All posts by Alan AtKisson

Writer, songwriter, public servant, dedicated to advancing sustainable development, based in Stockholm

Journal: Dear Future Generations

Originally published in 2015 on my personal Facebook page.

Dear Future Generations:

I’m sure it’s obvious to you — you can see things better than we can, in hindsight — but I want to report to you that we are living through a time of dramatic change. Historic change. The kind of moment where everything seems to be balanced on a knife edge, and it could tip either way.

I am writing to you from Stockholm, Sweden. I’ll start with what is happening here, then I’ll paint you a global picture. Because it’s all connected.

Not long ago, this was a quiet little corner of Europe, a place where everything “worked.” There was essentially no poverty. No homeless people. There was a shared belief in something we called “solidarity.”

We don’t use that word much any more. In a few short years, we now have beggars on every street corner. There are people here who have fled from poverty or war, only to wind up living in tents, or sports halls, or outside on the street. Many thousands more war refugees, after traveling thousands of miles, are knocking on our door — so many that our government just decided to close that door. This is a pattern being repeated in many other countries, too. (Though one country, Canada, just decided to open their previously closed door. Good for them.)

Meanwhile, our “Western” part of the world is reeling from a series of small but extremely violent, deadly, and scary attacks — we call it “terrorism” — whose purpose is to strike fear into people’s hearts, ratchet up tensions, and provoke us into global war. The strategy is almost working. Our extreme right wing political groups are gaining strength, countries are rattling swords, and demagogues reminiscent of the 1930s are rising up amongst us. (Unfortunately, these populist rage-baiters have access to technologies far more powerful than the microphones used by Hitler and Mussolini.)

Meanwhile, it’s warm this winter — again. According to global data, this year is the warmest our modern, industrial civilization has ever measured. And we (as you well know) are the ones warming things up. That’s not all we’re doing to the planet, either. Huge alarm bells are ringing for Nature, everywhere. Some of us are trying to wrestle down our overall “footprint” on this Earth. But so far, humanity’s “foot” keeps pressing down harder and heavier, pinning us to the mat.

We’re also struggling to leave a bit of wildness for you to enjoy, but it’s extremely hard work. All it takes is a small number of uncaring or greedy or needy or ignorant people to destroy wild Nature — by setting fire to Sumatra, say, or poaching African elephants. I’d like to be able to say about these people, “They know not what they do.” But in fact, they know exactly what they are doing. And there are global markets ready to absorb the “profits” of their illegal activities. They are extremely clever about getting past our increasingly desperate defenses, too. It’s starting to seem obvious why the mammoth, the dodo, and the passenger pigeon are no longer with us: it only takes one of us to kill the last of anything.

That sounds like a pretty bleak picture, and it is. A dismal thought crosses my mind at least once a day: we could all too easily tumble into an abyss of war, political dystopia, and ecological catastrophe.

But that’s the bad news, one side of the knife edge. The other side — the good news — is, well, surprisingly good.

Despite dangerous and viral pockets of poverty and war, our human population is overall getting less poor, and less violent. We have made amazing strides in providing people with education, better access to food and energy and health care, a sense of hope for their children’s future. We have far to go — hundreds of millions are still living in misery — but many trends are moving rapidly in the right direction. We just need to figure out how to keep those positive trends going, while not destroying the planet’s ecosystems, and before social instabilities make the challenge insurmountable.

But there is good news on the action side, too. This year, the world’s governments completed an unprecedented series of global agreements. Recently, they finalized a new deal on climate change that was better than most of us hoped for — even if we know it is still not enough and will have to be improved later. We also have, for the first time, a truly global vision and a set of global goals for where all of humanity should be heading. You probably take the idea of “SDGs” (Sustainable Development Goals) for granted by now. For us, they were an unprecedented historic breakthrough.

We are even starting to understand the fundamental principle that “everything is connected to everything else” — and we are starting to build that principle into our government policies, corporate strategies, and community development programs. It’s not just talk, either: I am watching serious change happen, with my own eyes, every day.

