Utopia is a dangerous ideal: we should aim for ‘protopia’
Utopias are idealised visions of a perfect society. Utopianisms are those ideas put into practice. This is where the trouble begins.
Utopias are idealised visions of a perfect society. Utopianisms are those ideas put into practice. This is where the trouble begins. Thomas More coined the neologism utopia for his 1516 work that launched the modern genre for a good reason. The word means ‘no place’ because when imperfect humans attempt perfectibility – personal, political, economic and social – they fail. Thus, the dark mirror of utopias are dystopias – failed social experiments, repressive political regimes, and overbearing economic systems that result from utopian dreams put into practice.
The belief that humans are perfectible leads, inevitably, to mistakes when ‘a perfect society’ is designed for an imperfect species. There is no best way to live because there is so much variation in how people want to live. Therefore, there is no best society, only multiple variations on a handful of themes as dictated by our nature.
For example, utopias are especially vulnerable when a social theory based on collective ownership, communal work, authoritarian rule and a command-and-control economy collides with our natural-born desire for autonomy, individual freedom and choice. Moreover, the natural differences in ability, interests and preferences within any group of people leads to inequalities of outcomes and imperfect living and working conditions that utopias committed to equality of outcome cannot tolerate. As one of the original citizens of Robert Owen’s 19th-century New Harmony community in Indiana explained it:
We had tried every conceivable form of organisation and government. We had a world in miniature. We had enacted the French revolution over again with despairing hearts instead of corpses as a result. … It appeared that it was nature’s own inherent law of diversity that had conquered us … our ‘united interests’ were directly at war with the individualities of persons and circumstances and the instinct of self-preservation.
Most of these 19th-century utopian experiments were relatively harmless because, without large numbers of members, they lacked political and economic power. But add those factors, and utopian dreamers can turn into dystopian murderers. People act on their beliefs, and if you believe that the only thing preventing you and/or your family, clan, tribe, race or religion from going to heaven (or achieving heaven on Earth) is someone else or some other group, then actions know no bounds. From homicide to genocide, the murder of others in the name of some religious or ideological belief accounts for the high body counts in history’s conflicts, from the Crusades, Inquisition, witch crazes and religious wars of centuries gone to the religious cults, world wars, pogroms and genocides of the past century.
We can see that calculus behind the utopian logic in the now famous ‘trolley problem’ in which most people say they would be willing to kill one person in order to save five. Here’s the set-up: you are standing next to a fork in a railroad line with a switch to divert a trolley car that is about to kill five workers on the track. If you pull the switch, it will divert the trolley down a side track where it will kill one worker. If you do nothing, the trolley kills the five. What would you do? Most people say that they would pull the switch. If even people in Western enlightened countries today agree that it is morally permissible to kill one person to save five, imagine how easy it is to convince people living in autocratic states with utopian aspirations to kill 1,000 to save 5,000, or to exterminate 1,000,000 so that 5,000,000 might prosper. What’s a few zeros when we’re talking about infinite happiness and eternal bliss?
The fatal flaw in utilitarian utopianism is found in another thought experiment: you are a healthy bystander in a hospital waiting room in which an ER physician has five patients dying from different conditions, all of which can be saved by sacrificing you and harvesting your organs. Would anyone want to live in a society in which they might be that innocent bystander? Of course not, which is why any doctor who attempted such an atrocity would be tried and convicted for murder.
Yet this is precisely what happened with the grand 20th-century experiments in utopian socialist ideologies as manifested in Marxist/Leninist/Stalinist Russia (1917-1989), Fascist Italy (1922-1943) and Nazi Germany (1933-1945), all large-scale attempts to achieve political, economic, social (and even racial) perfection, resulting in tens of millions of people murdered by their own states or killed in conflict with other states perceived to be blocking the road to paradise. The Marxist theorist and revolutionary Leon Trotsky expressed the utopian vision in a 1924 pamphlet:
The human species, the coagulated Homo sapiens, will once more enter into a state of radical transformation, and, in his own hands, will become an object of the most complicated methods of artificial selection and psychophysical training. … The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.
