak descriptions of the anarchist moon Anarres seemed too scarce, too dystopic. While there was chatter in the scientific community, the first World Climate Conference was a few years away in 1979. Yet, as the climate crisis continues to grow, rather than Le Guin’s description of scarcity becoming a moot point, a large critique remains regarding the scarcity-based anarchy on Anarres. In “Embodied Anarchy in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed,” Daniel P. Jaeckle sums up this repeated criticisms: “The fact that Le Guin bases life on Anarres upon a level of scarcity even greater than that existing on our planet today means that her vision of anarchy does not contemplate a world in which society no longer has to fear material want” (93). While one cannot assume Le Guin foretold the climate crisis, she joins ranks of other authors (often women) who wrote distinct visions of the future that seem much too near to actualization in the twenty-teens: notably Octavia Butler and Margaret Atwood. Thus, Jaeckle’s argument stumbles: A post-industrial world is coming, and the IPCC report suggests humanity will have many material wants. Le Guin’s inclusion of Keng the Terran Ambassador and her description of Earth foreshadows a future that Anarres offers a possible solution for, but only if implemented early. Keng states: “‘We forfeited our chance for Anarres centuries ago, before it ever came into being’” (Le Guin 349). To that end, Le Guin presents a transitory vision of the jump between Urras and Anarres and how it might occur. If the question of anarchy in a post-scarcity world is voided by agreeing Le Guin does not intended (nor believe) anarchy as a possibility for a material-rich world, then the novel becomes a proposition for what comes next when the rivers run dry.
At the novel’s center, the wells do dry up and a famine sweeps the desert moon. While part of Le Guin’s utopic ambiguity questions if Anarresti society truly functions as an anarchic utopia, the other major ambiguous moment revolves around the famine. Death, threats of violence, making lists of who receives more rations—the famine tests the anarchic society. Even while living close with the land, taking only what is needed, the desert has its own cycle. Again, this section is criticized because it makes anarchy appear unattainable, as Jaekle points out: “To the extent that Le Guin envisions not merely deprivation but life-threatening scarcity, her view of Anarres may become increasingly remote as material prosperity spreads” (93). Yet, material prosperity represents another cycle, one which can only return to scarcity. Indeed, materiality is part of the cycle, even on Anarres where Odoism attempts to minimize excess. When Shevek first goes to the university, he is given a single room rather than sharing a space (Le Guin 102). He also has the choice of desert at every meal, which is unusual in Anarresti society (Le Guin 102). Finally, two new characters have possessions: Sabul, the physics instructor who withholds certain books form the general public, and Desar, Shevek’s neighbor and a hoarder (Le Guin 105, 155). While Sabul and Desar’s materialism is not specifically linked to the famine a few years later, these experiences create a sense of oscillation and balancing. During the famine, the Anarresti acknowledge that the scarcity brought them back to the foundations of Odo’s teachings. In the early stages of the famine, the atmosphere remained positive: “There was an undercurrent of joy [….] The old tag of ‘solidarity’ had come alive again. There is exhalation in finding that the bond is stronger, after all, than all that tries the bond” (Le Guin 247). The cycle of the land prompted the return to solidarity, and the famine prompts Shevek to reexamine his individual choices in regard to Odo’s anarchy, concluding that Anarres has become too systematic and must be shaken up. After the famine, Shevek chooses to recreate anarchy on Anarres.
How does one choose such an existence, to join the cycle of anarchy? Le Guin’s other noncyclical moment presents one option: intentionality, with an acknowledgement it will not be easy. In the final chapter, Shevek’s homecoming to Anarres differs from his exit: he brings someone with him. Ketho is Hainish, the namesake of the Hainish cycle that, chronologically, starts with The Dispossessed. When Ketho informally requests to land with Shevek, he says: “‘My race is very old [….] We have been civilized for a thousand millennia. We have histories of hundreds of those millennia. We have tried everything. Anarchism, with the rest. But I have not tried it. They say there is nothing new under any sun. But if each life is not new, each single life, then why are we born” (385)? Here forms the central argument for cyclical anarchy: each life is new, each river changed, each home unfamiliar, each anarchy recreated. Recorded history might declare anarchy a failure, but you have not tried it. The cycle must start somewhere.
The Dispossessed joins the cycle by opening a door for the reader to voyage home but returned changed by imagining a possible future, a home never visited on a desert moon. Cyclical anarchy is not a damnation or expectance of apocalypse. One of the joys of speculative literature is the ability to rewrite the future and tell a different narrative. A practical element of that separate narrative is returning home and investing in local communities. Such investment breaks a system that expects the next generation to leave, whether for jobs, education, or exploration. This voyage cannot be complete without the return: a call to making a sustainable home. While not obviously anarchic, it disrupts the US cultural system that privileges the voyage without return. If we can dispossess ourselves of horror, fear, and lies about the climate crisis then a future of solidarity through plenty and famine, a future of seasons and cycles, a future of (re)creation awaits.
Berry, Wendell. The Art of Loading Brush: New Agrarian Writings. Counterpoint, 2017.
Jaeckle, Daniel P. “Embodied Anarchy in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed.” Utopian Studies: Journal of the Society for Utopian Studies, vol. 20, no. 1, 2009, pp. 75–95.
Le Guin, Ursula K. The Dispossessed. Harper Voyager, 1994.
“Summary for Policymakers.” International Panel on Climate Change, 2018, PDF.