J.D. Moyer

sci-fi writer, beat maker, self-experimenter

Month: October 2012

Rehabilitating "Progress" and Envisioning "Messy Utopias"

The original “classic” utopia.

I took away three main points from Steven Pinker’s recent Long Now lecture discussing the ideas behind his book The Better Angels of Our Nature.

  1. His outrageous and counter-intuitive proposition that death by violence among human beings has been unevenly but steadily declining throughout history (he provides a great deal of compelling evidence, some of which I discussed in my last post).
  2. His suggestion that intellectuals and academia (especially in the humanities) reconsider their general view that human progress does not exist and is a false ideal.
  3. His point that some of the most horrific genocidal actions in human history have been in pursuit of idealized utopian societies (such as Nazism, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and Stalin’s Communism).

The Messy Utopia

Let’s assume for a minute that the human race avoids destroying itself within the next 100 years. Somehow we’ve made it through global warming, peak oil, massive financial deleveraging, food shortages, our population peaking, droughts and floods, supervolcanoes, weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, corporate malfeasance, extreme concentrations of wealth, ocean acidification and coral reef destruction and the collapse of natural fisheries. Some of these things turned out to be more serious than we thought, some less so, and a whole bunch of other stuff happened that we didn’t even consider or predict at all.

But we’re still here. Maybe 9 billion of us in 2112. Maybe significantly fewer if things have gotten really bad. But still quite a few human beings either way.

So what kind of world do we want to be living in, 100 years from now?

History has shown us pretty clearly that the single-minded relentless pursuit of a “perfect” idealized society is a terrible idea. When the “end” is conceived as infinitely good, that opens up the “means” to be pretty awful (forced relocations, prison camps, and outright genocide, for example).

But that doesn’t mean we have to throw out the idea of progress altogether, or stop trying to envision a better society. Is there room for the pursuit of “messy” utopias?

Here’s how I would contrast a “messy utopia” vs. a “classic utopia”:

Classic Utopia Messy Utopia
-homogenous population -diverse population
-rural/pastoral -capitalizes on efficiencies of cities
-clean slate/new land -builds/improves on what exists
-one right way -many good ways
-static/fixed -constantly evolving
-ignores empirical evidence -uses empirical evidence
-anti-elite/anti-intellectual -integrates/uses elites
-disregards less-abled -accommodates less-abled
-attempts to eliminate problems -develops systems for coping with problems
-demands moral standards -encourages moral behavior
-traditional social roles -wildly divergent social roles
-draconian state power -judicious use of state power

The “classic utopia” comes in many flavors. Some are secular, others are religious. Some are conservative and some are liberal. All of them are fantastical and not firmly grounded in a realistic view of the world. Here are some examples:

  • Ayn Rand’s “Galt’s Gulch” from Atlas Shrugged (a secluded enclave protected by energy beams, where residents never borrow things from each other, but instead pay rent for usage)
  • Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia … a racially segregated secessional nation in which people love arts and crafts, hate TV and professional sports, don’t gossip, smoke a lot of weed, have lots of non-monogamous sex, and plant hidden WMD’s in major non-ecotopian cities as a deterrent to revanchism.
  • Joel Salatin is the intensive-polyculture farmer featured in Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma). His libertarian Christian utopia would have no use for cities, and would demand extremely traditional gender roles.

One could go on with visions of libertarian floating city tax havens, anarchist freegan collectives, and so on. These movements, books, and views are not dangerous — what is dangerous is when a powerful insane individual or government tries to implement any kind of utopia with a top-down authoritative approach.

Realism and Optimism Can Co-Exist

I like the idea of envisioning a multitude of messy utopias. Here are my thoughts on rehabilitating the word “progress”:

  • progress isn’t inevitable, but it is possible
  • progress isn’t unidirectional, it’s multi-directional
  • progress can occur even if human nature doesn’t change
  • progress isn’t smooth, rather it is interrupted by sharp spikes of regress
  • not all cultures see progress the same way, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t universal values that most of us embrace
  • qualities that, when developed in individuals, might lead to progress on a social level might include empathy, reason, connectedness, and purpose
  • values that many people might agree represent progress on a social level could include more knowledge and understanding (education), less death by violence, public health and safety, more personal freedom, higher social trust, safety nets for families and communities, egalitarianism, rich arts and culture, scientific research and exploration, robust trade, and so forth

What do you think?

Steven Pinker — Violence Is Down (But What About Oakland?)

Steven Pinker and David M. Kennedy

Recently I attended Steven Pinker’s lecture discussing his latest book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature.” This nytimes review provides a great summary if you’re not familiar with it. The talk was part of the Long Now seminar series, hosted by Steward Brand.

Very short summary: death from violence has been declining throughout history, and we are currently experiencing an unprecedented “long peace.”

It’s a counterintuitive proposition. The world often seems on the brink of mass destruction.

But the evidence Pinker presents is compelling. Walking down Market in San Francisco at night (which I did to get to the lecture, past dice games, thuggish types lurking in the shadows, anarchists in hoodies, etc.) is much safer than the Mongol steppes under the reign of the Khans, or Europe during World War II.

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Why Going Paleo Is Easier Than You Might Think

The Standard American Diet … looks nothing like this.

In transitioning to a paleo diet from either a vegetarian diet, an industrial food/Standard American Diet (S.A.D.), or a conventional low-fat “healthy” diet (dry whole wheat toast with skinless chicken breast, etc.), following three simple guidelines during meal preparation will get you most of the way there:

  1. Replace a grain-product (like bread or pasta) with a vegetable.
  2. Replace a sweet beverage with a non-sweet beverage.
  3. Slightly increase “good fat” content.

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