Saturday, 10 October 2009

Draft Article for Sublime: Hope Issue

Dystopia? Utopia? Myopia? (Wetopia?)

When you imagine life in the year 2030 what do you see?

A. Dystopia? Climate change, peak oil, biodiversity, food, water, ecosystems collapse, tipping points: “A perfect storm by 2030” according to the UK chief scientist, Sir John Beddington: Or “A global Somalia” according to James Lovelock: Hell and high water, either way.

B. Utopia? A low carbon society will mean flourishing, elegant, harmonious, low carbon cities – with wonderful air quality, green spaces, cycle ways and free electric transits, mixed use campus-style neighbourhoods. Children, cats and handcarts loaded with fresh produce chase each other up grassy streets, while adults stroll between work places, symposia and city farms.

C. Myopia? 2030 is only 20 years away. Things will change but life will go on. There will be cars (now electric), supermarkets, offices, homes. Many of them still using today’s buildings. Some things will look advanced and some retro – just as if we’d peered ahead from 1990 to today we’d have been struck both by the iPhone and the number of cyclists.

D. All of the above? (But strangely reconfigured).

Any of A, B or C on their own are imbalanced (which would you choose – depression, mania or neurosis?) I am going to argue for D. I call this more panoptic viewpoint Wetopia; as the important shift could be from excessive ‘everyone for themselves’ competition to more joined up co-operation.

I agree with A that there is no change until denial is overcome. I agree with the B that there is no motivation without hope. I agree with C that the extremist views (A or B) largely go over the heads of most people. But that’s why we need a mix of all three. And we need to take them as ingredients for a recipe that is wholly new and strangely reconfigured. Because we need to adjust well to a fast-changing set of realities.

The either/or arguments that break out when these positions hit policy makers are so draining:
A. We MUST help the public understand the chasm of risk.
B. We MUST sell the public the dream of a better quality of life.
C. We MUST reassure the public that it’s not the end of the world.
With the three views pressed vehemently in every meeting on climate change, it’s no wonder decision-making becomes paralysed?

These are the wrong MUSTS. They assume a ‘public’ rather than a global village of fellow human beings. They assume propaganda, mass psychology, manipulation and spin… where conversation could be. They assume passive consumers, voters, viewers (who need to be sold a problem, a solution or a status quo)... where citizens could be. A citizen being defined as one who takes responsibility for the common good.

What’s missing from public engagement with the risks we face is a lack of citizenship. It’s not that people haven’t seen the melting icecaps, forest fires, floods on TV. They just don’t have a way to take any of this in and respond. Society is figured as a malfunctioning machine and they don’t know how to tinker with it – or even know that they could. I can’t think of any way through this except a return to participative democracy. Something that seems underway already; the democracy 2.0 of #iranelections,, and; the transparent scrutiny applied to policing, corporate human rights and MPs’ expenses.

Where eco-techno utopian fantasies fall short is they portray only the ‘lifestyle’ surfaces of society. This is still nuclear age thinking; complete with futuristic gadgets, energy and cars. They are hence less utopias; more product catalogues. Great if you sell cycles, solar panels or electric cars. And lovely stuff - I’m all in favour of all of this. But arguably these artefacts are about as pivotal as the props in a Shakespeare play. To be optimistic about a better quality of life, shouldn’t we rather be looking at new human systems; looking forward for instance to a more co-operative economy? With short working weeks, mutual company ownership, communal facilities, radical re-localisation of food, manufacture… everything geared to maximise wellbeing? Most utopias were radical plans for social equity. Plans like the Diggers of 1649 (if enough people joined self-sufficient food-growing communities the aristocracy would follow suit for lack of anyone to grow their food). Plans like the Rochdale Pioneers of 1844 (co-operative shops as stepping stones towards new “colonies” based on co-operation).

It’s the same obsession with surface that limits the myopic view. Yes we will likely re-use current buildings. But that doesn’t mean we will use them in the same way. St Luke’s (a company I co-founded in the 1990s) was an employee owned co-operative. We moved into an office, which had already been fitted out by a conventional company. But we just used it differently – turning what would have been directors offices into project rooms, an open floor into a library. It’s the configuration of social relationships that is plastic and subject to rapid change. It might take 200 years to replace our housing stock. But we could see the molecular (communal) household replace the nuclear household in a few decades?

Wetopia isn’t that new an idea. A version of this shift from hierarchy to co-operation has been the core idea in most of the alternative visions put forward over the last 500 years. It’s what Ghandhi meant by Swaraj or ‘self rule’: Meaning not a top-down India Congress (as proposed by Nehru) to replace the British Raj: But rather government that welled up from villages, people and ultimately the Hindu concept of Self as seat of moral certainty.

Not a new idea then, but to quote Ghandi again – when asked what he thought of Western Civilisation – “I think would be a very good idea!”

John Grant’s new book Coopportunity (Wiley) is out in January 2010.

1 comment:

Charles Frith said...

Yeah. Instinctively I've been thinking I've no idea how it's going to look but no doubt not as bad as I fear and not as good as I hope for. Again. Great blogging.

Here's the Rob Paterson link on emergence. A word from your other post that you both are using.