Utopia or Dystopia: What comes next?

The other day at lunch with an old friend, our talk turned to optimistic and pessimistic outlooks regarding the future. He has been reading books by authors who are somewhat to highly optimistic about the future—basing their optimism on advances in science and technology. Two books he mentioned are Stuart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline: Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, Restored Wildlands, and Geoengineering Are Necessary (2009), and Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The case for reason, science, humanism, and progress (2017).

I mentioned that years ago I was asked to present a set of myths at a Forest Service “adaptive management” workshop in Santa Fe, NM. The first two myths were “Science will find an answer” and “Technology will save us.” I view science and technology as two-edged swords—working both toward our collective good as well as toward our collective detriment. It all depends on how we choose to use them.

When I got home I looked up both books. Brand’s book seems somewhat reasonable—in a Jack Nicholson “Maybe this is as good as it gets” way—judging the book by its title (and a few reviews I found). Both books seem to fall into the trap I identified at the Santa Fe meeting.

I found an interesting review of Pinker’s book by Ian Goldin in Nature.

Here is a snip from Goldin’s review of Enlightenment Now:

Although it is framed as a historically informed template for a new age of reason, Enlightenment Now ultimately becomes something else: an extended dismissal of the arguments of despair that Pinker fears are defining politics and crowding out an alternative approach rooted in rationality and global cooperation. He does not frame the thesis in economic terms. Yet he essentially defends globalization and the growth of market economies by claiming that it has brought more progress than any force in history. As an economist, I agree.

So do I. But I also agree with Goldin’s other arguments:

But globalization has also led to an escalation of risks. What is rational for individuals is increasingly irrational for society. The drivers of progress are rising incomes and connectivity; these also lead to greater negative spillovers and systemic risk. Managing globalization’s underbelly is essential, and the gulf between what needs to be done and what is being done is widening. Economic growth has come at the expense of ecosystems. Because nature does not respond to price signals (rhinos do not reproduce more when their horns are more valuable), increasing freedom of choice has led to overexploitation of a growing number of natural systems. Pinker does cite climate change, but as a worrying exception to a relentlessly positive narrative, rather than as the most glaring example of a wider failure of global commons management.

Goldin concludes with a precautionary note:

I share Pinker’s optimism that this could be our best century, in which poverty and many of the challenges humanity has historically confronted are addressed. Yet there is also a real potential for dystopian outcomes as sea levels, strife, temperatures and resistant infections rise, and biodiversity, democratic institutions, social ties, mental health and resource security are eroded. We need to face up to these and other daunting challenges while nurturing the positivity required to tackle them.

Enlightenment Now is not a balanced account of the present or future. But for the many overwhelmed by gloom, it is a welcome antidote.

I’m more pessimistic than Goldin. Even though I agree that this century could be our best chance to extract ourselves from what may be a lemming-like mass approach toward the edge of a cliff, it seems an unlikely prospect to me. On the other hand the dystopian outcomes seem more likely. But who am I to make such “likelihood” calls. Then again, who is? I regret that I won’t be around long enough to see much of what happens.

I guess I’d have to read Enlightenment Now to see if I agree with Goldin’s call that it is a “welcome antidote” for “the many overwhelmed by gloom.”

As for Brand’s outlook, take a look at what he and coauthors call An Ecomodernist Manifesto (2015).

The Ecomodernist Manifesto is hopeful, if a bit too hopeful as to humanity’s ability to rise above our worst natures. It seems somewhat reasonable at least in these ways: 1) Nature is recognized as a positive good, with suggested safeguarding of both ecosystems and species diversity highlighted, 2) market economics is relegated to secondary role, not a primary driver of all that is good, …. It seems overly optimistic in its portrayal (or lack thereof) of people’s ability to get from the edge of dystopia to the future they propose. And it is optimistic as to the roles portrayed be technology and development. But it was written in 2015, or 1 BT (BT: Before Trump).

