Apocalypse vs. Utopia

“And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal; and, lo, there was a great Earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood; and the stars of heaven fell unto Earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind. And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.”
The Holy Bible, The Revelations, 6:12-13

The sunshine was like an ocean of light, drowning everything beneath the sky, washing out the green of the fields, and distorting the fences in the distance with its heat. Beneath my grandparents’ twin oak trees the heat felt bearable, the shade frequently supplanted by a warm, errant wind. The warmth mattered little because I barely noticed it. I hardly noticed anything. I was reading, deeply engaged in a world that existed only on thin sheets of paper and in the space between my ears. I was reading of a place distant in time and space. A place where things were very different from the world I lived in.

As a boy, I was fascinated by science fiction. It wasn’t so much the stories of alien worlds or intelligent creatures from other planets that interested me; it was the ideas that attracted me, particularly the notions about how the future might be. These usually came in two colors: the dark, broody tones of an apocalyptic future, or the bright, cheery hues of a utopia. Either way, they sparked my imagination and made me consider the reality of the world I was living in, how it might change, and what the causes for its change might be.

Because it was science fiction (and often, not very good science fiction), the change it espoused was usually due to advances in technology. Either technology would usher in a new golden age of prosperity for all, or it would plunge the world into some kind of technological nightmare where humanity was reduced to a cog in a vast and frightening machine. There is little realistic middle ground in science fiction; it isn’t dramatic. Unfortunately, there is little realistic middle ground to be found in contemporary, nonfictional prognostications about the future, either. Drama isn’t merely used to sell us science fiction about the future — it’s used to sell us the actual future we are buying every day.

On the side of apocalypse you have people shouting that technology will be the end of us, that globalization will destroy the world, that the environment is falling apart at the seams, that we are becoming slaves to vastly powerful transnational corporations, and that the clash of cultures will shake civilization to it foundations. On the other side, you have the proponents of cheery utopia proclaiming that genetic engineering will cure all disease and provide abundant food for all, that computers and robots will finally allow us to work less and have more, that economic globalization will eliminate poverty, and that advances in technology will allow us to fix any problems we create in the environment.

The apocalyptic view is predicated on the notion that the utopian camp will succeed with its agenda. The utopians only see apocalypse if they are not allowed to implement their plans. One person’s utopia is another person’s apocalypse. How can this be, you ask?

By now, the answer should be obvious — worldviews. We all have notions of what a better tomorrow might look like, and we all have ideas about what constitutes an ill-fated future. How we define these notions depends on our worldview. The wider our worldview, the more things we will consider when addressing questions about the future. The ideas of apocalypse and utopia proffered by Traditionals will be much different than those put forth by Moderns and Postmoderns. And it goes without saying that a vision of the future by someone with an Integral worldview will be different than one by someone with a Spiritual worldview.

Although there are positive trends socially, culturally, and technologically, particularly over the past two hundred years, many of them are reaching an asymptote of consequence. In other words, we’re creating more problems than we are solving. These new problems can’t be solved by simply getting rid of the changes we’ve made (as some neo-Luddite apocalyptic Cassandras would have us believe) or by plunging blindly onward (as the zealous techno-optimists suggest). The only way to solve the problems we are creating is to look at them from a new perspective — to look at the whole world, physical, natural, and human, from a wider and deeper vantage point.

Visions of the Future

We need a vision for the future that isn’t hampered by apocalyptic nightmares or utopian daydreams. We need a vision for the future that is grounded in the reality of the world as it is, as well as the reality of how it can be. In developing this vision, it is useful to examine the notions of apocalypse and utopia that dominate our culture.

The three dominant worldviews are each proposing a different idea of apocalypse. In the West, the Traditional idea of apocalypse is often framed by Christian philosophy, and with the last book of the Christian Bible, in particular. Although the ideas of apocalypse are informed by different things in different regions of the world, Traditionals, whether Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or otherwise, tend to see the Modern way of life through a similar lens. Traditionals see a world filled with people no longer conforming to their perspective, no longer following their rules, and it quite reasonably upsets them. They tend to see everything as deteriorating, as a collapse of the standards that supported society in some previous time, some golden age. How bad they feel things are will determine how far back they set the date for this golden age, but in the Christian West, it can currently range from 1950 to 1850.

Because the Modern worldview is dominant and controls most of the levers of power in Western societies, it naturally undermines many of the fundamental ideals of Traditionalism. Thus many Traditionals feel that the world is falling apart. Traditionals prize religion while Moderns tend to prize secularity. Traditionals have rigid roles for women and men while Moderns want equality. Traditionals fear the mixing of cultures, and Moderns see culture as just another thing to be consumed. Traditionals also fear technology. They see rapid change as undermining social stability and creating ethical problems for which they can find no clear scriptural guidance. For many Traditionals, apocalypse isn’t something they are predicting for the future, but the way they are describing the present.

