Utopian solutions, dystopian precipitates.

As the reality of the hottest year continues and the room for denial of
ongoing and potential future damaging impacts from AGW shrinks, programs of
policy appear that go beyond the mere economic tinkering of Carbon Tax or
Cap and Trade.utopia_1

The Papal letter on caring for our world, the Ecomodernist manifesto both
exemplify the emergence of approaches to the problem of AGW that go beyond
attacking symptom or causes and propose more far-reaching changes in the way
future society must be ordered to solve the damage that present use of
fossil fuels have created, and avoid further impacts from continued


There is a distinction to be made between plans that are directed at the
primary cause of CO2 emissions like the Disinvestment movement and policy
documents that engage with the underlying reasons we are burning so much
sequestered hydrocarbon. While the disinvestment movement can claim some
significant progresss, beyond making the market-place a hostile environment
for coal (and later oil?) it has no coherent concept of how a future global
society could avoid burning fossil fuels.

However the Papal letter and Eco Modernist manifesto approach the issue from
a top-down direction rather than the bottom-up anti-coal movement. They
attempt to portray a story of a future society that will avoid the impacts
of climate change by altering the underlying organisation of society at a global level, not just downgrading coal investments for the banking/financial sector. They have a narrative describing their vision of how this new society will work, and rather less clearly expressed ideas on how to reform or rebuild our present
system to get from ‘here’ to ‘there’.

I should add a caveat here, I am approaching these declarations of
comprehensive solutions to the problem of climate change with the Ravetz
style method of post normal science. I am dismissing them as nonsense except as an indication in the shifting Overton window on the climate issue on the basis of an almost total lack of detailed study, my judgements are grounded in the sociao-political values and economic context of my own position.

The two policy documents exhibit a neat symmetry. One advocates a rural
agrarian society with no large-scale production of consumer products and a
suppression of high density city life, especially the mega-cities of
several million that have emerged as the dominant centers of population and
The other advocates the opposite, a flight from the land into mega-cities to
reduce the human footprint on the supposed ‘unspoilt’ Nature.

Both are indulging in that unpleasantly condescending aspect of Western
neo-spirituality by referencing the Rousseauian romantic nonsense of the
nobility of the tribal agriculturist living in ‘harmony’ with the natural
world. Most of the productively arable land surface long ago lost any claim
to unspoilt virgin nature after 10,000 years of human intervention. All
major rivers and freshwater sources have long since been managed and
modified for human needs. The collapse of the ocean food chains from over-
fishing reveal that even the wide oceans are significantly changed by human
use. But both policy programs have as an underlying theme the idea that by
either leaving ‘Nature’ alone, or constraining our use to a simple small
farm for every-one pattern, some deep value or quality of Nature will be

Beyond the avoidence of damaging climate change by these societal
modifications reducing CO2 emissions below the 2C risk level.

The Papal encyclical is the most explicit about the supposed moral
superiority of a back to nature, agrarian localism. The ecomodernists are
claiming that such harmony with nature can only be reached by using
technology to insulate and separate nature and human society as much as
possible. It is by no means clear that either form of society could actually
provide the present global population with a level of existence equal to
that enjoyed at present, never mind improving it for the majority who aspire to
western society levels of wealth. The ecomodernist mega-cities and intensive
farming would need some technological advances, present technology would
still require most of the arable land in use at present to feed everyone
well, and even that would probably require most of it to be polytunneled.

But what I find least attractive about both future scenarios is the unstated
but implicit and unavoidable political ramifications of the reformed
societies. Both justify the changes as of an ethical benefit by preserving
NATURE. But do not engage with the ideological context and logistical
realities of governance that are faced by the kind of societies they

The Pope wants everyone to enjoy the ‘Good Life‘ with a cow, two pigs and
some chickens, The ecomods want everyone to enjoy a Singapore lifestyle (the
elite not the staff) in garden cities surrounded by intensive agriculture
with a theme park unsullied Nature available for worshipful visits.

