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Remarks on Utopia in the Age of Climate Change

2011: Issue 35/36.
Kim Stanley Robinson gives an account of his utopian novels.

Published: 24 Nov 2011

I came to utopia by accident, having painted myself into a corner with an idea for a trilogy: three science fiction novels consisting of an after-the-fall novel, a dystopia and a utopia, all set in the same place, and about the same distance into the future. The idea came to me in 1972, and I didn’t know how to write a novel then, so the plan needed brooding on. Some sixteen years later, the time came for the utopia. I had written the after-the-fall novel, The Wild Shore, and the dystopia, The Gold Coast. The utopia was the only one left.

By that time many aspects of it had been determined by the previous two books. I needed it to be in Orange County, California; I needed it to be fifty years in the future; and I needed to include the old man who had also been a character in the other two stories, so that he would have three lives, each radically different — this was the triptych’s way of illustrating the way our individual lives are greatly influenced by the history we live in.

Through the previous sixteen years I had read all kinds of utopian literature. What emerged as most important for my novel was the utopian non-fiction of the 1970s, books which I think were a manifestation of the hippie generation growing up, beginning to have kids and trying to plan how to live the ideals of the revolutionary sixties. These books made quite a bookshelf: The Integral Urban House, Progress as if Survival Mattered, Small is Beautiful, Muddling Toward Frugality, Appropriate Technology and so on. They are still worth reading, but they were all unaware of the coming Reagan/Thatcher counter-revolution, which would render them largely irrelevant in the following decade. It would be nice to have a publishing series that reprinted them all, for they would still be full of interesting ideas, even if their technologies have been sometimes superseded. They would make a portrait of the hopes of that era similar to the portrait created by the era’s science fiction; the two literatures would be complementary.

These non-fiction utopian writers, plus alternative economists like Hazel Henderson and Herman Daly, were the main influences on my third California volume, Pacific Edge. These influences were not particularly radical politically, but they did outline ideas that I thought could be realistically postulated for a US culture only fifty years off. Despite their help, I found it an extremely uneasy experience to write a utopian novel, and when I was done with it I sent it out into the world with a sigh of relief, thinking, ‘I’ll never do that again’. I couldn’t quite articulate the source of my unease, but it felt like some kind of category error.

Then my friend Terry Bisson was talking to me about the book, and he asked me, ‘How did your utopia come about, Stan? What’s the history that explains it?’ Well, I had made gestures towards an explanation in the book’s italicized sections; I had even written an italicized section in which Tom Barnard suggested ten or twelve different ways his internal utopia could come about, as a way of admitting how hard it was to imagine such a history. I had cut that section, but as I began to rehearse my various historical explanations to Terry, he shook his head. ‘But Stan,’ he said, ‘there are guns under the table’.


At that point the Mars Trilogy began in my head. I was struck by the truth of Terry’s remark, and in fact it makes for one of the better chapter titles in Red Mars. I thought: ‘OK, granted there are guns under the table. Utopia is not going to come easily. We therefore have to try the story again elsewhere, invent a utopian history, maybe give it 200 years to develop rather than fifty, and tell the whole thing explicitly’. So one of the many motivations for the Mars Trilogy was to somehow fix the previous book, which of course is not really possible. And yet I find I often write in order to explain or correct unsatisfactory things in novels I’ve finished.

The Mars novels therefore described three revolutions, because I felt that in Pacific Edge I had dodged the necessity of revolution, however broadly conceived. And yet I was not comfortable with the idea of re-invoking the violent revolutions of theeighteenth and twentieth centuries; they didn’t seem appropriate to Mars, or to our current world either. The classic revolutions had often been failures, in the sense of causing such violent backlashes that they made more problems than they solved, principally by institutionalizing violence. I also felt very uncomfortable about being a first-world person stating that revolutions were necessary in third-world countries, when first-world weapons systems would then be used against them. Revolution itself needed to be reconceptualized, I felt; and indeed in the various velvet revolutions of 1989 I had just seen different models for rapid change in the social order. These new images for revolution became one of the central preoccupations of the Mars novels. We’re still stuck with this problem, of course, because we still need a revolution or two.

