The Limits of Utopia
By China Miéville
So we start with the non-totality of the ‘we’. From there not only can we see the task but we can return to our utopias, to better honor the best of them.
Those rivers of milk and wine can stop being surplus. There’s nothing foolish about such yearnings: they are glimmerings in eyes set on human freedom, a leap from necessity. Far from being merely outlandish, these are abruptly aspects of a grounded utopia incorporating political economy, a yearning on behalf of those who strive without power. In the medieval peasant utopia Cockaigne it rains cheese. Charles Fourier imagined the seas turned to lemonade. The Big Rock Candy Mountain. These are dreams of sustenance out of reach of the dreamers, of the reduction of labour, of a world that will let exhausted humanity rest.
We can dispense with the most banal critiques of utopia. That it is unconvincing as a blueprint, as if that is what it should ever be. That it is drab, boring, faceless and colourless and always the same. The smear that the visionary aspiration for better things always makes things worse. These canards serve stasis.
There are sharper criticisms to be made, for the sake of our utopias themselves and of the day-to-day interventions without which they risk being – and this, itself, is one of those criticisms – valves to release pressure.
Utopia, for one thing, has never been the preserve of those who cleave to liberation. Settlers and expropriators have for centuries asserted their good environmental sense against the laziness of feckless natives, in realizing the potential of land spuriously designated empty, of making so-called deserts so-called bloom. Ecotopia has justified settlement and empire since long before the UN’s REDD schemes. It has justified murder.
There is a vision of the world as a garden, under threat. Choked with toxic growth. Gardening as war. And the task being one of ‘ruthlessly eliminating the weeds that would deprive the better plants of nutrition, the air, light, sun.’
Here the better plants are Aryans. The weeds are Jews.
SS-Obergruppenfuhrer and Reichsminister of Agriculture in the Third Reich, Walther Darré coagulated soil science, nostalgia, pagan kitsch, imperialism, agrarian mystique and race hate in a vision of green renewal and earth stewardship predicated on genocide. He was the most powerful theorist of Blut und Boden, ‘Blood and Soil’, a Nazi ecotopia of organic farmlands and restocked Nordic forests, protected by the pure-blooded peasant-soldier.
The tree may not have grown as Darré hoped, but its roots didn’t die. A whole variety of fascist groups across the world still proclaim their fidelity to ecological renewal, green world, and agitate ostentatiously against climate change, pollution and despoliation, declaring against those poisons in the service of another, the logic of race.
Of course reactionary apologists for Big Pollute routinely slander ecological activists as fascists. That doesn’t mean those committed to such activism should not be ruthless in ferreting out any real overlaps: very much the opposite.
Aspects of eliminationist bad utopia can be found much more widely than in the self-conscious Far Right. Swathes of ecological thinking are caught up with a nebulous, sentimentalised spiritualist utopia, what the ecofeminist Chaia Heller calls ‘Eco-la-la’. Crossbred with crude Malthusianism, in the combative variant called Deep Ecology, the tweeness of that vision can morph into brutality, according to which the problem is overpopulation, humanity itself. At its most cheerfully eccentric lies the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, advocating an end to breeding: at the most vicious are the pronouncements of David Foreman of Earth First!, faced with the Ethiopian famine of 1984: ‘[T]he worst thing we could do in Ethiopia is to give aid – the best thing would be to just let nature seek its own balance, to let the people there just starve’.
This is an ecological utopia of mass death. That we could also call an apocalypse.
Apocalypse and utopia: the end of everything, and the horizon of hope. Far from antipodes, these two have always been inextricable. Sometimes, as in Lactantius, the imagined relationship is chronological, even of cause and effect. The one, the apocalypse, the end-times rending of the veil, paves the way for the other, the time beyond, the new beginning.
Something has happened: now they are more intimately imbricated than ever. ‘Today,’ the bleak and sinister philosopher Emile Cioran announces, ‘reconciled with the terrible, we are seeing a contamination of utopia by apocalypse ... The two genres ... which once seemed so dissimilar to us, interpenetrate, rub off on each other, to form a third’. Such reconciliation with the terrible, such interpenetration, is vivid in these Deep Ecological hankerings for a world slashed and burned of humans. The scourging has become the dream.
This is not quite a dystopia: it’s a third form – apocatopia, utopalypse – and it’s all around us. We’re surrounded by a culture of ruination, dreams of falling cities, a peopleless world where animals explore. We know the clichés. Vines reclaim Wall Street as if it belongs to them, rather than the other way round; trash vastness, dunes of garbage; the remains of some great just-recognizable bridge now broken to jut, a portentous diving board, into the void. Etcetera.
It’s as if we still hanker to see something better and beyond the rubble, but lack the strength. Or as if there’s a concerted effort to assert the ‘We’ again, though negatively – ‘We’ are the problem, and thus this We-lessness a sublime solution. The melancholy is disingenuous. There’s enthusiasm, a disavowed investment in these supposed warnings, these catastrophes. The apocalypse-mongers fool no one. Since long before Shelley imagined the day when ‘Westminster Abbey shall stand, shapeless and nameless ruins, in the midst of an unpeopled marsh’, these have been scenes of beauty.
We’ve all scrolled slack-mouthed through images of the Chernobyl zone, of Japan’s deserted Gunkanjima island, of the ruins of Detroit, through clickbait lists of Top Ten Most Awesomely Creepy Abandoned Places. This shouldn’t occasion guilt. Our horror at the tragedies and crimes behind some such images is real: it coexists with, rather than effaces, our gasp of awe. We don’t choose what catches our breath. Nor do the images that enthrall us read off reductively to particular politics. But certainly the amoral beauty of our apocatopias can dovetail with something brutal and malefic, an eliminationist disgust.
We can’t not read such camply symptomatic cultural matter diagnostically. What else can we do with the deluge of films of deluge, the piling up, like debris under Benjamin’s angel of history, of texts about the piling up of debris?
Symptoms morph with the world. One swallow, of however high a budget, does not a summer make, but one doesn’t have to be a Žižek to diagnose a cultural shift when, in Guillermo Del Toro’s recent Pacific Rim, Idris Elba bellows, ‘Today we are cancelling the apocalypse.’ Perhaps we’ve had our fill of the end, and with this line we usher in a different kind of aftermath – the apocalypse that fails. We’re back, with muscular new hope.
A similar shift is visible in the rise of geoengineering, ideas once pulp fiction and the ruminations of eccentrics. Now, planet-scale plans to spray acid into the stratosphere to become mirrored molecules to reflect radiation, to scrub CO2 from the atmosphere, to bring up benthic waters to cool the oceans, are written up by Nobel laureates, discussed in the New Yorker and the MIT Technology Review. A new hope, a new can-do, the return of human agency, sleeves rolled up, fixing the problem. With Science.
This planet-hacking, however, is utterly speculative, controversial, and – according to recent work at Germany’s Helmholtz Centre – by the most generous possible projections thoroughly inadequate to halt climate chaos. It is, by any reasonable standards, absurd that such plans seem more rational than enacting the social measures to slash emissions that are entirely possible right now, but which would necessitate a transformation of our political system.
It’s a left cliché to prounounce that these days it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism: Andreas Malm points out that with the trope of geoengineering, it’s easier to imagine the deliberate transformation of the entire planet than of our political economy. What looks at first like a new Prometheanism is rather capitulation, surrender to the status quo. Utopia is here exoneration of entrenched power, the red lines of which are not to be crossed.
What price hope indeed?
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