Saturday, 28 March 2009

Will stopping climate change create utopia?

Earlier this week I went to a Transition Oxford workshop entitled Utopia or Apocalypse? It got me wondering about the role of these two concepts in thinking about the future and living in the present. Our workshop began by two people acting out personal visions of the future. A woman saw a world in which the few people left lived in a state of fear, monitored at all times through biochips. A man acted a scenario in which people lived in equality, shared resources and welcomed clean technologies. Curiously the two worlds could have been the same one since enforcing equality would for many produce a dystopia.

In the discussion these scenarios generated many people welcomed utopian visions as moments in which our imagination is allowed to play, to envisage alternative futures that may empower us to create those alternatives. Others were concerned that pushing stories about radical changes in the way we live would actually alienate many people who distrust change. A comment I found particularly useful suggested that instead of trying to construct a plan of what a complete successful society would look like we should try to imagine what our lives would be within a successful society and then try to live those lives.

While we do need to know what policies we’d like to see our government implement to fight climate change I’m suspicious about utopian thinking because of its potential to be oppressive and total. I would prefer us to have a clear idea of what the problem is (climate change), what causes the problems (dependency upon vanishing oil reserves etc.), and how we should solve them (contraction and convergence etc.). Happily, this message does not require me to sell anyone the ‘ideal’ of living in a yurt in Cornwall.

This is not just a pragmatic point that recognises campaigners need to compromise over ideals for the future on account of this issue’s urgency. Visions of utopia and apocalypse present an end to history. John Gray has shown how deeply embedded this idea is in religious thinking (especially in Judeo-Christian ideas about the Messianic age) and in totalitarian ideologies (Communism and Fascism). In Black Mass he argues that the concept of utopia is based upon a misconception about human nature: that we can bring history to an end because people are perfectible. This makes me wonder how deeply talking about utopia and apocalypse can galvanise us if they focus upon a finished state.

Maybe at best the appeal of dys/utopias as stories can make them a useful tool. I went to see The Age of Stupid again last night and its apocalyptic vision was just as powerful and moving the second time. But when it finished there was a question and answer session and the second question asked was ‘What can we do?’ Did the film really leave that unanswered? If so that may have been a response to the (lightly sketched) apocalyptic vision, which could feel disabling.

In fact there is no shortage of answers to the question ‘What can we do?’ Many clever people have written clever plans (examples here, here and here), and inside most of people know what they personally can do. The Age of Stupid is important because it expresses the urgency of the task faced right now and it might counter some of the apathy that easily takes hold in relation to climate change. But I felt the best thing about it is the way the documentary shows how modern lives are painfully entangled within systems destroying other people, the biosphere and ourselves. This implies that, rather than handing history over to the huge narratives (from apocalypse to economic growth), what matters is that we take possession of what’s happening now and our role within it. Slavery abolitionists, suffragettes, the Allied armies and civil rights activists did not create utopias. I increasingly suspect that focus was crucial to those successful campaigns and will be to the campaign against climate change.


  1. You are right that any utopia could easily be seen as a dystopia. People are alienated by someone explaining their personal vision for the future, it can be seen as hostile. Did the discussion at all focus on shifting cultural priorities gradually (or even not so gradually) instead of absolutist visions? And if not, should it have?

  2. I agree 'visions' can be alienating - which makes me think of this ( (minus the reassuring chorus). Yes, Transition Towns do often discuss gradual shifts and engaging people but this particular workshop was about trying to imagine distant futures. In some ways the next workshop we had attempted to counter the temptation to plan for change by imagining an ideal society and working back from there. Instead we thought about the different directions society might be going as the starting point for a range of scenarios.