Ecotopia: A Bet You Can’t Refuse

One Chance in a hundred?

Let’s be optimistic! Let’s bet there’s one chance in a hundred that the Earth will still be habitable at the end of the 21st Century! Think I’m exaggerating? Try answering the following questions honestly: Do you personally think that weapons of mass destruction are likely to stop proliferating? Do you truly believe that pollution is going to stop getting worse? Can you actually imagine that forests will stop disappearing? That the climate will stop heating up? Do you actually see an end to:

glaciers melting?
icebergs shrinking?
arctic permafrost disappearing?
oceans rising?
coastlands sinking?
famines raging?
epidemics spreading?
cities deteriorating?
global unemployment rising?
poverty increasing?
armed conflicts erupting?
refugees multiplying?
petty crime flourishing?
corporate crime expanding?
real wages declining?
useless wealth piling up?
rich people withdrawing into gated communities?
youth despairing?
drugs spreading?
AIDS spreading?
prisons boiling over?
religions fanaticizing?
nationalists killing?
womens’ rights shrinking?
government security hardening?
civil rights disappearing?
threat of atomic war increasing?
danger of nuclear accident growing?
women being degraded?
wars dragging on forever?
small farms dying?
forests shrinking?
droughts spreading?
biofuels starving peasants?
oilspills starving fisherfolk?
storms increasing?
deserts extending?
world hunger increasing?
the struggle for water intensifying?
animals and fish disappearing?

Need I go on? You know as well as I do that each of these trends will lead to foreseeable disasters if left unchecked. Now imagine all these trends interacting in horrid synergy. Atmospheric warming leading to glacier melting leading to ocean rising leading to coastal flooding leading to fleeing refugees leading to worldwide epidemics leading to social chaos leading to martial law leading to … you name it. Not a pretty picture. Small wonder we rarely allow ourselves to actually visualize such a future and to imagine ourselves living in it. I dare you to close your eyes and try it, right now, just for thirty seconds…

Denial and Distraction

Hard to stay focused on that picture? Our situation reminds me of people in the Robert Louis Stevenson story who were living in a city built on the edge of a volcano. We get (more or less blithely) through the days without cracking up thanks to a single powerful psychological factor: denial. (Didn’t they name the longest river in the world after it?). Feeling the need to turn your eyes away from immanent global catastrophe? Today’s marketplace provides a full spectrum of diversions for whiling away your time on the way to extinction! Shopping is a sure-fire way to take your mind off the horror; so are TV and losing yourself in work. Grass is great if it helps you laugh at the absurdity of it all, but if it makes you paranoid, stick to booze. (I find alcohol excellent for momentary forgetting.) If you have access to anti-depressants, tranquilizers and Perkidan; they’re the drugs of choice for the quietly desperate. Of course, extreme sports are more of a thrill, and a lot of people get their rocks off competing for more and more money, more and more power. Gambling gives you the same rush.

Cocaine and speed can be cool too if you like the fast lane, but don’t knock old standbys like opium and heroin if you just want to forget. Alas, the downside of the opiates is they inhibit sex, which satisfied customers consider the best bet for an inexpensive, healthful, peaceful diversion. On the other hand, beating up on your family or on people from other groups can be diverting up to and including murder and mutilation. For the more introspective, there’s suicide (martyrdom optional). And speaking of martyrdom, let’s finish off this list with the least expensive diversion on the market: obliterating yourself behind a group identity. Identities are packaged in a variety of garish colors like religion, nationality, sexual orientation and race to appeal to down-market consumers.

But if we do dare peek out from under our security blanket of denial, what do we see? We are the children of the 20th Century, the bloodiest so far in history. Future historians, if there are any, will see the 20th as an orgy of mechanized mayhem, featuring brutal totalitarian dictatorships, two bloody world wars, aerial bombardment of civilians including nuclear weapons, scientific genocides, and the devastation of vast swaths of the earth. The epidemic that plagued the 20th Century was violence, and it threatens to overwhelm our own.

Our own 21st got off to a fast start on September 11, 2001 – a tragic pretext for the planet’s high-tech military super-power to proceed with plans to invade oil-rich, strategically important countries while cowing its allies. Meanwhile several more unstable states have acquired atomic bombs. A booming trade in conventional arms is fueling all the civil wars, slow genocides and intractable regional crises we inherited from the bloody 20th. And we’ve nine more decades to go with no peace in sight. Add this growing epidemic of violence to the all those other destructive tendencies, and one chance in a hundred to get us out of this mess begins to look like generous odds.

