Rescuing Utopianism in a Climate-Changed World
By Mathias ThalerApril 24, 2022
Reacting against eco-anxiety, some commentators point to history: our species has thus far been remarkably ingenious in developing technologies that shape the environment to our own ends. On one reading, the contested term “Anthropocene” highlights this aspect insofar as it elevates homo sapiens to the eminence of a geological force. So-called ecomodernists add an optimistic spin: permanent economic growth, they propose, is fully compatible with the fight against climate change. Human needs and interests just need to be thought of as “decoupled” from natural resource systems, with this decoupling made possible by a steady stream of groundbreaking inventions.
On the political right, commentators tend to believe that the market, with its favorable incentive structure for scientific innovation, will facilitate decoupling. Left-wing proponents of this idea, by contrast, gesture to the state as the entity that ought to be responsible for funding and coordinating scientific research.
Either way, the ongoing controversy around net-zero targets for carbon emissions is illustrative: it can in fact be understood as an extension of the ecomodernist wager — in large part because the required geoengineering technology of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) is still in its infancy. Nobody actually knows whether the existing capacity can be scaled up enough to contain ongoing pollution outputs — hence ecomodernism’s distinctively techno-utopian flavor. It is built out of hopeful, some might say pollyannish, assumptions.
Objections to techno-utopianism abound. Plenty of critics have expressed unease with what Evgeny Morozov calls “solutionism,” the notion that every social problem can be resolved with the help of groundbreaking innovations. In the context of climate change, the worry is that solutionism fails to probe the deeper structures of the Anthropocene, and that both capitalism and colonialism have played key roles in the emergence of humanity as a geological force — an insight that has persuaded some scholars to discard the notion of the “Anthropocene” altogether, opting for terms like “Capitalocene,” “Proletarocene,” “Necrocene,” or “Plantationocene” instead. From this perspective, techno-utopianism only cures the symptoms of the disease.
Solutionism in effect enables the smooth continuation of business as usual, offering a pathway into the future that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its latest draft report has deemed fatally compromised. So, whereas net-zero pledges appear revolutionary at first sight, they might end up aggravating the current malaise. Decarbonization must mean more than simply a higher and more efficient BECCS capacity, as opponents of “greenwashing” have long insisted.
Does it follow that science and technology should have no part in our climate-changed world? Of course not. The critique of solutionism only targets the mistaken belief that science and technology will swiftly and successfully tackle problems, such as climate change, that are by their very nature social ones.
A connected objection to ecomodernism is that its optimism sets up a smoke screen, concealing all the complicated decisions that we will have to take in national and transnational settings. How should unpopular policies be legitimated in a highly polarized age? Can we tackle the ecological crisis without also addressing economic inequalities around the world? And how about the injustices produced by historical pollution patterns — do we simply forget about them? Solutionism cannot answer these questions. It substitutes misguided faith in science and technology for democratic politics, in other words.
Techno-utopianism further compounds what Amitav Ghosh identifies as the “great derangement” of our times — the feeling that established habits of orienting ourselves have become completely obsolete in a climate-changed world. This is so because climate change is unlike any other obstacle we have ever faced. Its complexity necessitates a fundamental rethink of how we, as a species, relate to the environment. We will not realize this goal unless we also come to terms with the difficulty of legitimizing divisive choices, tackling the vast inequalities between different populations and alleviating the catastrophic aftershocks of past behavior.
And yet, despite the above, there are reasons to argue that one element of the ecomodernist wager should be embraced: its utopian spirit. Commentators like Bruno Latour miss the crux of utopianism when they associate it exclusively with a flight from reality. While some utopias do indeed collapse into escapist fantasies, others perform a critical function that is urgently needed right now — namely to interrogate the status quo, recover emancipatory potentials from within it, and explore radical alternatives. This is why Ruth Levitas describes utopianism as comprising both archaeological and architectural elements. Utopias pursue two objectives at once: they excavate glimmers of hope in the present order and design new models for other ways of being and living in the future.
The downside of ecomodernism, then, is not so much that it conjures optimistic pictures of a better world — which we desperately need — but that its method of approaching reality lacks critical depth, with environmental questions becoming divorced from social ones.
How might other utopian visions of our climate-changed world compensate for this deficiency? One answer resides in utopias that operate on a different, much smaller scale. In his account of peace initiatives during the 20th century, Jay Winter uses the phrase “minor utopias” for projects that strive for a partial, rather than comprehensive, renewal of the world. These are utopian in forcefully negating the status quo (revolving, in Winter’s case, around rampant militarism), but they refrain from devising plans for global transformation.
It might appear paradoxical to search for such minor utopias when confronted with a problem that has planetary reach. Undoubtedly, joined-up thinking is pivotal to coordinating responses to climate change. But that does not imply we should put all our trust in top-down initiatives, whether instigated by the market or the state. Minor utopias possess the advantage of linking up local struggles that are already going on, thereby empowering the image of another, better world to become practically relevant. In that sense, they are the opposite of lofty castles in the sky, for they remain grounded in concrete practices.