The Modern vision of apocalypse is propounded on the idea that Traditionals might succeed in reversing the tide of “progress.” Moderns do not deny there are problems in the world, but they feel that all problems can be cured with more of what we already have. Moderns want more technology, more economic globalization, more free markets, more privatization of social services, more individual freedom, more things to buy, more cheap deals, more choices in the supermarket, more cars, more everything. Moderns feel that anything less would be to drive the Western world into some kind of Dark Age.

Moderns feel particularly apocalyptic about any attempt to limit the sphere of their individual influence. Individual choice is very important to them. They believe that individuals should not have to curtail their choices to please the larger society. Instead, Moderns expect society to adjust to their individual desires. Those with a Modern worldview don’t really believe in apocalypse because they are too firmly convinced that their way of doing things will bring a better future. And, for the moment, their sheer numbers allow them the luxury of this perspective.

Journalist Robert Kaplan explains how much of a delusion this actually is. Kaplan has a rather pessimistic outlook on the direction the world is taking, informed largely by traveling to many of the places we read about in the newspapers and are silently thankful we don’t live in. Comparing the current international situation with the one that existed before World War I, he writes: “As then, there are legions of techno-optimists celebrating the expansion of world trade and claiming that human ingenuity will solve our problems, neglecting to mention that human ingenuity usually arrives too late to solve the specific problem for which it was intended. Like then, new categories of products are available to an expanding world middle class, even as new sources of oil and other raw materials are discovered. Like then, a conventional wisdom says that the mounting interdependency of financial markets make large-scale conflagration impossible. Like then, beneath the surface of comforting, globalizing truths, the world is awash in dangerous new alliances.”[i]

As might be expected, those with Postmodern perspectives see possible apocalypse in the extreme Traditional and extreme Modern programs for the future. Postmodern deconstructions of Traditional social structures and Modern notions of progress reveal the limitations of each. Postmoderns tend to be censorious of Modern ideas of progress and technology, particularly the proposition that they are both inherently good or that they are merely neutral. Postmoderns are also very critical of economic globalization. The Postmodern approach to cultural globalization is also at odds with Modernism, seeking to embrace multiculturalism, while at the same time seeking to block the perceived cultural hegemony of the United States. This can put them in conflict with both Traditionals, who tend to seek cultural unity, and Moderns, who tend to value commerce before culture. The Postmodern perspective can have its extremes as well, suggesting the deconstruction of civilization itself, as in John Zerzan’s Running on Emptiness. But the reconstructive side of the Postmodern perspective can be very healthy, as seen in Fritjof Capra’s The Hidden Connections and Steven Best and Douglas Kellner’s The Postmodern Adventure.

The point here is that the traps of the Traditional, Modern, and Postmodern worldviews cannot be escaped with the same kind of thinking, but only with something more comprehensive — an Integral worldview. 

The Integral Vision

To create a vision of the future that can appreciate the fears and aspirations of the Traditional, Modern, and Postmodern worldviews, we need to cultivate the wider, more encompassing perspective of the Integral worldview. An Integral worldview doesn’t want to turn back the clock and doesn’t want more of the same, twice as fast. Integrals see apocalypse in ignoring the connections between the various causes and effects that the Modern program has created, even as they acknowledge that utopia is unattainable.

Like Traditionals, they are worried about all the things that Moderns promote, but they want to view them in context and with perspective, unlike Postmoderns who can tend to disdain context and accord all perspectives equal cultural, social, and moral weight. Those with an Integral worldview attempt to recognize that Traditional, Modern, and Postmodern worldviews have some very positive aspects, and they want to keep these. What they want to transcend are the negative aspects of these worldviews.

Rather than valuing religion the way Traditionals do, or deriding it as Moderns and Postmoderns tend to, Integrals want to value spirituality, whether religious or secular. This is obviously even truer of those with a Spiritual worldview. Rather than suggesting a return to rigid roles for people, Integrals want to allow people to become whatever they are capable of being. Unlike Moderns, Integrals acknowledge that individuals must find their higher potential in harmony with the rest of society at large. They see society and the individual as mutually interdependent, just as they view all life.

H.G. Wells summed up this dichotomy in his socially speculative novel, A Modern Utopia. He wrote that “Above the sphere of the elemental cravings and necessities, the soul of man is in perpetual vacillation between two conflicting impulses: the desire to assert his individual differences, the desire for distinction, and his terror of isolation. He wants to stand out, but not too far out, and on the contrary, he wants to merge himself with a group, with some larger body, but not altogether.”[ii]

Integrals want to integrate themselves and the world, acknowledging their desires as well as their responsibilities. As for technology, they don’t want to turn back the clock scientifically as some Traditionals and Postmoderns suggest, but rather they want to foster a wise and conscious use of our knowledge and tools. Integrals feel that technology should be aimed not solely at financial profit, but primarily toward human profit and human happiness.

