Tag Archives: philosophy

The endless, futile yet imperative quest for Utopia

My dad always told me “There is no utopia.” I now live on a tropical beach yet lack the mountains. Italy seems like heaven, yet I’ve been told living there can be quite the headache. Does any one place or country have it all?

I just returned from a beautiful paradisaical island, one of the most scenic and culturally rich places I have ever been. Yet the people are imprisoned; unable to leave and forced to live in poverty under a government that controls many aspects of their lives. There is none to minimal internet access and very limited opportunities.

In the United States we enjoy a world of comfort and convenience; luxuries like continual hot water, air conditioning and 24/7 access to shelves upon shelves of food, products, and anything we could possibly desire are so commonplace they are totally taken for granted. However, the streets seem dead in comparison, and our depression and stress rates are sky-high.

The people in Cuba live very rich lives, but in a very different sense of the word ‘rich.’ There, the streets are vibrant and alive with humanity. People interact in the plazas and shelter together under trees in the rain.  Neighbors are lifelong friends. Children play soccer — with a ball that looks like it has been in use for half a century — in the street. They don’t have much, but they have each other, and they disfruta la vida.

Because they are so poor, many grown adults — in their forties — live with their parents. Here, this situation carries an enormous stigma, and of course is widely seen is undesirable. But their family ties are so naturally close that it comes across as rather pleasant. One night, the 60-something senora I was staying with celebrated her birthday. Her 45-year-old daughter bought her a new dress, and together, with several elderly ladies from the neighborhood, danced to Latin music in their tiny entryway, door open to the street, until 3 am. I can’t picture that scenario happening often here in the USA, where most major cities are characterized by strangers shuttling around in their vehicles between big box stores.

World travels and several articles have made me ponder what an ideal lifestyle, and ideal society, looks like. I don’t think it’s utterly capitalist or utterly socialist, but perhaps somewhere in-between; it features a return to a more primitive lifestyle, yet incorporates the best modern advances.

Ayn Rand had a point. Innovators make life better for all of us. Yet at the same time, the linear trajectory of endless growth, consumption and development obviously cannot be sustained without huge cost to the environment. If maximum material wealth and profit is our ultimate goal, we will fulfill the American Indian prophecy that Only when the last tree has been cut down; Only when the last river has been poisoned; Only when the last fish has been caught; Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.

American Indians, like many indigenous societies, lived within a circular paradigm. They did not seek material wealth but to enjoy quality of life and freedom while living in harmony with the natural world. They used what they needed and were not overly attached to material objects.

Many leading thinkers agree that we must reform and re-imagine our current culture if we want to save the earth from ecological catastrophe, and thus ourselves. A recent Aljazeera.com article “The Trouble With Discounting Tomorrow” talks about how nations need to cooperate to achieve a sustainable future. In the latest Discover Magazine, Geoffrey West, an eminent theoretical physicist, remarks:

“We need to seriously rethink our socioeconomic framework. It will be a huge social and political challenge, but we have to move to an economy based on no growth or limited growth. And we need to bring together economists, scientists, and politicians to devise a strategy for what has to be done. I think there is a way out of this, but I’m afraid we might not have time to find it … even though innovations [such as creating new energy sources] reset the clock, from the work that I’ve done, I think all they do is delay collapse.”

Another book, Abundance: The Future is Brighter Than You Think argues the opposite stance, that technological innovations will create a world where all nine plus billion of us will live robust lives characterized by artificial intelligence, genetically modified food and cellphones and laptops for all.

It’s interesting to think outside of the box, to consider what your ideal world looks like: Is it urban, rural or a mix? Do you require a mansion, a fleet of cars, and tons of the latest gadgets, clothes etc. to be happy? Or would you be content in a small, eco-conscious cottage, with access to pure water, food, air, and all that nature has to offer? How much does community, family, and an active and interactive daily life factor into this equation? The question of what constitutes utopia has been on the mind of many a critical thinker unhappy with the status quo, from Thomas More to Jonathon Swift to John Winthrop.

