All right. Introduction to the book.
OK everyone this is the introduction (draft, so far) to the forthcoming book (Utopian Dreaming and Climate Change) which I'll be presenting at the Portland meetup.
“Another world is possible” – the slogan of the World Social Forum
This book will indulge a good deal of fantasy – especially fantasy about what a better world would look like, utopian fantasy in short. But to keep its fantasies from being mere idle fantasies, contributions to “abstract utopia” in Ernst Bloch’s sense, it will argue a position on reality as well. Realism, after all, is how we “keep it real” when discussing our fantasies – and, given that the other portion of its title is “climate change,” a phenomenon corporate public opinion would like to wish away, “keeping it real” will be of paramount importance.
In this book “utopia” is defined variously as what the world could be if one could have what one wanted. This is more or less Ruth Levitas’ (1990) definition: “Utopia is about how we would live and what kind of world we would live in if we could do just that” (1). Utopia, then, is the implied goal of utopian dreams. The book will among other things consider the various dreams of utopia throughout the ages and the various names under which ideas of utopia have been promoted. So for instance concepts such as “progress” and “development,” normal as they may seem, are also examined for their utopian content.
The potential of social reality, the reality of thinking human beings, is to be found in utopian dreams. The utopian dream is the organization and proliferation of the imaginative fantasy on the grounds of the imaginative fantasy – it is constituted by dreams of worlds qualitatively better than our own. In a bookstore or library many of these utopian dreams are to be found in science fiction, which granted us driverless cars, moon landings, and energy weapons, all of which came true. In the future, perhaps, depicted imaginatively in the universe of John Varley’s “Eight Worlds” stories (or in Tanith Lee’s Biting the Sun), one will be able to choose one’s body shape, gender, and age (thus consolidating what our world knows as “medicine”); in manifestations of Star Trek one can watch, realized in film, fantasies of instantaneous food and travel. The utopian dream can also be about imagined social as well as technical innovation; Ursula K. LeGuin’s (1974) novel The Dispossessed, for instance, portrays a world of social harmony without property or possessions. The utopian dream need not be about a complex, fully-plotted utopian world – it could be about something as simple as the utopian dream of a world in which everyone has human rights. This is the subject of Samuel Moyn’s (2012) book The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History.
This book will also present a utopian vision of education – about education as the activities of paid educators, and about the self-education of those striving to learn. Utopian education in a historic sense can be said to take place over an historical Era of Utopian Dreaming, which will be defined here as the era which took place between the Enlightenment, when utopia had achieved historical urgency, to the Seventies, the beginning of “dystopia” as Dinerstein (2010) suggests it. In the Era of Utopian dreaming, education was regarded as a means of attaining “reason,” thus by extension one’s individual contribution to a utopia of reason. The utopia of reason has been around at least 2500 years, of since Plato’s metaphor of the cave in the Republic. Its Enlightenment sense is the one carried through to this day, even among those who didn’t like education: so, for instance William Godwin (1756-1836), who wrote the Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1794), disapproved of institutional education, but nonetheless proposed informal education as a means for changing the world for the better. Education will be considered here as one means among many for creating a world capable of mitigating climate change.
An exploratory role will be granted in this book for those devoted to literary forms, for the essay and novel and short story especially. When I was an undergraduate at UCSC, my major was literature, and I chose literature because worldly academic issues could be addressed within the major as long as one applied the appropriate “literary” formats. My favorite course at UCSC was a course titled “Advanced Expository Writing,” in which students were asked to create one essay a week on any topic they chose. The middle portion of this book is composed of four chapters which highlight personalities as well as important issues. In employing that form of writing, I invite composition, but more importantly I invite students to move beyond what the typical English composition class composes toward something which reflects both the study of personality and the reflection upon worldly truth. In this regard, there will be a promoted defense of the art of “English” as something more than a clever overcompensation for the awkwardness of what it means to be human.
The construction of any utopia needs to be considered in light of its foundation in “bundled natures.” The goal of the utopian education promoted in this book will be to design a “utopia of sustainability” – a world safe from what Jared Diamond called “collapse” – and thus a different set of “bundled natures” than the ones which currently rule the Earth. “Bundled natures” are a unity put in place of a dichotomy: instead of “man” and “nature,” “bundled natures” are human natures bundled with non-human natures.
Understanding “bundled natures” means understanding both human nature and non-human nature. The book will employ a perspective upon human nature which attempts to explain how it came to be that human beings would develop an Era of Utopian Dreaming. Historically, the idea of utopia can be associated with the project of Europe’s conquest of the world; thus Thomas More’s Utopia was published at the beginning of that era of conquest and set in an area of conquest (off the coast of Brazil). The Era of Utopian Dreaming was as a whole an era of plunder, of realizing utopian concepts upon land seized from native peoples in the New World – this, after all, is the subtext for the utopian communes of which one reads in Chris Jennings’ Paradise Now.
However, discussions of “decolonizing utopia” (Darian-Smith, 2016) can redeem the concept of utopia (in terms more or less laid out by Levitas (1990)) from its historical collusion with the imperial project. In order to get beyond utopia as an imagined human order upon an objectified “nature,” to get beyond the notion that “society” (meaning the chosen people) is different from “nature” (meaning everyone and everything else) and (more importantly) to get beyond the reigning utopia of money which is our present capitalist reality, the utopian dream will be regarded as a dream of “bundled natures.” (Chapter 2 will explore this concept in greater detail.) Here, capitalism, and the capitalist system, will be regarded as one utopian manifestation of human nature bundled with non-human nature, but by no means the only possible one, and definitely not the only one to exist in history.
