What Would a Better World Look Like?

BLOG What Would a Better World Look Like?

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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:

  1. Healthy
  2. Joyful
  3. Fearless
  4. Safe
  5. Beautiful
  6. Abundant
  7. Peaceful


  8. Actualizing
  9. Present
  10. Creative
  11. Open
  12. Appreciative
  13. Honest
  14. Intentional


  15. Sustainable
  16. Resilient
  17. Improvisational
  18. Self-Healing
  19. Sufficient (in the Thomas Princen sense)
  20. Leaving Nothing Behind


  21. Self-Knowledgeable
  22. Learning
  23. Competent


  24. Self-Managing
  25. Self-Sufficient
  26. Diverse
  27. Responsible
  28. Non-Hierarchical
  29. Egalitarian
  30. Networked
  31. Community-Based
  32. Communicative
  33. Collaborative


  34. Loving
  35. Supportive
  36. Generous
  37. Respectful

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.

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8 Responses to What Would a Better World Look Like?

  1. MAX says:

    regards from europebasic reading for designers of the new and better world should most certainly be the works of herbert marcuse.saludos cordialesmax

  2. Steve Bean says:

    Daniel Quinn wrote a book called Tales of Adam that put forth a law of life of some sort (I forget the exact term and don’t have my copy handy) that all animals follow, with the exception of a large number of confused humans.

  3. Stephen says:

    Hey Dave, if you get a chance you should check out Life Inc by Douglas Rushkoff. There’s a few gems in it which I think might help you.

  4. George says:

    You also need to read Andrew Bard Schmookler’s book “The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution” It addresses the issue you always ignore in your discussions of post collapse society i.e. what a bloody minded power obsessed species we are and why there are very few small simple societies anymore that don’t live under the protection and/or at the sufferance of bigger complex ones. Read and properly understood, I think this book will have as big an impact on your thinking as “Straw Dogs”.You could also read from Patricia Crone’s book “Pre-industrial Societies” her description of the devil’s bargain humans made when we created the state and why we did it anyway.A related problem is that your novel will remain unreadable to most if (as the excerpts suggest) there is no conflict in it. This may be a reflection of your same (apparent – I can’t be sure) blind spot. I believe from discussions I have seen that even James Howard Kunstler’s optimistic post collapse novel “A World Made by Hand” has a problematic bully in it. Another novel with a different collapse cause, Stephen King’s “The Stand” has a nice example of armed people of good will overcoming distrust and lowering their guns only to face a much larger conflict that cannot be resolved by peaceful means.

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks for the recommendations and comments. I am indeed aware (in fact that is one of the reasons previous efforts at the novel were trashed) that ‘popular’ fiction requires conflict; I have studied the story formats that have been used since language was invented to see if I can find one that does not require conflict to be accessible and interesting. There are several, and the one that appeals to me is the ‘nature documentary’ (and not the Fox “When Animals Attack” variety). I’m thinking about a film like Baraka or Koyaanisqatsi. Whether this would work in a book form I’m not sure.As for whether humans are innately fierce, competitive and driven to unsustainable behaviour, I’ve addressed this in my essay “No Noble Savage”. I believe we are both fierce and intelligent, but I think as long as we are connected with all-life-on-Earth, our innate biophilia will keep our ferocity in check. For most of our time on Earth, it has.

  6. George says:

    I just read “No Noble Savage” (again)so I wanted to clarify my point. I don’t think you romanticize gatherer-hunter cultures – I think they tend to observe the “Law of Life” as articulated in the Daniel Quinn novels. This is one of the things that made them (and would make your post collapse cultures) vulnerable to a new power obsessed rise of the state forming mentality. The problem of this cycle beginning again-perhaps after a period of collective remorse-is an important one.Regarding novels and conflict-it’s not just popular fiction. Are you so attached to the novel format? A nonfiction book on your topic would be interesting too. I’ll continue to follow your very thought provoking and informative work-warts and all-but it would be interesting to see you tackle-whether in fiction, nonfiction or both-the issue of the human tendency to build power and hierarchy which I believe cannot be wished or assumed away in a post-collapse world and which, I would suggest is what you have been doing.

  7. Janene says:

    Hey –Kinda late in the game… but I had to address George’s concern…The “human tendency” to build power and hierarchy that you are speaking of, George, is not so much a human tendency after all , but rather a function of agricultural society. For a complete discussion of the systemic relationships between food production, sedentarism, social hierarchy etc, as well as arguments on why this will never (on a human scale) happen again, see Jason Godesky’s Thirty Theses. Janene

  8. I think of every different society on this planet as being kind of like a bubble. And I believe that there would be a different game plan depending on where you live. Canada is one of the easier places to start work on this sort of thing, I believe. The way forward, as I see it, would be to help people to learn how to reason independently. And meanwhile, it’s good to try to infuse mainstream society with new perspectives on topics, where you feel that there is a corporate error of judgement which is being made. The blogosphere is a great tool for this, and link sharing sites can also be used for this purpose.Looking at Canada, specifically, it seems to me that the most important thing for your country would be that people need to develop a greater sense of civic responsibility, and civic pride. It seems to me that Canadians are quite insular people – they have their own lives and they try to leave eachother alone. I think that people need to present visions for their own society, and have a national discussion about what they want for the future of their nation.I believe that the qualities you list are universally accepted as good ideals. But people cannot agree on this or any vision, let alone realise it – until they start a discussion with eachother about their communities, provinces, and nation.

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