Utopia: Crunching the Numbers

It's not too late to avert climate disaster.

The present may be bad, but the future will inevitably be worse. That's the attitude of many of today's environmentalists. With that kind of attitude, is it even possible to avoid a catastrophic crash of human and natural systems? Or can we recover from this path we are on, if only we do something, quickly?

Well, this is the kind of question that is worth asking the scientists who study these problems in a quantitative ecological sense, analysing it as a problem in global energy flows. The Socolow wedge diagrams out of Princeton suggest that yes, it is still possible for us to ratchet back from the edge of catastrophe by decarbonizing quite rapidly, which means applying every single method contemplated as soon and as fully as possible. We’re about at the moment where we’re leaving the cliff’s edge, but that’s better than running the numbers and finding you’re already out in space.

There are well-articulated plans to get back to solid ground coming from many places, including Lester Brown and his Earth Policy Institute; their ‘Plan B 3.0’ is a fairly detailed plan of action. Indeed many government agencies and NGOs and institutions around the world are busy articulating these plans, and it’s reassuring to think that we’re not living in an utter fantasy of salvation. Practical plans have been proposed, and there really still are grounds for hope. But we have to act.

So the question of history returns. How do we act on what we know? The time has come when we have to solve this puzzle, because the future, from where we look at it now, is different than past futures. Before we just had to keep on trying to do our best, and we would be OK. Things seemed to slowly get better, for some people in some places anyway; in any case, we would keep trying things, and probably muddle through. This is no longer the case.

Now the future is a kind of attenuating peninsula; as we move out on it, one side drops off to catastrophe; the other side, nowhere near as steep, moves down into various kinds of utopian futures. In other words, we have come to a moment of utopia or catastrophe; there is no middle ground, mediocrity will no longer succeed. So utopia is no longer a nice idea, but a survival necessity. This is a big change. We need to take action to start history on a path onto the side of the peninsula representing one kind of better future or another; the details of it don’t matter, survival without catastrophe is what matters.

In essence the seven billion people we have, and the nine to ten billion people we’re likely to have, exist at the tip of an entire improvised complex of prostheses, which is our technology considered as one big system. We live out at the end of this towering complex, and it has to work successfully for us to survive; we are far past the natural carrying capacity of the planet in terms of our numbers. There is something amazing about the human capacity to walk this tightrope over the abyss without paralysing fear. We’re good at ignoring dangers; but now, on the attenuating peninsula, on the crazy tower of prostheses – however you envision it, it is a real historical moment of great danger, and we need to push hard for utopia as survival, because failure now is simply unacceptable to our descendants, if we have any.

When thinking about this situation, this moment that simply has to change, those of us in the developed world, the privileged world, tend very naturally to ask: even if we do survive, will it be bad for us? Will we be unhappy? Will we lose our privileges? As Frederic Jameson observes at one point in his long essay on utopia, people are anti-utopian not necessarily because they’re political reactionaries, but because utopia might change them utterly.

And such a profound change is a fearful thing, almost like reincarnation: if you come back as someone else you’re not really you, so in fact you haven’t come back at all. Utopia would be as pointless as heaven, if you were no longer you. And you are your habits, or so it usually feels. So what would happen to prosperous first-worlders in a utopia of survival, where everyone had an equal share of the Earth’s ‘natural capital’? For it’s very commonly said, by quite mathematically sophisticated people, that if we tried to spread human and natural wealth equally over the entire seven billion of us, then everyone would be poor.

This too is an interesting question to run the numbers on. The Swiss, being prosperous and practical, have already started to run those numbers: one result of that inquiry is the 2000 Watt Society. Their notion is that if the total amount of energy available to humans right now were equally distributed among the entire seven billion of us, each person would have the use of about 2,000 watts. It isn’t a lot of energy, but it’s not negligible either.

Some Swiss have decided to run an experiment living on that much, and now there are people in Basel and Zurich trying it too. The Swiss have some local advantages in this experiment: they live in a small country in Europe, a continent with an amazingly rich infrastructure, built partly with the spoils of their colonialist plundering of the rest of the world. You can therefore live on 2,000 watts in Europe and be quite comfortable. There’s public transport, there are efficient small apartments, and so on. While this living experiment doesn’t give all the answers, it is nonetheless suggestive.

