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.

Introduction: reality, fantasy, and utopian dreams

“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.

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Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Climate Change Mitigation in Fantasy and Reality p. 11
Chapter 2: Utopian Dreaming and Bundled Natures p. 35
Chapter 3: Aldous Huxley and Education p. 67
Chapter 4: Paulo Freire and a Curriculum for the Capitalocene p. 86
Chapter 5: Karl Marx and Futures Studies p. 111
Chapter 6: Margaret Atwood and Dystopia p. 142
Conclusion: The Utopia of Money as a Concrete Utopia p. 153

Summary of the book’s chapters

The contrast between the utopian dreams of the world, and the grim realities of climate change, will be explored in detail in the first two chapters of this book. The primary utopian dreams to be confronted are those which support the utopia of money, otherwise known as capitalism. The first chapter, “Climate Change Mitigation in Fantasy and Reality,” will confront manifestations of “environmental accounting,” which typically suggest a way of buying the world out of climate change. The second chapter, “Utopian Dreaming and Bundled Natures,” will reveal the larger historical and philosophical contexts against which currently dominant utopian dreams, and the currently ominous-seeming threat of climate change, arose.

The first chapter will examine what the human fantasy world done so far to mitigate climate change. The obvious outcome of this investigation will be that “climate change mitigation” has so far been nothing but an alibi, and that the whole task needs to be reimagined. To ward off environmentalist concerns, corporations have erected an ideological edifice of “greenness,” composed of environmental mission statements and “triple bottom line accounting”; the governments which work with said corporations mitigate environmental concerns with fiscal “climate change mitigation” tools such as carbon taxes and cap-and-trade schemes. None of it amounts to physical climate change mitigation, though “greenness” might reassure people that Something Is Being Done.

Climate change mitigation alchemy is presently the order of the day, official realism’s present-day basis for action. Its logic of transmutation can be found in the concept of “decoupling,” in which one imagines that, in a world of increasing fossil fuel production, economic growth can proceed forward while some sort of aggregate “carbon footprint” need not also grow. Hopes are ostensibly to rise that the statistical lead of “decoupling” can eventually become the physical gold of climate change mitigation (see e.g. Jackson et al.). Two obvious problems with this alchemical logic, cited in the first chapter of this book, are that GDP (the measure used to determine “decoupling”) may not actually reveal meaningful economic improvement, and aggregate “carbon footprint” may not be measured accurately either. But the realists are currently able to find some numbers they like, so hope continues.

Rather than asking what can be done to mitigate climate change while leaving everything else the same, Chapter 1 asks: what sort of society could emerge from present-day reality that would be capable of physically mitigating climate change? The resultant utopian dream is sketched out in chapter 1 and laid out as a set of utopian options in chapter 2.

Chapter 2 surveys the history of utopian dreaming, to sketch out briefly utopian dreams which could transform society so as to make physical climate change mitigation possible. Chapter 2 wants to “cheer on” the idea of resuscitating the creative stage of the Age of Utopian Dreaming, given that its hoped-for utopia of sustainability is derivative of the ecological thought of the Seventies, most vividly Ernest Callenbach’s (1975) novel Ecotopia and of Edward Goldsmith et al.’s (1972) Blueprint for Survival. Chapter 2 concludes with an observation that intellectual innovation in this era is focused upon redefinitions of the idea of “nature.” The conclusion focuses upon the idea of “bundled natures” as discussed in the works of Jason W. Moore, as an appropriate reconfiguration of the idea of “nature” for the utopian dream of a sustainable society.

Chapters 3, 4, 5, and 6 illustrate a format which should be useful in English department classes: the combination profile/ topic essay. Profiles of utopian dreamers are combined with thematic topics of importance to the idea of utopian dreaming. The profiled authors are not merely curious individuals, individuals who were curious about the world and who provoke our curiosity – they engaged issues of utopia which must be engaged today if utopian dreaming is to merit more than general dismissal.

The third and fourth chapters will consider utopian education from two perspectives – that of the learner, and that of the teacher. As an exemplary learner, the novelist and essayist Aldous Huxley will be considered in Chapter 3 – his intellectual journey from 1920s skeptic to 1930s pacifist/ intellectual explorer will be regarded here as an example of the type of mental recomposition which comes from a critical-utopian spirit of learning-about-the-world. The teacherly perspective critiqued in Chapter 4 will discuss Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator whose “critical pedagogy” has inspired many a teacher to teach in innovative and politically-engaged fashion. The first chapter will suggest answers to questions of “what should learners do”; the second chapter will address “what should teachers do.”

Chapter 3 is “Aldous Huxley and Education.” It suggests that the intellectual journey of Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) from the “frustrated Romantic” (Daiches 202) of the Twenties and early Thirties to the student of the “not-self” of Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow (1956) is a learning path which suggests a utopian learning journey, an informal, self-directed education of sorts. Chapter 3 also discusses the role of Aldous Huxley as a utopian teacher, as an author of utopian works such as Brave New World and Island. Brave New World is interpreted as a sly “negative utopia” (say more) that challenges readers to examine their priorities in the realms of utopian dreaming. Everyone is happy in the Brave New World, but readers are nonetheless asked to question the meaning of lives devoted solely to happiness. Island furnishes Huxley’s proposed utopian dream, as well as his educational vision, relevant today as it was yesterday. The utopian society of Island is, in the end however, destroyed; this appears as Huxley’s inability to come up with easy answers to problems of political economy.

