Friday, June 27, 2008
Another World is Possible
I just finished reading a trilogy by science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson. The books (Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below Zero, and Sixty Days and Counting) are set in the very near future (2016 at the latest) and primarily deal with the catastrophic effects of global climate change and the efforts of scientists and politicians to finally do something about it. However, it might be more accurate to classify this series as fantasy rather than sci-fi in that it is primarily a political fantasy about what it would be like if a true Progressive, the likes of which we haven't seen since FDR, ever got elected President - a president that would fight both global warming and the suicidal tyranny of our current economic system.

Whether you consider this a utopian or dystopian fantasy would probably depend on your political leanings. Personally I found the possibility thrilling, if a little far-fetched (for instance, it takes a serious suspension of disbelief to believe that the Pentagon would ever allow any significant portion of its half-a-trillion dollar budget to be re-allocated towards climate change mitigation efforts). However, I confess that I did find myself resonating with the sense of possibility and hope that Robinson writes about. He places a little too much stock in the powers of science and human imagination in my opinion, however, I agree with him that we should at least try to imagine a different kind of world, rather than simply get sucked into the cynical mindset that things will never really change (or the Christian version of this, which I find both in conservative and progressive camps, which is that things will never really change until Christ's return)

In the third book the newly elected President Phil Chase starts his own blog "Cut to the Chase" (sort of a 21st Century version of FDR's Fireside Chats) and in one of the entries he addresses the importance of not letting ourselves get sucked into a cynical, fatalistic mindset. He writes:

I think for a while we forgot what was possible. Our way of life damaged our ability to imagine anything different. Maybe we are rarely good at imagining that things could be different...

"Through new uses of corporations, banks and securities, new machinery of industry, of labor and capital - all undreamed of by the Fathers - the whole structure of modern life was impressed into the service of economic royalists. It was natural and perhaps human that the privileged princes of these new economic dynasties, thirsting for power, reached out for control of government itself. They created a new despotism and wrapped it in the robes of legal sanction. In its service new mercenaries sought to regiment the people, their labor and their property. And as a result the average man once more confronts the problem that faced the Minute Man. For too many of us life was no longer free; liberty no longer real; men could no longer follow the pursuit of happiness. Against economic tyranny such as this, the American citizen could appeal only to the organized power of the Government."

That was Franklin Roosevelt, talking as president to the nation in 1936. In the same speech he said, "There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected . This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny."

But then we forgot again. We went back to imagining that things could only ever be as they were. We lived on in that strange new feudalism, in ways that were unjust and destructive and yet were presented as the only possible reality. We said "people are like that," or "human nature will never change," or "we are all guilty of original sin," or "this is democracy, this is the free market, this is reality itself." And we went along with that analysis, and it became the law of the land. The entire world was legally bound to accept this feudal injustice as law. It was global and so it looked like it was universal. The future itself was bought, in the form of debts, mortgages, contracts - all spelled out by law and enforced by police and armies. Alternatives were unthinkable. Even to say things could be otherwise would get you immediately branded as unrealistic, foolish, naive, insane, utopian.

But that was all delusion. Every few years things change completely, even though we can't quite remember how it happened or what it means. Change is real and unavoidable. And we can organize our affairs any way we please. There is no physical restraint on us. We are free to act. It's a fearsome thing, this freedom, so much so that people talk about a "flight from freedom" - that we fly into cages and hide, because freedom is so profound it's a kind of abyss. To actually choose in each moment how to live is too scary to endure.

So we lived like sleepwalkers. But the world is not asleep, and outside our dream things continued to change. Trying to shape that change is not a bad thing. Some pretend that making a plan is instant communism and the devil's work, but it isn't so. We always have a plan. Free market economics is a plan - it plans to give over all decisions to the blind hand of the market. But the blind hand never picks up the check. And, you know - it's blind. To deal with the global environmental crisis we now face without making any more plan than to trust the market would be like saying, We have to solve this problem so first let's put out our eyes. Why? Why not use our eyes? Why not use our brain?

Because we're going to have to imagine our way out of this one.
Right on. Change is inevitable, so we can either sit by on the sidelines and let others shape it for their own greed and ambitions of power, or we can use our God-given abilities to try to shape it towards increased justice and love in the world. Will we create utopia (what Jesus called the Kingdom of God)? Probably not right away, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try.

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posted by Mike Clawson at 8:00 PM | Permalink |


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