Utopian Visions of a Resilient Tomorrow

(Depicted above is a sketch of Thomas More’s Utopia, Originally Published in 1516)

“It will, of course, be said that such a scheme as is set forth here is quite unpractical, and goes against human nature.  This is perfectly true.  It is unpractical, and it goes against human nature.  This is why it is worth carrying out, and that is why one proposes it.  For what is a practical scheme?  A practical scheme is either a scheme that is already in existence, or a scheme that could be carried out under existing conditions.  But it is exactly the existing conditions that one objects to; and any scheme that could accept these conditions is wrong and foolish.  The conditions will be done away with, and human nature will change.  The only thing that one really knows about human nature is that it changes.”

– Oscar Wilde, “The Soul of Man under Socialism”

Our current geological epoch, now referred to as the ‘Anthropocene’ due to such an extensive influence of human activities on the natural environment that not a habitat on earth remains undisturbed (Crutzen and Stoermer, 2000), boasts a litany of socio-ecological deficiencies that threaten the long-term viability of human and natural systems alike. Anthropogenic climate change, unbridled deforestation for agriculture, mining, logging, and fossil fuel extraction, and similarly devastating encroachments on natural systems have led to the loss of over half of our planet’s vertebrate life (and a 45% decline in vertebrate life over the past four decades). This present ‘6th mass extinction‘ is seeing the worst rates of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs during the late Cretaceous period. Similarly, we are presently losing wooded areas roughly the size of Panama each year (FAO). The looming threats posed by these biospheric crises are rendered further pressing by a projected peak of over nine billion human inhabitants by 2050 (UN, 2015), placing even greater stresses on resources, land and energy.

However, it is not burgeoning human populations that are necessarily the primary issue so much as how resources are utilized and distributed, and the rationales that underpin our socioeconomic systems. Consequently, numerous thinkers (Marx, 1844; Schumacher, 1973; Schnaiberg, 1980; Foster, 2000) have pointed to the acquisitive logic of industrial capitalism- a system predicated on the unhampered consumption of energy and other natural resources in order to fuel its maxims of ceaseless growth and profit maximization- as one of the primary underlying causes of our myriad socio-ecological troubles. The unchallenged reign of ‘oligarchic capitalism’ (García-Olivares & Solé, 2015) has seen global levels of inter and intra-national socioeconomic inequality soar to such unprecedented levels that in 2015, the richest 62 billionaires owned as much wealth as half of humanity. Such enormous disparities in wealth and access to resources underlie recent proliferations of slogans such as ‘Economy for the 99%’ and ‘System Change Not Climate Change’, varied protestations against what Pope Francis has aptly termed an ‘economy of exclusion’. What’s more, issues of socioeconomic inequality and environmental degradation are inextricably linked. When the worlds’s multitudes must scramble over access to increasingly scarce resources (scarcity which is often socially contrived) in order to secure themselves against poverty and want, they are forced seek any and all means in order to thrive, including the exploitation of fragile ecosystems and endangered species for their potential monetary value. The deadly cycle of extremes, of those with too much at the expense of those without enough, must be broken if biospheric collapse is to be prevented.

“They have a way in their language of speaking of men as halves of one another- that they had noticed among us some men gorged to the full with things of every sort while their other halves were beggars at their doors, emaciated with hunger and poverty. They found it strange that these poverty-stricken halves should suffer such injustice, and that they did not take the others by the throat or set fire to their houses.” – On Cannibals, Essays, Michel de Montaigne

The seeds for a more socio-ecologically sustainable and equitable future have long persisted (indeed, within organic or ‘pre-literate’ societies and much of human history, hierarchies, class distinctions, domination, and exploitation didn’t exist), occasionally finding expression through the remarkably prescient ideas sketched out in classical utopian fiction works such as Edward Bellamy’s ‘Looking Backward’, Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’, William Morris’s ‘News from Nowhere’, H. G Wells’ ‘A Modern Utopia’, and more modern manifestations such as Ursula Le Guin’s ‘The Disposessed’ and Ernest Callenbach’s ‘Ecotopia’. Today their visions of equality, harmony, and prosperity are alive in the fervent resolve and innovative ideals of social transformation movements such as the Transition Towns Network. Their primary objectives frequently involve necessary alterations in the structures of modern society such as the decentralization of social systems, the widespread downscaling of productive, consumptive, and distributive activities through practical local initiatives such as community energy generation schemes, local currencies, local food production and consumption, and even the eradication of monetary and debt systems altogether. On the social and ideological level, these ideal worlds are predicated on cooperation rather than competition, emphasize the ‘principle of distribution over the principle of growth’ (Mill, 1970 [1848]), and aim to improve the quality of life of all people in ways that are first and foremost symbiotic with natural ecosystems. Similarly, the dissolution of hierarchy in all of its forms (institutional, gendered, cultural, and especially anthropomorphic) is a prominent feature of utopian sketches. In Callenbach’s ‘Ecotopia’, for instance, Ecotopians are depicted as living in intimate communion with the natural ecosystems they dwell within and with their fellow earthlings, even regarding trees as ‘being alive in almost a human sense’ and referring to them as ‘brother tree”.

