“…the key to happiness [is] simple: Abandon your earthly possessions, move to a tropical island, become a nudist, and eat only coconuts.”
—Zoe Bernard,”The Curious Case of August Engelhardt, Leader of a Coconut-Obsessed Cult.” Atlas Obscura. November 30, 2017.
Imagine sitting down in a small room in Germany in 1902 and listening to August Engelhardt’s pitch for happiness. Imagine beginning again in some unspoiled place, warm and living off nature’s bounty. It’s an offer of a clean slate, freedom and abundance. It’s an offer that fuels utopian visions everywhere.
People content with their circumstances in life, read about utopian experiments gone wrong in The New York Times, or after some time with the benefit of historical hindsight, and congratulate themselves. The smug voice in the chorus of our internal dialogue says authoritatively, “I would never fall for such a thing.”
Maybe. But, if you look a little deeper, it seems that we are all part of a larger cult: the religion of modernism, which holds equally strange beliefs, such as: earthly possessions will make us happy, education (indoctrination, if we are being less charitable) is the solution to many of our problems, studies that are unable to be reproduced constitute science, the priesthood of experts who have sage opinions about problems they do not experience and don’t live near should guide society, etc.
The discontents are left with fantasies about the kind of utopian paradise they could create after they win the lottery. Of course, the reality is that winning the lottery increases your chances of some unfortunate end by an order of magnitude. But, no need to worry, this is only a problem for the “winners”, and there are precious few of them. In the meantime, ponder the American Dream, work hard, and hope that your children get a better shake than you did. It happens enough to have some truth to it, just another kind of lottery. Leaving us to wonder, what other lotteries do we all buy into?
Meanwhile, the content, the “middle-class” run the wheel, buying new technology, a new bed, the gym membership, and eventually, there is an empty bank account to go with an empty life. A life’s work thrown out into the dumpster after a polite delay subsequent retirement. Sorry, we had to upgrade our systems old chum, and the thing you used to do is now worthless. Over time, true for everyone, even Shakespeare or the prophets. Religions eventually die too.
We laugh at August Engelhardt. Because to take him seriously we have to ask whether life would be better even with the heat stress, malaria, scorpions, the emaciated body of the hunter gatherer in a place where hunger finds a home. Maybe in the long run it is better.
Can you remember when the last time anyone in your family has experienced famine? Many people in industrial societies, certainly in the United States, do not have anyone within living memory of the experience. Once it is out of living memory, it is as if it becomes inconceivable. Famine? That can’t happen here. Easier to ignore all the evidence to the contrary, such as the fact famine was a regular feature of human life for much of history, and it is often driven by a pattern of collapse in economic systems based on intensive agriculture. War and famine is an inevitable consequences of our modern society, but like St. Augustine, we pray that it won’t happen (to us) yet.
But, what of Elon Musk? Isn’t Mars the contemporary equivalent of Papua New Guinea in 1902? He, at least, is honest that it’s going to be tough and will result in the death of many. But, the American Dream might be replaced by another, The Dream of Sol. The belief that it is humanity’s destiny to live out among the stars. It is the Manifest Destiny of our times, and it will be sold, just like the American Dream was sold. Work hard everyone! It’s for the good of humanity!
Mars will start as a cult, then become a religion and/or nation(s). There will be other August Engelhardts that will join and then break away, whether it is seasteading, asteroidsteading or spacesteading, and there is little difference between 3d printed water recycling machines and food pellet generation with “everything the body needs” from eating only coconuts and going nude, beyond one requiring more technological sophistication.
August Engelhardt lives, and his hungry ghost and others like him will haunt us forever. Go to the store and buy a coconut to share, while you still can! After your offering, blast off to Asgardia, if you dare.