Utopia and Its Discontents

David Thorpe — one of the short story writers, poets and non-fiction writers commissioned from two Weatherfronts climate change conferences — explores the thinking that went into his story, included in the free anthology of the winning pieces.


1,300 words: estimated reading time 5 minutes


I have a story, ‘For The Greater Good’, in the new collection, Weatherfronts. Here is a tracing of my thought processes that led to me writing it.

Originating with Thomas More’s 1516 book Utopia, the eponymous word literally means “no-place”, or any non-existent society ‘described in considerable detail’… as in his book. But over time it has come to mean an ideal sort of society in which everyone has what they need and there is peace and justice for all. Perhaps everyone has their own idea of what utopia would be like.

The Island – illustration from Utopia, 1516
Artist: Thomas More © British Library Board http://www.bl.uk/learning/images/21cc/utopia/large1678.html

Its opposite is dystopia, a term coined 352 years later in 1868 by the philosopher J.S. Mill, who used it to denounce the then government’s Irish land policy. Dystopian fictions became popular in the 20th century. Dystopian movies now seem to dominate our screens, all graphically and dramatically prophesying a dire future.

I fear that there is a danger that by populating our imaginations with pictures of a future of suffering by the masses, environmental despoliation, endless conflict and/or the dominance of machines, as in films like Metropolis and Blade Runner and novels like Nineteen Eighty-Four then we could end up creating the very world that we fear. In other words that these prophecies become self-fulfilling.

By contrast, what are the features of utopia? Should we instead be picturing this?

Are we living in Utopia but don’t realise it?

I started thinking that for people living 500 years ago, the way we live now would actually seem like a utopia.

Just think:

  • All year round we are able to eat an incredible variety and plenitude of food from all over the world.
  • If we get ill we are taken care of by doctors and nurses for free, and there is always a hospital nearby.
  • People increasingly live past 100 years of age. If no one can look after them they are looked after by carers in special homes.
  • There are no poor houses or workhouses, instead if you cannot work you are given money to make sure you have somewhere to live and can buy food.
  • If you are mentally handicapped or ill, you’re not shut away in an awful madhouse, you are given medicines or therapies to make you feel better or manage your illness.
  • People with disabilities are cared for and their special qualities understood and valued.
  • Human rights are recognised and protected in law.
  • We live in warm homes and can travel incredibly cheaply anywhere in the world in a few hours.
  • We can talk to people anywhere, watch movies, take photographs and videos, listen to music and find out almost anything we like using cheap gadgets that fit in our pockets.

This would all be considered incredible, even 100 years ago. Miraculous even. But do we think we are living in Utopia? No! We are only too aware of what is wrong with our society: injustice, environmental destruction, war, pollution, climate change, inequality….

Of the above list of benefits, the increase in life expectancy, the widespread availability of more than enough food, improved health, and the increase in wealth can all be attributed to the industrial revolution and to the widespread availability of fossil fuels. The downsides of this are climate change and pollution.

These downsides are what at the time were the unforeseen consequences of what was considered hugely beneficial.

Then what is it?

So I began to imagine: what if we created a ‘utopia’ in the UK, based upon the ideals expressed in Zero Carbon Britain and One Planet Living? What would be the unforeseen consequences?

In other words, what if we had a society which could feed everybody with food grown within the country and all energy was renewably generated? It would seem ideal to us, but what might be downsides?

First, how would it work? ‘Ecological Footprinting’ is the science of measuring the environmental impact of a society against its share of the Earth’s ‘carrying capacity’. The idea of an ecological footprint is that it is linked to laws of supply and demand. I will explore this in a later post. For now, though, on the supply side there is the availability of natural resources and the ability of the Earth to absorb the waste products and other environmental consequences from our activities. And on the demand side there is the level of population and its corresponding consumption level.

For the world to be sustainable the demand must not exceed the supply, or we are burning up the future to satisfy the present – as we are now. If the entire population of the planet lived the same lifestyle that we have adopted in the Global North, then together we would need the equivalent of at least three Earths’ worth of resources. Which we don’t have.