While writing the Mars Trilogy, or maybe before, I began to think of science as another name for the utopian way, or what Williams called the long revolution.[i] This was partly because I was married to a scientist and watching science in action, up close, and it was partly from thinking about it. We tend to take science at its own self-evaluation, and we’re not used to thinking that utopia might already be partly here, a process that we struggle for or against. But to me the idea of science as a utopian coming-into-being has seemed both true and useful, suggestive of both further stories and action in the world.

So if science itself was to be my utopian way, and Antarctica was famously called ‘the continent for science’, then maybe that was the place on Earth that was already the most utopian space. It was worth having a look; besides I like wilderness, mountains, glaciers and so on, and Antarctica is nothing but those things. Because of my Mars books, the US National Science Foundation was willing to send me south as part of their Antarctic Artists and Writers’ Program. Thus Antarctica eventually came out as a step along my way: I wanted to show what a continent run by scientists for scientists is actually like. That book was a lot of fun to research. As far as you can tell when you’re there, the continent runs using a non-monetary economic system, where food, clothing, shelter and fuel are all provided by the community; and at the same time you get to do what you want in terms of your project. It was a limited version of utopia, but interesting as a kind of laboratory experiment, a brief experience of how it might feel to live in a different social order. It was not exactly Orwell in Barcelona, but exhilarating in a different way. And it was very useful in my attempt to combine utopian and wilderness thinking, also to bring all these things closer to home than Mars.

Then came The Years of Rice and Salt, which at first I thought of as a break from utopia. But when I was trying to imagine a world history with Europe taken out of the picture by a very fatal Black Death, I quickly discovered what I felt was a problem. I didn’t want to make that alternative world worse than the one we’re in, because that would be racist and unwarranted. I didn’t want to make it better than our world, because that would be reflexively politically correct, and also unwarranted. But I couldn’t make it equal to our world either, because that would be boring — pointless in narrative terms. So my alternative history couldn’t be worse, it couldn’t be better, and it couldn’t be equal. My options seemed kind of limited. But what came to me as my solution was simply the idea of the future, and of utopia again. In the novel, at the equivalent of our year 2002 (the book’s date of publication), my alternative world would be, I decided, roughly equivalent in its goodness to our own, reached by its different history; but it would then continue past our moment some seventy years into the future, and we would then see them finally make a good job of things. This gave the novel a utopian ending that I hoped would exist as a challenge to our world: could we, starting from roughly the same position, do as well as this fictional world without Europe? This late utopian element got me past the better/worse/same conundrum, and added a little sting to the book’s tail.

At this point it felt like I had developed a kind of habit. But it was not the time to try to break it. In the previous years I had spent a fair amount of time at the National Science Foundation in Washington DC, and it seemed to me more than ever that this institution, and science more generally, represented a kind of proto-utopian space. I felt that the scientific method, and scientific institutions in our world, were under-theorized utopian attempts to change the world, made by people who would rather not think about politics, yet would very much like to do some good. These impressions led me to the trilogy I call Science in the Capital. I wanted to imagine the first step toward utopia, starting in our world now. If we could make a bridge across the Great Trench to utopia, what would be the first footing? I wanted to think about how utopia might start from our current conditions; to describe, in effect, the start of a scientific revolution. Not the Scientific Revolution of the early modern period, but rather a new revolution, enacted by scientists in the world we live in now.

