Farewell to Utopia

Our contemporary obsession with the future is a curious thing. Older cultures had their own ways of trying to pierce the veil of time, to be sure; astrologers and diviners commanded at least as much respect in many other societies as today's economists, futurists, and social critics expect in ours. Our modern pundits dismiss these ancient arts as useless because they relied on intuiting mythic patterns, rather than the objective observation of facts. Yet there's a deep irony here, because nearly all modern thinking about the future is hobbled by our obsession with a pair of rigidly defined mythic narratives -- the myth of progress on the one hand, and the myth of apocalypse on the other -- far more limiting than anything the old diviners and their clients would have tolerated.

I've argued elsewhere that it's impossible to understand the impacts of peak oil, global warming, and the other outward manifestations of the crisis of industrial society, so long as we're stuck in this mindset. Continuing with business as usual isn't going to lead us onward and upward to a Star Trek future among the stars, that much is certain, but it's no more likely to end in the sort of overnight megadeath luridly portrayed in so much survivalist literature. Yet many people can only see the future in one or the other of these terms.

Both these visions of the future, while they take secular forms nowadays much more often than not, have their roots in Christian apocalyptic theology. A little over four centuries ago, at the time of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, mainstream Christianity capitulated to rational-materialist philosophy and redefined the deeply mythic narratives of the Bible as secular history. Before then, theologians discussed what the events described in Book of Revelations meant as mystical symbols and analogies; afterwards, they argued instead about when and how they would happen as historical events in the everyday world. Out of that came two main schools of thought. The premillennialist position was that Jesus would return and bring about the Millennium, a thousand year period when Christians would rule the world. The postmilleniallists argued instead that Christians would rule the world for a thousand years, and then Jesus would return.

The difference may seem about as relevant as the number of angels who can dance on the head of Jerry Falwell, but sweeping implications unfold from each viewpoint. If the postmillennialists are right, history is on their side, since they're destined to rule the world for a thousand years before Jesus gets here. Thus postmillennialists believe that things will get better over time until the Millennium arrived. If the premillennialists are right, on the other hand, history is on the devil's side, since it will take nothing less than the personal intervention of Jesus to give the Christians their thousand years of world rule. Accordingly, premillennialists believe that things will get worse over time until, when everything is as bad as it can get, Jesus shows up, beats the stuffing out of the devil and his minions, and brings on the Millennium.

Drop the theological language from these two viewpoints and you've got the myth of progress and the myth of apocalypse in their contemporary forms. Believers in progress argue that industrial civilization is better than any other in history, and its present difficulties will be solved if we just put enough money into scientific research, or get government out of the way of industry, or whatever else their single story presents as the solution to all problems. Believers in apocalypse argue that industrial civilization is worse than any other in history, and its present difficulties will end in a sudden catastrophe that will destroy it and usher in whatever better world their single story promises them -- a better world in which they will inevitably have the privileged place denied them in this one.

Both these mythic narratives, in other words, are myths of Utopia. Both promise that the future will bring a much better world than the present; their only disagreements are about how to get there, and how closely the Utopia to come resembles the society we've got now. Thus it's not surprising that believers in progress tend to be those who feel they benefit from the current social order, and believers in apocalypse tend to be those who feel marginalized by the current social order and excluded from its benefits. Either way, the lure of Utopia is a potent force, and one that has deep roots in our culture and our collective psyche.

It's also one of the primary obstacles that stand in the way of a constructive response to the crisis of industrial society. The lesson of the limits to growth -- a lesson most people have been trying not to learn, with increasing desperation, since the early 1970s -- is that the Age of Exuberance is passing and nothing will keep it here or bring it back. The future isn't bringing us a better world. It's bringing us instead a world of hard limits, restricted opportunities, and lowered expectations, in which many of our fondest dreams will have to be let go of for the foreseeable future, or forever. It's a world where hopes can still be realized, dreams can still be pursued, and the experience of being human can still be contemplated and celebrated, but all these things will have to take place on a much more modest scale than the experience of the recent past or the Utopian dreams of a better future have prepared us to consider.

During the Age of Exuberance, Utopian thinking was adaptive, to use ecologists' jargon: it encouraged people to think big at a time when imperial expansion, technological progress, and soaring availability of fossil fuel energy made explosive growth pay off. As the Age of Exuberance ends around us, the equation is reversing. In a world of political and economic regionalization, technological stasis or regression, and dwindling supplies of all nonrenewable resources, those who move with the curve of industrial decline will be just as successful in the future as those who rode the waves of industrial growth were in the past. It's time, and past time, to learn again how to think small -- and that process will be much easier if we say farewell to Utopia and focus on the things we can actually achieve in the stark limits of time and resources that we still have left.