Accepting the inevitability of cascading collapse creates space to build alternatives beyond a system based on extraction and exploitation.
By Natalie Holmes
Source: Post Growth Institute
The beach was pure perfection. March’s sunshine warmed the wintry air. Cobalt waves lapped the shore with soothing persistence. Yet my soul started stirring and I became aware of a deep emotional discomfort — a yearning for peace of mind that not even the ocean could deliver. The infinite beauty of the moment reminded me of the fragility of the world, and the avoidable suffering that it contains.
I suppose it was, in some ways, a manifestation of the dissonance I’ve been feeling lately. The news tells devastating stories of war and environmental crises, yet here I am, in paradise. My nervous system knows there’s danger, but my physical reality says otherwise. It’s becoming harder and harder to enjoy and appreciate my utopia, because it’s harder and harder to ignore the externalized costs its creation and maintenance require.
In To Paradise, Hanya Yanagihara’s dystopia is grim and disarmingly familiar — a near-future New York City, in a world ravaged by pandemics, where the US has fought, and lost, a war with China. The protagonist and narrator, Charlie, ostensibly suffered intellectual damage from experimental treatment for a virus during childhood. Pliant and accepting, she describes her life and its quotidian horrors with a seeming lack of emotion and imagination. Yanagihara encourages us to join Charlie’s family and colleagues in underestimating her, while subtly providing evidence to undermine those assumptions.
Since finishing the book I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this dystopia. Through masterful structuring, Yanagihara takes us on a journey from the present day to the future, showing how we arrive at dystopia via a series of events that are unimaginable until the moment they occur, and are then readily assimilated to become the new normal. Through it all, people remain fundamentally unchanged, driven by love, ambition, and the drive to escape suffering.
Back in the real world, life is imitating art. My longed-for post-pandemic paradise has been destroyed by war in Ukraine. Yet even as I write those words I recognize the dissonance. I feel in my body that individual happiness is incomplete while others experience avoidable suffering. I’m also aware that apocalypse is not a future to be feared, avoided or prepared for, but a lived reality for the majority of the world’s inhabitants, past, present and (at this rate) future — from the devastation wrought by slavery, war, and colonialism, to environmental destruction and the unfolding climate catastrophe.
Post Growth Fellow, Monika Bielskyte, frames the concept of utopia vs dystopia as a false binary informed by multiple biases and centuries of injustice. After all, “Haven’t most utopias been someone else’s dystopias, and vice versa?” Bielskyte calls out utopias as exclusionary, colonialist projects that perpetuate “the gaze and the experience of privilege.”
Utopian Futures are generally envisaged as so “perfect” that they can only exist by prodigiously leapfrogging all of the most urgent inequities of the present. Consequently, they are mostly closed to critical inquiry. Utopian imaginings pertain to communicating a peaceful and magically post-austerity world, yet somehow the peace of such a future is always peace without justice.
Bielskyte also criticizes dystopian futures as “despair escapism, and excuses for inaction and further consumption.” I find myself guilty of this to some extent — I savored Yanagihara’s dystopia, basking in the art of it. Yet dystopias can contain wisdom and lessons:
This is not to say that, historically, dystopian warnings, especially by authors of marginalized backgrounds, have not been extraordinarily prescient and valuable. For example, if our policy makers would have heeded the lessons of Octavia Butler’s The Parable Of The Sower (1993), we could have diminished or at least been better prepared for some of the most disheartening aspects of the last decade: the disinformation warfare-driven resurgence of inequality, alienation, xenophobia, racism, fascism, and biosphere collapse. Butler’s dystopia rings true in 2021 PRECISELY because the systems of oppression she critiques remain. Further, her embodied experiences as a Black woman, impoverished and disenfranchised early in her writing career, positioned her to see the broader societal implications of these injustices because she and those in her community were already living in these dystopias (*Ash Baccus-Clark).
As dystopia descends in real life (my life), casting a shadow over the last remaining patches of light, it’s time to finally stop pretending. When you look at capitalism’s fragile foundations and false premises, these economic, environmental, and geopolitical collapses are inevitable. The current global socio-economic system is founded on extraction and exploitation. The west has built its utopia by creating multiple dystopias, across time and space.
I’ve been asking myself lately how to honor life and find joy in its myriad gifts while acknowledging the uncertainty, fear, sadness, and loss that are its price. My instinct is to run and hide, to hold my breath and wait for ‘things to get back to normal’ — in other words, for my utopia to be restored — yet all the while I’m doing that I’m missing what life there is left, and with it any opportunity to have agency over the future.
As I continue to discover in my work at the Post Growth Institute, arguing that the current system is the only option represents a massive failure of imagination. Who’s to say we can’t maintain and develop what’s working while reframing or removing what’s not? Taking this approach requires a shift to a worldview beyond binaries.
Buddhist and deep ecologist Joanna Macy has shown that accepting our profound losses and grieving for them offers a way through shutdown and despair, towards activism and the building of hopeful, meaningful alternatives. As an alternative to the dystopia-utopia dichotomy, Bielskyte proposes Protopia, a blueprint for action based on continuous dialog that centers previously marginalized perspectives and “explores visions of embodied HOPE, futures wherein we have come together, as imperfect as our condition is.”
Imagination and speculation are not the only tools available. As several Post Growth Fellows point out, the dystopias created by capitalism also contain real-life narratives of agency and the existence of alternatives, some of which predate the current economic system and some of which are responses to it. Shrishtee Bajpai, outlines some examples from Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia in her article about the Global Tapestry of Alternatives; and Yusra Bitar, explores glimpses of systemic, post-carbon alternatives that are emerging in Lebanon in the wake of the country’s economic and political collapse.
These stories reveal the privilege and pretension of trying to avoid the cascading collapse of the current system. In looking to people and communities who have faced their own version of dystopia, I see power and possibility in the agency and alternatives that exist beyond the binary. Like Yanagihara’s Charlie, between the lines there is resilience, not resignation. It’s in accepting the end of my utopia, as difficult as it is, that I can find peace of mind — and the space to start dreaming of Protopia.