Charlie Stross: Let a Thousand Utopia’s Bloom

Historically, when a civilization collapsed, it collapsed in isolation: but if our newly global civilization collapses, what then …?

Excerpted from Charlie Stross:

“It seems to me that the post-cold war neoliberal dominated political consensus (which is a consensus of the Right, insofar as the flagship of the Left hit an iceberg and started to sink in 1917, finally hitting the sea floor in 1989) is intrinsically inimical to the consideration of utopian ideals. Burkean conservativism tends to be skeptical of change, always asking first, “will it make things worse?” This isn’t a bad question to ask in and of itself, but we’re immured a period of change unprecedented in human history (it kicked off around the 1650s; its end is not yet in sight) and basing your policies on what you can see in your rear-view mirror leaves you open to driving over unforseen pot-holes. To a conservative, the first priority is not to lose track of what’s good about the past, lest the future be worse. But this viewpoint brings with it a cognitive bias towards the simplistic outlook that innovation is always bad.

Which is why I think we badly need more utopian speculation. The consensus future we read about in the media and that we’re driving towards is a roiling, turbulent fogbank beset by half-glimpsed demons: climate change, resource depletion, peak oil, mass extinction, collapse of the oceanic food chain, overpopulation, terrorism, foreigners who want to come here and steal our women jobs. It’s not a nice place to be; if the past is another country, the consensus view of the future currently looks like a favela with raw sewage running in the streets. Conservativism — standing on the brake pedal — is a natural reaction to this vision; but it’s a maladaptive one, because it makes it harder to respond effectively to new and unprecedented problems. We can’t stop, we can only go forward; so it is up to us to choose a direction.

Having said that, we should be able to create a new golden age of utopian visions. A global civilization appears to be emerging for the first time. It’s unstable, unevenly distributed, and blindly fumbling its way forward. But we have unprecedented tools for sharing information; slowly developing theories of behavioural economics, cognitive bias, and communications that move beyond the crudely simplistic (and wrong) 19th century models of perfectly rational market actors: even models of development that seem to be generating sporadic progress in those countries that were hammered down and ruthlessly exploited as colonial assets by the ancien regime and its inheritors.

We need — quite urgently, I think — plausible visions of where we might be fifty or a hundred or a thousand years hence: a hot, densely populated, predominantly urban planetary culture that nevertheless manages to feed everybody, house everybody, and give everybody room to pursue their own happiness without destroying our resource base.

Because historically, when a civilization collapsed, it collapsed in isolation: but if our newly global civilization collapses, what then …?”

1 Comment Charlie Stross: Let a Thousand Utopia’s Bloom

  1. Avatarjames william gibson

    Part of our inability to imagine alternative, “utopian” visions comes from left-liberal rhetorical conventions that permeate much of the alternative media. The thinking seems to be that people do not know how terrible advanced capitalism and empire are, and that therefore we need to hear more and more about their atrocities. In this discursive model, there is an assumption that once people finally grasp the corruption of the system, then they will revolt.

    If a writer describes or analyzes positive, creative tendencies in the present that might open up utopian possibilities, then he or she is dismissed as a pansy, as someone who does not grasp just how bad things are. (I think my own work on the cultural reenchantment of nature, “A Reenchanted World” falls into this category.)

    But the “Favela” future advocates fail to grasp that few people are motivated by images and stories of impending apocalypse. Instead, people need to see the contours of a better world emerging in the present (a pre-figurative society and culture); they need to feel hope and connection, not fear.

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