Utopia and dystopia
There was a time when people thought there could be a utopia. But going by current popular literature and cinema, it is dystopia that awaits us. “Mad Max,” “Resident Evil,” “The Hunger Games” and similar films all posit a post-apocalyptic wasteland where survival is the only goal.
Have we given up on world peace? Is world peace just a joke that only harebrained beauty contestants dearly wish for? Have fundamentalism, nationalism, tribalism, expansionism, anti-Semitism, racism and a host of other schism-causing isms now conspire to bring us to apocalypse? Or is it capitalism and the cutthroat culture of market forces that have brought us to this pass?
What accounts for this disenchantment with the utopian world view? Just as the industrial age ushered a drift away from the theistic world view (We are creators! We can produce goods on a massive scale! We are no longer hand-to-mouth, relying on miracles to survive!), the information age has spawned instant gratification and an unprecedented expansion of commerce and industry. But many of us think it is not enough. We want more resources, more security, more influence.
This brings us to incessant conflict and an evermore dangerous arms race among competing nations and groups. What choice do we have, after all? Our instinctive response to threat is not conciliation but confrontation. This is natural selection at its best. There can never be an inferior people, only inferior weapons. Or so we think. Since we have proven ourselves masters of the planet, we also want to prove ourselves masters of each other.
When will the relentless pursuit of material comfort and satisfaction, made easier by the internet, and its corollary drive for power finally make us realize there is no god in materialism and that we must seek something higher after all? This something higher need not be a divine being. It need not be some lofty principle. It can actually just be the next person.
Not that there have been no attempts to achieve utopia. Communist movements that sought to achieve social and economic justice and international solidarity have fallen far short of the ideal and failed. The growth of the middle class and a world economy ruled by multinational corporations have made the dictatorship of the proletariat irrelevant. Mass production has made mass consumption and mass culture possible. But there is no mass satisfaction. Our ephemeral nature guarantees this.
There is something in our nature that makes us shoot ourselves in the foot. We self-destruct a lot of the time. Why so? Why can’t we be all-good, all-loving and all-peaceful? While we are learning organisms, we also seem to be going in circles, in patterns that we cannot seem to break out of. Like new year resolutions or diets that we are not able to observe for long, we fall back on deeply ingrained behaviors. Maybe because it is the way of nature, where cycles of life and death are the ultimate contradiction and progress toward irreversible decay.
Many of us are borne by the tidal wave of the culture of consumerism. We want to have more than anybody else, get ahead of everybody else, be better than everybody else, until we realize resources are finite, our environment can only take so much, that there is such a thing as carrying capacity.
It all comes down to balance.
The dystopian worldview is a warning. It is the realization that we cannot carry on with the business of being our usual greedy, heedless selves. We should not stop trying to be Marxist enough or Christian enough or Muslim enough. Not that we should all be zealots. Finding the right balance is the key. Balance keeps the ship afloat. Balance keeps the planet rotating on its axis. Balance enables us to walk in a straight line or ride a bicycle. Balance keeps us from being too greedy or from being too lazy and failing all the time.
While we may have given up on the utopian ideal, neither should we embrace the unthinkable and accept a descent into dystopia.
Roderick Toledo is a freelance communication projects manager.
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