“A world without Utopian longings is forlorn,” writes historian Russell Jacoby. So is a world without history. So is a world without nature. Each of which, if incoming reports are true, are at their ends. If the world today seems forlorn, perhaps there is something worth discovering at their crux—at the intersection of Utopia, history, and nature—that might help us to understand what is going on and help restore much-needed, fresh-grounded hope.
For half a millennium—since Sir Thomas More’s 1516 work naming and inaugurating a new literary genre—the crafting of Utopian narratives has waxed and waned. Over time, they have come to embody a continuous history of Western imaginations of the good world. Playing an important part in the development of the novel, Utopias are, by definition, fictions. “They deal with possible, not actual worlds,” as Utopian scholar Krishan Kumar puts it. Yet, at the same time, Utopias emerge out of and return to their contemporary realities, especially real crises of the day. Moreover, they offer to help alleviate them in presenting alternatives. The realm of Utopia, then, is expansive, but not boundless. While literary Utopias liberate imagination, in other words, they also set limits. Both serious and playful, they create “speaking-pictures” of a world and its daily life that might be. They also aim to educate and encourage readers to desire the world portrayed. Even if Utopias do not succeed in this, they provide mental spaces for thought experiments involving complex scenarios. Utopias allow people opportunities to think through in detail the outworking and consequences of merely abstract ideals. Utopias provide, that is, opportunities for discovery. What alternatives for the world might be possible?
History, too, as Czech novelist Milan Kundera reminds us, discovers humanity’s possibilities. It does so by revealing, as a result of exploration, various, actual situations: “What man is, what has been in him ‘for a long, long time,’ what his possibilities are.” In its discoveries of such truth, he says, history may even dazzle us. And when Kundera speaks of humanity, he embeds us as “beings- in-the-world”—as a snail is bound to its shell. Both an actor and his or her surrounding world must be understood together. In this sense, then, all history must be environmental history and as such may help us discover possibilities for nature, as well as humans, and the relationship between us as it has been, as it is, as it might be.
While history, Utopia, and, indeed, novels more generally share the potential for making discoveries of fresh ways of being in the world, they seem to have fallen on hard times. “Hasn’t it [the novel] already mined all its possibilities?”—as a seam of coal is exhausted, asks Kundera, reflecting the opinion of the disillusioned. And then he answers, but “isn’t it [the novel’s history] more like a cemetery of missed opportunities, of unheard appeals?” The novel, after all, “might be a place where the imagination can explode as in a dream.” If the novel were to disappear, Kundera believes, it would not be because its potentials are exhausted, but because it would wither in a world that had overshadowed, alienated it—a world that had become too homogenous to need a venue that carries continuity and complexity.
Utopia as a particular novelistic form, has come to an end, a consensus of scholars seem to believe, or at least fear, both in terms of the quantity of works, but also the quality of innovation and imagination. Many Utopianists are claiming that 1989 marked the “definite end of Utopia,” at least in the form in which it has influenced Western history from its 1516 beginnings with More’s text. If so, the end may have been coming for some time. “Our Utopias,” wrote Lewis Mumford in 1922, “have been pitifully weak and inadequate.” If they have not succeeded, “it is because . . . they were simply not good enough,” not because we haven’t needed them and don’t need them all the more today. Especially since the time of the nineteenth century industrial revolution, Mumford criticizes Utopian works for not stimulating values broader than the “goods” of today, but demanding merely more of the same.
In a similar vein, Frank and Fritzie Manuel, the authors of a classic historical survey of Western Utopias, ask in conclusion whether Utopias are now virtually exhausted. Or is Utopia just in one of its slumps, such as has occurred in times past? Few thinkers, however, no matter how barren the outlook may be believe that the Utopian propensity is really quite dead.
History, too, however, may have come to an end, we are told—in three different senses. American political economist Francis Fukuyama argued in 1989 that the conclusion of the Cold War ushered in the triumph of the “Western idea.” History had ended, that is, in the sense of its finding ultimate fulfillment in mankind’s most mature, ideological stage—a global, consumerist, liberal, capitalist culture—so the story goes. True, this victory had not yet completely transformed material conditions for the whole of humanity, but inevitably it would. Humanity, in other words, had come to the last page of its modern narrative of the formation and growth of society and with confidence could close the book and live happily ever after. the attainment of this stage of presumed human satisfaction closed off alternatives because there was no longer a perceived need for them.
