Can we ever reach utopia?
Letters to my nemesis, part five.
This week I’m sharing a collection of emails I’ve exchanged with the authorabout what makes a society utopian. Here’s the series so far:
This is part five and my response to Miga.
You asked a lot of questions so I’m going to make an attempt at answering them!
How do we even define "utopian”?
You bring up Thomas More who coined the word and thus defined the genre. But when he made up the word, it was a play on words—a pun. In the original Greek eutopia would have meant “good place” and oùtopia would have meant “no place.” By dropping the E and the O, he intentionally makes it clear that utopia could mean either “good place” or “no place.” Or both!
There are many who think I should use the word eutopia instead (which more clearly means “good place”) or the more popular “protopia,” coined by the author Kevin Kelly to mean “incremental progress over a long period of time.” I agree with both of those definitions as our goal, but I intentionally chose to reclaim the word “utopia” for one reason: those other words just haven’t caught on.
Utopia is the word everyone knows. It’s the name for the literary genre. It was the word used to come up with its opposite, dystopia (which meant “bad place”). Like any good writer, I try to write at an eighth-grade reading level so that my work can be understood by most people and read by a general audience. I intentionally don’t use words that need to be looked up, that are only used by niche academic audiences, or that might be politicized. People, for the most part, know what I mean when I use the word utopia. The other ones, not so much.
When you analyze the words utopia vs. protopia on Google Trends, utopia averages a 10 in search interest, protopia averages a zero—no one is searching for it.1 No one even knows the word exists! That’s why I’m sticking with the word utopia, even if some people understand it to mean “a perfect place” or an “unachievable ideal.” That’s not how I’m using it. I am using it to mean “good place” and “incremental progress over a long period of time,” just as the authors before me did. More importantly, I am also using it to mean “an achievable dream,” just as many of my favorite authors did:
Oscar Wilde said:
A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realization of Utopias.
Victor Hugo said:
There is nothing like a dream to create the future. Utopia today, flesh and blood tomorrow.
Henri Lefebvre said:
We are all utopians, so soon as we wish for something different.
I agree with all of those writers!
Is utopian just a synonym for "optimistic?"
Yes, it can be.
You said utopian fiction should be held to a higher moral standard and I can understand that, but I don’t think it needs to be. We don’t even know if More meant it to be! Many think his work was a satire—that he was criticizing his own government by saying that a good life didn’t exist there (and specifically that it wasn’t Catholic enough). And yes, he was eventually executed for treason! (Utopia wasn’t published until 16 years after his death!)
The importance of utopian fiction, to me, is not that it is realistic or not realistic. It doesn’t matter if it’s a step-by-step blueprint or a complete fantasy. It doesn’t matter if it’s “cultural edification” or “just entertainment.” Dystopian fiction can be both realistic and not realistic. It can be both a blueprint or fantasy. It can be both challenging or entertaining. The only importance of utopian fiction is that it shifts our mindscape from imagining the worst to imagining the best.
That dozens of texts decided to make utopian fiction the high-brow, prescriptive variety they did doesn’t mean it needs to stay that way. And in fact, if it stays that way it won’t change our mindscape because no one will read it. We need a wider reach. Utopia needs to reach minds the way dystopia does. We need an optimistic version of Black Mirror, instead of the pessimistic one that has defined how we think about technology and our worldview.
Is it possible to have a utopia in which people regularly die from preventable diseases?
If we narrowly define utopia as “the perfection of the world” then everything one inch short of that is dystopia. Our world now is more utopian than it was 100 years ago. In 100 years our world will be more utopian than it is today. Utopia is not a destination, it’s an evolution. We need to be able to see utopia as the natural bettering of the world over time—the progression rather than the end goal.
And over the course of history, we have been eradicating preventable diseases—we are progressing. Here are the numbers of premature deaths and their causes in the United States in the year 1900 and 2010:
In just 100 years we have nearly eradicated death from preventable diseases and the reason why is because we became wealthy. America became so wealthy that we could invest in science and medicine and we could put systems in place like water treatment facilities and developed immunizations and antibiotics that drastically reduced preventable deaths.
And the whole world is becoming more wealthy too. As countries start developing economies they start investing in science and medicine and putting systems in place that greatly affect their public health. And this time it doesn’t take them 100 years to eradicate preventable deaths because they have whole countries they can model those systems after. They just skip right to the solution.
As one Brookings lecture report says: “Today, there are only 33 low-income countries in the world, half the number in 2000. Countries have become richer and are growing much faster than was the case in 2000. Almost all are growing—only nine have declining GDP per capita, compared to 36 in the 1990s.”
In this way, I don’t think we’re going to eradicate tuberculosis with some global campaign to end the disease. I realize that’s the ethos of the Bill Gates Foundation and I’m glad that exists, but I think we’re going to eradicate preventable diseases by creating global access to an economy, and thus wealth, and thus the means for every country to eradicate preventable disease within their borders.
All countries in the world will get richer, as they do they will get healthier. And we have seen that trend play out over and over again.
Even if disease is eradicated, doesn’t that still involve the imposition of cultural norms on marginalized people?
I am very confused by the idea that “eradicating disease” could negatively impact the cultures of marginalized people. Could you explain this further?
Are you saying that, if people no longer die from tuberculosis because they have access to the antibiotic that treats it, their culture will somehow be harmed because they will no longer have access to the sanitariums they used to treat TB with circa 1900?
We do have to make decisions for the greatest benefit of all, and that will have consequences to some fringe groups that oppose them—there are people who don’t want to vaccinate their children before school, who would rather not fluorinate our water, who think motorcyclists shouldn’t have to wear helmets, but there can also be no doubt that those moves had massive benefits for our public health.
It’s not easy—public health authorities have to strike a balance between individual freedoms and societal well-being when implementing such measures. But isn’t that a balance worth achieving? Shouldn’t we work toward eradicating preventable diseases if we can? I’d rather give people the ability to opt-out than make them struggle to opt-in. Especially when it comes to access to good health.
But I’m curious to understand how you’re thinking about that!
Sincerely,will publish his response in tomorrow right here!
How hilarious is it that the search term “utopia” reaches a 100 in popularity in Utah, where I live. Is that all because of me???? 😆 Looks like I have some friends in New York too….