Call me an optimist.

A Challenge to the Imagination

For the sake of argument, let us agree that there is one chance in a hundred for a livable world in 2100. If that one chance does exist, shouldn’t we be able to imagine it, as a kind of Sci-Fi story? After all, human beings dreamed of space-travel for centuries, and writers of future fictions imagined it with greater and greater accuracy. So why shouldn’t 21st Century humans at least be able to imagine a possible future in which Spaceship Earth is saved from self-destruction?

Let’s put our imaginations to work. What kind of realistic salvation scenario can we imagine for a planet in the thralls of a powerful social and economic system which seems inexorably to be leading us to predictable catastrophes? If we exclude divine or extra-terrestrial intervention from our fantasy, then we need to imagine the emergence of some kind of positive revolution in human relations. In other words, we need to envision a radical change in the way humans work, run things, relate to each other and to other living things, before we can imagine the planet being rescued before it becomes unlivable.

But is the emergence of such a positive revolution in human affairs even imaginable today?
The only way to answer to that question is to join with me and accept the challenge of dreaming up imaginary visions of possible roads to Utopia. Only when humans pay attention to their dreams can Humanity awake from the sleep-walk of neurotic denial and the nightmare of capitalist barbarism. If we can put our heads together and realistically imagine such a positive human revolution succeeding, then our one chance in a hundred exists. So why not dream? Whatever the odds may be, betting on Utopia seems to be our only chance of winning. Let’s remember the handwriting on the walls of revolutionary Paris in 1968: ‘Take Your Dreams for Realities!’ ‘All Power to the Imagination!’ Indeed, perhaps dreaming together is the most useful thing we can do in the midst of all the conflict and confusion around us: to dream of possible Utopias and to imagine materially possible roads to get there. See note.

NOTE: Translation of above into revolutionary jargon for the benefit of Serious Revolutionaries: Given the propensity of negative tendencies in the contemporary objective situation to converge into critically critical crisis, the spontaneous semi-conscious mental activity vulgarly known as ‘dreaming’ posits itself as an imperative task that every conscious militant must urgently embrace.

At this point in our discussion I hear parental voices whining: Isn’t dreaming up roads to Utopia an impractical waste of time, like playing Dungeons and Dragons or Second Life? Maybe, Mom and Dad, but what if play is the only way out of the industrious mess you (and your parents) got us into? How can people change the world without a positive vision, a direction, a goal?

The Power of Utopias

In any case, it turns out that the human imagination is a powerful thing, and Utopian thought has been a major influence on human society at least since the Greek philosopher Plato outlined his ideal society in The Republic – a two-thousand year-old book which continues to inspire political thought to this day. During the Catholic Middle Ages, Saint Augustine’s Utopian City of God set the ideal pattern for a Christian polity. In 1516 at the dawn of the capitalist era, the term Utopia (the word means No-place in Greek) was coined by Thomas Moore, an idealistic churchman (and later high official at the Court of Henry VIII). Moore saw private property, enforced by legal violence, as the root cause of the poverty and injustice in Tudor England.

He spun a traveler’s tale of a faraway land where nobody starved because every able person shared in society’s work for just six hours day – anticipating the French 35-hour work-week by five centuries. Moore’s outspoken idealism later cost him his head (and earned him a sainthood) when he refused to approve of the King’s divorce.

Meanwhile over in sunny France, François Rabelais, the unfrocked monk and medical doctor who wrote the comic novels Gargantua and Pantagruel, created an anarchistic Utopia in his fictional Abbey of Thélème, a reversal of the oppressive monastic life, whose only rule was Do What Thou Wilt. Utopias based on religious visions of human holiness and wholeness have inspired vast peasant revolutions down through history. In Germany in 1563, the city of Münster was turned into a radical commune by Anabaptists under Jan of Lyden; in 17th Century England, the ‘Diggers’ and ‘Levelers’ shared out the land and wealth; and in China, beginning in 1851, the Ta’I-p’ing rebels occupied major provinces in China for over a decade. All were led on by dreams of fellowship and equality.

