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Is a Utopian vision for the future required to reorganise society in solving the ecological crisis?

· Environment and Ecology

What is humanity’s collective vision for the future? Gare's Manifesto highlights, "The global ecological crisis is the greatest challenge humanity has ever had to confront, and humanity is failing”. This quote highlights the direction society is taking towards a Dystopian future, "an imagined state or society in which there is great suffering or injustice…" (Hornblower, Spawforth & Eidinow 2012). To understand how a crisis eventuated, we must educate ourselves on the factors that have created the situation. This historic analysis is needed so we can employ new thinking in the present that will ensure we do not continue the mistakes of the past. Only looking at where we have come from however, does not give us direction for the future. As with a ship sailing out to sea, we need a destination, a goal, a vision for the future, such that humanity can collectively orient ourselves towards an ideal state. This is why a Utopian vision as an ideal, needs to be considered. An abstract perfect vision that can guide decisions without having to be based completely in reality. The vision to end world hunger as an example, is a utopian ideal. It is a goal that reshapes how we think of supply chains and agricultural production. However, given hunger is not a static problem but an ongoing circumstance, it may be possible to solve world hunger for a day, and the next day we need to resolve the problem. In a similar way, a Utopian vision is a picture on a wall, or a vision board and will never be a true reality but will shape our direction.


If we look to the past Utopian futures, we can see philosophers throughout the ages have looked to create an ideal state. Beginning with Plato's vision of Kallipollis (Plato & Cooper 2015), continuing Sir Thomas More's Utopia (More, Logan & Adams 2002), then attempted again with Sir Francis Bacon's incomplete New Atlantis (Bacon 1627), followed by Harrington's 'The Commonwealth of Oceana' (Harrington 1887) and David Hume's 'Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth' (Hume, Copley & Edgar 2008). The problem with each of these theories is that they attempt to 'design' a perfect society from the top down, rather than create the conditions that allow a society to 'evolve' from the bottom up (Miessler 2016). An attempt at a design for a utopia often do not allow for the conditions in "the pursuit of happiness [which] entail realizing oneself, embracing challenges worth of one's abilities and gaining meaning in life through dialectics of labour, recognition and representation, living in a way that augments life of one's communities" (Gare 2009).


Gare's perspective, along with my investigation into a utopia forms the basis for what I'll be attempting to argue for throughout this essay. That a utopia has a spectrum of factors that need to be adjustable, and transparently reflectable as the society grows, within the confines of an ecocentric worldview, rather than the current anthropocentric worldview (Arran Gare 2018). That there cannot be one overarching unchangeable plan as is understood by many religions and belief systems, that of God, the Great Architect of the Universe. 

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The factors that must be considered and questioned in considering a Utopian vision are:

1. Do we want Complete Order as opposed to Complete Chaos?

2. Do we want to satisfy Everyone's Basic Human Needs, or Everyone's Wants/Desires?

3. Do we as individuals want Absolute Responsibility or No Responsibility?

4. Can the world sustain Free Market Consumerism or do we require Controlled Market Consumerism?

a. Supply Driven Economies or Demand Driven Economies?

5. Will we afford Full Trust in Individual Autonomy, or assume No Trust in Individual Autonomy?

6. Does a Utopia evolve from a Top Down System authority, or a Bottom Up Evolution?

7. Can a Utopia allow for diverse world-views, or do we require universally understood world-views?

8. Should rights that are afforded to humans, be given to animals and ecologies that support life?


These are some of the considerations that need to be afforded to the citizens of Earth in defining and reforming the Utopian society. If we are to work towards having a Global Ecological Societal Vision, there needs to be an understanding of the consequences of our choices, the responsibilities we must embody, the suffering we must endure in the pursuit of this society.  The above considerations are perhaps the questions that must be considered and justified by the general population through a direct democratic inquiry. I will explore a few of the above questions within this essay, so to begin the process of building a Utopia from the bottom up. 


"A utopia is an imaginary community or society that possesses highly desirable or nearly perfect qualities for its citizens" (Giroux 2003). The Ideal of Perfect, is perhaps as abstract as the ideal of a Utopia. Given societies current view of progress is aimed towards greater levels of understanding of the universe, and with said understanding, the allowance of greater levels of control over our Universe. It seems logical that in order to create a Utopian vision of the future, it must come with greater order, rather than greater chaos. If we continue down the path of technological and scientific advancement, viewing the world as Hobbesian Automota, "Engines that move themselves by springs and wheeles as doth a watch" (Hobbes 1651). Then similarly to a watch, all aspects of society must function as expected in order for the Utopian vision to be achieved. If one cog is imperfect, the machine will cease functioning and the utopia will fall apart. 


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This is where the Utopian vision needs to be an evolving state, rather than a fixed goal or design. The question, do we want Complete Order as opposed to Complete Chaos is in this sense Binary logic, which needs to have more degrees of freedom for the direction society must take. Where Absolute Order may be seen as a totalitarian regime of control as with George Orwell's 1984 (Orwell 1949), and Absolute Chaos being a final state of disorder or societal confusion. What differentiates Absolute Order and Absolute Chaos is the degree to which authority grants or restricts our Negative Freedoms (Berlin 1958). 


