Friday, June 29, 2012

Apocalypse and Utopia in Equal Measure

In an essay entitled Mechanism of Utopia Emil Cioran (1911-1995), the notoriously pessimistic Romanian philosopher, declared his surprise that “riots do not break out every day: massacres, unspeakable carnage, a doomsday chaos.”[1]  It is not, he concluded, that our hatred for each other is insufficient; rather, we are saved by the being too mediocre to fully act upon our mutual odium.  The balance of these opposing propensities permits us to soldier on.  More affably, one might just as well wonder why peace and kindredness are not more stable and enduring.  Certainly we profess to desiring them.  Sunnier times do not prevail, one suspects, not merely because our baser natures assert themselves and we disincline to tame them, but because the better and worse aspects of our natures are blended through the human mix, rather like the fruit in a Christmas pudding.  A sultana in every forkful; a little bit of anger, or condescension, or pride in every charitable act.

Utopian visions are born of destitution, in the depths of which one feels there is a better world just within reach.  And when this destitution is at its most profound, the utopian wants everything to change.  “Air annoys you.” Cioran wrote, “let it be transformed.”  The utopian imagines that all can, in fact, be changed, even herself!  That is, her view is that human nature is such that the rages of our bruter natures can be quelled.  Apocalyptic visions are utopias without the swaggering self-confidence in the unbounded mutability of our natures.  The Apocalyptic looks at her derelict conditions and sees only ruination.   

Ecological utopias have two complementary dimensions: one orients towards a better place, the other towards a better time.  That better place may be one that is currently blasted, but now re-imagined by ecological and social engineers (the sustainable city), or alternatively, that better place can turn away from the contemporary landscape, desiring to build elsewhere: the rural commune (the sustainable subdivision), or the planetary escape (Mars Now!).  Utopias models themselves upon a different age, former times or an imagined future.  In this sense utopia (without place) can also be utemporalis (without a time).  The “without” in both terms represent the absence of this particular here and now – utopia imagining a place that is not here, utemporalis imagine a time that has passed or is yet to come.  Ecological utopias can be restorative, a hankering after a historical Gold Age (for ecologists it will not be the world of the Athenian citizen rather the world of the plains hunter).  Alternatively, utopia it can be directed towards a bright new future, a non-analogue future where the principles of sound design conceive a world that has never been seen before. 

In contrast, apocalypses have a rotten dimensionless sameness.  Sure, it may come as a pandemic, the demographic consequences of resource crunches, technological snafus (grey-goo events, nuclear winters), runaway climate change, run-away glaciation, bolide impacts, supervolcanoes: there are a superabundance of things that can do us in…but, in each and every case the end comes around like the unsuccessful round of an arcade game, except of course there are no lives left, ever.

In the general literature utopias outnumber apocalypses.  This may not be the case in environmental thought – perhaps we environmentalists simply better at imagining the worst.  An apocalypse is an uncovering (ποκαλύπτειν to uncover) and pronouncements of an impending disaster are based, quite typically, upon some new discovery, or some alarming extension based upon recent trends.  For all of that the disciplines undergirding scientific environmentalism are notorious poor at prediction.  Most predictions of troublesome environmental trends come in three flavors – best case, worst case and probable scenarios.  But what does our addiction to apocalypse uncover about us?  Just as you may be paranoid even when, in fact, they are watching you, if the apocalypse comes, your predicting it may still have revealed flaws in your thought.  Our sense of gloom may then derive from something deeper – an error in our understanding of what it is to be human.  If Utopia reveals a surfeit of faith in progress, apocalypse reveals a confidence in the immutability in our wretchedness.  Neither account is true.

Utopias may be less appealing because it takes more mental effort to imagine the immensity of change needed to fulfill them.  Besides that dullness of Utopias leave a lot to be desired.  There is probably no need to belabor the point that Utopias tend to be less interesting than dystopian or apocalyptic visions.  More of us perhaps have perused The Book of Revelation that Skinner’s Walden Two.  Recently, a speaker whose work encouraging children and adults to renew a daily contact with the rest of nature I greatly admire concluded a talk with a short envisioning of the future.  In it children cavort in green spaces, buildings are designed with nature in mind, healthy minds and bodies abound.  Though it contained many endorsable notions, at the same time it was soporific.  Every idealized person is a cartoon; shaved away are parts of his essential nature.  It may be that the difference between a utopian and an apocalyptic is that the former is like a hiker that strays too close to the cliff-edge and imagines himself elsewhere; the latter feels the magnetism of the abyss and leaps in. 

Environmental thought enjoys a special relationship with the biological and the earth sciences.  Ecology provides environmentalism its understanding of relationship, geology its sense of the ample sweep of time, evolution its appreciation of human inception.  Nevertheless, the ambidextrousness of the environmental vision for the future, vacillating as it does between bright hopes for a sustainable future and fears for our apocalyptic demise, suggest that environmentalism has correspondingly ambivalent views about our human nature and our place in the grand scheme of things.  Ecotopian futures demand a human perfectibility born of resource desperation, the hunger of the ecologically impoverished demanding the politically infeasible.   On the other hand apocalyptical phantasma express the understanding that we have truly fallen from nature’s fold – that we have ceased to be part of the evolutionary game.  What nature has wrought in us is a creature that has become unmoored from the nature’s creative forces and like a captainless speed-boat is propelling itself upon the rocks.  Not surprisingly some environmentalists seem to relish the prospect.

There have been some tendencies to frame questions about our human nature(s) along a gradient from the apes to the angel as if the former signified aggressive coarseness and the later were paragons on delicacy and equanimity.  But apes can caress and the angels can go to war.  Environmental thought has a foot in several camps, in its despondent moments it predicts our doom, in cheerier moods it thinks we can be simply anything; its more scientific orientation we realize that, like all creatures, our capabilities reflects both continuities and breaks from our deeper evolutionary past.  Our capacity to think about our future depends upon an honest reckoning of who we are from this evolutionary perspective.  Even when it seems like our unique qualities are those that hurl us rudderless into the world, and set us apart from the rest of nature, these are nevertheless amenable to an evolutionary explanation.  Our task it both to explicate these processes with a view to what they both enable and constrain.  If humans build an angelic future they will nonetheless remain apes perched among the heavenly host.

[1] E. M. Cioran History and Utopia University of Chicago Press (July 20, 1998)

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