Chapter 4, “Paulo Freire and a Curriculum for the Capitalocene,” is concerned with the fantasies and realities of formal education, in opposition to the informal drift of Chapter 3. Chapter 4 will begin by discussing education as offering a magic of human development and, on the other hand, of education as a mere sorting system for the social classes. It will examine the fantasies and realities of teaching, of education through the Internet (through the philosophy of Ivan Illich) and of the school day (through a reading of Peter McLaren’s (1986) classic Schooling as a Ritual Performance). It will consider the fantasies and realities of the “problem-posing education” of Paulo Freire to suggest an ecopedagogy, and a “curriculum for the Capitalocene” in its support.
The biggest challenges to a revival of utopian dreaming are in making a future seem possible that does not conform to “trend futurism,” which merely extrapolates from trends. Chapter 5 discusses this. Given the path trod by human history, what kind of future might we expect to have? Clearly the most-expected trend in our world is that of climate change, in which, given increases in the atmospheric carbon dioxide of planet Earth, we can expect the solid planet to be baked further, perhaps into oblivion. This challenge of creating a divergent future, one not so nasty, is a task for the human imagination.

Chapter 5 is “Karl Marx and Futures Studies,” which surveys popular works in futures studies, from Noah Yuval Harari to Al Gore, before looking at how one might productively read the works of Karl Marx (1818-1883) as a contribution. Chapter 5 argues that futures studies tend to bog down in “trend futurism,” the notion that our future is predetermined by trends, and in the unquestioning acceptance of trend-based predictions of the future. Utopian dreaming is conceived as a counterforce to trend futurism. (The one most depressing aspect of trend futurism is its resignation before its inability to come up with a viable way of mitigating climate change.) Chapter 5 argues that the Marx utopia, with its basis in the overcoming of problems of “value,” offers a legitimate solution to problems of climate change mitigation. Its depiction of the Marx utopia focuses upon the value-concept elaborated in Peter Hudis’ book Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism and George Henderson’s critique of the value-concept in Marx and Value.

Chapter 6 is “Margaret Atwood and Dystopia,” and it focuses upon the fiction-writer Margaret Atwood (1939- ) and her creation of dystopian worlds, most notably of the Maddaddam trilogy. The topic of dystopia relates the future in a narrativist fashion – we start from the proposition that the shape of the future will depend upon the shapes of the stories we tell about it. Chapter 6 argues that dystopia is fundamentally dull and boring, depicting worlds in which forces beyond our control seize and torture us, and that what makes individual works of dystopian fiction interesting are devices for bringing the dystopia “back to life.” Since the world appears to futures studies as a plaything of forces beyond control (e.g. climate change), dystopia appears beyond its fictional manifestation as a default setting for common understandings of the future. We assume the future is going to be dystopic, especially when we try to picture the world after 2 or 3 or 4 degrees of climate change.

Margaret Atwood’s innovative concept of “ustopia” suggests the creation of dystopias which contain unconvincing utopias within them. As Atwood defines it: “Ustopia is a word I made up by combining utopia and dystopia – the imagined perfect society and its opposite – because, in my view, each contains a latent version of the other.” (66) In actual practice, though, utopia and dystopia are not symmetrical opposites but, upon further inspection, wholly different things. The dystopia is grim and foreboding, suggesting a future repetition of bad histories, whereas the utopia is a product of human desires which may or may not stand a chance of being realized. When dystopia and utopia are combined in the same art-work, dystopia looks bleak and utopia looks silly.

This appearance is especially true of Atwood’s own dystopian fictions: The Handmaid’s Tale, the Maddaddam trilogy, and The Heart Goes Last. But ustopia is still heartening, because within at least the trilogy and the more recent novel, Atwood’s dystopias contain utopian dreamers, suggesting in each instance that utopian dreaming is not entirely dead even within dystopia. Atwood’s fiction therefore shows how utopian dreaming might still be possible even under dystopian conditions. Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy also invites stylistic comparisons to Jonathan Swift, and thematic comparisons with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and The Last Man.

Chapter 7 concludes this book, and is titled “The Utopia of Money as a Concrete Utopia.” It analyzes why the history of utopian dreaming was stalled with the advent of neoliberalism (after a period, between 1950 and 1980, producing a Golden Age of Science Fiction). This analysis, employing the writings of Ernst Bloch and Cornelius Castoriadis and offering historical context to the previous chapters, will suggest means for the revival of the Age of Utopian Dreaming, through education and in terms of policy and other fields.

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"Earth is our only home" - Kim Stanley Robinson

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QMS's picture

Hope to delve more deeply. Making the bridge from utopian dream to social reality while getting around capital is a fun mental exercise. Thanks for sharing and good luck!

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Listen to your higher mind.