Alfred Lord Tennyson expressed something of the same view in his 1842 poem “Locksley Hall,” “For I dipped into the Future,” he wrote, “far as human eye could see.” Tennyson saw a world society at peace with itself and “the kindly earth” slumbering, “lapt in universal law.” Indeed, Mr. Julian West, the main character in Edward Bellamy’s best-selling, highly influential 1888 Utopia, Looking Backward, found solacing inspiration in these lines, as he, a visitor to the twenty-first century, rested contentedly in the imagined equitably thriving society that reflected them. While, on the other hand, Mumford particularly criticized Bellamy for inventing, “a high-powered engine of repression” and portraying the possibility of the “nightmare” of an, albeit materially comfortable, modern society “moving along its present path without any change in its aims and ideals.” Indeed, Fukuyama himself predicted nostalgia for “the time when history existed” forecasting centuries of boredom to come, which might just eventually kindle a new beginning for a new history.
There may be no time for such boredom, however. A new history may already have begun. Lapping the Earth in the “universal law” of humanity is, ironically, according to Bill McKibben, what has precipitated an end of history in a second sense. In this sense, history is no longer useful in helping us predict what is to come in the future. McKibben in his best-selling The End of Nature, published in 1989—a big year for endings—explains that history has ended because nature has. By the end of nature, McKibben means, in this case, neither its fulfillment nor its disappearance, but that humanity, in its pursuit of material comfort for all members of its burgeoning population, has ushered in an era in which there is nothing on Earth that is not mixed up with us. There is no area of land, ocean, or sky sheltered from the tumults of humanity. And a paradox of that human dominion of the world is that we don’t have the insight to predict the consequences. “There is,” McKibben explains, “no easy way to say that something can’t happen or is unlikely to happen.” “Such forecasts,” he continues, “are based on the past, and now there is no relevant past.” Earth is a different planet now, he asserts. We might as well give it a new name. Or as landscape ecologist Monica Turner, winner of the Ecological Society of America’s prestigious MacArthur Award put it in her 2009 keynote speech: “the past may not predict the future” as much as we thought to date.
“Conventional Utopian ideas,” therefore, are “not much help either,” McKibben contends. They make little sense in a world that has alienated its past from its future. They invariably meant to advance human happiness without directly promoting the well-being of Earth. This is a sobering statement, particularly if we consider that Utopianism, as Oxford political geologist David Pepper argues, “in one form or another . . . permeates all environmentalism.” Indeed, McKibben worries that the intellectual scaffolding provided by environmentalists for the past century is sturdy enough to deal with the weight of the problems we’re piling on it.
We are losing history in a third way, too, McKibben argues. in altering everything from Earth’s atmosphere to rainbow trout, we are losing our memory of wild nature as it was before we changed it. We have detached material nature from its greater meaning in a Thoreauvian sense—the sense in which loving something wild is an enterprise having no knowable beginning or end. A young Thoreau in 1843, was able to see this sense of nature’s end approaching and with it alienation from our home planet. Responding to the then-popular vision of John Etzler in which humans harness Earth’s energy to transform the entire globe into palaces and gardens of luxury, Thoreau asks with foresight and irony if humans may acquire so much power as to change the vicissitude of the seasons. Perhaps, he suggests, not abiding “the dissolution of the globe,” humans bring about, future humanity will “migrate to settle some more western planet,” even if it may be “unearthy.”
Responding to clamors for a more positive outlook post–The End of Nature, McKibben offered another book—this one titled Hope, Human and Wild. “We might,” he wrote, “if not get the original Earth back, at least keep something recognizable with fresh potential.” By hope, McKibben means, “a vision of recovery, renewal, resurgence.” Indeed, recent dystopic works—of which there are a plentitude—seem paradoxically to reveal humanity’s potential to believe in the regenerative capacity of life. Even as hope for much of Earth’s life is eroding, we humans do appear to hold some deep, perhaps deepening, faith in something more important than us, transcending our impulses to dominate and our alienations with the past. Even the bedrock-and-bones twenty-first century vision of The Road (2006) by Cormac McCarthy discovers—amidst what may be the most barren, hopeless world ever painted in words; indeed, where “10,000 dreams” are “sepulchered within [the] . . . crozzled hearts of incinerated corpses”—even here the fire of goodness burns on in a child, love between father and son sustains them (if barely), God still breathes, the backs of Brook Trout with “vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming” wimple in “amber currents” not yet having disappeared from memory.
