The Problem of Starting: A Case for Radical Utopias

I teach a class called “Consumerism and Identities” in the department of Contemporary Studies at Wilfrid Laurier. The goal of the course is to introduce students to a variety of theoretical approaches that will help them understand the role consumerism plays in the economy, the environmental crisis, and identity formation. At a certain point, I have the students do a journal entry where they are instructed to calculate their ecological footprint and consider their own impact on the world. Most of the student’s lifestyles require anywhere from 3-5 planets of consumption and the response is telling: some react with horror and others with indignation. Both are stuck in the same way.

The latter, seem to take the number as a personal affront— the environmental equivalent of George W. Bush’s infamous claim that the terrorists simply hate the American way of life. They see no alternative, and immediately begin to justify their lifestyle: “I’m a student who must commute from my parents house out of town.” “I eat out a lot or on campus because I don’t know how to cook, or don’t have the space.” “It’s inconvenient to take public transportation” etc… The excuses are usually the same: its too hard to change and I’m not even sure it would do anything. Many suggest that the “system” needs to change before individuals, and to a certain extent they are right, or at least, they capture one of the central problematics of contemporary environmental critique: how do we start? How do we get from here to there? What tools are required to break free from the tyranny of the present, from the sense of dread that so many share in their inability to even imagine what an alternative to capitalism looks like.

Fredric Jameson has famously said that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” I think this is precisely the impasse that my students face; they have no idea where to start. They have all grown up during the neoliberal era, where amongst claims of the end of history, and a triumphant dismantling of the welfare state, the future is simply a mirror of the present. History hasn’t ended, our future has! What do I mean by this? Surely this is a metaphor? Yes and No! In a very real sense, the future no longer exists. With prominent voices such as James Hanson declaring that mining the Tar Sands will mean game over for the climate, we are approaching a largely invisible and terrifying tipping point that could mean the end of planet goldilocks. With so many humans living in cities, disconnected from the concrete realities of food production and natural cycles, we forget how precarious civilization truly is and that a mere 10,000 years has passed since the agricultural revolution changed the face of the planet. That revolution was premised on a stable and largely predictable climate that has allowed almost everything we think of as progress: art, architecture, science, and literature to emerge from the surplus production of grain.

This year’s drought in the US and around the world is a window into the future: a glimpse of what Bill McKibben calls Eaarth, a new world we have created by altering the entire climate and ushering in what some geologists call the anthropocene. But the end I am most afraid of is also echoed in the response of horror some of the students have to their own footprint. A few see the number and simply cannot believe the impact they have. They immediately ask what they can do, although often enough, they come to the same impasse: how do we start? The end, for them, is entirely in their minds. They simply do not see how one person, or even a group, can derail the juggernaut of capitalism. Even if they agree that we need a better, more sustainable, more just system, they cannot see how this is possible. And this is the ending that is perhaps the most tragic, as it will prevent them from seeing what can be done, of utilizing one of the most vital and necessary faculties they have at their disposal for solving the problems they face: their imagination.

Hopelessness needs to be manufactured. It needs to be produced, sustained, advertised, and force fed to the population. The last thirty years has seen the development of a vast machine of propaganda centred around the basic idea that no other future is possible. This idea has become so entrenched, that even optimistic radicals have a hard time shaking it. One of the reasons I use the ecological footprint in my class is because it allows me to visualize two things. First, it helps students realize the extreme waste that goes into even a modest student lifestyle. This is the part that usually leads to despair, but that can be turned around rather easily with a simple point: if one person can have such an impact in ruining the planet, then surely they can have an equally positive one if they simply try. The large scale modification of the planet’s climate did not occur intentionally, nor was it guided by a collective will or desire. It was, largely, the accidental byproduct of trillions of small decisions made by billions of small people.

The situation is obviously not so simple, but it does point towards a critical impasse faced by radical movements today. How do we start? The left has been historically allergic to proposing utopian alternatives, fearing their vision would be too prescriptive or simply easily dismissed as, well, utopian. But I think it is time to reclaim that word, to push at the hopelessness of the system by not only pointing out the real alternatives that exist around the world in the form of workers cooperatives, radical peasant groups, and grassroots democracy, but also, in flights of imaginative fancy that help us break the cycle of apocalyptic dread. Even if those utopias are merely moments, flashes of a better world, they can become the basis for derailing the juggernaut, the fabled Archimedean lever that can move the world. More than anything, we need utopias to provide an alternative story to the one we hear every day: “It may be flawed, but capitalism is the best system there is.” As educators, journalists, bloggers, parents, and friends, we need to challenge ourselves to think beyond the limits and dwell, for a while, in the future. For while the problems of today may seem impossibly big, we cannot begin until we truly believe another world is possible.

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