Star Trek Sustainability — What We Can Learn From Science Fiction

I’ve always been fascinated by science fiction and stories about the future. Most of the dreams I remember having usually revolve around futuristic cities with gleaming towers, biodomes full of exotic alien plant life, and suspended pathways that arch across the skyline while flying vehicles of all shapes and sizes crisscross below.

A futuristic city from the film Star Trek Beyond.
A futuristic city from the film Star Trek Beyond.
The impossible space city of Yorktown from Star Trek Beyond.

It wasn’t until relatively recently that I connected the dots in my mind that link my love of science fiction and my interest in environmentalism, sustainability and the way we have structured our society. This short essay attempts to reflect on what we can learn from science fiction when shaping our own future.

The lesson is that we need some radical thinking and to take a sustainable approach if we are to meet critical goals. This includes meeting the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) maximum 1.5–2 °C global warming targets, and working towards the UN sustainable development goals to develop sustainable cities.

A diagram showing the UN Sustainable Development Goals
A diagram showing the UN Sustainable Development Goals

As you may have guessed, I’m a self-confessed Trekkie. Star Trek was a massive part of my childhood, it has obviously had a pretty big impact on me growing up, and has shaped my view of the world as an adult. Alongside the spectacle of city-sized starships in space, I was fascinated with the utopian society of the Star Trek universe.

Whilst it wasn’t explicitly explained in the show, we can gather that crew of the Enterprise (not to mention all the other humans in the Star Trek universe) lived within in a circular economy; an economy whereby resources are extracted, then processed to create products that are used, then totally repurposed/recycled back into the process. Today we live in a mostly linear economy, where resources are extracted, and products are made, used, then end up going into landfill. The obvious worst offenders are the single use plastics that last for generations in landfill or become microplastics in the ocean.

People in the Star Trek universe have developed technology that enabled them to process, recycle, and reconstitute matter into new products and foods, but without waste (or we can assume very little). These ‘Replicator Systems’ effectively eradicated scarcity because anybody who had access to this technology could instantly request anything they wanted — and in the egalitarian and post-capitalist Star Trek world, of course everyone had free access to them. Assuming the item’s molecular pattern was in the computer’s memory banks, the replicator would take ‘waste’ matter and organic/inorganic materials and magically (or rather, scientifically) reshape it into any desired non-living thing including tools, musical instruments, computer equipment, and even food.

Future foods

Previous generations imagined that we would all be living on food pills by now; nutritionally dense protein pills that would substitute traditional meals. In the original series of Star Trek we would see crew members regularly eating colourful ration cubes that were obviously inspired by this thinking.

“Take your protein pills and put your helmet on.” — The classic line from David Bowie’s hit song Space Oddity.

In later series of Star Trek, once the aforementioned replicator technology came about, we saw drinks and entire meals ‘beamed’ into existence; from Captain Picard’s famous Earl Grey tea, to entire steak dinners. There are no cattle on the starship Enterprise and as Commander Riker once told a carnivorous alien guest: “we no longer enslave animals for food purposes” so we can assume that the meat produced is synthetic; either using lab-grown or stem cell technology, or a future version of the mock meats we have today. As we know, meat and beef in particular, is incredibly detrimental to the environment and is one of the leading causes of climate breakdown today. So a sustainable society of the future will likely have phased out animal agriculture, or at least radically changed the way we eat and produce food. It’s not surprising that the most logical species in the universe, the Vulcans, are all vegetarian.

Commander Riker from Star Trek with the caption “We no longer enslave animals for food purposes”.
Commander Riker from Star Trek with the caption “We no longer enslave animals for food purposes”.
The future is woke.

These days we have various brands of space- age meal replacement drinks that can be nutritionally complete, 100% plant-based, and better for the environment than traditional meals.

Take the test and see the carbon footprint of your diet here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-46459714

A circular economy

We need to act like we are living on a spaceship, in a closed system with finite resources — without the replicator systems.

You couldn’t imagine that someone living on the starship Enterprise would absentmindedly throw a used cup into the airlock and jettison it out to space — that cup is a valuable resource and wasting it is depleting their stores. Rather, things would be made to last, or be part of a planned system that would reconstitute the base materials of the cup to be recycled into something else.

Our planet is essentially an organic spaceship hurtling through the galaxy, with a crew compliment of several billion and a pretty efficient air and water purification system. If it were a man made machine I’m sure we would treat it a lot better, we definitely wouldn’t be stripping away vital oxygen generators or pouring toxic waste into our drinking water systems.

Futurists like Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov articulated visions of the future that shaped a generation of storytellers and inspired iconic films and a shift in thinking about the possibilities of humankind’s potential and hope for the future.

In Clark’s book, Rendezvous With Rama, astronauts encounter an enormous cylindrical star ship, which has a completely self-contained ecosystem within it. Although the inhabitants appear to be long extinct, the automated systems suddenly spark into life upon detecting the human visitors. Robotic machines come to life, building things and breaking them down and reusing all the materials in a totally zero-waste, circular economic system that is presumably powered by solar power.

A diagram representing a circular economy, where resources are fed back into the process instead of going to landfill.
A diagram representing a circular economy, where resources are fed back into the process instead of going to landfill.
A circular economy. Source.

A few years ago I discovered the Venus Project, an incredibly ambitious reimagining of our cities and societal structure by the late visionary and engineers Jacque Fresco. His futuristic city designs and ideas of a resource-based economy literally have the environment at its heart; with trees, lakes, wild areas, and natural habitats threading through the man made structures.

Jacque Fresco sitting next to a model design of his city.
Jacque Fresco sitting next to a model design of his city.
Jacque Fresco with his vision of a future city.

A harmonious blend of nature and technology, along with a near zero-waste and circular economy mindset, makes this a template sustainable template for the future that we should be working towards.

Make it so.

To paraphrase another classic science fiction show, The Six Million Dollar Man; “Gentlemen, we can rebuild [our society]. We have the technology.” but economic fears, short-term thinking, and a continuous-growth mindset are all holding us back from building a sustainable society.

We have the technology. We need the vision, courage and leadership to boldly go and create a sustainable civilisation that is fit for the future.

A better world, by design.