Two visions of utopia

Quadranting loves sharp, intelligent comedy. Therefore it loves Bridget Christie’s Utopia on Radio 4.

She gets plenty of mileage from the idea that our current civilisational trajectory is “not good; rapidly getting shittier” (my phrase not hers). There are too many humans now for us to reverse course – as per Quadranting First Law1 – so, as individuals, our best recourse is to find a way of coping with the knowledge that billions of our fellow beings, with the best of intentions, are striving with all their might and main to bury humanity’s future under piles of vanity projects like self-driving cars and colonising Mars.

You can see how fucked up we are by doing a Google search for pictures of Utopia. You get this as the top result:

The Prologue and the Promise. McCall Studios

Painted for Disney World (where else?), it reads from the pyramids and Acropolis on the left – the prologue – to a glorious near-futuristic metropolis around now and lastly to the lifeless, radioactive void of space interstellar civilisation – the promise.

What does this tell us – apart from suggesting that Disney was already plotting to get its hands on the Star Wars franchise back in the 1980s?

It tells us a lot about hubris. Essentially it’s the myth of progress writ large. Who is promising the viewer a passport to the City on a Hill and then the whole Universe? Is it God? The Almighty Inevitability that our dirty, temporary, fossil-fuelled living arrangement (notably absent from the mural) will shortly pupate into CGI-ed heaven because that is What Is Ordained.

Human scale is absent from the picture. People scurry along roads that lead away from, or at a safe distance from, the symbols of civilisation in the background. Perhaps that’s because all the empires represented, from Egypt to Washington, rested to a greater or lesser extent on human slavery because that’s all there was before industrialised carbon came along.

The future is a monstrous, towering, machine-made environment stripped of vegetation and animal life, lit by a Hiroshima-like sun. It takes for granted that the essential millions of fossil, fission or fusion-supplied energy slaves will continue to multiply endlessly, although the mural paints all energy conversions out of history.

You can say ‘Oh well, it’s just a feel-good painting from an amusement park’ but it’s more than that. The Prologue and the Promise still fits the official narrative, peddled in everything from smartphone adverts to the never-ending Star Wars series. Which is that this type of techno-grandiose utopia is what we should be heading for. And if your own life feels like an unfulfilling, exhausting farrago of debt slavery and pointless consumerism apparently designed expressly to exacerbate pollution, congestion and inequality, it’s because you are not trying hard enough to keep up.

Oddly enough, although our ancestors lacked almost every advantage of modern life from property rights and freedom of speech to pain-free dentistry, vaccination, clean water, ample food and insecticides, they seem to have had a far more achievable and sustainable vision of an idealised living arrangement.

Lucas Cranach the Elder – The Golden Age, 1530

Surely there has to be a middle way between Disneyfied hubris and a level of existence so precarious that the idea of going for a swim in a wildlife park seems like paradise?

The infuriating thing is that we could be working towards a balanced approach now, if humans en masse weren’t so utterly fuckwitted. Instead of being prepared to nuke each other for the right to live on the right end of the Prologue and the Promise, we could be making an honest appraisal of planetary limits, not lying to ourselves about the potential to run industrial civilisation at current scale on future energy flows, and generally building a worthwhile future for our grandchildren, not indenturing their lives in service of an impossible fantasy.

  1. Humans are wonderful in smallish groups but batshit crazy in large numbers  

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