A future to be excited over – and why is a classic Eden-like utopia not enough?

— Anh NGUYEN

This thought occurred to me when I was on a boat going to l’Île-de-Bréhat in Brittany (France) this summer. I was spending a week on an isolated island learning about sailing & permaculture with a group of the loveliest people, among which nature-lovers, modern micro-farmers, environmental activists, Climate Fresk animators, etc. It was without saying that we were all in the same boat (sorry for the bad pun) – all aspiring towards a societal model in which nature and humanity can cohabit together in a better way. A somewhat Eden-like utopia, a state of a “happy sobriety” (in French, “sobriété heureuse” as Pierre Rabbi, a French environmentalist coined the term).

But then, what would happen once this shared vision between us is met? We always want something so badly, but once we have it, we have to follow with an annoying question: “Now what?”

So, now what?

now what nemo

The inherent impossibility of a classic Eden-like utopia

Imagine this dream becoming a reality in a not-too-distant future – say within 100 years. Imagine that in this state of living, we hunt and fish enough to feed our stomach, where we take up enough resources for our own survival but no surplus whatsoever while preserving the natural habitats of other species. Imagine that we all have micro-farms and tiny houses with so little environmental impact, almost no waste from our daily activities. Imagine that we work for things that matter, for example maintaining social coherence or creating arts and music. Imagine that we dance naked around the fire every night and stroll on prairies picking flowers every afternoon. 

What would happen next? 

Would we want to bring more children to this world so that we can share this Eden-like utopia? Yet more people means more needed resources, which means that this equilibrium will be shifted, and we again go back to the disequilibrium in which we live today (i.e. growing people for not-growing resources). Meanwhile, the tendency in which a favourable living environment will encourage population growth is considered natural – according to what we know about population growth. The scenario seems “natural”, hence, inevitable. 

At the same time, would people of this Eden aspire to have more than what they already have? What if my neighbour builds two tiny houses instead of just one for his family? Does it mean I got to do the same? If my neighbour hunts 3 boars and I only got one this week, does that mean I should strive to hunt 2 more? And plus, in the long run, would the next generation be content to have the same living standard as the previous ones? It is also a “natural” thing for human beings to always want to improve, to make and have better things? The scenario seems “natural”, hence, inevitable. The equilibrium will be once again broken.

This means that the Eden-like utopia on Earth is unattainable by default?

That was quite a depressing thought to have on a boat. Reaching this point, I was quite convinced that the battle that we – this group of nature lovers & environmental activists are fighting for – is simply unwinnable. Nothing is more nonsensical than going to a battle knowing 100% you will be lost. The reasonable choice is not to go to the battle in question at all.

But then, the fallacy is to consider that these “natural” things will hold always hold true. To create a new system for tomorrow, one must abandon today’s perspective and make a leap – adopting a new set of beliefs and values that will be widely accepted.

The desired equilibrium of Eden-like utopia will be impossible with these two current mindsets: one) always want to reproduce offspring and two) always want to have better living standards. If we change these two current modes, we could create a new equilibrium and keep it stable.

This means we must introduce two new mindsets to replace the current ones, i.g one) keep the number of people in this utopia stable, one person dies will make way for one baby to be born and two) all resources must be given equally to everyone without the accumulation and difference of richness and living standard. 

A leap of mindset is what needed to move from one system to another. Example of slavery system
An example of leaps of mindset. In a not-so-distant past, it was unthinkable to consider that “all humans are equal”. Now it is almost unthinkable for the majority of us to believe otherwise.

*** A side note: It might sound unimaginable to our current mindset regarding the two previously mentioned conditions for a utopia, we will have questions such as: Who has the right to bring babies to the world and who does not? Will it be some sort of random draw or will there be a system of scoring to determine whether you can have a baby? How can all resources be given equally to everyone knowing that there will be some people who are more apt than others in accumulating resources, hence richness? But that’s not really the focal point of the reasoning. Let’s assume that these two things are possible with the mindset of the people of that Eden and they therefore will be able to figure out a system accordingly. 

Alright, so imagine that this utopia is possible because we have adopted the right mindset, and this equilibrium state is here to stay. What would happen next?

We live happily ever after?

Or we will be bored to death?

I was already bored when I mentally reached that state of living, that equilibrium, eliminating unfavourable factors that could bring us back to the disequilibrium (as known as our society today). I don’t want to dance around the fire for the rest of my day. I don’t want to want to work only to create social coherence, nor to write poems and music. No job in the list of utopian jobs made by Thomas Moore excites me. Contrary to his proposal, I don’t want to idly sit on a rock admiring nature, asking myself philosophical questions and NOT working.