What would have been seen as an extremely controversial opinion before the Covid-19 Pandemic, that perhaps in order to create an Ecological Civilisation, there needs to be several options for each of these State Imposed Negative Freedoms. For instance, Freedom of Movement, Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion, Freedom of Choice, Right to Property, Right to Oil and Gas exploration. In the Pandemic, we have seen varying degrees of restrictions of the Freedom of Movement as a way to reduce the spread of the virus. We've seen closing down of international borders (Australian Federal Government 2020), closing down of state borders (Pandey 2020), restricting individual movement to 5km of their home (Victorian Government 2021), compared to the almost unlimited freedoms allowed to global citizens prior to the pandemic. Given the need for Ecological Rejuvenation of land, perhaps there can be impositions on rights to own land, or the right to oil and gas exploration. This may cause inflationary pressures due to the potential reduction in immediate supply, however it will also ensure that there are supplies left for future generations. An ecological civilisation cannot solely consider the wants and desires of the current population, but incorporate decisioning for future generations.


This brings us to the next question in our Utopian Vision. Do we want to satisfy all of humanities basic needs (Maslow 1943), or continue with societies current trajectory to satisfy all of humanities wants and desires? By basic needs I'm referring to a Utopia consisting of a government or State's ability to satisfy the physiological and safety needs within Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (Maslow 1943). The economic concept of a Universal Basic Income, "a government program in which every adult citizen receives a set amount of money on a regular basis." (Peters 2020), is a rough attempt to facilitate an intermediate version of this question for a Utopian Vision. Where it doesn't provide all of humanities basic needs, nor does it provide humanity with the capability to satisfy all their human wants, rather provides them with a minimum viable income that if used correctly should allow them to afford shelter, food, water, clothing. If used for unintended purposes, the recipient could bypass their basic needs and go straight for their wants, focusing on numbing agents of their suffering such as alcohol, drugs, sex, entertainment, gambling. The question we are asking though is whether a Utopia would satisfy all of humanities basic needs? This means setting up society that doesn't allow for the choices of where to spend, rather having a Government facilitate the rental agreements, and food and water negotiations for all those who are in need, rather than giving them the funds to spend as they please.


A system whereby the Government takes complete control though is the concern of the next question for our Utopian Vision. Do we as individuals want Absolute Responsibility, or No Responsibility? If we are to work towards Gare's vision of happiness, which "entail[s] realizing oneself, embracing challenges worth of one's abilities and gaining meaning in life through dialectics of labour, recognition and representation, living in a way that augments life of one's communities" (Gare 2009), then it is necessary for the individual to take greater responsibility over their life and their consumptive impact on the environment. The current trajectory in relation to environmental destruction is moving in the opposite direction on part of the individual. Fahlquist asks the question in her paper, "Moral Responsibility for Environmental Problems - Individual or Institutional?" whether it is reasonable to hold individuals and institutions responsible for environmental problems (Fahlquist 2008). Fahlquist argues that "individuals are not appropriate targets of blame when acting in environmentally destructive ways unless they have reasonable alternatives" (Fahlquist 2008). In this sense, the Government structures need to impose controls and regulations to ensure that the products and services offered to their constituents are environmentally sustainable.


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The last point that I shall cover in this essay pertains to the government responsibility for their citizens consumption. Can the world sustain Free Market Consumerism or do we require Controlled Market Consumerism? From Gare's perspective Free Market Consumerism is the final product of "The destructive dynamic of globalized capitalism with its intensive and extensive expansion of commodification, its managerialism, its consumerism, its debasement of culture, its corruption of public institutions, pulverization of communities and subversion of democratic processes, its plundering of public assets, concentration of wealth, of people and nations by transnational corporations imposing and manipulating market forces" (Arran Gare 2018). Gare expresses the need to overcome this, and thus for the Utopian vision to be satisfied, such that individuals can have enough choice that they can actually be responsible for their environmental choices, there may need to be a drastic change in our consumerist behaviours, and our expectations of global institutions. There is a Macro-Economic tendency in the modern era to tend towards Supply-Side economics, whereby increasing the supply of goods leads to economic growth (Chen 2019). This view is what may need to be addressed in the Utopian Vision, and as a by-product, the consumers addiction to instant gratification, "the experience of satisfaction or receipt of reward as soon as a response is made” (APA Dictionary of Psychology n.d.). Given the abundance of the supply of goods coming from institutions, and the unprecedented access to personal debt, the capitalist system under neo-liberal policy has created an extractive economy based on the idea of unlimited demand, and unlimited supply.


This essay has looked at whether a Utopian vision for the future is required to reorganise society in solving the ecological crisis. The simple answer is yes, we collectively have the capacity to imagine the future, and with this awareness, bring the future to life. The condition of the Utopian Vision however, is that the vision should not be another attempt at a perfect design that needs to be fulfilled, or a top down approach. Rather a bottom-up enquiry, an evolution of new ideals, exploring the conditions that each individual would be comfortable with, in taking greater responsibility for their environmental footprint. We have explored the importance of governments imposing greater regulations on institutions and corporations, in terms of the exploration of new resources, as well as impositions on market forces. In doing so, could governments enable the conditions that allow for individual responsibility based on the choices afforded to their constituents with alternative products and services that are ecologically sustainable? These regulations that are being argued for are not binary options for enforcement, but a system of choices that can change depending on societal, environmental and economic conditions. A Utopian vision for the future is not simply the design of the buildings, the parks, the neighbourhoods and economic structures, but how they facilitate the individual to "[embrace] challenges worthy of one's abilities and [gain] meaning in life through dialectics of labour, recognition and representation, living in a way that augments life of our communities” (Gare 2009).


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