I had also come to feel that many people, and especially many of my leftist colleagues, thought of science as merely the instrument of power — as the most active and effective wing of capitalism. This now struck me as wrong. To me it seemed that we actually exist in a situation that can better be described as ‘science versus capitalism’: a world in which smaller progressive concepts such as environmentalism, environmental justice, social justice, democracy itself — all these were going to be defeated together, unless they were aligned with the one great power that might yet still successfully oppose a completely capitalist future, which was science. I was thinking with a very broad brush at this point, almost mythologically you might say, but it struck me as an interesting story to tell, a new story with some possible analytic value. So I wrote the Science in the Capital trilogy with these thoughts in mind.

Having written that book, describing science as a crucial utopian force, I began to ask myself: but what is science? And how did it start? That led me to Galileo, as some kind of ‘first scientist’, and thus eventually to my most recent novel, Galileo’s Dream (2009). It is not a utopian novel, I am relieved to say, but it is a novel about science and history, and their interaction; and it is a science fiction novel.

So that’s my account of this aspect of my career; how, despite my uneasiness concerning utopia as a literary genre, I have nevertheless been writing them for a long time. I am one of the very few serial offenders, you might say, at least in modern times. It has been a source of stress to me, I admit, for there is no doubt in my mind that a ‘utopian novel’ is a strange project, a bastard form — an amalgam of two genres which are in many respects not at all compatible. It’s like saying, ‘Let’s make a new genre — we’ll throw together architectural blueprints and soap operas’. That’s obviously a bad idea. And yet there it is: that absurd hybrid is the utopian novel.

But the problem really is even worse than that. It involves a version of David Hume’s ‘is–ought problem’: there is the world as it is, and the world as it ought to be. It is difficult to see how they connect, which is Hume’s concern; but the novel, it seems at first glance, is about the world as it is. So if you want above all to write good novels, then what is should be the subject matter; it’s a matter of fidelity to the real. So realism becomes the default preferred form for the novel. And it’s the novel that matters to me; I don’t care about utopia per se — it’s literature that I love, and the novel in particular. So for a long time I experienced the utopian imperative that I somehow put on myself as a burden, because I felt the reason we read novels, indeed the reason we love all art, is that it gives us the real. I knew this was philosophically difficult territory, but my love of literature had to do with a sense of recognition — the moment of reading when you say, ‘Yes that’s right; that’s the way the world is; this book has illuminated the real’. To hold a mirror up to nature, as Hamlet says to the players. That’s what art seems to be for.


Instead of this recognition of what is, the utopian novel hopes to create a vision of the way things ought to be. It’s a profound shift of focus, which has often created in me the feeling of working across the grain of my hopes. It has taken a lot of years of worrying about this to pull apart the notion of what realism might be — to understand that there is never a mirror — to see that the moment you start to write sentences, you’re portraying something that ought to be. All novels are utopian in this respect: they propose that life means something. And meaning itself is a utopian wish. So, if the novel is about what life means, and if it concerns itself with individuals in their society, then whether that society is portrayed as better, worse or the same as ours is not the important point. All portrayed societies are stylized and hypothetical, a projection of the writer’s wishes and ideology. Seen in that way, a utopian novel is only a tiny bit less realistic than the most naturalistic realist novel out there. Or put it in reverse: a realistic novel is a kind of utopia in disguise.


Or so I have tried to reassure myself. However, I must say that when I read the part of Fredric Jameson’s Archaeologies of the Future (2005) that speaks of the impossibility of imagining utopia,[ii] I found the notion comforting. ‘Ah ha!’ I cried. ‘I was trying to do something impossible!’ It explained a lot.


Ultimately, however, I think this notion that we cannot imagine utopia is mistaken. We can imagine utopia; it’s as easy as pie. The constraints are very slack, and our imaginations strong. We are quite capable of taking the present situation, and all history too, and ringing every possible physical and logical change in our ideas to make something new; and some of these newly invented systems could be declared viable, even though radically different from the current moment. It’s not quite like imaging a new colour or a tenth dimension. It has more to do with justice, a very archaic primate concept, a concept that predates humanity itself. A better political order, even a truly good political order? No problem!