Given everything happening now in our world — the good, the bad, and the ugly, to borrow an old movie title — I find myself thinking about you more and more.

It seems like this time, this specific time, is really going to be decisive for you. Our descendants.

So I just want you to know: things are really, really shaky just now. We’ve had global war before, kicked off by similarly unstable conditions. So we know, unfortunately, that it’s all too possible to fall into that huge and deadly trap.

We also know what it’s like to fudge and hedge and not do what is necessary to secure the health of Nature, and the wellbeing of People — because we are seeing the consequences of insufficient action, on the global scale, right now. We are finally waking up to the fact that these two things, human happiness and ecological integrity, must go together. When they don’t … well, among other things, we get the conditions we are struggling with in Sweden, and many other places, right now.

Basically, we know what failure looks like. And we can see all too clearly that failure, when it comes to managing our presence on planet Earth sustainably, is still a possibility.

But we also know — because we are starting to experience a little of it — what success feels like. Setting clear goals. Working together to achieve them. Maintaining an optimistic vision and intense effort, no matter what. Tackling problems head-on, intelligently, compassionately. Working on making systems better, not just symptoms.

I just want you to know, dear Future Generations, that many of us are working very, very hard to try to make things better. More and more of us, all the time. Working for you, for ourselves, and for all life on this planet. And I believe we are starting to tip that balance in the right direction.

But please — if you can — let me know how it turned out.

Love,

Alan

 

Quote: This is a one-shot affair (Hoyle)

It has often been said that, if the human species fails to make a go of it here on the Earth, some other species will take over the running. In the sense of developing intelligence this is not correct. We have or soon will have, exhausted the necessary physical prerequisites so far as this planet is concerned. With coal gone, oil gone, high-grade metallic ores gone, no species however competent can make the long climb from primitive conditions to high-level technology. This is a one-shot affair. If we fail, this planetary system fails so far as intelligence is concerned.

— Fred Hoyle, Of Men and Galaxies, 1966, p. 64

Draft: Donella Meadows’ speech on vision

In 1994, the renowned environmental scientist Donella “Dana” Meadows — lead author of The Limits to Growth — was traveling to  Costa Rica to deliver a keynote speech on systems modeling to a conference of ecological economists. During the flight, her traveling companion, the economist Bob Costanza, reminded her that the topic of the session she was keynoting was not modelling. It was envisioning a sustainable society.

That evening in her hotel, Dana set aside the speech she had so carefully prepared, including her illustrations of how the economic models of that time (and ours) drive unsustainable behavior, and she wrote a new one.

Dana’s choice to deliver a completely different speech would prove to be a fateful one. She focused not so much on a specific vision — ending poverty and hunger, transitioning to renewable energy, rethinking consumerism, and the other classic concerns of sustainability — but on the question of vision itself. No one of her stature, in her academic environment, had done that before.

The speech was recorded on grainy videotape. Though it was later transcribed and published in essay form, the videotape was circulated among researchers and got shown and discussed in university classrooms. The video conveyed, as no academic essay could, something of Dana’s infectious personal energy. For Dana had managed to take a topic previously seen as “fluffy” (who can measure a vision? or write equations about the process of visioning?) and imbue it with a sense of high intellectual urgency.

Dana’s choice resonates, then and now, because it was one of those moments when someone who has earned the respect of peers  — she was honored with a MacArthur “Genius” grant in 1994 — stands up and tells a very uncomfortable truth. The environmental movement was struggling, said Dana, because environmentalists, “perhaps more than any other set of advocates,” had failed to offer a compelling description of a future better than the terrifying one they kept warning people about.

“The best goal most of us who work toward sustainability offer is the avoidance of catastrophe,” said Dana. “We promise survival and not much more. That is a failure of vision.”