This unrealisable goal led to such bizarre experiments as those conducted by Ilya Ivanov, whom Stalin tasked in the 1920s with crossbreeding humans and apes in order to create ‘a new invincible human being’. When Ivanov failed to produce the man-ape hybrid, Stalin had him arrested, imprisoned, and exiled to Kazakhstan. As for Trotsky, once he gained power as one of the first seven members of the founding Soviet Politburo, he established concentration camps for those who refused to join in this grand utopian experiment, ultimately leading to the gulag archipelago that killed millions of Russian citizens who were also believed to be standing in the way of the imagined utopian paradise to come. When his own theory of Trotskyism opposed that of Stalinism, the dictator had Trotsky assassinated in Mexico in 1940. Sic semper tyrannis.
In the second half of the 20th century, revolutionary Marxism in Cambodia, North Korea and numerous states in South America and Africa led to murders, pogroms, genocides, ethnic cleansings, revolutions, civil wars and state-sponsored conflicts, all in the name of establishing a heaven on Earth that required the elimination of recalcitrant dissenters. All told, some 94 million people died at the hands of revolutionary Marxists and utopian communists in Russia, China, North Korea and other states, a staggering number compared with the 28 million killed by the fascists. When you have to murder people by the tens of millions to achieve your utopian dream, you have instantiated only a dystopian nightmare.
The utopian quest for perfect happiness was exposed as the flawed goal that it is by George Orwell in his 1940 review of Mein Kampf:
Hitler … has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life. Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all ‘progressive’ thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain. … [Hitler] knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice …
On the broader appeal of Fascism and Socialism, Orwell added:
Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger, and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet. … we ought not to underrate its emotional appeal.
What, then, should replace the idea of utopia? One answer can be found in another neologism – protopia – incremental progress in steps toward improvement, not perfection. As the futurist Kevin Kelly describes his coinage:
Protopia is a state that is better today than yesterday, although it might be only a little better. Protopia is much much harder to visualise. Because a protopia contains as many new problems as new benefits, this complex interaction of working and broken is very hard to predict.
In my book The Moral Arc (2015), I showed how protopian progress best describes the monumental moral achievements of the past several centuries: the attenuation of war, the abolishment of slavery, the end of torture and the death penalty, universal suffrage, liberal democracy, civil rights and liberties, same-sex marriage and animal rights. These are all examples of protopian progress in the sense that they happened one small step at a time.
A protopian future is not only practical, it is realisable.
This essay is based on Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia, published by the author in 2018.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
Northwell Health CEO Michael Dowling has an important favor to ask of the American people.
- Michael Dowling is president and CEO of Northwell Health, the largest health care system in New York state. In this PSA, speaking as someone whose company has seen more COVID-19 patients than any other in the country, Dowling implores Americans to wear masks—not only for their own health, but for the health of those around them.
- The CDC reports that there have been close to 7.9 million cases of coronavirus reported in the United States since January. Around 216,000 people have died from the virus so far with hundreds more added to the tally every day. Several labs around the world are working on solutions, but there is currently no vaccine for COVID-19.
- The most basic thing that everyone can do to help slow the spread is to practice social distancing, wash your hands, and to wear a mask. The CDC recommends that everyone ages two and up wear a mask that is two or more layers of material and that covers the nose, mouth, and chin. Gaiters and face shields have been shown to be less effective at blocking droplets. Homemade face coverings are acceptable, but wearers should make sure they are constructed out of the proper materials and that they are washed between uses. Wearing a mask is the most important thing you can do to save lives in your community.
Two massive clouds of dust in orbit around the Earth have been discussed for years and finally proven to exist.
- Hungarian astronomers have proven the existence of two "pseudo-satellites" in orbit around the earth.
- These dust clouds were first discovered in the sixties, but are so difficult to spot that scientists have debated their existence since then.
- The findings may be used to decide where to put satellites in the future and will have to be considered when interplanetary space missions are undertaken.
