Lucy Sargisson argues that if we really want to think seriously about important political problems, such as climate change, we need to start thinking outside the box. Thinking about utopias helps us to realise that we can think differently. Examining them can shift the parameters of what is conceivable.
I got caught in a hailstorm yesterday. On Saturday I got sunburnt in my garden. What’s going on with all this weather? Climate change, of course. A recent report from 25 wildlife organisations, The State of Nature, identified 60% of UK species in decline. What’s going on? Human impact, of course.
So what is to be done? Believe it or not, some people think that we should start listening to nature, to try to hear what it’s telling us and then to incorporate these messages into our political processes. They’re calling for a democracy of all nature! Of course, some people have been saying this for ages but they haven’t generally been taken seriously. They’ve been derided as tree huggers, hippies and space-cadets. But recently, some serious and respected political theorists, such as John Dryzek and Andrew Dobson, have started saying the same thing.
In an article published in the journal Politics I take a serious look at these wild ideas. And I argue that if we really want to think seriously about climate change we need to start thinking outside the box. I know, it’s a tired and hackneyed phrase, but we really do need to let go of the restrictions imposed by the normal frameworks of making concepts and doing politics. Take citizenship, for example – who (or what) has a right to speak in a democracy? Who (or what) should be listened to? If we feel that ‘nature’ should have a voice of some kind, then we need to imagine a radically different kind of politics. Utopias are a perfect place in which to start this new kind of thinking.
Utopias demand the impossible. They start from a critical place (for example, the idea that there’s something wrong with the way humans relate to nature) and they imagine how the world could be transformed if these things were done completely differently. Dystopias imagine the worse possible outcome. Eutopias (eu = good, topias = places) imagine a better world. For example, Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time depicts three parallel societies – one is recognisably contemporary and marked by social (gendered, racial, ethnic and class) inequalities. One is a dystopian exaggeration of the present. Here, eco-systems get obliterated and resources get eradicated as the dominant humans exploit, consume and destroy their way through life. The third society is a eutopia. It is gender neutral, egalitarian and ecologically attuned. Power is radically devolved (there are no states, as such) and ‘nature’ has advocates on each community council.
Utopias can inspire action – we might think that we’d like to avoid a dystopian outcome or to live in a society that resembles Piercy’s eutopia. We might actually act in order to change our lives (perhaps just a little) in order to move things in this direction, by joining a transition town scheme, or living co-operatively in an intentional community. These are groups of people who believe there is something wrong with the core values and practices in mainstream society and who create a better way of living, working and being. Many of these groups are concerned about the environment and some try to listen to nature as they develop a better human society.
But utopias aren’t just about changing what we do. They also help us to realise that we can think differently. Utopias are radically inventive and creative and they open up the imagination to the improbable suggestion that things don’t always have to be done in the same tired old way. Just because we have a political system that’s polemical, party-divided, short-termist and driven by a dysfunctional electoral system, doesn’t mean that we always have to have a political system that looks like this. We could, for example, create one that’s driven by listening, seeking the best solution, or perhaps even guarding the future of the planet. And utopias don’t have to be perfect to be politically useful. Indeed, some of them are deeply flawed, unattractive or simply bizarre. But the exercise of examining them is still valuable. To explore an idea to breaking point and to observe the ways in which stretching it makes it either repellent or ridiculous can help us to clarify our thoughts about its first principles. If the problem is an inability to listen to nature, how would the world look if we could overcome this? Utopias offer a variety of detailed answers to this question and examining them can shift the parameters of what is conceivable.
This article was originally published on the University of Nottingham’s Ballots and Bullets blog. Read the full article here: A Democracy of All Nature: Taking a Utopian Approach
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics.
Lucy Sargisson is an Associate Professor of Politics at the University of Nottingham. She is an active member of the profession, serving on the Steering Group of the Utopian Studies Society, and the Steering Group of the Political Studies Association’s ‘Politics of Property’ Specialist Group. She is a member of the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice at Nottingham, and of CONCEPT, Nottingham’s new Political Theory Centre.