Apocalypse is the Suburb of Utopia

The land of the possible has many paths, and we can know only one. Everything’s stochastic and impermanent. Our lives are packed with luggage, the vast majority of which would be best left at the side of the road.

Utopia is a place with kind and reasonable people using coalition-building, science and determination to solve their problems. How many of us can hope to live there? Grass so much greener than where we live, day-to-day.

But, even utopia rests on the cliff-edge and can easily change into apocalypse. Change some of the underlying structure. Change some of the personnel. Change the culture. And apocalypse will come like a fell wind pushing you from safety to calamity.

Life is subtle, glacial shifts that happen as we migrate from the youthful land of promise to one defined by limits: physical, of our historical moment, or of imagination. No one escapes transformation nor comes out alive.

Our destiny, in part, is to confront what we fear. Alone, insane, destitute and defeated. The catastrophe we think is going to happen has already happened, in our heart-mind. Truth is secondary to stories and opinion, a half-truth of unengaged labels, objectification and prejudices. A lack of common sense and gullibility are the red flags of alienation. The stink of fear and cries on the unsympathetic ear. But, these are also the tools of our survival.

But, even among the horror, beauty. Holding faith with the sun in a sunless place. Seeking perfection in the flawed. Loving the broken. It is our stories, our half-truths and deluded fictions that redeem the world.

Forgive me, dear friends. I was neither as strong, capable, or honorable as I wished. A mixed dish, contrary flavors, but I can be no more than myself. Why should I think you would be any different, even though I desperately wished it? Maybe if I wished enough, I could make it so, with the strength of my belief, smaller than a mustard seed.

The Key to Happiness: Coconuts

“…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.

nasa-poster-mars-exploration

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.

A Golden Age for Dystopian Fiction

“Dystopia used to be a fiction of resistance; it’s become a fiction of submission, the fiction of an untrusting, lonely, and sullen twenty-first century, the fiction of fake news and infowars, the fiction of helplessness and hopelessness. It cannot imagine a better future, and it doesn’t ask anyone to bother to make one. It nurses grievances and indulges resentments; it doesn’t call for courage; it finds that cowardice suffices. Its only admonition is: Despair more. It appeals to both the left and the right, because, in the end, it requires so little by way of literary, political, or moral imagination, asking only that you enjoy the company of people whose fear of the future aligns comfortably with your own. Left or right, the radical pessimism of an unremitting dystopianism has itself contributed to the unravelling of the liberal state and the weakening of a commitment to political pluralism. ‘This isn’t a story about war,’ El Akkad writes in ‘American War.’ ‘It’s about ruin.’ A story about ruin can be beautiful. Wreckage is romantic. But a politics of ruin is doomed.”

—Lepore, Jill. “A Golden Age For Dystopian Fiction.” The New Yorker. June 5, 2017.

Dystopia is the gym. Ain’t that the truth?