Could We Build a 'Star Trek' Utopia?

Technological advancements will eventually make scarcity a non-issue. But will the people driving these developments allow everyone to enjoy it?

I grew up on the Star Trek series, Captain Kathryn Janeway and Jean-Luc Picard exploring the galaxy and beyond. Unlike most sci-fi shows, Star Trek depicted a utopian future for humanity, but it wasn't without its challenges. One idea that caught me was the lack of an economy. Indeed, the characters would often remark with a wink and a grin on how they've never handled money. Business in the Alpha Quadrant is rarely done — save for a few cultures that treat it like a religion. But is it really possible to have a society without an economy?

Author Manu Saadia is working on a book that looks at the hard challenges a Star Trek society poses, writing:

“How can it benefit all without depriving anyone? And what could that mean for us, the passengers of starship Earth?”

The advent of replicators in the Star Trek universe — devices that can create anything out of pure energy — made scarcity a thing of the past, and our society is close to such developments.

Singularity University's Vivek Wadhwa believes that by the 2030s we should have secured unlimited energy, clean vehicles, mass-produced 3D-printed meat, and other mankind-bettering innovations. There's no reason why scarcity should exist; there's no reason why we can't have our Star Trek utopia. However, there's a human factor involved. Through these innovations, we'll either see people stepping up to solve the world's problems or creating more of them through greed.

There's one episode that comes to mind: Star Trek: The Next Generation season 1, episode 26: "The Neutral Zone." In this adventure, the crew of the Enterprise discovers a craft of people cryogenically frozen from the 21st century. Upon waking them, one man, Ralph Offenhouse, distinguishes himself as a man of greedy intentions. He demands Captain Picard put him in touch with his law firm, so he can check on the status of his portfolio. By the end of the show, Picard has had enough of Offenhouse's rude demands and explains:

“People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of things. We've eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions. We've grown out of our infancy.”

Offenhouse responds, chastened by this revelation:

“There is no trace of my money. My office is gone. What will I do? How will I live?”

Therein lies an interesting question: How will all of us live if we don't have money to motivate us?

One Dutch city is experimenting with this idea in the form of basic income. Another study explored how generous welfare benefits cultivate ideas among people that when the worst of life hits you, there's something to fall back on. It makes people who receive that assistance want to give back — not fall back on it.

But before we jump to a money-less society, an evolution will have to take place. The president of Iceland says the secret to the Nordic countries' recent economic and social success is all thanks to social welfare programs, such as free access to education and health care, which have proved to be a boon to the free-market economy.

Photo Credit: ROBYN BECK / Getty Staff

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