It looks like a huge amount of our energy burn right now is pure waste in terms of improving the quality of our lives, assuming that quality is conceived in terms of health, happiness and sustainability. Much that is burned is simply wasted. Right now the average Swiss citizen uses 5,000 watts, Europe as a whole averages 6,000 watts, America 12,000, China 1,500, India 1,000 and Bangladesh about 300. You get a sense of the range. And right now we live in an extremely dirty and inefficient technology, a kind of global Stalinist Cheylabinsk-56. What has been invented and designed already to replace this crude old tech would by itself make an immense improvement in energy efficiency and carbon burn, and more could come after that. The realisable goal is a carbon-neutral or even carbon-negative civilisation. This swapping out of our energy technology is part of the necessary work of the twenty-first century, but it can also mean full employment, population stabilisation, and eventually more watts for everybody equally.

This vision of an overarching social project makes it possible to say more to young people in the first world than, ‘sorry, we torched the world and now you have to live like saints and suffer’. That’s not a great message to take to the young, and also it’s not correct. We in the hyper-consuming first world are actually experiencing our extra carbon burn as more of a burden than an enhancement. It measurably degrades our physical and mental health; it cocoons us in crap – we’re not fully there in the world. So we need to burn less carbon for ourselves as well as our home; it’s not a matter of puritan renunciation, but rather becoming more clever and healthy. There is a comfortable way forward for all, in other words, if comfort is conceived of as a sense of achievement. There’s a utopian spark in that thought, a spur to action.

I wrote a bit about this notion in the Science in the Capital Trilogy – that a decarbonised life might bring us more alive than we are now in our thick, dirty technoshell. I have sometimes called this utopian vision ‘the Palaeolithic plus good dental care’, hoping to suggest that since we’re still genetically the same creatures we were 100,000 years ago, we could become again those same animals, living fulfilled and complex existences, without capitalist hyper-consumption – but with the best parts of modern technology conserved, to reduce suffering and thus increase happiness.

What the human sciences are telling us now is that the closer you live to a Palaeolithic lifestyle – with good dental care – the better off you are. This is another utopian thought, coming straight out of the latest scientific findings: we are happiest when we are healthiest, and we are healthiest when we live a life that engages us in the physical world in a rather low-carbon-burn way. Walking around outdoors a lot, talking, the occasional dash or tumble, making a meal together, and so on. These low-carbon activities are often felt as the best part of the day, and that’s no coincidence.

This description can be given to young people in particular as a possible life project worth doing. Young, first-world secular citizens exist in a crisis of meaning: they know life needs to be about more than hyper-consumption, but what that ‘more’ might be is not clear. Meaning has never been priced and thus it is confusing. This existential crisis is very real; we need meaning to go forward, and yet capitalist society doesn’t provide it.

Now, at the beginning of the climate-change era, the start of the Anthropocene, that meaning is simply evident in the world – really it’s forced on us by the situation – we have to decarbonise, which means changing everything, which means utopia, all for survival and for our descendants. This is a life project with a sense of accomplishment in it. With the idea that you could do things smarter and thereby have more fun, capitalism as it stands now begins to look not only morally obese, but also unskilful, even a little bit stupid.

The project, for all of us alive today, then breaks down into practical reformist strategies, like supporting social democracy and the various green political movements, while keeping more radical further goals in mind. And when people bring up geo-engineering, one can say, ‘Yes, we’re doing that already by accident, and really the smartest geo-engineering we have is swift de-carbonisation’. One can promote a notion Jameson mentioned, that of full employment. Full employment would get needed work done, and it is also a paradigm buster for capitalism, which needs unemployment to get ‘wage pressure’, meaning fear in more and more workers.

So we have structural unemployment; yet just by asserting that everybody deserves a job as a human right, the system is challenged. Full employment also suggests the idea of a living wage, therefore poverty reduction, which is in itself a powerful climate-change technology. This needs to be insisted on, to make sure that climate change action doesn’t somehow become a merely technological question, with the implication of some kind of silver bullet solution out there that will allow everything else to go on as it’s going now. That’s not going to happen. So changes that dismantle some of the fundamental injustice of capitalism while helping the climate situation are a double good.

Always in this, supporting science is a necessary part of the project. It isn’t the same as supporting capitalism, as some critics seem to assume. We need to de-strand those two, and recognize that science is our ability to increase our ability to understand the world, and then to manipulate it for our collective good.

