During the second lock-down I had an unusual dream. I was aboard a luxury spaceship travelling to a new home in a distant galaxy. It was going to take over five years to reach a planet that was similar to earth only better. The were vast fern forests, turquoise oceans, glittering mountain peaks and caverns packed with exotic minerals.
The spaceship had every amenity. Cinemas, gyms, saunas, tennis courts and a golf course. There were nurseries, schools, green houses and a zoo. It was huge. Almost as large as a small planet. In my dream I was in charge of the cleaning operations. It was a very important role. Every inch of the luxury spaceship had to be cleaned and disinfected regularly so that dirt, spores and micro-organisms did not contaminate the ship’s digital controllers. The cleaning was done by fleets of robots of varying sizes. The human sized robots often got clogged with oils from body lotions, shampoos and sweat and had to be cleaned by another set of robots. The micro sized robots could detect the smallest viruses and bacteria.
But something wasn’t right. I felt uneasy and joined a group playing golf, a sport I have never played. It was fun at first then the artificial sunlight began to dim. A dull shade of sepia replaced the bright colours. The spaceship began to look like a rusty antique. Someone was blaming me. Dust had sneaked into the ship’s drivers slowing its speed. It would take ten years or more to reach our new home. Perhaps longer. My child would be an adult by the time we arrived, if we arrived; and what if the robot cleaners failed and we slowly suffocated as our lungs filled with dust and germs. I longed to return to earth, if only we hadn’t polluted it. We couldn’t turn back, it was too late, too late… Why was it so hard to breathe… All these thoughts were running through my mind in my dream. When I awoke the bright light turned out to be the morning sun creeping above the cedars. I could breath. My lungs were clear. Relief.
So how do I understand my dream? Was it about wanting to escape the lock-down prison? Or was it about the fear that if we continue to produce waste faster than our capacity to clear it up our civilisation will end. We will have polluted ourselves into oblivion. The social anthropologist Mary Douglas claimed in Purity and Danger ‘dirt is matter out of place’. Such pollution is recognised in all societies as a danger to our ‘ordered relations’. It makes us feel uneasy not just because it is unhygienic but because it is taboo. It is not clear what Douglas means by ‘out of place’. If ‘dirt’ includes the toxic waste and pollution humans produce then surely it is the place itself that is endangered, the earth and the earth’s ecosystems and marine habitats.
My dream was also another version of the fantasy that to be saved from our own mess we need to escape to a land of milk and honey. There anything would be possible. We would be rich, have the dream job, play golf, dwell in luxury. But how much longer before the milk turns sour and the honey acidic?