What are they?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xODgyMDA0NC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNTM1ODc0Mn0.NH33LuauIo__sUBi4tvhwxDcsvhflDFD-Nhx9FjlSNk/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=148%2C0%2C149%2C0&height=700" id="cec96" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="acb78abe2ab46a17e419ad30906751d6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Artist's impression of the Kordylewski cloud in the night sky (with its brightness greatly enhanced) at the time of the observations.
G. Horváth<p>The<a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kordylewski_cloud" target="_blank"> Kordylewski clouds</a> are two dust clouds first observed by Polish astronomer Kazimierz Kordylewski in 1961. They are situated at two of the <a href="https://www.space.com/30302-lagrange-points.html" target="_blank">Lagrange points</a> in Earth's orbit. These points are locations where the gravity of two objects, such as the Earth and the Moon or a planet and the Sun, equals the centripetal required to orbit the objects while staying in the same relative position. There are five of these spots between the Earth and Moon. The clouds rest at what are called points four and five, forming a triangle with the clouds and the Earth at the three corners.</p><p>The clouds are enormous, taking up the same space in the night sky as twenty lunar discs; covering an area of 45,000 miles. They are roughly 250,000 miles away, about the same distance from us as the Moon. They are entirely comprised of specks of dust which reflect the light of the sun so faintly most astronomers that looked for them were unable to see them at all. </p><p>The clouds themselves are probably ancient, but the model that the scientists created to learn about them suggests that the individual dust particles that comprise them can be blown away by solar wind and replaced by the dust from other cosmic sources like comet tails. This means that the clouds hardly move but are <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2018/11/news-earth-moon-dust-clouds-satellites-planets-space/" target="_blank">eternally changing</a>. </p>
How did they discover this?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xODgyMDAzNi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1Nzc4MjQ4MX0.7uU9OqmQcWw5Ll1UXAav0PCu4nTg-GdJdAWADHanC7c/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C180%2C0%2C181&height=700" id="952fb" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a778280a20f1c54cd2c14c8313224be2" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
"In this picture the central region of the Kordylewski dust cloud is visible (bright red pixels). The straight tilted lines are traces of satellites."
J. Slíz-Balogh<p>In their study published in the <a href="https://academic.oup.com/mnras" target="_blank">Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society</a>, Hungarian astronomers Judit Slíz-Balogh, András Barta, and Gábor Horváth described how they were able to find the dust clouds using polarized lenses.</p><p>Since the clouds were expected to polarize the light that bounces off of them, by configuring the telescopes to look for this kind of light the clouds were much easier to spot. What the scientists observed, polarized light in patterns that extended outside the view of the telescope lens, was in line with the predictions of their mathematical model and ruled out other possible sources. </p>
Why are we just learning this now?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xODgyMDAzOS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MjUyNDMyMH0.Zl8GmQ_rJHiL4b7hN0r_YBmgb6_ZqIRvqOVuko2ubpw/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C141%2C0%2C185&height=700" id="87afe" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="dd4c0b5088e601d7279cc5eb226f8b7b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
"Mosaic pattern of the angle of polarization around the L5 point (white dot) of the Earth-Moon system. The five rectangular windows correspond to the imaging telescope with which the patterns of the Kordylewski cloud were measured."
J. Slíz-Balogh<p>The objects, being dust clouds, are very faint and hard to see. While Kordylewski observed them in 1961, other astronomers have looked there and given mixed reports over the following decades. This discouraged many astronomers from joining the search, as study co-author Judit Slíz-Balogh <a href="https://ras.ac.uk/news-and-press/research-highlights/earths-dust-cloud-satellites-confirmed" target="_blank">explained</a>, <em>"The Kordylewski clouds are two of the toughest objects to find, and though they are as close to Earth as the Moon are largely overlooked by researchers in astronomy. It is intriguing to confirm that our planet has dusty pseudo-satellites in orbit alongside our lunar neighbor."</em></p>
Will this have any impact on space travel?<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c3d797fff5430c64afcb5a49bddc3616"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/Ou8N3v9SFPE?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Lagrange points have been put forward as excellent locations for a space station or satellites like the <a href="https://jwst.nasa.gov/about.html" target="_blank">James Webb Telescope</a> to be put into orbit, as they would require little fuel to stay in place. Knowing about a massive dust cloud that could damage sensitive equipment already being there could save money and lives in the future. While we only know about the clouds at Lagrange points four and five right now, the study's authors suggest there could be more at the other points.</p><p>While the discovery of a couple of dust clouds might not seem all that impressive, it is the result of a half-century of astronomical and mathematical work and reminds us that wonders are still hidden in our cosmic backyard. While you might never need to worry about these clouds again, there is nothing wrong with looking at the sky with wonder at the strange and fantastic things we can discover. </p>
Your health and the health of the planet are not indistinguishable.