While I support science as the best name for our species’ life-support system, I also recognise that many scientists are like the character Beaker in The Muppets, geeking their way through life, their education deep but narrow, making them often naively unphilosophical, to the point where they think that what they do is straightforward and non-political. It’s the humanities’ job to disabuse them of that mistaken notion, by way of fully-supportive lessons in history, philosophy, political theory, rhetoric and literature. The humanities need to educate the sciences rather than attack them; this education is not an option, if you want to be aware of how the human world works.

The humanities’ stereotypical attack on scientists looks like this: take the Monopoly game figure of the Capitalist, with his top hat and round belly, and imagine that he pays Beaker from The Muppets to invent a gun, and then he seizes the gun and puts it to Beaker’s head and says: ‘Make me more guns and make me more toys’. Beaker’s eyes are round as he complies. Those of us in the humanities, watching this scene and imagining we’re somehow not already implicated, say, ‘Damn it Beaker, I see you’re part of the problem. You even invented the atom bomb!’ And Beaker whispers to us, ‘There’s a gun to my head. And there’s a gun on you, too. Can’t you see it? Why are you blaming me?’

Yet we do; we go on blaming science for something that is not the scientists’ problem but rather our general problem as citizens. Scientists need both our support and our ability to give them a political education, pointing out their own potentiality, their embodiment of a utopian effort that has continued for centuries now. The various components of the scientific method, and the structure of scientific institutions, are simultaneously both a method for discovering nature and a utopian political program. But who knows this; who admits this; who works with this knowledge?

I think it helps to think of this large social project, which we must now accept as ours, in terms of the concept of scaffolding. James Griesemer of University of California Davis shared with me his notion of the human generations’ efforts as each building a scaffold for further work by descendants, who work at some kind of higher level. It has been about 400 generations since the end of the last Ice Age, so we can put ourselves in that long succession, and imagine that our generation is building a scaffold on the shoulders of the many generations that came before. A coral reef isn’t a bad analogy either: you build your level; you can’t leap to heaven – if you try you will crash back down, maybe even crash a few scaffolding levels below you.

So here, facing climate change, proposing utopia as in effect the only solution that will work, we still need to think of the project as a transgenerational thing that will take generations to accomplish. We can’t panic, nor can we give up just because we can’t do it all in our lifetimes. We face an ecological emergency; but even here, all we can do is work on our present reality, and build what we can. I’m aware that I’m arguing conservatively here, but I’m arguing for reforms so numerous and systemic that ultimately they will add up to revolution – to post-capitalism, to utopia – but some generations down the line. We can’t imagine the details of how this will happen, but the general outlines of the project are clear enough from here to make a start. And the necessity is clear. Hopefully, we’ll get there as fast as we can, and meanwhile we can throw ourselves into our moment of the project.

This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Arena.org.au

Image credit: Glenn Brown, Böcklin’s Tomb (copied from ‘Floating Cities’ 1981 by Chris Foss)


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Sujittrachat 31 January 2014

I really like this article. You probably have heard of the Apocalypse (world evil destroyed on the last days) and the millennium (utopia reigned by Christ) of Christianity. It seems like we need a force as strong as Jesus coming back and then Satan be crushed and ousted by him. Robinson's Satan is composed of carbon and capitalism. But, emphatically, how are we going to find a miraculous Jesus to get the work started? Besides, I don't think the real Satan is carbon and capitalism, but the evil that is lurking in the heart of man since the beginning of human history, that makes weather & lifestyles bad, that makes capitalism bad, and that makes other things else bad. This evil can be countered by non-evil. Non-evil can be promoted by changing genetic and environment. Robinson mentions being eventually clever and healthy. I will use the word only healthy, both temporally and spiritually. How can we do that? Just by being good.It looks like God is giving humans a test as a judgement, either you become healthily good or you die; this is in similitude to Robinson's two choices of utopia or catastrophe. So I think the real problem of the world is moral, or something good, and doing good, in any area. I don't know either where to find Jesus. I agree with most of what is said by Robinson as to the approached methodology (inject science with other disciplines) and the way to go around (scaffolding). I just don't care much about the death of the human race or even of myself and my offsprings. If, they're not good, they do not deserve to live any way. I care more about the quality of living a good life and the goodness that has occurred intermittently in human history.