Having identified the problem, Dana spent most of her speech on solutions: how to create visions, how to cultivate them in detail, how to link them to goals and actions, and most urgently, how to shift attitudes and mindsets so that it was okay to have a vision. Academics and intellectuals, she noted, were especially prone to cynicism when it came to having a vision of a preferred future. But what was so silly about giving voice to a vision of clean water and air, no hunger, trustworthy people, a world free of oppression and war? Dana suggested to her colleagues that they could, at least, “occasionally take the social risk of displaying not our skepticism but our deepest desires.”

As Dana noted in her speech, there were some additional benefits for attempting this shift. People with a sense of vision and optimism are generally more charismatic than cynics and pessimists. She was a living example of that observation — though in making it, she somehow managed to avoid aggrandizing herself. Dana identified with her audience: they were all, she noted, in need of some serious rehabilitation, just as she had been.

“I didn’t always have such a vision [of a sustainable world],” she confessed to her friends and colleagues. “I had to learn, or perhaps I should say relearn, to create and express vision. In our industrial culture, particularly in the cultures of science and economics, envisioning is actively discouraged. We have to rediscover and practice it again.”

At that time, and in that context, Dana’s talk was a call for revolution. That’s why it spread — for the most part informally, quietly, from one academic cluster to another. I believe that Dana’s choice, in 1994, to toss aside her models and speak about visioning probably impacted the direction of the entire global sustainability movement, in a small but decisive way. It also strengthened the direction her own life was starting to take, as she became more and more serious about creating and realizing a very specific vision of her own.

As a side effect, Dana’s choice also had a profound impact on my own life.

 

 

Notes: De-Growth

When it comes to conceptualizing the economic future of our planet, “De-Growth” is perhaps the most radical notion discussed in sustainability circles, at least from a mainstream government perspective. “De-Growth” means embracing growth’s opposite: economic shrinkage. The “De-Growth Movement” consists largely of a network of academic researchers and economic activists who study and promote the idea that aiming for smaller-scale economies will generate greater human well-being, while reducing the pressure on natural resources and ecosystems.

The concept rose to international attention with the publication
of a report, by economist Tim Jackson, issued in March 2009 by the United Kingdom’s official Sustainable Development Commission. Titled “Prosperity without Growth?,” Prof. Jackson’s report was remarkable in being the first such treatment of the topic issued by an official national government body. It was later republished as a book — without the question mark in the title. This book, Prosperity without Growth, has become the most widely read introduction to De-Growth and an essential reference on the topic.

Jackson’s argument can be summarized (he summarizes it himself this way) in three short statements:

1. Growth is unsustainable. Jackson accepts the decades of scientific research that establish the “Limits to Growth” and the “Planetary Boundaries” within which we humans must live. Given these facts, endless expansion in resource extraction, production, consumption, and waste is patently impossible.

2. De-Growth is unstable. Here, Jackson builds a bridge between traditional economic thinking, and proponents of the alternative. He acknowledges the extent to which national economic systems are completely dependent, for their core stability, on continuous growth.“ Recessions” and “depressions” bring with them serious social unrest and political instability — which governments are supposed to prevent. This systems perspective helps to explain the intensity with which governments strive, at all costs, to keep growth going, despite all the accumulated evidence about growth’s negative environmental consequences, and growth’s inability (as De-Growth theorists see it) to deliver ever-increasing well-being.

3. Decoupling won’t work. “Decoupling” means maintaining continued monetary economic growth (increases in GDP), while reducing resource use, waste, and pollution (which ordinarily rise with growth in a “coupled” fashion). First introduced as a goal of policy by the Dutch government in the early 1990s, decoupling involves increasing the efficiency with which the economy turns resources into things of value, as measured by indicators such as “carbon intensity” (how much CO2 is emitted per dollar of GDP produced by an economy). Jackson noted that decoupling’s gains had been marginal when compared to the absolute growth in emissions like CO2. Efficiency- based approaches to reducing overall impact on planetary ecosystems are not realistic, according to De-Growth analysis. There is no way that economies can decouple — that is, separate the process of growth from the process of ecosystem destruction — fast enough to turn the tide on problems like global warming. [Note: Jackson was writing in 2009 and 2011. By 2017, more data had accumulated that appeared to demonstrate decoupling was in fact possible, in some countries and situations. See separate article.]