- Transitioning to a plant-based diet could help reduce obesity, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes.
- Humans are destroying entire ecosystems to perpetuate destructive food habits.
- Understanding how to properly transition to a plant-based diet is important for success.
Richard Dawkins: No Civilized Person Accepts Slavery So Why Do We Accept Animal Cruelty? | Big Think<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c09f23c34faacc8ec55aba054fae9c7c"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/_4SnBCPzBl0?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><h3>Get your hands dirty—in the kitchen</h3><p>Quarantine offered an entire world the opportunity to get into the kitchen and put on a chef's apron. Complaints about "not enough time" are the biggest barriers to preparing home-cooked meals. Of course, pandemic fatigue has resulted in a number of recent chefs ordering out more. That said, this is the perfect time to try your hand at new dishes. With infection rates <a href="https://www.vox.com/coronavirus-covid19/2020/10/11/21511641/covid-19-us-cases-update-testing-deaths-hospitalizations" target="_blank">increasing across the country</a>, stocking up on seasonal vegetables is a great idea. </p><p>Simple seasonal ways to begin your plant-based exploration include <a href="https://nomnompaleo.com/post/11136213353/roasted-kabocha-squash" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roasted kabocha squash</a>, <a href="https://www.delicious.com.au/recipes/no-chop-pumpkin-soup/seblnp2r?r=recipes/collections/autumnrecipes&c=f3bf723a-05a7-487d-bd4b-5bc8af042ca9/autumn%20recipes%20you%27ll%20fall%20in%20love%20with" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bombay potatoes</a>, and <a href="https://www.delicious.com.au/recipes/no-chop-pumpkin-soup/seblnp2r?r=recipes/collections/autumnrecipes&c=f3bf723a-05a7-487d-bd4b-5bc8af042ca9/autumn%20recipes%20you%27ll%20fall%20in%20love%20with" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">no-chop pumpkin soup</a>. If you're feeling a bit more adventurous, <a href="https://www.thecuriouschickpea.com/masoor-dal-tadka/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Masoor Dal Tadka</a> will keep you warm into the winter months. A delicious <a href="https://www.delish.com/cooking/recipe-ideas/a23362341/sweet-potato-salad-recipe/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">sweet potato salad</a> will never fail you. This <a href="https://www.buzzfeed.com/hannahloewentheil/easy-meatless-monday-recipes" target="_blank">round-up of 25 vegetarian recipes</a> will keep you busy for a few months (or a month if you're ambitious). </p><h3>Educate yourself on the benefits</h3><p>Education is essential for beginning any endeavor. Weeding through propaganda and bunk science to find credible evidence of any diet is difficult, though many experts agree that for individual and societal health, a plant-based diet is key. </p><p>Even vegetarianism has its pitfalls. For example, <a href="https://michaelpollan.com/books/cooked/" target="_blank">one-fifth of all calories</a> consumed by Americans come from nutritionally-worthless white flour. If you're eating processed bread every day, you're missing out on the benefits of a rich and varied diet. </p><p>Many of the "<a href="https://www.who.int/chp/chronic_disease_report/media/Factsheet4.pdf?ua=1" target="_blank">diseases of affluence</a>," such as cardiovascular and obesity-related ailments, originate with a poor diet (and lack of exercise). Meat has been an essential component of the human diet throughout our evolution. Today, we eat too much of it—and too much of it is produced in factory farms. Transitioning to a plant-based diet could help cut down on carbon emissions and the aforementioned diseases. </p><p>Plants are full of valuable phytochemicals and antioxidants that support a <a href="https://www.mdanderson.org/publications/focused-on-health/5-benefits-of-a-plant-based-diet.h20-1592991.