On a hopeful note of my own, if we don’t now and continuing forward from here slip into deep dystopia, Trump and others like him on the world stage may ironically give us the wake-up calls we desperately need.

6 thoughts on “Utopia or Dystopia: What comes next?”

  1. Very thoughtful post, Dave. I’m in the optimist camp, in part because I believe that we humans will be able to use our creativity and intelligence to solve the planet’s big problems. And data shows that we’ve been doing so for a very long time, intentionally or not. For example, Our World in Data’s entry on global poverty:

    “In 1820, the vast majority of people lived in extreme poverty and only a tiny elite enjoyed higher standards of living. Economic growth over the last 200 years completely transformed our world, with poverty falling continuously over the last two centuries. This is even more remarkable when we consider that the population increased 7-fold over the same time.”

    If you have a few hours to read something interesting, check out the Our World in Data site:


  2. Dave, it’s interesting to think about whom we might think can speak as an authority predicting the future. My historical perspective, from just having finished studying the long haul from BCE to today in terms of religions and related institutions, leads to two more thoughts about who speaks with authority predicting the future.

    (1) Intuitively gifted individuals, e.g. Samuel and so on (this is not popular in some current circles, especially post-Enlightenment, but that does not make it invalid).

    (2) Historians can take points in time and often say “no one could have predicted the way things worked out.”

    Just with these two data points, it is difficult to believe that two people who write books can know more about the future than any of the rest of us. We all get to weigh the positive tendencies of history against the particularities of our present day (and the predictions of our current climate model prophecies) give it a dose of our spiritual beliefs, if any, and mix with our own brain chemistry for our own answers.

    Below is a quote from a piece here by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on the historical dimension of capitalism and inequality (and that there are no simple answers to complex problems).

    “I tell this story because it illustrates a dimension of parshat Behar we often miss. Leviticus 25 deals with a problem that is as acute today as it was 33 centuries ago. It is about the inevitable inequalities that arise in every free market economy. Market economics is good at the creation of wealth but bad at its distribution. Whatever the starting point, inequalities emerge early on between the more and less successful, and they become more pronounced over time.[1]

    Economic inequality leads to inequality of power, and the result is often the abuse of the weak by the strong. This is a constant refrain of the prophets. Amos speaks of those who “sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes; who trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground, and deny justice to the oppressed“(Amos 2:6-7). Isaiah cries, “Woe to those who make unjust laws and issue oppressive decrees … making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless” (Is. 10:1-2). Micah inveighs against people who “covet fields and seize them, houses and take them away; they oppress householder and house, people and their inheritance” (Micah 2:1-2).

    This is a problem for almost every society and age. What makes the Torah distinctive is that it refuses a one-dimensional answer to what is a genuinely complex problem. Equality is a value, but so too is freedom. Communism and socialism have been tried and failed; but the free market generates its discontents also. One principle that can be inferred from Tanakh is that the market was made to serve human beings; human beings were not made to serve the market. The fundamental question is therefore: what best serves humanity under the sovereignty of God?”

    I think if your read certain things you may think that everyone shares “Trumpcatastrophism”. There’s a narrative that goes that way.. I know people who believe this..it’s the worst thing EVER. But EVER really depends on your own experience of, and/or knowledge of history. There are forces out there that want to keep people riled up, anxious and fearful..so they contribute? So they click on clickbait and make money for someone? I fear that those forces of partinsanity, divisiveness, and dishonesty on both “sides” may be more dangerous to our Republic than Trump himself.

    • Sharon: “I fear that those forces of partinsanity, divisiveness, and dishonesty on both “sides” may be more dangerous to our Republic than Trump himself.”

      Of course Trump is just a manifestation of our decent into demagoguery. It will likely take a long time for any wake-up call to work its way through our culture to cure this malady.

  3. “The fundamental question is therefore: what best serves humanity … ?” I would be more optimistic if more of us agreed to work towards answering that question (instead of what best serves ME, which is what Trump epitomizes and promotes).


Leave a Comment