Jackson’s work essentially leaves the world with a question, which he articulates as “What is the path forward?” But he and other proponents of De-Growth have also created policy proposals and even alternative economic models that attempt to demonstrate a different, indeed transformative, economic pathway. Jackson and Canadian economist Peter Victor, author of Managing without Growth and one of Jackson’s frequent collaborators, published a newspaper column in September 2011 that summarized key elements of the alternative economic pathway that the De- Growth movement proposes to the world, from “braver policy-making” to “a renewed sense of shared prosperity.” More specifically, their vision of transformative change includes:

• A “radical overhaul” of the capital investment markets, with the aim of dramatically reducing speculation in commodities like food futures or financial derivatives like hedge funds, and increasing investments in low-carbon technology, transportation, health care, education, and efficient housing and transportation.

• Ending “unrestrained profiteering at the expense of the customer and taxpayer,” presumably through tighter regulation of business behavior and encouragement of new corporate forms — such as the “B-Corporation,” or “Benefit Corporation,” which involves setting stronger governance rules in place to ensure that a corporation acts to benefit society in social and environment terms as well as economically.

• Dramatic cultural changes to reduce the emphasis on consumerism and materialism, and increase a general cultural swing in the direction of “good nutrition, decent homes, good quality services, stable communities, decent, secure employment and healthy environments.”

These are revolutionary ideas that reflect a strongly idealistic and communitarian set of values, and De-Growth conferences, studies, and texts are generally focused on (1) searching for evidence that such changes are under way, and/or (2) promoting arguments and strategies for making such changes (including abandonment of the GDP in favor of other indicators of well-being).

But while De- Growth can be seen as sitting at one end of the spectrum of alternative New Economic ideas, and as a kind of radical departure from traditional growth economics, it is important to note that there are differences of view within the De- Growth movement itself. Some advocate a fairly aggressive and proactive approach — one should attempt to make De-Growth happen — while others believe that De-Growth is simply inevitable, given the constraints placed on traditional growth by a depleted resource base. For this second group, the work of “De-Growth Economics” is not about promoting change; it is about preparing for an unavoidable descent (as reflected in the title of Peter Victor’s 2008 book, Managing
without Growth), and about creating more resilient social structures or self-sustaining communities (as reflected in movements such as the Transition Towns).

While De-Growth has long since escaped from the absolute outlands of economic thinking thanks to Tim Jackson’s breakthrough report (which carried the legitimacy of a UK government commission, though that commission was later disbanded), it remains a marginal concept whose protagonists are not generally in positions of decision-making authority. De-Growth proponents tend to reject half-way concepts such as “Green Economy” and “Sustainable Development,” seeing these as just Growth as Usual in somewhat greener clothing. The absolutist approach of De-Growth may be justified by the movement’s interpretations of the facts on resource use and waste; but in practice, this approach means (of course) that De- Growth proposals are not seriously entertained by national governments. Still, by staking out the radical end of the New Economics spectrum in a clear and uncompromising way, De-Growth also serves the function of making other alternative ideas — such as National Happiness indicators, or proposals for a “Tobin Tax” on financial transactions — appear much more mainstream.

[Adapted and updated from the book/report “Life Beyond Growth,” published by Random House Japan in 2012 and available in English here.]

Video: Norman Bel Geddes

Norman Bel Geddes was a highly influential American designer who created a certain streamlined vision of the urban future. These two videos explain his legacy and influence. The first is a 3-min intro to a 2012 museum exhibition of his work called, “I have seen the future.” It includes a number of his iconic representations of futuristic cities, cars, etc., in a “Disneyland” style (as the narrator describes it). The second is a longer, narrated PowerPoint lecture (38 min) by a teacher of industrial design history, providing a more complete picture of Geddes work.

