CLIMATE FUTURISM | RETOPIA SERIES
Retopia: The Future We Get with the Present We Have
Utopia never existed.
For those who gaze fondly back to the 1950s, that seeming utopia of new cars and tract homes and well-paying jobs was fueled by a system slowly enslaving the world. In the countries riding the 1950s wave of wealth, it was a wave that created a middle class that excluded others, built on inequities based on race, gender, national origin. It created industries that polluted and exported their worst side effects to the poorest countries. Hollywood portrayed an idyllic time, but it was a thin façade obscuring ugliness and ignoring the consequences.
For those who look before the industrial revolution filled the skies with soot, life in most places was one of few lords and many serfs, with only comfort for a few. If you lived then, the chance of being one of the few privileged men living in comfort was small, and even their elitopia was shattered by wars.
When it comes to our lifestyle and our planet, what would this utopia have looked like? It would have looked like a world that we now can never attain: today’s standards of living, but with fewer side effects.
For those who hearken back to the first nations peoples of the Americas, Africa, Australia, and all those corners of the world where nature nurtured and life moved with the seasons, that utopia does not stand up to close scrutiny either. It’s not just that it was plundered when those with guns, germs and steel invaded to take the resources — spices, silver, sugar, slaves — but that even in its untouched glory, life was laced with risk: unexplained illnesses, insecure food supplies, impermanent shelter. They may have lived with nature’s rhythms, but without a comfort most today demand.
Not only is utopia a myth but also it is now unobtainable.
The utopia that didn’t exist, could have.
It’s the utopia that could have come about if we had used our opposable thumbs to give a thumbs up to positive choices, instead of twiddling them, passing time on small pleasures without contemplating the large cost those pleasures bring, or, worse, giving a thumbs down to the harder choices that could have changed our path. And while individuals are responsible for some of the bad choices, the robber barons of every age and the politicians they influenced wear most of the blame.
When it comes to our lifestyle and our planet, what would this utopia have looked like? It would have looked like a world that we now can never attain: today’s standards of living, but with fewer side effects. Cleaner air, cooler climate, plastic-free seas, pesticide-free soils.
That unattained utopia would have taken a rapid move away from toxic technologies as soon as their impacts were understood. Rachel Carson wouldn’t have had to raise the alarm bells about DDT to companies that already knew it. ExxonMobil would have rung the alarm bells and led a global move away from fossil fuels with an urgency that the emerging crisis deserved. Nestle would have funded rural water programs once it saw how bottling local spring water rippled through remote communities.
It was an opportunity missed and we’ve passed the turn off now.
This proactive redirection would have meant that our innovations in renewable energy, plastic alternatives, large scale organic farming would have happened decades earlier. Take solar energy as an example: the first solar panels were developed for the space race and they were, fittingly, astronomically expensive. In the last decade, their price has declined 90% and they are now more cost competitive than coal. That price decline, driven by both manufacturing scale and innovation, would have happened decades earlier if we had started supporting the industry in 1979 when Carter put solar on the White House. If solar was cheap and reliable decades earlier, extracting fossil fuels through fracking may have never been cost competitive. Today, we are discovering fracked fossil fuels are as dirty as coal due to the massive amount of methane that leaks unseen and uncontrolled from many wells. It was an opportunity missed and we’ve passed the turn off now: we can’t have the less-tainted world we should have had if we had made a different decision.
Sure, in the make-changes-as-soon-as-you-can utopia there would have still been pollution and greenhouse gases and plastics, but they would have been curbed sooner. The damaged would have been slowed, if not stopped, before the exponential greenhouse gas hockey stick was bent further upwards by concentrated corporate power, spiraling consumption, and a burgeoning middle class.
By missing the opportunity to course correct as we understood the climate crisis in the making, we now face a climate crisis that is almost beyond human control.
Read Part Two.
Introducing Retopia: The Best World Possible in the Worst of Times
Part Two: Forget dystopia, forgive utopia, and get to work
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