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">strong immune system</a>. A (non-processed) plant-based diet reduces inflammation and offers plenty of fiber. It has been shown to reduce your risk of diabetes, stroke, and heart diseases. Those are all great reasons to transition. </p><h3>Begin your journey with a single step</h3><p>Going cold turkey rarely works for addicts. The same is true of diets. If you're interested in a plant-based diet, try to eat veg every other day for a few weeks. Notice how your body reacts on days you eat this way compared to other days. Gradually phase out meat products. Attempt meat-free weekdays and see if your craving for meat persists on the weekend. Try using meat as a garnish instead of the main course. </p><p>More importantly, have a replacement plan. Dropping all meat products to consume frozen dinners isn't the best course of action. Filling your cart with bags of foods you've never eaten before will overwhelm you. Prepare meals as you taper off of meat; arm yourself with a broad knowledge of healthy plants and vegetables. At some point, you might forget what you've been missing. </p>
Photo: anaumenko / Adobe Stock<h3>Start with foods you already love</h3><p>The good news is that you likely have a number of plant-based side and main dishes that you love. Transitioning into a new diet requires a certain level of enjoyment. Otherwise, you're going to loathe eating, and eating should bring some level of satisfaction. </p><p>Try a one-to-one ratio to begin. On one night, cook a meal you love. Then try something completely new the next night. Follow that up with old faithful. This way, you constantly have new dishes to look forward to yet don't get stuck in thinking you have to be creative every single day. You'll likely find some winners and decide not to repeat other dishes. Regardless, you'll have a broader menu to work from. </p><h3>Avoid ingredients you can't pronounce</h3><p>The produce section of your grocery store provides almost everything you need to survive. You can likely pronounce every ingredient in this section. There's a vast difference between food and foodstuffs. Plenty of plant-based companies offer too much of the latter. Potato chips are technically vegetarian, and some use simple ingredients, yet it's easy to fill your cart with foodstuffs. The health benefits of this are not only negligible but potentially dangerous. </p><p>Qi Sun, an assistant professor of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, <a href="https://www.webmd.com/diet/obesity/news/20191104/are-there-health-downsides-to-vegetarian-diets" target="_blank">explains</a>. "If you eat a vegan diet, but eat a lot of french fries, refined carbs like white bread, white rice, that's not healthy." He suggests "emphasizing fruits and vegetables. Not fruit juice but whole food. And nuts."</p><h3>Utilize the wisdom of the internet—but don't get indoctrinated</h3><p>There's a lot of terrible advice—and worse, propaganda—on the internet. While you likely don't want to eat eggs every day, they're not "toxic," as one popular documentary claims. Eggs are <a href="https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/howto/guide/ingredient-focus-eggs" target="_blank">one of the best</a> low-cost, high-value foods around. </p><p>Read websites like <a href="https://www.everydayhealth.com/diet-nutrition/scientific-benefits-following-plant-based-diet/" target="_blank">Everyday Health</a>, which uses clear language, like "may improve" and "may decrease," with links to credible studies. This way you follow the going science without becoming fanatical about a particular diet or being disappointed if it turns out the research doesn't hold up. Good science evolves with evidence. And right now, the evidence points to more vegetables in our diets. </p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a> and <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Facebook</a>. His new book is</em> "<em><a href="https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08KRVMP2M?pf_rd_r=MDJW43337675SZ0X00FH&pf_rd_p=edaba0ee-c2fe-4124-9f5d-b31d6b1bfbee" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy</a>."</em></p>
Eastern traditions have complex views on how karma affects your life.
- Karma is not simple retribution for bad deeds.
- Eastern traditions view karma as part of a cycle of birth and rebirth.
- Actions and intentions can influence karma, which can be both positive and negative.
Thanga Wheel of LIfe
Credit: Adobe stock