I’ve grown impatient with the kind of debate we used to have about whether optimists or the pessimists are right. Neither are right. There is too much bad news to justify complacency. There is too much good news to justify despair. I am not afraid of the challenge of easing the throughput of human society back down within its limits–I think that can be done fairly easily and even with considerable benefit to the human quality of life.

— Donella Meadows

Notes: Transhumanism

Image resultAs we venture into questions about the future of humanity, and the specific visions that prominent individuals and groups hold regarding that future, we must immediately consider the people who see no future for humanity at all.

First stop: the Transhumanists.

You are probably a Transhumanist if you believe any of the following statements to be true:

1. If you freeze or vitrify your brain just at (preferably, just before) the moment of your death, you could come back to life in the future when technologies evolve to make resuscitation and life-extension possible.

2. When the procedures become safe and affordable, it would be a good idea to get a few cybernetic implants in your body — electronic things under your skin or attached to your skull, giving you extra senses that you currently lack (examples might include “feeling” the Earth’s magnetic field or “hearing” X-rays) or even linking your brain directly to a computer, so that you can use the Internet just by thinking.

3. When computers and artificial intelligence systems have become sufficiently advanced, you will be able to “download” (or “upload”, if you prefer a rising metaphor) the contents of your mind and all your memories into a new, far more durable and physically superior platform — so that you become either a computer-based, bodiless intelligence (that is somehow still “you”), or that your consciousness is housed in an advanced robotic form (which means it could be of any shape, from humanoid, to whale-like, to inceivably alien in design). And this future is something you are genuinely looking forward to, and perhaps even actively working toward.

4. In any case, conquering physical death — through medical science, merging with machines, or some other as-yet-unknown method — should be a high priority for humanity.

If you do not answer “yes” to any of these questions, a real Transhumanist is likely to ask you, “Well, why not? What’s to like about death? What’s wrong with upgrading our bodies and minds, just as we do our cars and our computers?”

Very likely, the person asking that question will be highly educated, technologically literate, and relatively well acquainted with the world’s principal religious and philosophical traditions. It is not impossible that this person will also be a wealthy technology entrepreneur, or perhaps well-connected in Silicon Valley.

That’s what journalist Mark O’Connell discovered when he spent some time in the Transhumanist movement, talking with a wide variety of prominent spokespeople and experimental protagonists, resulting in a gem of immersive reporting called To Be a Machine (Granta, 2015).

Transhumanism is not a vision of humanity’s future so much as a project, a goal — perhaps even an investment opportunity. Those who embrace it range from the billionaire Trump-supporting PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, to the upstart US political candidate and volcano-surfer Zoltan Istvan, to the Google technology guru and singularity prophet Ray Kurzweil.

And yes, the leadership of the Transhumanist movement does appear to be overly represented by white men who live in California, but the movement is certainly not limited to that. In 2011, there were 400 members of the Facebook group, “Singularity Network,” which is considered an important digital watering hole among Transhumanists. By 2014, there were 2014. As of early 2018, there were over 25,000. [1]

Of course, not everyone who reads a Facebook group is making a public declaration of allegiance; and according to Facebook, I know a few of those folks, and I know they are not card-carrying Transhumanists. They are just interested in everything new, futuristic, and weird.

But there is not doubt that interest in Transhumanism is growing. To understand it — this most-futuristic of future visions for humanity — we have to go backward in time.

Before Transhumanism there was Extropianism. The word is derived from another neologism, “extropy,” which is intended to mean the opposite of entropy. If entropy is the universal law that all systems tend toward increasing disorder over time, then extropy is the process by which entropy can be stopped or reversed. And the agent of extropy is life.

The early Extropian philosophers (the word was coined in 1967) thought big. They wanted to …

IN PROGRESS – CONTINUE FROM HERE.