Both envisioned Utopias require a social monoculture. This is a common
feature of such dreams of social reform, it can be seen in the versions of
both of these concepts the last time they became fashionable. Around the
Turn of the last century, 1900, there were a variety of Utopian visionary
programs that also ranged from the primitivist to the technomagical. there
are numerous examples of agrarian reform movements that saw the cure for the
poverty and social ill of their time as giving every family enough land to
live on as a small-scale agriculturalist. Sometimes these were intended to
reform the individual, but often it was combined with a religious or at
least spiritual belief that such a society would be a moral good if it was
universally adopted.

At the same time and after the two world wars, the idea of new towns and
cities being built that would embrace the technology of the day emerged.
There was a belief in the social impact of the built space, that the
architecture could modify the minds of the people who lived within it.
Corbusier is the most obvious exemplar.

a machine for living in...

a machine for living in…

The more far-sighted of these visionary Utopias always seem to involve floating castles…

Where's my jetpack?

Where’s my jetpack?

What both forms of social reform require is a social order that imposes a
much greater degree of shared, communal belief than is seen in most
historical instances of successful and stable societies. Nations that trade
encounter diversity and have to engage with dissent within their societies.
Strictly insular societies avoid the dissent, but only by the suppression of
any divergence from the state view, usually with a secret police force.
Historical examples are legion.

As a general rule, big cities require a lot of central governance. Medieval
cities discovered that the control of water, (fresh and waste,) fire control
and defense from outside attack all made city regulation, taxation and
control unavoidable. The problems of city expansion in the 1850s generated
the statist solutions of old-age pensions, welfare support and municipal
services and infrastructure provided as a communal good from a central

Preserving an anti-city, agrarian society also requires powerful controlling
forces. Sometimes this is religious as with the Amish. I am not sure if the
Pope is really advocating catholics should emulate that devotion to an 1800s
lifestyle, but it does not seem sympathetic to all the developments in city
life and social organisation that have emerged since that pre-industrial
period. The alternative to a strong religious belief in the virtues of
agrarian primitivism are state farms, with a police force to ensure
compliance. State Feudalism in Russia, China, N Korea and Pol Pot Cambodia
exemplify that trait.

It is tempting to see the Papal letter and the ecomod manifesto as the two
side of a coin. Someone else coined the term the Flintstones v the Jetsons,
but it is a good shorthand for the underlying positions. Perhaps the Waltons, the TV series would be a better match for the Papal vision, but they ended up living on Walmart mountain…

The antipathy  towards the consumerist market driven system that has resulted in cities and technology, an expansion in wealth for the western nations that have embraced it is obvious. It sometimes seems the ability to reduce CO2
emissions that the rejection of this modern social system and a return to
small scale agrarianism would enable, is an excuse for its adoption, the moral
value is in the rejection of modernism.

On the other side, the advocacy for technological solutions, for pushing
forward with the changes seen over the last century to bring the benefits to
the majority of the population AND reducing CO2 emissions as a result can be
seen as a riposte to the ‘Back to Nature’ and state feudalism of the Papal,
Green movements. As Joshua has pointed out on the ATTP thread the
appeal of ecomodernism seems to be as much a rejection of the ‘leftist’ anti-business anti-technology tribal beliefs, as advocating for a specific alternative. It can start to look like a justification for BAU with a bit of extra techno-magic
thrown in.

It is the unexamined political and ethical problems of how to get from ‘here’ to the sort of society that each advocates as the way to solve this problem I find dubious. Both future visions of a solution to this problem seem to require a lot of people to change their minds about what has value and meaning in their lives. Or submit to central control. Religious conversion or state coercion seem to be the two choices.

The most important impact that climate change will have on human societies is in degrading the agricultural base. Adapting to, and mitigating those impacts needs to be the aim of any policy advocacy that seeks to solve the problem of grrowth for all without agricultural catastrophe. One of the big problems is that at present most of the calories our agricultural infrastructure produces are controlled and directed by a small financial business system. The result is gross inefficiencies and glaring inequalities of distribution and reward.
BUT… that system has generated the extra cheap calories from an improving agricultural infrastructure over the last few decades to feed an expanding population. It may do so with many defects, and unequally, but it is the ‘here’ that works. Any new policy must deal with that if it wants to reform the system for the better. It may have removed the majority from the primary food producer, substituting processed fats and sugars as meals that can be manufactured and distributed widely for a city-based population, distorting our ‘natural diet’ with damaging consequences. The financial preference of the global food producing enterprises certainly distort the health recommendations as well as the choice of crop, but it is still the only working method of feeding the world we have.