Of course there is a problem, and that’s the getting from here to there. But let me come back to that later. First let’s briefly contemplate some of the utopian descriptions and blueprints out there today. Take the work of Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel, for example, their ‘Participatory Economics’, which they also call ‘parecon’ in a neologism worse than any science-fiction writer’s. Despite that tone deafness, it’s an interesting system: a non-capitalist co-operative society in which people band together in small collectives, and then, instead of buying and selling things like a company, they fill out lots of requisition forms, somewhat in the style of a Chinese work unit or even a soviet. You fill out a form for what your group is going to make that year, you fill out a form for what your group is going to need that year to make what it will make, and so on. It resembles the situation Francis Spufford describes in his novel Red Plenty (2010), in which Soviet cyberneticists in the 1950s and ’60s and ’70s desperately attempt to invent computers powerful enough to run the Soviet economy in top-down, non-market fashion, before the system collapses — something they never managed. Now, with much more computing power than it would actually take to run such a non-market society, the idea is there to be contemplated again. Possibly such a society would feel a bit like Antarctica does now under the National Science Foundation. When I tried to imagine the continuous form-filling required, I confess I began to think, ‘Well maybe money isn’t so bad after all’. Possibly it would not be a very appealing utopia to live in, but we don’t know; and in any case it’s fully worked out, an alternative system that with modern supercomputers could very possibly work. Maybe the computers could even fill out the forms. An algorithmic artificial intelligence economy; it’s worth considering.


The problem, however, with this and all other utopian alternatives, is that we can’t imagine how we might get there. We can’t imagine the bridge over the Great Trench, given the world we’re in, and the massively entrenched power of the institutions that shape our lives — and the guns that are still there under the table. Indeed right on the table. The bridge itself is what we can’t imagine — and maybe that’s what Jameson means: but then it’s not utopia we can’t imagine, but history. Future history, the history yet to come. And that makes sense. History has been so implausible that there’s no reason to suspect that we will ever be able to accurately prophesy or describe the history that will come next.


Therefore the main project of all science fiction — that of imagining future histories — is impossible. Imagining a positive history which gets us to a better state is perhaps even more impossible, but in any case very difficult, and now more than ever, now that it’s clear we are entering an era of climate change and population overshoot which will impose radical physical stresses on both human and natural systems. This aspect of things now refuses to be kept out of the picture. Climate change is inevitable — we’re already in it — and because we’re caught in technological and cultural path dependency, we can’t easily get back out of it. The example of the ocean liner that can’t be turned around in less than ten miles is actually a very simple metaphor for the kinds of path dependency we are caught in; the infrastructures we build have lifetimes that last decades, sometimes centuries, and changing them necessarily takes time. We’re probably not going to be able to cap the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at less than 450 parts per million, and 560 parts per million is quite possible. At that point we will be living on a quite different planet, in a significantly damaged biosphere, with its life-support systems so harmed that human existence will be substantially threatened. It has become a case of utopia or catastrophe, and utopia has gone from being a somewhat minor literary problem to a necessary survival strategy.


Climate Change and the Necessity of the Utopian Project


So let’s shift gears now, and consider utopia not as my literary problem but a shared social vision, with this extra burden laid on it: not just that the present is bad, but that the future will inevitably be worse in environmental terms. In fact it is worth discussing first this question: is it even possible at this point to avoid a catastrophic crash of human and natural systems? Or are we already in a kind of Wile E. Coyote moment, that moment when he’s chasing the roadrunner and goes over the cliff, and looks at the audience, legs spinning, to only then discover he’s out there in space, though gravity has not yet caught him? Are we indulging in a fantasy if we imagine that we could recover from this path we are on, if we were to do something?