 

[1] Zoltan Istvan, ”A new generation of Transhumanists is emerging,” Huffington Post, 2014; and a check of the current Facebook group as of March 2018.

Notes: Utopia is Dead

The original cover illustration for Thomas Moore’s “Utopia,” from 1516, courtesy Wikipedia

In 1516, Thomas More — a lawyer and councilor to the notorious English king Henry VIII — published a little book called Utopia. More’s account, written in the form of a Socratic dialogue, centered on a fictional island, on which a country reminiscent of an updated vision of Plato’s perfect Republic had been discovered by a mysterious world traveler named Raphael. The book was not, strictly speaking, about the future. Utopia was a place that was imagined to be far away in space, not time. Nevertheless, the word “utopia” has become synonymous with the vision of a perfect, future society.

More’s fictional Utopia had not evolved organically to perfection. It was designed, in meticulous detail, by a man named Utopos — a foreigner who had conquered the place and its “ignorant savages” centuries earlier, transforming them in the process. Considering that the real “New World” and its “ignorant savages” had been discovered by Europeans just a few decades previously, this aspect of More’s Utopia reveals a great deal about Europe’s future vision for that New World and its peoples. In its all-but-inevitable conquest of the Americas, which still lay a few decades in the future, Europe imagined that it would play a role like that of Utopos, the designer of a perfect civilization. As we now know, their impact was the very opposite of utopian: existing human societies in the real New World were rapidly destroyed by the European lust for gold, profit, and geopolitical power.

Meanwhile, back in More’s innocent, fictional Utopia, the politics might strike us as socialistic, or even idealized communism; in fact, they sound something like the universe of Star Trek. There is no money in Utopia. Not even gold is considered to be valuable; the ultimate pleasure in life is not the ownership of possessions, but good health. There is no hunger or poverty: “Recognition of individual merit is combined with equal prosperity for all.” The Utopians have learned to work the land effectively, on an island of relatively scarce resources and poor soil quality. In fact, they are so efficient that people work only as much as they want to, at their chosen trades, and are otherwise free to spend their time in “some congenial activity” (though not “in idleness or self-indulgence”). Utopian society is even wealthy enough to donate a significant fraction of its total exports to the help the  in other countries.

At first glance, More’s Utopia sounds like a future Scandinavia, where the idea of a basic “citizen salary” (a social payment that a citizen receives regardless of whether she works or not) is gaining traction as a social experiment in some countries, and where up to 1% of the national GDP is already committed to overseas development aid. But one should not jump to the conclusion reached by More’s fictional alter-ego, “More,” who concludes that “there are many features of the Utopian Republic that I should like … to see adopted in Europe.” (p. 132)

For example, there is plenty of slavery in More’s Utopia. The slaves are convicts, or poor people from other countries who have volunteered to be owned, in order to have work. And there is absolutely zero tolerance for premarital sex. “The Utopians are particularly strict about that kind of thing, because they think very few people would want to get married — which means spending one’s whole life with the same person, and putting up with all the inconveniences that this involves — if they weren’t carefully prevented from having any sexual intercourse otherwise.” (p 103)  And by the way, monogamy is a strict requirement in Utopia: marital infidelity, or even attempted seduction, is a crime. The punishment: slavery.

More’s depiction of the perfect society is quite unconvincing today; but the influence of his book on Western society was enormous and lasting. The idea of utopia became so ingrained in the Western tradition that even computer modelers, centuries later, use that word to describe the best possible outcome of their future-trend simulations. But like More’s “More,” thinking out loud about Europe’s prospects in the final sentence of his surprisingly modern-feeling work of fiction, the word “utopia” has also come to mean a fantasy future that one “hardly expects” to become real.

*

Fast forward five hundred years. Along the way, we pass dozens, growing to hundreds and finally thousands of imaginary utopias, all written, drawn, and — beginning in the early 20th century — rendered into motion pictures by the mind of man.

