It takes courage to have Utopias today

(Translated from German; published 06.07.2022 in in the Tages Anzeiger)

By Joshua Beer (his real name) 

Pandemics, climate crisis, wars: young people only know the future as a horror scenario. It’s high time to imagine a better world again.

Pessimistic view of the future

The future – and thinking about it – is no longer fun, because it is occupied by dystopian images: climate catastrophe, the end of democracy, an epidemic age and, more recently, nuclear death. What we lack are utopias. No fantasy worlds to escape into, but positive ideas of how we want to live in twenty, thirty years. Or even in a hundred. Instead, we hope on a small scale that the acute crises will become a little less acute: ceasefire in Ukraine, a mild corona winter, that would be nice. We do not dare to think bigger and further. Why even if the next crisis could come at any time? Surely it is already lurking somewhere. The majority of younger people are pessimistic about the future, many even long for the past. A decade ago, it was the other way around.

The feeling prevails that the good life is no longer possible in the future. The other day, a friend told me half jokingly, half seriously, that the whole thing also has its positive side: “I don’t have to worry about my retirement provisions anymore.” The system crash is already priced in. As sarcastic as it was meant, a bitter realization lies in this: For the young, the future could be difficult. What I can observe about myself: The thought of dealing with my aging in some way scares me so much that I prefer not to do anything at all. I don’t even invest in ETFs, although this is literally imposed on young people. Have I also given up on the future? It’s high time to think about tomorrow again, as a place of longing. Back to the Future.

“As a boy, as a young man, I had images of the 21st century in my head. But I have no idea of 2050 or 2100 – except as decay or collapse,” wrote British cultural journalist Simon Reynolds two years ago.

According to Reynolds, we are now in a time of “cultural recycling” of the past. Nostalgia with few ideas. Hollywood is reviving one blockbuster after another, currently in cinemas: “Top Gun”!

Reynolds is almost 60, I just turned 30. I did not consciously experience the nineties, the 21st century shapes me. Meaning: I never had pictures of future worlds in my head, except for tech and sci-fi fantasies from Silicon Valley. Isn’t there much more?

As early as 1900, wild, futuristic drawings enjoyed great popularity, painting the year 2000 in beautiful colors: flying cars with wide wings, hairdressing robots, book-eating devices for the transmission of thoughts – and always cheerful people. As wrong as they often were with their predictions, these are pictures that make you want to look to the future. And this from a time that was not exactly lacking in wars and global crises. Anyone who googles “the 22nd century” today will come across the share price of a biotech company. The few images that come show technologically desolate cities, deserted, with smooth highways and pointed skyscrapers that look like Star Wars. Who wants to live there? Or to quote Karl Valentin: “The future used to be better.”

My utopia doesn’t have to be realistic

So it’s up to us to draw such pictures. I will be 60 in 2050. By itself, the year does not trigger anything in me, I have to force the question on myself: How do I want to live in 30 years? What does the world look like then? I imagine: a city, but no densely packed high-tech towers, no sky full of Amazon drones. Green lungs, bubbling streams, vibrant forests protecting against the heat, clean water for everyone. Wind and soar electricity supplied from large installations in place of highways and parking lots. Nobody needs those anymore. Cars do not fly, but have become useless; express trains connect everything. The cities become a network of villages: you live in communities that overlap and trust, that share what makes sense to share, be it food, housing or the lawnmower. Relationships are casual, masculinity is abolished, in the sense that no one has to be hard or brave or rational or strong anymore. One thinks much less individualistically, more for the community: When epidemics come, everyone vaccinates themselves. When wars come… if it were not a utopia, conflicts are resolved non-violently, because violence is no longer an option in people’s minds.

This is my utopia. Does this mean that everthing is equally “realistic”, that this future must be forced into existence? No and no.

For this purpose, it is worth taking a closer look at the term. Since at least Plato’s “Politeia” – the design of an ideal state – utopias have helped people to invent better, alternative worlds and to compare them with existing ones. However, the term was first coined by the Englishman Thomas More in 1516 with his book “Utopia” – a play on words consisting of two Greek vocabulary words that mean “non-place” and “good place”. This resulted in an entire literary genre, a veritable boom for fantastic future narratives. It is the time of dreamers like Jules Verne, from whose dreams we can still benefit today: the Nautilus, his imaginary giant submarine, in “20,000 miles under the sea” he equipped with a glass window, knowing that it would burst in those depths. However, the author gave little attention to the current limits of feasibility, he was more interested in what is possible in the future.

