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The sheep look forward: Counterfactuals, dystopias, and ecological science fiction as a social science enterprise

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John Brunner’s 1972 novel, The Sheep Look Up, is the story of the year leading up to a global ecological and political catastrophe. Set primarily in the United States in an unspecified near future, The Sheep Look Up tells the story of “death by a thousand cuts”: problem upon problem, malfeasance upon malfeasance, which accumulate, reinforce each other and are met only by a failing political and economic system that ultimately collapses under its own weight. This article reflects on themes and topics of the novel that resonate for social science theorists and teachers in the environmental social sciences, including global environmental politics. First, it provides a type of counterfactual analysis. It opens a window into how the world might have been had certain actions not been taken. Second, it provides a warning: how the world might be if we do not act. Third, it provides a model of how a disastrous transition might unfold as social resilience has been worn down. Looking back on the almost fifty years since the novel was written demonstrates how its scenario was averted through concerted government and societal actions, but the article also points out how Brunner’s work has strong resonance with our present – and at different times in the recent past.

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