Chinese Utopians. During the Ta’i-p’ing Rebellion of 1851-1864, the rebels conquered and held major portions of China for over a decade before being finally put down by the British General Gordon (henceforth ‘Chinese’ Gordon). Inspired by a religious sect, the T’ai-pings abjured alcohol, gambling and opium; they practiced complete equality between men and women, equal division of the land, construction of a new social order based on cooperative hamlets of twenty-five families and State granaries as a hedge against recurring famines, which had decimated China in the 1840s.

In the early 19th century, the ‘Dickensian’ poverty of the dawning Industrial Age provoked a new Utopian response in the socialist proposals of Fourier and Saint-Simon and in the successful colonies created by the philanthropist Robert Owen. These Utopian visions in turn inspired a young German philosopher named Karl Marx, who sought to integrate them with a new political force that he saw emerging under capitalism – workers’ social justice movements that took to the streets throughout Europe in 1848.

Marx and Utopia: The difference between the Utopian socialism of Owen, Fourrier and St. Simon and what Marx and Engels (in the Germanic philosophical jargon of their era) called ‘scientific socialism,’ was this. The Utopians proposed an ideal model society without worrying too much about how it could be realized (except for Owen, who founded actual colonies). Marx rooted socialism in the ‘science’ of history, as the successful outcome of the class struggle between worker and capitalist. Marx himself published no Utopian blueprints, although he did theorize about socialism and its higher stage communism in letters to his associates. Marx’s ‘scientific’ method was to learn from the actual movement of the workers, whose ‘way of knowing’ was through engaging in social struggles – like the English workers’ campaigns for a democratic Charter and the Ten-Hour-Day. Thus, when the French workers created the world’s first workers’ government (the democratic, egalitarian Paris Commune of 1871), Marx pointed to the Commune’s actual working existence as the practical answer to the theoretical question of how to organize socialism. So Marx did not so much reject Utopia as redefine it as ‘the new society emerging from the shell of the old.’

In 1888 the American socialist Edward Bellamy published his novel Looking Backward about a dreamer from Boston who awakens in a future society where people live secure, fulfilling lives with no use for money, under a rigorously rational socialist regime. This anti-capitalist best-seller initiated millions of young Americans into thinking along lines that were entirely new to them and radicalized a number of future American socialists like Eugene V. Debs, Daniel de Leon, Charles Kerr, and the great defense lawyer, Clarence Darrow. The novel’s popularity spawned socialist clubs all over the country and helped unite splinter groups into a growing nationwide socialist movement in the 1890s.

In England, the poet and graphic artist William Morris, founder of the Arts and Crafts movement, became converted to Marxian socialism around 1880. Morris was uncomfortable with Bellamy’s utilitarian Utopia, with its obsessive productivity and state control, and so in 1890 he answered it with his own successful novel, News from Nowhere. Morris’ dreamer awakes in an idyllic post-revolutionary London, free of industrial pollution, where the inhabitants, handsome, sane and happy, live next to nature and work only for pleasure. This novel had an enormous influence in England.

A half-century later, British socialist George Orwell wrote his satirical anti-Utopias Animal Farm and 1984 and opened the eyes of millions of readers to the phoniness of totalitarian Communism’s claims on the Utopian dream. During the later 20th Century a number of North American science fiction writers tried out Utopian scenarios. Robert Heinlein, Margaret Atwood, Ursula Le Guin, Marge Piercy, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ernest Callenbach and others have created futuristic Utopias that give us critical perspectives on the present as well as plausible, detailed, brilliantly imagined histories of possible future societies in which everything from ecology to sex has been revolutionized. Translated in many languages, these thought-provoking, prophetic, sometimes inspiring Utopian novels have been read by millions.

Fascist Dystopias

Future fictions can even inspire deeds. In the 1980s the racist right in the U.S. was galvanized by a novel called The Turner Diaries by Andrew MacDonald, the leader of the white separatist organization National Alliance. The novel depicts a violent racist revolutionary struggle in the United States that escalates into global genocide, leading to the extermination of all Jews and non-whites. For the author and his fans, this was not a negative outcome, but rather the fulfillment of his dream of a White world.

The Turner Diaries soon became the Bible of the Nazi-Christian armed militias that flourish in the United States. In these milieus, some folks took MacDonald’s paranoid fantasies for actual fact. The Turner Diaries was the bedside reading of Timothy McVeigh, the young ex-soldier who killed more than 400 people with a bomb of his own making when he blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. He was apparently inspired by the episode where Turner describes how the Order dynamites the FBI Building. Which goes to show that life sometimes imitates art. (Not to be outdone by the Christian Fundamentalists, bin Laden’s Islamists raised the ante seven years later and killed 3,000 in New York.)