The most significant factor determining whether your worldview espouses apocalypse or utopia in the face of our changing world is how you define human happiness. Traditionals define human happiness around stability. They admire stable families, stable people, and stable societies. Moderns see happiness in personal choices and personal profit. Postmoderns see happiness in non-hierarchical relationships.

The ego-self of the Traditional is satisfied by knowing its place in a family or society and learning to enjoy it. The Modern ego-self is satisfied by proclaiming its independence, making money, shopping, and by acquiring status. The Postmodern ego-self is satisfied by swimming in a sea of multiple perspectives. The Integral ego-self sees its happiness in relation to everyone else’s happiness at every level of existence. Integrals appreciate stability, personal choice, and multiple perspectives but do not give them undue value. The Spiritual worldview is in the process of transcending its ego-self and so sees happiness as everyone’s happiness, their individual happiness being of the least concern.

Where Moderns see promise and profit in genetic engineering, Traditionals see a usurpation of God’s role and Postmoderns see human hubris on the verge of disaster. Integrals carefully balance the risks of each genetic technology against the benefits and are not afraid to admit that certain things are beyond our current ability to use wisely, regardless of how much money could be made from it, while others may actually be worth the risks of their implementation.

Where Traditionals see technological gadgets as an onslaught of incomprehensible tools they don’t really need, Moderns see them as an extension of themselves, as projections of their personality, and Postmoderns see them as a potential negation of our humanity. Integrals see gadgets as just that, gadgets: sometimes useful, sometimes annoying, but important only when they contribute to the quality of human life.

When Moderns use the Internet, they tend to experience information as happiness, while Tradtionals find the amount of information oppressive, and Postmoderns relish the number of perspectives available at the click of a button. Integrals see the Internet a vast tool for connection, but also a wedge between personal relations in the real world.

When Traditionals see the environmental degradation we are wreaking on the planet, they feel a sense of loss. Moderns may be sad that there are fewer trees, but they see nature as another resource to be used. If its use eventually makes them happy, then any consequences must be okay. Yevgeny Zamyatin summed this attitude up perfectly in his dystopian novel, We, when he wrote: “Man ceased to be a wild animal only when he had built the green wall, when we had isolated our perfect machine world from the irrational, hideous world of trees, birds, animals.”[iii]

This modern disconnection from nature has created a pathological relationship with the Earth. It is not so much that we have fled to the city that is problematic, but that we have designed our cities in such a fashion that it is impossible to connect on a daily basis with nature. Thus, all the biological support for our lives is removed from us by miles and miles of pavement and concrete. Not only does this create an anemic interior landscape, leaving our psyche deprived of a relationship it was evolved for, but it complicates the distribution of resources unnecessarily.

There is a solution to this split between city and country, urban and rural, but it is a difficult concept for many to embrace. The work of philosopher and architect Paolo Soleri’s suggests a possible path forward. His book Arcology: The City in the Image of Man is a visionary text, and a visual delight. Soleri designed what he called arcologies, blending the words and essential concepts of architecture and ecology. An arcology is a self-contained, self-sustaining city that functions in harmony with the surrounding physical and natural world. Integrals understand that the natural world is the necessary support system of humanity and that it must be used in a manner that promotes its regeneration as well as human sustainability.

Defined by its own happiness, the Modern utopian vision is sold to us at literally every street corner, on every billboard, in the ads of every magazine, and the commercials on TV, as well as the shows in between. Every available space is eaten up with advertising: the sides of cars, the walls of elevators, the clothes we wear, even shaven into the back of kids’ heads. This Modern utopia projects a vision of the future that could not be more blandly imagined.[iv]

It doesn’t promise us an end to world hunger; it promises us strawberries in winter and the same Big Mac in any country at any time. It doesn’t promise a roof for every family, it promises rent prices ever spiraling upward in search of the absolute maximum that a market will bear. It doesn’t promise jobs for all, but mandates a minimum amount of unemployed, limits social safety nets, and supplies a flood of skilled and unskilled labor positions to whatever country offers the lowest wages, lowest taxes, and the least environmental restrictions.