I can explore our oceans and mountains, build robots to help with agricultural activities, and learn to speak 10 different languages. But knowing that those are the final frontier of what I could ever learn is not very satisfying. Because there is more to what is on Earth – precisely that. Too bad that we already know that, that there is more to just our planet Earth. 

We have bitten on the apple of knowing. There is no way to un-know it. 

Draw me another system – space exploration coupled with Eden on Earth

So what have we known that cannot be unknown-ed again? We know that beyond Earth there is a vast dark space with myriad wonders to explore and phenomena to observe. That’s it. I’m sorry Thomas Moore. You didn’t know this, but we do know. I cannot just sit on a rock asking myself philosophical questions as you suggest anymore, though it could sound wonderful to people of your time. But I cannot go back to not-knowing that we can explore things beyond Earthbound territories. 

We will explore space, because we cannot not do that. It is a natural thing to want to know more about something once we know of its existence. It is inevitable. Plus, space is the ultimate test of a species’ intelligence, and by intelligence, I only mean “adaptability” in a completely unknown (or temporarily unexplored) environment, as Stephen Hawking put it – “intelligence is the ability to adapt to change”. And change is exciting, isn’t it? It is a bit far-fetched, but perhaps by some faults or mutations in the DNA, that we – or at least some individuals in our species – are quite prone to pushing our limits further.

So what about the Earth then?

Glad you asked. Because we will do both. We will explore space AND we will create Eden on Earth. Why is there a premise that these two things are mutually exclusive? Why isn’t it treated as one single vision of a future worth being excited over? 

The other day I read this random shower thought on Reddit, saying, “Throughout the entire galaxy, wood is probably rarer than diamonds.” That is quite true and fun to think about – trees and plants are rarer than diamonds in our galaxy, which is not exactly mirrored in our financial exchange system. 

Because of such rareness – the Earth’s life-supporting system and its organic matters, it is quite our responsibility to preserve such a unique planetary ecosystem in this vast, dark, and very much not-teeming-with-life universe. This not-often-seen environment and its lives really add layers and complexity to the whole scene and therefore, must be protected. 

Protecting the Earth and its unique ecosystem also gives us more choices of a place to live in the future. It sounds much less fun to choose between resettlement centres on the hostile Mars or some moons of Jupiter, living exclusively on a spaceship, or living on a dry and dead Earth with tons of cockroaches and no bears.

A rough sketch of two equally important aspects for a future scenario worth looking forward to: Eden on Earth and Space exploration.
A rough sketch of two equally important aspects for a future scenario worth looking forward to

In this scenario, we shall treat the Earth precisely like a spaceship, travelling through the universe with a closed life-supporting system and limited resources, cannot afford unlimited growth of its crew’s population, nor the increasing demands of food & other resources.

Our previous two conditions for Eden-like Earth are one) there will be a limited number X of people on Earth, with one person dying will give way to a newborn and two) all resources must be divided equally between its habitants, therefore, still hold true. 

Set our priorities straight – focus on the urgent matter

When I pitched this idea to my fellows on that island, I was, in a friendly manner, accused of advocating for the billionaire space race. I must clarify that I find this race to be completely missing the point, as it seems that most of them are working towards commercializing space travel for the wealthiest individuals. Sadly, this race does not share the same vision of space exploration & turning humans into an interplanetary species.

billionaire space race jameela jamil instagram
Jameela Jamil sums up quite nicely the feelings shared by many.

But let’s really talk about accurate scientific research for space exploration. It is not like we can say, “hey, let’s stall ALL scientific research & experiments on space exploration in the next 100 years to focus on preventing climate change first”. Indeed, both endeavours could be carried out simultaneously, but the focus must be placed on preventing climate change and irreversible climate disasters – due to the urgency of the matter.

Suppose we try putting it in an Urgent/Important quadrant of decision-making. In that case, the collapse of our planetary ecosystem is way more urgent: the threshold for dangerous global warming could be crossed as early as 2027. Therefore, this must be tackled first, rather than putting a massive hype on space exploration, which is essential yet way less urgent.

Urgent/Important quadrant of decision-making
Tackle the urgent matter first, hence the collapse of our planetary ecosystem, a rare beauty in the dark universe

TL;DR version 

  • A vision of a future with a classic Eden-like utopia is not enough. We have come to know that the sky is not the limit but the vast dark space beyond it.
  • A vision of a future with space exploration without preserving the rare beauty of the Earth’s lives and ecosystem is not enough. 
  • Making the Earth into an Eden AND exploring space are not mutually exclusive, but both make up one vision of a future worth being excited over. 
  • Judging from the level of urgency, humanity must first tackle climate change and ecological collapse before hyping over space exploration.
  • The latter is an endeavour that could eventually wait a few hundred years more, while the threshold for dangerous global warming could be crossed as early as 2027, which is in 6 years at the time of writing.

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