The long, long history of life on Earth and its mystery remain beyond human meddling. McCarthy echoes Edward Abbey’s earlier prophecy. Let man “blast earth into black rubble and envelop the entire planet in a cloud of lethal gas,” he writes, “no matter how long, somewhere, living things will emerge and join and stand once again, this time perhaps to take a different and better course”—“bedrock of animal faith.” Margaret Atwood’s 2009 Year of the Flood portrays a sizzling, bioengineered, disease-plagued world. Yet it reaches back to bear witness to the life of the Earth before human activities radically altered it. it discovers at the end that “you can’t kill the music.” Remember, these voices seem to remind us, if not haunt us. remember to remember—your father, God, the maps on the backs of trout. Say the names: Archaeopteryx, Sabre-Toothed Cat, Blue Pike, Rainbow Orchid, Rwandan mother Donatille and the baby on her back, Maldive islands . . . Earth. There may still be time.
In a human-altered world in which life, ironically, is and feels out of our control, in which people are busy with worry and fear about the future, even as it may be eroding, there is “a surprising return of the word hope,” claims the editor of the Hedgehog Review in an issue dedicated to imagining the future. Perhaps people are trying to shore up hope as they might a gullied hillside on which they depend. One thing we know, people will not, perhaps cannot work toward the good without both faith and hope—that “desire combined with expectation.” What is it, then, the editor asks, that we are hoping for? How is hope shaped by the “contours of contemporary life,” with all of its terrors? How is hope shaped by the past and by our understandings of and alienations from it? How is hope molded by the expectations of our imaginations, in particular, of the kinds of futures for our “being-in-the-world” that we have considered desirable and good? By our Utopias? What can we discover in the history of Utopias, as Mumford put it, that might still define, if not inspire, what is still possible? Or, falling short of that, what is worth bearing witness to? Moreover, how is hope possible within the bounds of and in response to the certainties and uncertainties of geo-ecological realities—past, present, and future? What new stories shall we tell about ourselves and our place in a good world?
In Old English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, another meaning of the word hope was a piece of land surrounded by fens, marshes, rugged mountains or other expanses of nature that were more or less uninhabitable or otherwise useless to humans. The seventeenth century naturalist John Aubrey tells of a place in the English country of Surrey where a landholder had “ingeniously, contriv’d a long Hope . . . in the most pleasant and delightful Solitude for House, gardens, Orchards, Boscages, etc.” Delighting in cherry, orange, and myrtle trees and twenty-one sorts of thyme, the Hope’s inhabitants, Aubrey tells us, “do enjoy themselves so innocently in that pleasant corner, as if they were out of this troublesome world.”
Words carry “memory traces of earlier usages,” Russian philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin suggests. And words may embody long historical development. If this is so, we may rediscover in our Utopian novels—which are worlds of Western hope— that more fundamental to their stories than social and political schemes or mere petty material wants, is humanity’s relation to land. Where have people, over generations, wanted and imagined boundaries between themselves and what is not themselves?
For example, drawing upon the old grounded meaning of hope as a piece of inviting land surrounded by waste, if we think about it, there can be no hope, without the waste surrounding it.
The Oxford English Dictionary takes up ten pages of definitions of waste—from “a wild expanse of countryside,” to a part of a mine from which coal has been extracted, to something (e.g., natural resources) that has been used up. It may be, in fact, that the ways we define “waste” and what we decide to waste or not waste, is as vital as anything in determining what we hope for or whether we hope at all. Like Utopia, hope emerges out of its surroundings and returns back to them, desiring to discover how good life can be, driving humans on to embrace life in a body of stories reaching far back in time.
Philosopher John Dewey, historian Charles Beard, and Atlantic editor Ed Weeks, in 1935, felt that Bellamy’s 1888 Looking Backward had done more in the previous half century to shape the whole of the thought and action of the societies of the modern world than any other work, aside from Marx’s Das Kapital. From beginning to end, Looking Backward confronts the dismal inevitabilities portrayed by Thomas Malthus in the eighteenth century. How can a growing human population feed themselves in a virtuous way and bypass misery? Bellamy’s answer, one seemingly in the air—captured earlier in the works of the great Vermont intellect george Perkins Marsh and echoing in the later ones of pathbreaking American scientific forester Gifford Pinchot—had to do with not wasting the Earth. In Bellamy’s Utopian world, lands left to grow up to weeds and briers and not food for people, were “eyesores and inconveniences” or wasted land. Driven by Hunger and Fear of Hunger, Bellamy’s whole society–a great national Army—was labor organized to sustain or “support” the world in abundance, largely by preventing waste. In Bellamy’s world, we can see now, for all the good intentions—foremost, an inspiring love for and confidence in humanity—that in an effort to make the whole world one great Hope, we end up with none at all. Kundera calls this a terminal paradox and it deserves long thinking.