The Modern utopia doesn’t promise a healthy life, but instead a life of medical advances to offset the increases in disease caused by pollution. It doesn’t promise a vibrant natural world that humans can interact with on a daily basis, it promises urban sprawl, giant parking lots, and children on Ritalin being raised never knowing that vegetables come from plants and not the grocery store. It doesn’t promise enough wealth for all to live sustainably, it promises vast riches for a lucky few, decent wages for some, and a few dollars a day to half of the world’s population.[v]

This utopia doesn’t promise us a future free of the fear of global warming, it promises us a future with more umbrellas and galoshes at cheaper prices. It doesn’t promise us a world where everyone has equal access to information, it promises us a world where information is a commodity to be controlled by those few corporations who own the never-expiring copyrights. It doesn’t promise change delivered at a pace human cultures and societies can manage, it promises to ram change down our throats like some pill from Alice in Wonderland, turning our species instantly into giants of the universe before we have even begun to learn to walk, sending us stomping and crashing through the world, leaving behind a trail of smashed lives as we tinker with our new-found technological toys.

These promises of utopia are nothing more than the world we have already created, sped up for effect. The promise is to deliver the upgrade faster and with a great deal less consideration or courtesy than provided with the current version. The fatal flaw of utopias is that they are all envisioned as static and unchanging. They do not account for the fact that societies require change to grow and mature. The Modern utopia project turns this observation on its head, offering nothing but change, recognizing no wisdom beyond free choice and free markets, and granting no time or space for maturity. None of these gleeful, techno-filled promises will lead to utopia. However, it is also impossible to find paradise by turning our back on technology.

Some Postmoderns call for an elimination of technology. Their critics refer to them as Luddites, while they prefer to call themselves neo-Luddites. The Luddites were a loose movement of British textile laborers in the first decades of the 19th century. Outraged that their livelihoods were being undermined by mechanical looms, they fought back by smashing company equipment. If questioned, they would declare that it must have been General Ned Ludd, the mythical leader of the Luddites.

Ironically, modern neo-Luddites tend not to be laborers, but academics. In his book Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper pointed out, as early as the middle of the last century, that erosion of leisure time by the demands of a modern, mechanized society limited the ability to think about that society, to reflect on it, and to produce, or sustain, a culture within it. More than fifty years later, the situation has only become worse. It is nearly impossible to seriously reflect on the world we are creating because it so complex. Academics are not only given the time to contemplate the world, it is expected of them.

Calling someone a Luddite is the clearest way of indicating that you haven’t really given much thought to the consequences that vast technological changes in a short period of time could have on the human species and the planet. Neo-Luddites may occasionally go astray in their recommendations to the problems posed by the technologies we are developing, but they do offer a scathing, and mostly accurate, critique of these technologies and their effects. Those neo-Luddites who ponder how to use technology in a way that is healthy for all individuals, cultures, societies, and the environment are approaching the issue from an Integral worldview. Those who fail to do this are behaving like true Luddites, smashing that which they fear instead of learning how to use it wisely. To fully understand technology, we need time to investigate and contemplate it, before and after we implement it.

While the appearance of machinery during the Industrial Revolution was a shock to many, we live in a world filled with constant technological changes. The technology of today that eliminates people’s jobs is the liquidity of capital. Today’s textile laborers lose their jobs to cheaper labor in less developed countries, not to machines. Of course, once robotic labor becomes more cost efficient than humans in poorer countries, we may see true Luddites again.

To an Integral worldview, and even more so to a Spiritual one, the utopias of the Modern worldview are an apocalypse waiting to happen. Integral and Spiritual worldviews redefine human happiness, thus redefining what sort of future is desirable. They also see more clearly the faults and limitations of earlier worldviews, and the problems they can cause. A realistic vision of the immediate future must be grounded in an Integral worldview and ethics. A vision of the more distant future will hopefully be grounded in a Spiritual worldview and ethics.

The utopias of the novels I read as a boy under my grandmother’s trees talked only of technology or politics when they spoke of the future. They did not talk about spirituality. I suspect this is because few writers of science fiction have the courage to tread on such ground, coming as it does from a place where mechanistic science cannot clearly see. Our future will never be a utopia. St. Thomas More chose the term for his book because it meant “No Place.” A perfect society cannot exist. But this does not mean that we cannot envision a better society, an Integral society, or a Spiritual society, nor does it mean that given the time, effort, and wisdom, we cannot create one.

[i] Robert Kaplan, The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War, p. 182

[ii] H.G. Wells, A Modern Utopia (Lincoln: The University of Nebraska Press, 1905, 1967), p. 318

[iii] Yevgeny Zamyatin, We, p. 89

[iv] If you want to see the ideas of culture being sprayed at us by Madison Avenue being ripped to shreds with caustic wit, I highly recommend picking up a copy of the magazine Adbusters. Although it fails, in my opinion, to offer a solid alternative to the bland consumerist marketing that corporations are pawning off as culture, it does offer a scathing critique of advertising and how it affects our mental landscape.

[v] For more information on world poverty see: http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats

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