Ideas for Moving Forward and Building Anew:

– “The first major project…had been to put the country’s food cycle on a steady-state basis: all food wastes, sewage and garbage were to be turned into organic fertilizer and applied to the land, where it could again enter into the food production cycle.”  (Callenbach, Ecotopia) Industrial farming and agricultural practices such as monocultural, meat, and dairy production will have to be radically transformed. These food production methods are enormously resource-intensive, highly inefficient in terms of the vast input of resources required for output of consumables, generate mass pollution and environmental degradation (fertilizer and pesticide runoff, deforestation, desertification, habitat destruction), are key drivers of anthropogenic climate change, and are utterly unacceptable from an animal welfare perspective. We urgently need to cultivate more humane, sustainable, and conscientious dietary options and lifestyles (i.e, permaculture and agroecology). The planet simply cannot sustain a population of 9 billion humans with voracious appetites for meat and dairy products.

– “Ecotopian plastics are entirely derived from living biological sources (plants) rather than from fossilized ones (Petroleum and coal) as most of ours are…the objective was to make [everything] biodegradable, that is, subject to decay.” (Callenbach, Ecotopia) A more sustainable society would need to mimic nature’s cycles and feedback loops, to shift from linear modes of subsistence based on unhampered consumption, production, and resource extraction towards a ‘steady-state’ or ‘circular’ economy like that of Ecotopia’s, which is based on the conscientious use of resources, powered by renewable rather than finite energy sources, and guided by the 5 R’s: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Replenish, and Restore. The 5 R’s are a wonderful general set of guidelines for socio-ecological interactions of all sorts. In ‘Ecotopia’, for instance, Ecotopians engage in mass tree planting campaigns to replenish any trees that are cut down for fuel, housing, and the like. Similarly, the small Himalayan nation of Bhutan, whose constitution requires it to be under a minimum of 60% of forest cover, is a carbon-neutral country and recently planted 108,000 trees in honor of the birth of their prince! Ultimately, we must understand that infinite growth on a finite planet is a physical impossibility. Our subsistence patterns need to reflect this reality.

– “However vast the distances separating settlements, they held to the ideal of complex organicism…The special resources and products of each region were interchanged continually with those of others, in an intricate process of balance: that balance of diversity which is the characteristic of life, of natural and social ecology.” (Le Guin, The Dispossessed) The idea of a conscious and intelligent downscaling of the human enterprise is one that not only features frequently in virtually all of the utopian works noted above but is also being implemented by a number of social transformation initiatives such as the Transition Towns Network. The key objective is a rapid global re-localization of social systems towards the cultivation of small-scale, close-knit, and self-sufficient communities that are interconnected globally yet grounded in an intimate sense of place. Yet, as many utopian works elucidate, there has to be a center, some sort of apparatus for the coordination of human activities such as resource distribution amongst the various global communities. Thus, another fascinating transformative social change initiative, The Venus Project, advocates the use of sophisticated global cybernetic systems in order to catalogue, coordinate, and distribute resources and services, trade, communication, travel, and the like.

“Unless our culture goes through some sort of fundamental shift in its governing values…How do we honestly think we’ll ‘adapt’ to the people made homeless and jobless by increasingly intense and frequent natural disasters? How will we treat the climate refugees who arrive on our shores in leaky boats?” (Klein, This Changes Everything) Transition Towns Network founder, Rob Hopkins, urges that more than anything we need to construct new social narratives that dispel the semblances of economic necessity and such ill-conceived notions as that competition, greed, and self-interest are the only characteristics that keep societies together and propel them forward. Cooperation and reciprocity are some of the most essential features of evolution and the workings of nature. In complex societies such as our own, they are vital for our survival, success, and our capacity to overcome crises. The myth of humans as inherently avaricious, violent, and self-serving automatons that has been perpetuated by neoliberal orthodoxy and age-old ‘epistemologies of rule’ (Bookchin, 2005) has never had a firm basis in reality, and it is now that we’re beginning to see the disastrous consequences of adhering to such toxic mantras. We will need to nurture cooperation, kindness, empathy, and the ability to see the ‘self’ in the ‘other’ if we are to build a viable and resilient future for ourselves and our ‘more-than-human’ counterparts.

The purpose of a ‘utopian ideal’ is to assist one in visualizing and constructing the ‘thing that might be’, not the thing that already is (Wells, 1900). When conditions no longer produce favorable outcomes for the vast majority, those conditions must be changed, and truly transformative change must necessarily come from a deviation from established norms, conventions, and methods of subsistence. Unyielding adherence to the pragmatic when it is imaginative idealism that is necessary in order to adequately address the crises at hand will only result in a continuation of the same, or at best an assortment of temporary patchwork remedies that ultimately fail to address the underlying causes of our socio-ecological troubles. The time for a systematic and large-scale fruition of these visions is now more urgently needed than ever before, as we face a litany of daunting threats: crippling socioeconomic inequality, crumbling social infrastructures, and biospheric decline, to name a few. As the sagacious futurist and industrial engineer, Jacque Fresco,  notes, we have the technological capability and the know-how to design a wonderfully resilient future wherein the earth’s profusion of resources are rendered accessible for the reasonable needs of all; what we need is the will and the determination. Indeed, with the recent multiplicity of social protest movements such as ‘Occupy’ and the ‘People’s Climate March’, the resolute voices of society’s growing discontent with ‘The Thing That Is’, coupled with extraordinary real world examples of alternate social arrangements provided by initiatives such as the Transition Towns Network, change will be unstoppable. Utopia isn’t ‘no place’; it is merely a ‘not yet’ future (Adorno, 1966) that is well within our realm of potentialities.

“In the brown libraries and studies of the period other men were sitting, pouring over books, writing with something furtive in their manner, while the pride of contemporary life brayed and trumpeted along the roadway outside. ‘What is being told to the people is not true. Things could be better than this.'” – Wells, The Shape of Things to Come

Content by Heather Alberro


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