Bellamy’s novel is an example of a fictional world crafted in response to the real crises and fears of its day. It aimed not merely to assess, but to offer possibilities for assuaging them. More than a century ago, it offered chances to mull over society’s contemporary aims and ideals—not merely the satisfaction of hunger, but also “a share in the refinements and luxuries of life.” It presented some opportunities, among many others, to wonder whether efficiency and security were themselves means or ends and whether or to what degree exchanging “weeds and briers”—the wastelands of the world—for food, radios, and velvet really would make the world “a great deal richer than it was.” Was a “higher standard of living,” as conservationist Aldo Leopold raised the question sixty years later, “worth its cost in things natural, wild, and free,” including the spirit of human being? If so, to what degree? What did Bellamy’s guiding character, Dr. Leete, mean by “liberty,” when he claimed that it was dear? Were the highly regulated society and the cultivated earth blooming “like one garden” that Bellamy pictured in the outworking of the machinery of material progress possible, appealing, and healthy?
Though Bellamy’s work in its time did not lead Western society to alter its aims and ideals in any widely effectual sense, we may yet go back to Utopian works like Bellamy’s to explore them as a history of our Western imagination and desire in relation to its time—our own past—to help us better understand why we made the choices we did, leaving others aside. We may also return to Utopian works such as Looking Backward to learn what has been in us, in Kundera’s words, “for a long, long time.” We can, moreover, revisit Bellamy’s work and use it to imagine different histories, different post-1888 trajectories. Potentially, we can discover fresh possibilities—and set new compass-bearings, as Mumford puts it—for flourishing humanity. What if, for example, keeping Bellamy’s emphasis on each member of society cooperating to take responsibility for all his or her neighbors’ well-being, he had included pasque flowers and wolves as members of the neighborhood? How would the picture have been changed? What if we were to do so now–what would that daily world be like? If we go back to imagine different trajectories, we can, perhaps, find less traveled paths that take us beyond nineteenth century ideas of economy and sustainability, the insufficiencies and misjudgments of which Earth’s and humanity’s current conditions bear out. We may yet discover the regenerative capacity of flourishing Hopes in better concert with ecological realities.
Indeed, as Bellamy understood, an ideal world is one in which all humanity has plenty to eat and more to spare. But we may be pleasantly surprised at our choices in promoting these goods if we are open to a kaleidoscope of possibilities—gleaning lessons from the past, incorporating our best imaginations of what goodness can look like, and assimilating respect for the creative nature that has sustained humanity throughout its history. With good- hearted courage and enthusiasm, like Dorothy from Frank Baum’s 1910 Emerald City of Oz, we may embark with good-hearted courage and enthusiasm on some new adventures. In this story, Dorothy, one of America’s best-loved characters, her aunt and uncle, the wizard, and a talking chicken named Billina are encouraged by Queen Ozma to explore the country—the small towns and the wastes—surrounding the glimmering city. Along the way they experience worry and hunger as well as joy in their discovery of little- traveled pathways and fresh possibilities:
Wandering through the woods without knowing where you are going or what adventure you are about to meet next, is not as pleasant as one might think. The woods are always beautiful and impressive, and if you are not worried or hungry, you may enjoy them immensely; but Dorothy was worried and hungry that morning, so she paid little attention to the beauties of the forest, and hurried along as fast as she could go. She tried to keep in one direction and not circle around, but she was not at all sure that the direction she had chosen would head her to the camp. By and by, to her great joy, she came upon a path. It ran to the right and to the left, being lost in the trees in both directions, and just before her, upon a big oak, were fastened 2 signs, with arms pointing in both ways. One sign read: TAKE THE OTHER ROAD TO BUNBURY and the 2nd sign read: TAKE THE OTHER ROAD TO BUNNYBURY. “Well,” exclaimed Billina, eyeing the signs, “this looks as if we were getting back to civilization again.” “I’m not sure about civilization, dear, replied the little girl, but it looks as if we might get somewhere, and that’s a big relief anyhow.” “Which path should we take?” inquired the yellow hen. Dorothy stared at the signs thoughtfully. Bunbury sounds like something to eat, let’s go there.