We are beginning to get used to the idea that sensors, meters and other monitoring equipment can measure in real time all kinds of things from energy use to traffic levels, productivity, resource use and so on. At the same time algorithms are becoming more and more sophisticated in the way that they analyse the results of all this monitoring and make use of the data processed, incorporating them in feedback loops.

If we extrapolate this tendency into the future we can imagine that a society which attempts to sustainably manage itself will use algorithms and monitoring extensively to model future supply and demand, and make corrections automatically along the way so that they’ll continue to be matched.

Where is this leading?

That was the premise for my story, ‘For The Greater Good’ in WeatherfrontsIt’s all very well being able to cater for an existing population with existing productivity levels. But what if the models forecast that a population increase and a simultaneous decrease in productivity would mean that the population would suffer?

Would we want to live in this kind of world? You’ll have to read the story to find out if my heroine does!

Weatherfronts cover design
Photograph & design: Sarah Thomas © 2017
https://journeysinbetween.wordpress.com

Find out more

You can read more about David’s fiction and non-fiction at his website and download a free ebook of the new anthology Weatherfronts from Cambria Books, featuring stories, poems and essays from twelve writers who won commissions from the two events that TippingPoint and partners held at the Free Word Centre in 2014 and 2016. 

In May 2017, ClimateCultures editor, Mark Goldthorpe, will be chairing a panel discussion between David Thorpe and three of the other 2016 authors – Justina Hart, Darragh Martin and Sarah Thomas – at the Hay Festival.

You can read about Zero Carbon Britain and download their new report. This article from the One Planet Council describes the work of the Welsh Government’s commitment to ecological footprinting. And The One Planet Life provides further information and resources.

For an interesting discussion of the history of Utopia and Dystopia, see this set of articles from the British LibraryAnd this article from Encyclopaedia Britannica describes ten literary dystopias (somehow managing to bypass Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four).

David Thorpe
David Thorpe
A novelist, scriptwriter and writer of comics and graphic novels, as well as a non-fiction writer on carbon-free energy and sustainable development.
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Questioning Utopia? Space for creative thinking...

"What do you think are the best ways of reaching people who don't normally think about climate change? Does Utopian thinking help or hinder? How about humour, or other ways of bypassing the usual cognitive filters to touch our emotions? Share your ideas in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form." 

 

Generating Counter-Factual Worlds

Multi-disciplinary artist Deborah Mason outlines her collaboration with researchers, engaging people in counter-factual imagination. What if one historic event had been otherwise, giving us an alternative present to ours? What would be the possibilities in our altered ‘Now’?


1,140 words: estimated reading time 5 minutes


When Ann Light, professor of design at the University of Sussex, asked me to make her a Counter-Factual World Generator – an analogue Counter-Factual World Generator – I was immediately enthused and excited. I’d been watching The Man in the High Castle on TV and was also aware of other fictional counter-factual works (such as The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, or The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon) and my head immediately started buzzing with ideas. The generator would be used in a workshop that formed part of the University of Sussex and Wired Sussex ‘Philip K Dick season’. Ann had a clear idea of what she wanted to achieve from the workshop. It was intended to address the theme of Ways of Being in a Digital Age, taking as inspiration a quote from Dick’s novel, The Man in the High Castle:

“On some other world, possibly it is different. Better. There are clear good and evil alternatives.”  – Philip K Dick

How might innovation work differently if we thought about narratives of development that were made unfamiliar through counter-factuality? Ann’s introduction ran like this:

“Philip K Dick once said that, in good science fiction, the idea depicted sets ‘off a chain-reaction of ramification-ideas in the mind’ unlocking the reader to create worlds alongside the author. Dick’s work (which includes the stories behind the Bladerunner and Total Recall films) often portrayed fantastical technologies, setting them in a 20th century future or counterfactual present, but the reason his ideas still haunt us is that he dwelt on the societal consequences of the technical developments he envisaged … We will use the Counter-Factual Worlds Generator to provide the stimulus for new perspectives and avenues of enquiry, asking what publics are, were and could be through a series of exercises that take us back to old worlds and forward to ones that we hope for or dread.” – Professor Ann Light

A fairground sideshow

Counter-Factual World Generator
Photograph: Deborah Mason © 2017
https://debdavemason.com

During our initial conversations, I sketched out some ideas – inspired by the character of Childan, who sells Americana artefacts to the Japanese. I created the Counter-Factual World Generator to look like a fairground sideshow (with slight Americana styling). At the turn of a bird-shaped lever, it would roll out papier mache ‘worlds’. Inside each world were art-silk squares, each with a different counter-factual world represented. They also contained a scroll of paper with a little more detail on the counter-factual context and some ‘speculations’ to help discussions along.