The issue of how to move from an untenable status quo to a desired alternative binds them together: not the stipulation of a perfect end to history, but the constant practice of questioning the present order, recuperating other ways of being and living from within it, and initiating novel forms of collective existence on planet Earth. Utopia as archaeology as well as architecture.
Here are two examples of such minor utopias that deal with the multiple challenges of the Anthropocene by envisioning environmental and social problems through a unified framework. Degrowthers, as they are called, aim to liberate our imagination from the grip of an ideological commitment that is today so deeply ingrained that it has become virtually invisible — namely, that human progress, in all its guises, is inescapably reliant on permanent economic growth. They open up a rival perspective in which the good life — both on an individual and societal level — is viewed independently from the paradigm of growth that dominates across the political spectrum. Degrowth amounts to an openly utopian idea that has manifest consequences for the environment and society.
Eco-communities try to anticipate a world that is yet to constitute itself. They enact how a post-capitalist order might look like. These practical experiments exist around the world, from the Otamatea Eco Village, a small permaculture project in New Zealand that seeks self-sufficiency, to the Findhorn Foundation, a large organization in Scotland focusing on spirituality and education. Lucy Sargisson, an expert on green politics, has shown that these communities deliberately operate on the margins of society, with modest impact on environmental policy in the immediate future. But through trial and error, they develop more sustainable forms of work, cooperation, and leisure. The lived experience of these eco-communities hence holds up a mirror to the rest of us. In transgressing conventional norms, they hope to raise public awareness about radical alternatives to the status quo. Their influence on society is indirect but valuable.
These counter-hegemonic spaces are internally diverse, fraught with tensions, and often face considerable pushback from their surroundings. Although “real utopias” (Erik Olin Wright’s term) like these do not provide ideal blueprints for a future beyond capitalism, they are a start: they model alternative ways of collective existence that defy the imperative of environmentally and socially destructive growth.
A second example can be found in theories and practices of multispecies justice. Based on various philosophical inheritances, from post-humanism to new materialism, this form of justice promotes norms that break with anthropocentric premises. It conceives of all beings — human as well as more-than-human — as part of a “flat” ontology. No entity can claim a higher moral status than any other. Multispecies justice presupposes practices of knowledge production that are in constant dialogue with marginalized traditions, in particular with Indigenous epistemologies whose exclusion has been integral to standard scientific discourse. Ethically, multispecies justice is anchored in principles of universal connectedness that tie together humans and nonhumans.
These principles give rise, in turn, to novel types of care and empathy, or “response-ability,” as described by Donna Haraway. Viewed through a multispecies lens, our life on planet Earth is unavoidably entangled not only with animals, but with entire ecosystems and planetary processes. Given humans’ indisputable dependence on the ecosphere and our enormous capacity to harm it, it is regrettable that, with notable exceptions, mainstream ethics has mostly ignored the duties we have toward the more-than-human.
What makes proposals for degrowth and multispecies justice minor utopias is that they traffic between two dimensions of utopianism: imagination and action. That is to say, they attempt to transform how we inhabit this world by summoning us to conjure another one, lying just on the horizon. This is usually accomplished by inducing estrangement, in the manner of political theory in its use of thought experiments or of speculative literature (especially the SF genre). As an example of the latter: N. K. Jemisin’s award-winning Broken Earth trilogy is set in a far future ravaged by geological turmoil, its fantastical depiction of planet Earth as a living, raging entity compels readers to reassess their own life-worlds, here and now. Jemisin underscores the uneven responsibilities borne by various communities in and for the Anthropocene, which neatly illustrates the impossibility of separating environmental from social concerns.
Picturing a shared world where constant economic growth is not of paramount importance, or one in which human needs and interests become inextricably enmeshed with the needs and interests of other species, is disconcerting, as it should be. But it pushes us to revise how we orient ourselves on a climate-changed planet, which is the core of its utopian mission. In other words, degrowth and multispecies justice are so powerful because they defamiliarize us for, rather than from, the world, to employ a distinction introduced by Svetlana Boym. While they both stand in opposition to the way politics is usually conceived, degrowth and multispecies justice can be experimented with in our everyday lives.
Pondering radical alternatives may therefore generate new opportunities for democratic politics. In order to refute the allegation that utopias are nothing but escapist fantasies, practical experiments are necessary. Prefiguration — acting “as if” a better world were already here — is therefore central to utopianism. The interrelated aspects of imagining a better future and acting to turn that future into reality can reinforce each other, setting in motion a positive feedback loop that keeps the utopian vision grounded. We will require many more minor utopias, if we are serious about learning how to live together in the Anthropocene.
Mathias Thaler teaches political theory at the University of Edinburgh. His new book, No Other Planet: Utopian Visions for a Climate-Changed World (Cambridge University Press), is forthcoming in 2022.
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