For it is principally men who have busied themselves with thoughts of a future utopia over the past five centuries. As late as 1998, in a comprehensive book-length study of Ecological Utopias by the Dutch political scientist Marius de Geus, there was not a single female thinker or author, in all of history, with a model of utopia that he considered important enough to mention, let alone analyze. (In fact, only three women are quoted or cited by name, as commentators on the concept of utopia, in the whole book.)

De Geus made a useful distinction between two types of utopias, and that distinction was still highly relevant twenty years later. On one side, there are utopias of abundance, where technology advance has provided ever-increasing access to resources, machines, and opportunities, such that everyone is living a life of comfort and even luxury.

On the other side, there are utopias of sufficiency, where humanity’s material appetites and desires have been tamed, minds are enlightened, and nobody is in need because nobody wants (or gets) more than their modest, sustainable share. Thomas More wrote the first of these “sufficiency utopias”: his Utopians wore simple clothes, eschewed excess, and avoided killing animals. The iconic modern example of the genre was Ernest Callenbach’s 1975 novel Ecotopia — a green-politics dream of a book that inspired a generation of activists and innovators and that, like Thomas More’s Utopia, gifted the world not just with a provocative future vision, but with a useful new word.

Most “ecotopias” — whether they are fictional stories like More’s and Callenbach’s, or theoretical constructions of green-tinged social and economic theory such as those put forth by the modern “degrowth” movement — fall into this second, “sufficiency” category. But de Geus, an environmentalist professor whose concern was to help rectify “a blatant lack of new ideas … concerning the future of our society,” considered this green tendency toward sufficiency-utopia thinking a flaw: “ecotopian thinkers underestimate the advantages and pleasures of luxury and comfort,” he wrote, “and are inclined to exaggerate the positive aspects of austerity and moderation.”

De Geus’s academic writing style tends to be dry, and one wants to shout, “What an understatement!” But then he continues, even more drily:

“Their general assumption is that by living more simply, attaching less value to material goods, by simplicity, frugality, and doing without luxury and affluence, a happy and environmentally friendly life is possible. This assumption appears to disregard the fact that most people in contemporary society are extremely fond of ease, convenience and comfort.”[1]

Now one wants to shout, “Exactly!” This misplaced belief in both the corrective and the attractive power of a sufficiency utopia has been the Achilles heel of the environmental movement for decades. It is demonstrably true that some people find joy and satisfaction in a monastically-inspired or a consciously-chosen simple life; but most people, very evidently, do not.

In fact, most people in this world do live a simple life: material simplicity is all one can afford on $3,000 or less per year (the approximate median annual income for the world as a whole).[2] Visions of downscaling our material way of life have so far proven appealing to a tiny minority of relatively wealthy people, whose annual incomes — even when modest by the standards of their surrounding societies — are nonetheless great enough to place them in the top one percent of all humanity. (By example: earning a salary of just under $35,000 in the United States, a level that might be considered “lower middle class,” still places that wage-earner in the top one percent, globally).[3]

It is empirically verifiable that the “abundance utopia” is far more attractive to the vast majority of humanity. It is also the official policy goal of most nations. Prosperity, opportunity, the pleasures of technology and travel and entertainment for all: this is the vision that guides the overwhelming majority of the world’s governments, organizations, institutions, and decision-makers. In fact, this dream of a world that is universally wealthy (while acknowledging that some people will always be more wealthy than others) has long since moved out of the domain of science fiction and into the halls of government, the boardrooms of investment banks, and the central offices of aid agencies and large foundations. It is no longer seen as “utopian” — a word derived from the Greek for “no place.” It is seen as humanity’s all-but-inevitable destination.

This is why I believe it is time to declare: utopia is dead. As a concept, it has been absorbed into the globalized industrial culture and has evolved into, or replaced by, a different dream. This new dream still encounters scoffers and critics and enemies, but it has nonetheless has been formally endorsed by 193 heads of state, at a United Nations summit meeting held in 2015.

We call that dream “sustainable development.”