Well, this is the kind of question that is worth asking the scientists who study these problems in a quantitative ecological sense, analysing it as a problem in global energy flows. The Socolow wedge diagrams out of Princeton suggest that yes, it is still possible for us to ratchet back from the edge of catastrophe by decarbonizing quite rapidly, which means applying every single method contemplated as soon and as fully as possible. We’re about at the moment where we’re leaving the cliff’s edge, but that’s better than running the numbers and finding you’re already out in space.


There are well-articulated plans to get back to solid ground coming from many places, including Lester Brown and his Worldwatch Institute; their ‘Plan B 3.0’[iii] is a fairly detailed plan of action. Indeed many government agencies and NGOs and institutions around the world are busy articulating these plans, and it’s reassuring to think that we’re not living in an utter fantasy of salvation. Practical plans have been proposed, and there really still are grounds for hope. But we have to act.


So the question of history returns. How do we act on what we know? The time has come when we have to solve this puzzle, because the future, from where we look at it now, is different than past futures. Before we just had to keep on trying to do our best, and we would be OK. Things seemed to slowly get better, for some people in some places anyway; in any case, we would keep trying things, and probably muddle through. This is no longer the case. Now the future is a kind of attenuating peninsula; as we move out on it, one side drops off to catastrophe; the other side, nowhere near as steep, moves down into various kinds of utopian futures. In other words, we have come to a moment of utopia or catastrophe; there is no middle ground, mediocrity will no longer succeed. So utopia is no longer a nice idea, but a survival necessity. This is a big change. We need to take action to start history on a path onto the side of the peninsula representing one kind of better future or another; the details of it don’t matter, survival without catastrophe is what matters. In essence the seven billion people we have, and the nine to ten billion people we’re likely to have, exist at the tip of an entire improvised complex of prostheses, which is our technology considered as one big system. We live out at the end of this towering complex, and it has to work successfully for us to survive; we are far past the natural carrying capacity of the planet in terms of our numbers. There is something amazing about the human capacity to walk this tightrope over the abyss without paralysing fear. We’re good at ignoring dangers; but now, on the attenuating peninsula, on the crazy tower of prostheses — however you envision it, it is a real historical moment of great danger, and we need to push hard for utopia as survival, because failure now is simply unacceptable to our descendants, if we have any.


When thinking about this situation, this moment that simply has to change, those of us in the developed world, the privileged world, tend very naturally to ask: even if we do survive — to accomplish that — will it be bad for us? Will we be unhappy? Will we lose our privileges? As Jameson observes at one point in his long essay on utopia, people are anti-utopian not necessarily because they’re political reactionaries, but because utopia might change them utterly.[iv] And such a profound change is a fearful thing, almost like reincarnation: if you come back as someone else you’re not really you, so in fact you haven’t come back at all. Utopia would be as pointless as heaven, if you were no longer you. And you are your habits, or so it usually feels. So what would happen to prosperous first-worlders in a utopia of survival, where everyone had an equal share of the Earth’s ‘natural capital’? For it’s very commonly said, by quite mathematically sophisticated people, that if we tried to spread human and natural wealth equally over the entire seven billion of us, then everyone would be poor.


This too is an interesting question to run the numbers on. The Swiss, being prosperous and practical, have already started to run those numbers: one result of that inquiry is the 2000 Watt Society. Their notion is that if the total amount of energy available to humans right now were equally distributed among the entire seven billion of us, each person would have the use of about 2,000 watts.[v] It isn’t a lot of energy, but it’s not negligible either. Some Swiss have decided to run an experiment living on that much, and now there are people in Basel and Zurich trying it. The Swiss have some local advantages in this experiment: they live in a small country in Europe, a continent with an amazingly rich infrastructure, built partly with the spoils of their colonialist plundering of the rest of the world. You can therefore live on 2,000 watts in Europe and be quite comfortable. There’s public transport, there are efficient small apartments, and so on. While this living experiment doesn’t give all the answers, it is nonetheless suggestive. It looks like a huge amount of our energy burn right now is pure waste in terms of improving the quality of our lives, assuming that quality is conceived in terms of health, happiness and sustainability. Much that is burned is simply wasted. Right now the average Swiss citizen uses 5,000 watts, Europe as a whole averages 6,000 watts, America 12,000, China 1,500, India 1,000 and Bangladesh about 300. You get a sense of the range. And right now we live in an extremely dirty and inefficient technology, a kind of global Stalinist Cheylabinsk-56. What has been invented and designed already to replace this crude old tech would by itself make an immense improvement in energy efficiency and carbon burn, and more could come after that. The realizable goal is a carbon-neutral or even carbon-negative civilization. This swapping out of our energy technology is part of the necessary work of the twenty-first century, but it can also mean full employment, population stabilization, and eventually more watts for everybody equally.