I recently ordered a book from Amazon.com: The Other Side of Eden: Hunters, Farmers, and the Shaping of the World. I was drawn to it because I sense that the way humans have been living in the past century is not really the way they were designed to live, nor is it close to how they have lived for thousands upon thousands of years. Many people instantaneously consider ancient cultures to have hard, short, and disease-ridden lives, but this is not necessarily the case. The native peoples of the Americas were noted as being strikingly healthy, sound and beautiful, and many studies have shown (such as The China Study) that native societies were often very healthy — with minimal chronic disease, perfect teeth, happy minds, etc — until introduced to a more modern, processed diet and lifestyle. They also enjoyed a healthy balance of equality, individual freedom and community. Many diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer are actually far more common now, due to sedentary living, nutritionally devoid food and countless environmental factors.

There are people today who are seeking a more ‘primal lifestyle.’ Mark Sisson (check out Marksdailyapple.com) discusses the question of hunter-gatherer longevity here. He espouses sunbathing, walking barefoot, eating natural, staying active — lots of common sense things that a lot of us in the first world have to make an effort to do. David Wolfe is another nutritionist who espouses a more eco-conscious, enlightened lifestyle. This type of thinking looks backwards as well as forwards; it is progressive, alternative and visionary while cherishing ancient wisdom and common sense.

I think my personal utopia would constitute a blend. It would be closely in tune with nature and do as little harm to the earth and its creatures as possible. It would feature composting and gardening. Yet I would also want access to the internet and the world’s knowledge. I would like proximity to people whom I care about, a family and community that supports one another, yet I would want solitude and total freedom. I would like to retain the ability to travel and to experience diverse cultures, Latin, European and beyond. I’m not sure if this personal utopia is possible; according to my dad, it isn’t. Yet you can’t stop the human spirit from striving.

Brave New World 2012

Everyone who has taken a basic English literature class has read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Both were written in the 20th century and projected dystopian visions of a government-controlled, post-industrial world. The future imagined in Nineteen Eighty-Four is decidedly more bleak and unpleasant. Huxley’s is still a prison where Shakespeare is banned, but punishment for dissension is merely exile to a remote island as opposed to Orwell’s having your head stuck in a cage with rats, being beaten and otherwise tortured until you are forced to admit that 2+2=5.

Social critic Neil Postman wrote: “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny ‘failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.‘ In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.” [Emphasis added].

I think that as of 2012, we are leaning more towards Huxley’s visions, although there are echoes of Orwell such as:

Surveillance and Police State — GPS tracking through cellphones; monitoring of internet, social media and email usage (which the NSA is tracking); drones;  hidden cameras; the erosion of civil liberties following 9/11 (including the possibility of indefinite detention without trial); police brutality … there are rampant examples of a growing police state and the power of government to monitor, track and control its citizens.

Telescreens — Televisions are not (that I know of) a two-way monitoring device, but they are often constantly on in people’s houses which does have a distracting and conditioning effect. Commercials and programming sap people’s time and subtly direct them to believe and think certain things, and the mainstream media is often directed by the special interests of large corporations as well as the government.

This document has further comparisons:

1984 : Ministry of Peace
Now : Department of Defense

“Useless statistics, incorrect economic predictions, and slanted opinions polls are presented on the Evening news as ‘legitimate news’, to give people the impression that ‘things are getting better’, and that all people agree with the popular way of thinking … History is being rewritten, to conform with modern beliefs” (See Howard Zinn’s a People’s History of the United States for proof).

and

“There is always war. If peace is made with one country, war is claimed  (or threatened) on another nation to keep the military machine rolling … From Goldstein’s book – “The effect (of the atomic wars) was to convince the ruling groups of all countries that a few more atomic bombs would mean the end of organized society, and hence of their own power. Thereafter, although no formal agreement was ever made or hinted at, no more bombs were dropped. All three powers merely continue to produce atomic bombs and store them up against the decisive opportunity which they all believe will come sooner or later. And meanwhile the art of war has remained almost stationary for thirty or forty years. Helicopters are more used than they were formerly, bombing planes have been largely superseded by self-propelled projectiles, and the fragile movable battleship has given way to the almost unsinkable Floating Fortress; but otherwise there has been little development. The tank, the submarine, the torpedo, the machine gun, even the rifle and the hand grenade are still in use. And in spite of the endless slaughters reported in the Press and on the telescreens, the desperate battles of earlier wars, in which hundreds of thousands or even millions of men were often killed in a few weeks, have never been repeated.”

But, like in Brave New World, our current paradigm is much more benign, though fraught with insidious forces. Not through sleep hypnosis or electric shock conditioning, but by being exposed to thousands of ads per day, we are brainwashed to buy buy buy, that “ending is better than mending.” Our economy depends on large scale consumer consumption of mass-produced goods, and planned obsolescence is necessary as well as the reinforcement of the belief that the accumulation of material goods is one of life’s main aims.

