In a post last week Sharon Astyk challenged us to create a vision of a world that works better than our failing, unsustainable one. Not an impracticable ideal, but something we can actually envision in our lifetime, or as Sharon puts it, is immediately accessible. A vision is not a strategy, and does not have to deal with the issues of how we get there from here. But it must be intuitively feasible. And since showing works better than telling, some actual working models would be preferable to a conceptual “future state vision” or utopian fiction.
Why is this so important? Because in our modern world, where what was done in past and what is done elsewhere (i.e. outside of globalized industrial civilization) is generally (and not subtly) discounted as inferior to the way things are here and now. We are led to believe the way we live now is the only way to live. Given enough time (and an education system and media that both work to crush imagination) we start to see the only life we know as being the only life that’s possible. The (utopian, post-civilizational-crash) novel I’m working on now is called The Only Life We Know.
In working on the novel, I’ve given a lot of thought to what a better world would look like, and I’ve changed my mind on this a lot over the last few years (I hope in a less idealistic, more realistic direction) — my views on what’s possible have both broadened and narrowed as I learn more about other cultures, past and present, human and animal. I keep coming back to a natural model, since Gaia has had a billion years to evolve ways of living that work and are sustainable. Anthropologists and biologists confirm that, contrary to what we’re taught, wild non-human cultures, indigenous cultures and prehistoric cultures are (to the extent they are not stressed by industrial human civilization) and were not only sustainable, but joyful, healthful and peaceful. Prehistoric humans mostly lived long, healthy lives (except when they were eaten by predators), showing few signs of the immune system (e.g. stress) and nutritional deficiency (e.g. bone) diseases that have plagued us for the last ten millennia. Average human lifespan reached its nadir relatively recently — during the Roman Empire and again during the Medieval Era, and quality of health and life in those periods was horrific for most.
So what would a better world look like? Here’s a list of adjectives, as a starting point for this visioning:
You probably think this is a pretty idealistic list. But all I have to do is look out my window at the creatures in the forest and the pond and at the bird-feeder, and I see a world that exemplifies all of these qualities.
So what would a world where we humans exemplified and manifested these qualities look like? I think it might look like some of the alternative cultures that have arisen since the 1960s as a reaction to and rejection of industrial civilization. But whereas these were often fragile, stressed and exhausted, I imagine this better world to be one of strength, sensitivity, and grace.
Most of all I see it to be astonishing diverse, the antithesis of modern civilization’s ruthless and relentless homogeneity. I see it as dozens of wildly different cultures, experiments blossoming and evolving until they just work. This heterogeneity, variability and impermanence is probably very difficult for those of us raised in monolithic industrial civilization to imagine, attuned as we are to one-size-fits-all models that become pervasive through colonization, acculturization and propagandization.
But great variety and diversity is endemic to healthy ecology, and an essential prerequisite for evolution and adaptation to change.
The biggest challenge in imagining this, and then realizing it, is the immense amount of relearning of capacities and competencies that wild creatures and cultures learn easily and early and hone throughout their lives. Just as land that has been subjected to catastrophic monolithic agriculture or urbanization needs to go through a succession of ugly and difficult steps before it returns at last to a natural state of dynamic complexity and balance, so too perhaps we dependent and specialized civilization-monoculture humans need to go through a period of awkward struggle before we again become graceful, natural creatures. At that point it will all become easy, intuitive, delightful. Until that point, without the help of some very clever visionaries, it will be simply unimaginable.
Category: Building a Community-Based Society