Non-human nature is the idyllic realm of William Wordsworth’s Prelude and the not-so-idyllic realm of Aldous Huxley’s essay “Wordsworth in the Tropics” (among other things), but it is also the brutal arena of natural selection, in which human nature must be fitted to cope with non-human nature. Human adaptations to Earthly habitat have been so sophisticated because the human animal, considered comparatively, is in some ways awkwardly maladapted to its environment, and said animal has developed a complex brain to cope with its situations. (As regards the awkwardness of human existence, what immediately comes to mind is the human inability to digest most leaves and grasses – the discussion of Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam novels, covered in Chapter 6, touches upon this phenomenon.) It is in this context of awkward, intelligent life that we dream so vividly. (As another example of our maladaptation, one pointing to our extraordinariness, it might be reflected that no other animal has felt obliged to domesticate fire in order to eat well!) Thus it is because life is rough and because people are smart that we dream so well.
The notion of human nature suggested above is not set in stone; it’s a shorthand, necessitated by the need to include human beings inside of the concept of nature. (Without that inclusion you have the “nature” of the capitalists, something eternally available for extraction, exploitation, and, ultimately, simplification.) Human nature in the above formulation is an oversimplification of the human predicament, which can be bent, stretched, folded, spindled, or mutilated any way one pleases depending upon which humans and which predicament one is discussing. The utopia of sustainability might have a “different” human nature while at the same time and on another level of abstraction human nature will remain “the same.”
In this context of awkward, sophisticated existence which comprises the human predicament, then, utopian education appears as a way of improving the world through one’s learnings and teachings. Utopian education has a long history. The prophet Ezekiel in the Bible could qualify as an educator, and his vision of the New Jerusalem might have qualified as a utopia, though the models of utopian education to be explored here have their origins in the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment strain of educational utopia reached its typical form in Condorcet’s (1795) Sketch of the Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, a narrative of the triumph of reason over superstition over historical time. Educational culture has long harbored the fantasy of the teacher as a midwife of human maturity, as well as the fantasy of the learner as someone who can “figure out” a better world by herself – and these fantasies will be evaluated here (principally in chapter 4) against the background of human learning as it is currently constituted.
The book will explore climate change, to be sure – but its starting point (chapter 1 reflects this) will be an exploration of how human fantasies, and more elaborately human utopian dreams, interact with physical realities. Climate change, in this book, is an example of an important problem, indeed the most important problem concerning humanity’s future on Earth, in which focusing exclusively upon hard realities has not led to a solution. There have been at least twenty years of climate change policy, from the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 if not from the Rio Summit of 1992, and none of it has led to any physical climate change mitigation. There is, of course, a practical solution to climate change, involving “cutting emissions” and all that. But even “cutting emissions” is an art intimately connected to the human fantasy world.
The favored science of capitalism was mechanics – with mechanics the mapping, conquest, surveillance, and control of the world was facilitated, ultimately taking form as “good old American know-how.” The ultimate outcome of capitalist mechanics, unfortunately, was the trashing of the planet, of which our climate change future appears as the most ominous sign. Mechanics has so far helped people, some people, to exploit Earth’s fossil-fuel reserves, and it may help people to create energy alternatives, but it can’t facilitate the creation of a global society which does not use those fossil-fuel reserves. The science of the utopian dream-future will be ecology, in which people will see that natural relationships form a web of life that cannot be plundered indefinitely without diminishing expectations. Perhaps in utopian vein there will develop a “good old American ecological know-how,” to propel human society toward universal sustainability.
The dream of a utopia of sustainability is not limited to a specific imagined manipulation of science, though. The utopia of sustainability will serve as a focus for a further multiplication of utopian dreams. (We can first let a thousand utopias bloom, and sort them out later.) Utopian Dreaming and Climate Change will, in the spirit of Ernest Callenbach’s (1975) Ecotopia or Goldsmith’s (1972) Blueprint for Survival, promote (and educate about) visions of a world of ecological sustainability and of green living bearing little relation to the present-day world of fossil-fueled capitalist infrastructure. Creating an ecotopia on Earth, an ecological utopia, is our best chance at physically mitigating climate change. (The task of doing this, admittedly, will be quite daunting – but dystopian futures appear as default “options” given the capitalist system’s inability to cope with climate change.) The argument presented here is that the world’s most daunting environmental (and other) problems (climate change being the most obvious of them) will be solved not merely on a practical level but rather also through effective utopian dreaming and through the critical examination of utopian dreams. The old utopian dream, the one which forms the basis of the present-day world and which will here be called the utopia of money as synonymous with capitalism, will not mitigate climate change for us; we therefore need to select a new, and well-examined, one.
In social terms this book recommends a conditional revival of the Age of Utopian Dreaming for the sake of creating a social/intellectual/educational movement to mitigate climate change. The revival will be necessary because the utopia of money is the wrong utopia for the task. In this revival the substance of forthcoming utopian dreams (the foundation of any process which will get the world from here to there) will come from hard, solid realities. (The current hard reality is that present-day efforts to mitigate climate change have all failed to halt accelerating climate change. The Earth grows ever hotter each year while we lamely struggle against Margaret Thatcher’s dictum that “there is no alternative” to neoliberal capitalism.) It is in this context that the utopia of sustainability appears as (to use a metaphor) a dreamed-of soft landing onto the realities of climate change.