While not engaging in getting and spending, we of course should be playing. In Brave New World spending time alone and in introspective, intellectual pursuits is discouraged. Deep thinking and thinking “outside the box” is grounds for exile, and high culture artifacts and classic literature is banned. Instead, empty, superficial activities are encouraged. We don’t play centrifugal bumble-puppy, but the popular entertainment of today (shopping, movies, video games, TV, YouTube, social media) sure do offer a lot of time-sucking, vacuous fluff.

And then of course, if your mindless job and even more mindless entertainment is not enough to distract you from thinking about the Why and Wherefore of it all, as well as alternate ways of living, then you can just pop a pill and feel good at all times. People who are real and fully alive either live as savages on reservations or are banished to remote locales.

Huxley wrote Brave New World Revisited in 1958 as a non-fiction follow-up in which he concludes that the world was becoming much like he predicted, mainly through the use of subliminal suggestion, subtle but powerful societal pressures  and prescription drugs.

Christopher Hitchens, in a 1999 article called “Why Americans are Not Taught History” that references both books wrote: “For true blissed-out and vacant servitude, though, you need an otherwise sophisticated society where no serious history is taught.”

Our educational system is deplorable and cultivates an extremely ethnocentric worldview. Cultural norms in fashion and entertainment are reinforced through the popular entertainment of television, music and mass media, creating superficiality, homogeneity and rampant commercialism and materialism. Whether deliberately or not, Americans are being dumbed down — by the school system, by the media, by the low-brow culture and entertainment, by distracting us with shiny new high-tech gadgets, and by the large-scale use of chemicals in food, water, air and pills/Westernized medicine. If you dare to challenge the status quo, to suddenly say “Let’s stop and look at the logic of what we are doing here,” to challenge the institutions and authority figures and 9-5 schedules and the way things are, well, you’ll end up like the Occupiers. Battered, belittled and finding yourself, like John the Savage, alone and futile in your rage against the machine.

How do you define Success?

When I was a 23-year-old novice writer at an edgy alt-weekly mag, I once discussed the meaning of SUCCESS with a fellow writer a decade or so older than myself.

He drove a beat-up car — jalopy is a nice word — and rented an apartment. He was single. He wasn’t very, as they say, financially “well-off.” He wrote, he observed, he experienced, he analyzed, he read, he traveled. He was free, open, curious, fulfilled, alive. Was he successful?

“Depends on how you define success,” he said to me, in a conversation about the implications inherent in pursuing the writer’s life, the peripatetic life.

I often feel constrained by society’s definition, the capitalist Modern American Society a la Mitt Romney definition: vast amounts of wealth; stocks and bonds; accolades and titles; multiple vehicles; big houses; marriage and kids.

Let me preface this little diatribe by stating that I don’t think any of these things are unequivocally bad — and that each and every one can indeed be the most fulfilling, joy-giving element to someone’s life. One woman may want nothing more than to raise her children in a snug little cul-de-sac, shuttling them to and fro in her safe SUV. Another might want nothing more than to achieve an executive title in her field. The tricky part comes when people feel pressured to conform to certain roles that don’t truly make them happy, simply because they feel pressured to be seen as traditionally successful by their parents, peers and society at large.

Several studies have suggested that once basic needs and desires are met, more wealth does not translate to more happiness; several ‘developing’ countries outshine the United States in regards to overall levels of happiness. Many indigenous cultures — before being colonized and decimated — were certainly very happy living simple, sustainable lives that didn’t include lots of superfluous material things and distractions. Wealth and prestige and progress can all be good things, but if they are pursued relentlessly and single-mindedly, this free-market, first-world mindset can cause environmental degradation and other ills.

To many, a house and a car and a career and a family are the pinnacle of a fulfilling life — security, prestige, and the nicest decorated house on the block.

But what about the girl who feels she just has to get married by a certain age or face being seen as an outcast, a spinster? Or the person who chooses a career path simply because their family wants them to, or it pays well, or makes them feel validated? Or the person who takes on mortgage and debts to accumulate these outward signs of having made it, only to be eternally enslaved by these all-important physical possessions? At what cost, and what do we sacrifice, to achieve conventional success? Can we step outside the paradigm, have the courage to let down those around us, to be true to ourselves? What does your inner self really want?