The counter-factual contexts we chose were:

  • Katherine of Aragon and Henry VIII’s children all survive to adulthood – no need for a divorce, no break from Rome;
  • the Brazillian rubber monopoly holds – rubber is a luxury;
  • the Russian Revolution fails — no communist bloc in Eastern Europe;
  • the San Andreas fault causes an earthquake that wipes out silicon valley (and Hollywood) at a critical moment;
  • and finally the classic – the Nazis win World War II.
CFWG Katherine of Aragon Silk
Photograph: Deborah Mason © 2017
https://debdavemason.com

Only the ‘rubber world’ was designed specifically to trigger thoughts about the environment and how we might think differently about resources. But everyone was given a little set of knobs labelled ‘Cultural’, ‘Economic’, ‘Social’ and ‘Environmental’ as ways of thinking about the impact of any innovations.

As I worked on each context, creating the silk squares and the scrolls, I had my own ideas how these might affect the world we live in now, and what we might or might not design for it. The results from the workshop were far more interesting!

Where possibilities become more possible

Through a process of Worlding, Chronicling, Creating and Analyzing, participants used the idea of a world different to our own in one major historical detail to explore values and choices. When each group presented their worlds and their ideas at the end of the workshop, it was interesting to see that the idea of being present in that world – rather than speculating on a future one — created first-person narratives or presentations that were in the ‘now’ rather than in imagined futures. The idea of embedding oneself in a speculative present made ideas more real, more visceral, both less dystopian and less utopian. The possibilities became more possible. It also freed the proposed innovations from the constraints of current innovations and current trends, so it was not just a rehash or iteration of existing design ideas, trends or apps. This freedom also allowed for exploration of inventions, trends, and ideas that we might want to guard ourselves against rather than exploit, but in a way that still gave space for future exploration of possible positive applications (for example DNA modification; or the use of digital to create ‘wonder’).

Some of the ideas coming out of the exercise might have environmental or climate change implications and it occurred to me that this exercise of imagining a different present (and how we might operate in that different present) was as valid as, and possibly more powerful than, asking people to imagine alternative futures. The future is a place we never reach and cannot inhabit. The present is where we always are. A different future is optimistic and helps to promote long-term planning, but a different present highlights the actions we can take now, ourselves, to make the changes we imagine and the world we would like to be.

CFWG Dials
Photograph: Deborah Mason © 2017
https://debdavemason.com

The Counter-Factual World Generator now lives at the University of Sussex, but other similar machines could be made, or other versions of this exercise trialled as a way of thinking about climate change and different presents leading to different futures. Ann and I are always interested in exploring the possible.


Find out more

The University of Sussex Creative Technology Research Group is concerned with the interfaces between humans and digital technology and how these are changing, and investigates interaction in the broadest sense, in relation to digital technologies, connected physical artefacts, and people’s experience and practices with mobile, immersive, ubiquitous and pervasive computing. You can see a selection of Professor Ann Light’s publications at her University of Sussex page.

There is an interesting New Statesman review by John Gray of Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (although if you are reading the novel or watching the TV series, needless to say: ‘Spoiler alerts”).

Deborah Mason
Deborah Mason
A multi-disciplinary artist and cultural activist interested in equality, diversity, inclusion, environment, climate-change and society.
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Counter-factual questions: Space for creative thinking?

"What historical event would you change, and what specific ways do you imagine this altering the present world that we know? Would the alternative 'Now' be unambiguously better, or might it bring new complications?" Share your thoughts and speculations in the Comments below or use the Contact Form.