“A world map on which Utopia is not listed is not worth taking a look at,” wrote the Irish poet Oscar Wilde in 1891. Then came the 20th century: while in the “real” world the great utopias fail or turn into the opposite – above all communism – dystopias such as George Orwell’s “1984” meet the zeitgeist much better. As a literary genre, utopia is de facto dying out, but as a form of thought it lives on. Wherever people question old systems. “Imagination to power!” demands the ’68 movement in Germany. But when the Soviet Union collapses and some are already conjuring up the end of history, utopias have finally become obsolete. Everything seems to have been achieved, every wish in victorious capitalism has already been fulfilled or at least within reach.

Out with utopia?

Today, utopias are regarded as burnt out, as fantasies that ignore reality and from which is best to stay away from. Or they are used to mock reality. Conservatives warn against “left-wing utopias” and business associations against “green utopias” and then Putin invaded Ukraine, suddenly it was a turning point, and we –as the German politician Annalena Baerbock put it – “woke up in another world”. Out with utopia.

The constant crisis mode kills all visions of the future. Not good at all, says the cultural scientist and psychologist Christian Kohlross, who attests to our time’s “utopian lack”. Some of his patients suffered from a state of hopelessness because they had no idea of a future. The “fear of frustration” prevents many from designing utopias for themselves, but “those who live without a future live in a state of continuous depression,” says Kohlross. “Why should this be any different for societies?” Therefore, says the psychologist, we need utopias “to orient ourselves, to bind communities, to set milestones and to develop an idea of the future again”.

But where to start? I started looking for traces of utopias. You just have to look closely, because in the rarest of cases they call themselves that. A big exception: feminist utopias. “Dreaming in itself is an act of rebellion in the here and now,” says the introduction to the book “The Feminist Utopia Project”. In 2017, the British writer Naomi Alderman traces  her idea of such an utopia in the Guardian: “A world in which one’s own genitals, hormonal equipment or gender identification play no role. In which no emotions are gendered: everyone can be both vulnerable and hard, aggressive and caring, effortlessly confident and consensual, compassionate and dominant.” One may argue about how close we are to this vision, but it unquestionably sets a goal.

Solidarity instead of selfishness

But is that enough to pull you along? Simply blindly trusting that everything will somehow get better on its own is of no use to anyone. That is why the Dutch historian Rutger Bregman prefers the concept of hope to that of optimism. Bregman, author of books such as “Utopias for Realists,” says in an interview with the New York Times: “Hope suggests the possibility of change.” 

But utopian thinking is difficult for many, because it presupposes a positive image of humanity. According to Bregman, however, the Hobbesian narrative that the ceiling of civilization is thin and violence and selfishness lurk beneath it. The Corona crisis has strengthened many in this impression. Nonsense, says Bregman, humans are “basically good”. Billions of people showed solidarity with each other during the pandemic, wore masks and radically changed their everyday lives.

Once zoomed out of the current chaos, you realize that not everything goes down the drain. The global murder rate has been declining for more than forty years, while literacy rates have skyrocketed. Almost ten percent of all people still live on less than $1.90 a day, i.e. in extreme poverty, but in 1990 it was still 36 percent. A clear majority of almost two-thirds of humanity sees climate change as a global emergency – a gigantic mandate to act. None of this guarantees a bright future. But there is reason to hope.

Unfortunately, climate activism in particular has – at least superficially – committed itself to dystopia: “I don’t want your hope. I want you to panic!” exclaimed Greta Thunberg in her 2019 speech of the century to the World Economic Forum.

Wake-up alarmism – there is nothing new or wrong about it. In Germany, for example, young activists are currently gluing themselves to the streets. They call themselves by the apocalyptic name: ‘The Last Generation’. But don’t they cling to roads because they still have hope for change? Who knows, perhaps climate activism would gain new momentum if it added a utopia to dystopia, if it actively showed how a beautiful green world could look like. 

Because those who hope can tinker with utopias without ever having to reach them completely. Co-housing projects, the shared use of living spaces, are re-testing living and have been a celebrated success in the USA and Scandinavia for decades. In general, in contrast to the images of smooth cities of the future, the village seems to be the true utopia. Everywhere people build on a small scale in the morning, even without social media accompaniment. The future of young people is not going to end. That much is certain.

1 thought on “UTOPIA

  1. To comment to this requires more than a brief reply. My new book “Meteors” currently in press presents a different picture of the future that is less wholesome than a potential utopia, but I very much appreciate this well written delineation of what is possible. Thanks Bruno Cheers


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