[1] See “Median GDP per capita: how much does the typical person earn in different countries?”, by Hauke Hillebrandt, Giving What We Can, 25 May 2016, https://www.givingwhatwecan.org/post/2016/05/giving-and-global-inequality/

[2] Marius de Geus, Ecological Utopias: Envisioning a Sustainable Society, International Books, Utrecht, The Netherlands, 1999, p. 242.

[3] See: http://www.globalrichlist.com/

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notes: Television – “Window to the Future”

Click to enlarge

In the 1920s, television was not just a new, futuristic technology; it became a symbol of the future itself. The print ads and magazine covers of the day celebrated the advent of TV with breathless descriptions of new developments and potential video services that were coming “Soon!” or even just “Maybe!” — such as this cover from “Radio News,” a very popular US periodical in its time. (Note that television was thought of as an add-on to radio in those days. Note also that it took nearly a hundred years for this magazine cover’s vision of getting medical care via audio-video transmissions to be realized, via a technology no one in the 1920s saw coming: the fusion of video and telephony that we call the “smart phone”.)

But television didn’t really take off until after World War II, and by the 1960s, when reasonably priced color sets from Japan began to swamp the global market, TV was such a normal part of industrial-world households that it called less and less attention to itself, as a technology. Ads for televisions focused more and more on the sensual experience it was there to provide. TV was no longer “the future” — it was “magic,” a “wonderland of color” and a “thrilling” window to a world of entertainment and distraction.

And occasionally, a window to visions of the future itself, for it was television that introduced the world to Star Trek — the first  series built around an imagined future where humans had conquered the galaxy with starships.

The original 1960s series “Star Trek.” Collage with images courtesy Wikipedia.

Source: Window to the Future: The Golden Age of Television Marketing and Advertising, by Steve Kosareff, Chronicle Books, 2003

Notes: The Foundation Trilogy

My battered copy of Asimov’s trilogy

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy (1951) is a remarkable piece of science fiction not just because of its future vision of a galaxy full of humans, or its iconic stature in the genre. It is “future fiction” about predicting the future.

Asimov builds the tale around the work of an imaginary psychologist, Hari Seldon, who uses mathematical equations and statistical analysis of human social behavior (called “psychohistory”) to predict the rise and fall and recovery of the galactic empire over the course of a thousand years.

The action of the story revolves around just how clever Seldon and his colleagues were at planning, in detail, what needed to happen to restore the galaxy. The “Foundation” of the title is a special planet, where a kernel of rationality and science is preserved as war and economic collapse ravage the galaxy — just as Seldon predicted. In Asimov’s fantasy, even the unpredictable, in the form of a mutant with the power to control people’s emotions, is somehow accommodated in this homage to (exceedingly male) rationality and planning.

Foundation was enormously influential in its time. As a small reflection of that influence, two co-authors of the 1972 book The Limits to Growth — Dennis and Donella Meadows, who used computers and equations at MIT to try to understand what was likely to happen if the global growth trends of the 1960’s and 1970’s persisted — named their countryside residence in New Hampshire “Foundation Farm.” To be clear, they were under no illusions that they were preserving civilization there; Dennis Meadows has said it was simply a “sardonic reference” to a book they both admired.

When re-read from the perspective of the early 21st century, the Foundation trilogy seems impossibly dated. Men still carry briefcases, smoke cigars and run the world from small conference rooms, even 20,000 years after humans have fanned out across the galaxy.

And yet, there are aspects of Foundation that seem hauntingly familiar, in the age of global social media and populist politics. Apparently, great masses of people are predictable, and potentially manipulable, given the right psycho-technical tools. At the moment, we call those tools “Facebook” and “Big Data.”

Footnote: In a later 1980s novel, Foundation’s Edge, which expanded on his original trilogy, Asimov invents a planet called Gaia, where the humanoid “Mentalic” inhabitants are completely integrated with both the living and inorganic material around them, and each other, to the extent the entire planet functions as one mind. I wonder what dreams that Gaia would have?