Since around 2000 the Left Behind series of apocalyptic novels have been topping the best-seller lists in the U.S. – a publishing phenomenon that has generated films, and other spin-offs. The novels describe the adventures of a group of evangelical Christians who survive the rise of the Antichrist – plus plagues, judgments, and the final battle of Armageddon (Left Behind Vol. 11). These novels have a born-again Christian audience of millions linked by talk radio and fan clubs, where current events are interpreted in terms of the Apocalypse scenario derived from the 2nd Century Gospel of St. John.

It’s a sad commentary that wackos, racists, survivalists and end-of the world fundamentalists seem to be the only subcultures with a vision of the future, albeit a frighteningly negative one. Our strife-torn world cries out for positive visions. We desperately need an imaginable Utopia. It isn’t enough for good people merely to protest, to struggle eternally against the latest outrage. Of course we must resist war, racism, sexism, police-state repression and a host of other evils. But what we most need today is a positive goal, a vision of a possible future without which our awareness of the endless evils of this world only makes us passive and cynical.

A Favorable Moment?

Such a vision – at once Utopian and realistic – is needed to strike the imagination and spark hope, without which no positive revolution is possible. One chance out of a hundred isn’t a huge hope, agreed. But we know where despair leads: drugs, anomie, religious and nationalist fanaticism. Moreover, the historical moment, although dark, may well be favorable for floating a new revolutionary vision of a more human society for a simple reason: since the collapse of Communism, Liberalism and Social-Democracy, there are no more competitors.

During the 90’s Communism – more nightmare than dream – transformed itself into Mafia capitalism in Russia and China and lost its appeal. In Europe Social Democracy is definitively discredited as a Left-wing cover for free-market privatization. And since 2001 the American model of free market neo-liberal capitalism has lost its sheen. Once proclaimed as ‘the end of history,’ the neo-liberal vision is increasingly tattered.

Only yesterday, greed was good and CEO’s were gods. Then the dotcom bubble burst, massive embezzling by top management was exposed (remember Enron?), looted retirement funds collapsed and big modern countries like Argentina found themselves bankrupt after submitting to IMF economic therapy. Seven year later, Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Washington Mutual, Wachovia and even Freddie and Fannie Mac gambled themselves out of business. Today, the diehard free-marketeers are hardly more credible than the diehard Communists. The world is waking up from the American Dream with a nasty hangover. Only yesterday, reactionary new philosophers in Europe and neo-con pundits from right-wing think tanks in the US had a monopoly on politically correct thinking. Today they are seen as tiresome, not trendy. Their world is in crisis. We are entering a century of breakdown and contestation. It will either end as a century of Utopias or it will end in catastrophe.

The men in suits who rule the world today have no plan for the future. Perhaps because unconsciously they understand that there will be no future – since they are busy killing it. Their main preoccupation is holding onto their power and wealth. Their perspectives are limited to inflating quarterly balance sheets, winning biennial election campaigns, silencing critics, and fighting ‘holy’ or ‘humanitarian’ wars over control of resources. They are the like the officers of a ship drifting rudderless toward a rocky shore, busy looting the cargo, locking up the passengers and crew below decks and fighting among themselves for the booty.

Mutiny on Starship Earth

The name of that vessel is Starship Earth. Its only hope is that the passengers and crew can figure out a way to get organized and take over the bridge before it is too late. Mutiny on Starship Earth: great title for our Utopian scenario. Just what we need to start with, if we can imagine a plausible one.

That is the nature of the Utopian Bet. Even with the odds against us, it’s a bet we can’t refuse. Because like it or not, we are the all in the same boat, passengers and crew alike – far out at sea and drifting toward shipwreck. One chance in a hundred may seem like pretty slim odds, but look at it this way: The bad news is that we will soon have nothing to lose but the dismal spectacle of a dying world – made uglier every day by increasing injustice, suffering, and stupidity. The good news is that we have a finite chance to save a beautiful planet with all our friends on board. Nothing to lose against an infinity of life and beauty? Mathematically speaking, it’s zero against infinity – pretty good odds in my book.

Talk about a bet you can’t refuse!


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