I suspect that the coal disinvestment movement is a better indication of a way forward than the Papal letter and its ecomodernist inverse. Modifying the global food and agricultural systems that feed us really needs incremental reform rather than radical revolution and overthrow. At least in the interests of reducing famine and the migrant flows it generates.

While both the Papal letter and the ecomod manifesto advocate visions of a future utopia that will solve the problem of AGW, and both extol the moral virtues of their vision by referencing the respect and harmonious interaction it establishes with a mythical ‘Nature’ neither examine the political means to reach these visions of the future, or the societal organisation that such monocultural communalism would require.

Historical precedent provides a warning. The ideological imperative of the back to the land movements can result in the imposed small scale agrarian society model as seen in Pol Pot’s Cambodia. The enthusiasm for techno-cities, machines for living in, has spawned elite enclaves where wealth inequalities are of feudal proportions and high rise living becomes low-cost housing for the economic underclass. Little more than vertical favelas housing the support staff of a gated community with at best a benevolent dictator, and strong defences to exclude the unwanted or dissident as seen in Singapore, Qatar and Dubai.

Utopian solutions that are so often advocated for the supposed moral value of their aims, precipitate dystopian problems when attempts are made to impose the simple monocultural dream on the complex diversity of the real world.



3 responses to “Utopian solutions, dystopian precipitates.

  1. I can highly recommend the “Good Life”. Although I suspect it means something a little different to me than it did in that wonderful 1970s British TV show. I’m surrounded by miles of largely virgin temperate forest, and grow much of my own food, source my own water, firewood and (occasionally) electricity, and dispose of waste on site. I have calculated that after my annual forestry contribution, my family are actually net carbon sequesterers. I am also involved in government efforts to protect the Tasmanian Devil and other species. There are downsides (lot of hard work, nearest shops half an hours’ drive, venemous snakes, spiders and scorpions, bushfires etc) but the advantages outweigh those many-fold. To that extent at least I’m with His Holiness.

    It sort of puts into perspective a lot of environmental concerns of those surrounded by concrete, tarmac, parking-lot traffic jams and teeming masses. I grew up in such a big city, and the contrast becomes more apparent when you pan out and look at the actual extent of cities on Google Earth, for example. Anthropogenic influence to me is, as much as anything, an indication of the same anthropogenic hubris exhibited by Pope Francis’ predecessors, who insisted that they were at the centre of the world, the world was at the centre of the universe, and beyond that was nothing. Or as Benny the Barman once put it:

    Tutto nello Stato, niente al di fuori dello Stato, nulla contro lo Stato.

    He probably thought he had a global thermostat control too.


  2. In modern urban societies less than 5% of the population work on the land. That decline in the agricultural population since the 1850s is something the Ecomods want to exploit and possibly intensify as a means of raising the poor from poverty and reducing the human impact on Nature.

    I suspect those wanting the ‘good life’ may be allowed to remain if they don’t get in the way of a productive poly-tunneled, hydroponically controlled factory-farm. Perhaps you could be a custodian of ‘Nature’ with a sideline in visiting tourists from the cities to see how people lived in the olden days. Hopefully such a techno-urban movement would not require you to adopt its preferred lifestyle.

    The Papal encyclical may not threaten you with eviction either. But it may expect many more city dwellers to return to the land, there seems to be a thread of enthusiasm for small-scale agrarian solutions in the Pope’s letter that foresees a return to the land as a moral good. That implies land reform and centrally imposed farmsteading. How much room is there for 50% of the city population to re-occupy the natural and agricultural landscape?!

    There is a larger discussion to be had about the role of cities in human development in driving, and been driven, by the emergence of trade, religion and civic governmental structures that were better able to invent and construct communal infrastructure than simple tribal relationships.

    That may be a subject of a future post. The lack of recent activity is caused by a backlog of stuff rather than a paucity, and recent events have been a distraction…


  3. Pingback: Perspectives on temporal sensitivity | izen

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