This vision of an overarching social project makes it possible to say more to young people in the first world than, ‘Sorry, we torched the world and now you have to live like saints and suffer’. That’s not a great message to take to the young, and also it’s not correct. We in the hyperconsuming first world are actually experiencing our extra carbon burn as more of a burden than an enhancement. It measurably degrades our physical and mental health; it cocoons us in crap — we’re not fully there in the world. So we need to burn less carbon for ourselves as well as our home; it’s not a matter of puritan renunciation, but rather becoming more clever and healthy. There is a comfortable way forward for all, in other words, if comfort is conceived of as a sense of achievement. There’s a utopian spark in that thought, a spur to action.


I wrote a bit about this notion in the Science in the Capital Trilogy — that a decarbonized life might bring us more alive than we are now in our thick, dirty technoshell. I have sometimes called this utopian vision ‘the Palaeolithic plus good dental care’, hoping to suggest that since we’re still genetically the same creatures we were 100,000 years ago, we could become again those same animals, living fulfilled and complex existences, without capitalist hyperconsumption — but with the best parts of modern technology conserved, to reduce suffering and thus increase happiness. What the human sciences are telling us now is that the closer you live to a Palaeolithic lifestyle — with good dental care — the better off you are. This is another utopian thought, coming straight out of the latest scientific findings: we are happiest when we are healthiest, and we are healthiest when we live a life that engages us in the physical world in a rather low-carbon-burn way. Walking around outdoors a lot, talking, the occasional dash or tumble, making a meal together, and so on. These low-carbon activities are often felt as the best part of the day, and that’s no coincidence.


This description can be given to young people in particular as a possible life project worth doing. Young first-world secular citizens exist in a crisis of meaning: they know life needs to be about more than hyperconsumption, but what that ‘more’ might be is not clear. Meaning has never been priced and thus it is confusing. This existential crisis is very real; we need meaning to go forward, and yet capitalist society doesn’t provide it. Now, at the beginning of the climate-change era, the start of the Anthropocene, that meaning is simply evident in the world — really it’s forced on us by the situation — we have to decarbonize, which means changing everything, which means utopia, all for survival and for our descendants. This is a life project with a sense of accomplishment in it. With the idea that you could do things smarter and thereby have more fun, capitalism as it stands now begins to look not only morally obese, but also unskilful, even a little bit stupid.


The project, for all of us alive today, then breaks down into practical reformist strategies, like supporting social democracy and the various green political movements, while keeping more radical further goals in mind. And when people bring up geo-engineering, one can say, ‘Yes, we’re doing that already by accident, and really the smartest geo-engineering we have is swift de-carbonization’. One can promote a notion Jameson has mentioned once or twice, that of full employment. Full employment would get needed work done, and it is also a paradigm buster for capitalism, which needs unemployment to get ‘wage pressure’, meaning fear in more and more workers. So we have structural unemployment; yet just by asserting that everybody deserves a job as a human right, the system is challenged. Full employment also suggests the idea of a living wage, therefore poverty reduction, which is in itself a powerful climate-change technology. This needs to be insisted on, to make sure that climate change action doesn’t somehow become a merely technological question, with the implication of some kind of silver bullet solution out there that will allow everything else to go on as it’s going now. That’s not going to happen. So changes that dismantle some of the fundamental injustice of capitalism while helping the climate situation are a stranded double good.


