J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

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?

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14 Comments

  1. Yet another thought provoking and well written article. I always follow the links in your posts and read more about each author, lecturer or website you use or quote so a 5 minute reading of your blog becomes an entire illustrative week. Thank you.
    –A paleo dieter, High Intensity Interval Trainer, Karate athlete and IT professional.

  2. Boo

    The most important point is the fourth bullet about how progress isn’t smooth, rather it is interrupted by sharp spikes of regress. To which I would add that the regressions can sometimes last over a thousand years, which is the time frame it took for Renaissance scientists to come around to the ancient Greek viewpoint on atoms, for instance.

    • True, if the focus area is narrow. But the so-called “Dark Ages” were also a time of great invention in many areas. The hourglass, the heavy plough, the mechanical clock, eyeglasses, and the spinning wheel were all invented during that millennium. But overall I agree — and that point really hits home when looking at the spikes of violent death in Pinker’s graphs. I’m sure the trenches of World War I didn’t feel like “progress” in any way.

  3. while i’m an idealist to the core i think the idea of “messy” progress is right on the money, both historically and as the most realistic “one true way” forward 😉 my idealist has every reason to be very concerned at our current trajectory but a messy realist should have every reason for hope given our experiences on the collective path traveled to date. thanks, as always, for the thought-provoking post …

  4. I am in total agreement that idealized utopian societies are not the BE ALL and END ALL solutions to the somewhat messy life on planet Earth. It is always the case that these types of individuals and societies are only truly concerned about a utopia for THEIR OWN. Hang the rest. Just look at all of the Jim Jones type leaders of the world. They end up forming exclusive clubs for true believers……and then they implode!

  5. Human “domestication” over the centuries?
    http://www.radiolab.org/2009/oct/19/

  6. Chase

    Couldn’t help but notice you listed The Fountainhead, instead of Atlas Shrugged. The Fountainhead was Howard Roark, the architect, Alus Shrugged had the energy-creator, John Gault. 🙂

    • Chase

      Oops. I didn’t mean to leave a “correctors comment”, I just assumed you flipped the two by mistake. (which I do it a lot with those two books myself)

      I really do enjoy the thought you put into your posts. I’ve been quietly following them over the past year. You’re very good at summing a topic in a single post, and you use information exceptionally well in your posts. Thanks for sharing. 😀

  7. Vie

    Wow- ran across your blog in the middle of the night- half awake I was searching for answers to this cough I can’t rid of… Stumbled onto your page explaining of your journey to cure your asthma which I found fascinating, helpful and was inspired by your trials and experiments. Might have forgotten about my late night journey but alas… I was reminded coming back to my little machine and seeing your page still up. Searching more i found this engaging post… Quite like your run down of messy Utopias. Very well thought out. As part of a communal group that failed recently- (after 43 years- and me with it for 15)… I appreciated your perspective.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences and engaging real things.
    Much appreciated.

  8. Good post JD. I’ve been reading a book called the Artist Way’s that discusses creative goals have you read it? If you have what do you think about it.

  9. I sorry JD I didn’t see the other post so ignore this one. I didn’t know my other post had gotten though.

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