Always in this, supporting science is a necessary part of the project. It isn’t the same as supporting capitalism, as some critics seem to assume. We need to de-strand those two, and recognize that science is our ability to increase our ability to understand the world, and then to manipulate it for our collective good.


While I support science as the best name for our species’ life-support system, I also recognize that many scientists are like the character Beaker in The Muppets, geeking their way through life, their education deep but narrow, making them often naively unphilosophical, to the point where they think that what they do is straightforward and non-political. It’s the humanities’ job to disabuse them of that mistaken notion, by way of fully supportive lessons in history, philosophy, political theory, rhetoric and literature. The humanities need to educate the sciences rather than attack them; this education is not an option, if you want to be aware of how the human world works.


The humanities’ stereotypical attack on scientists looks like this: take the Monopoly game figure of the Capitalist, with his top hat and round belly, and imagine that he pays Beaker from The Muppets to invent a gun, and then he seizes the gun and puts it to Beaker’s head and says: ‘Make me more guns and make me more toys’. Beaker’s eyes are round as he complies. Those of us in the humanities, watching this scene and imagining we’re somehow not already implicated, say, ‘Damn it Beaker, I see you’re part of the problem. You even invented the atom bomb!’ And Beaker whispers to us, ‘There’s a gun to my head. And there’s a gun on you, too. Can’t you see it? Why are you blaming me?’


Yet we do; we go on blaming science for something that is not the scientists’ problem but rather our general problem as citizens. Scientists need both our support and our ability to give them a political education, pointing out their own potentiality, their embodiment of a utopian effort that has continued for centuries now. The various components of the scientific method, and the structure of scientific institutions, are simultaneously both a method for discovering nature and a utopian political program. But who knows this; who admits this; who works with this knowledge?


I think it helps to think of this large social project, which we must now accept as ours, in terms of the concept of scaffolding. James Griesemer of Univeristy of California Davis shared with me his notion of the human generations’ efforts as each building a scaffold for further work by descendants, who work at some kind of higher level. It has been about 400 generations since the end of the last Ice Age, so we can put ourselves in that long succession, and imagine that our generation is building a scaffold on the shoulders of the many generations that came before. A coral reef isn’t a bad analogy either: you build your level; you can’t leap to heaven — if you try you will crash back down, maybe even crash a few scaffolding levels below you. So here, facing climate change, proposing utopia as in effect the only solution that will work, we still need to think of the project as a transgenerational thing that will take generations to accomplish. We can’t panic, nor can we give up just because we can’t do it all in our lifetimes. We face an ecological emergency; but even here, all we can do is work on our present reality, and build what we can. I’m aware that I’m arguing conservatively here, but I’m arguing for reforms so numerous and systemic that ultimately they will add up to revolution — to post-capitalism, to utopia — but some generations down the line. We can’t imagine the details of how this will happen, but the general outlines of the project are clear enough from here to make a start. And the necessity is clear. Hopefully, we’ll get there as fast as we can, and meanwhile we can throw ourselves into our moment of the project.


Let me finish by quoting from Voltaire, the somewhat ominous but ultimately practical final sentence of Candide: ‘Keep a garden’.


[i] R. Williams, Towards 2000, London, Chatto and Windus, 1983, pp. 267–9.

[ii] F. Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, London and New York, Verso, 2005, pp. 231–3.

[iii] Plan B 3.0 is available for free as an ebook at <>, accessed 22 March 2011.

[iv] F. Jameson, ‘The Politics of Utopia’, New Left Review, second series, no. 25, 2004, pp. 51–2.

[v] Technical details of the actual numbers are available at <>, accessed 22 March 2011.

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