Why have we stopped dreaming of a better future?

Futuristic movies and books often depict a very Dystopian image of the future. A dark, polluted world consumed by technology, where scarcity, war or disaster dominate our lives. Often times with a power-hungry totalitarian regime creating conflict in their pursuit of ultimate control. I’m thinking 1964, Blade runner, Star wars, et cetera. They are very thrilling stories, perhaps partly because it takes place in a relative future. We probably like to be told about the future. There’s mystery to it. It makes me wonder if these visionary portrayals of our future is a product of our actual expectations of the future, and if the the stories are enforcing this view. If we consciously or subconsciously have accepted our fate to be mostly dark, it might make us more prone to create dark stories. The stories we are told might also in turn be affecting us to think a dark world is what awaits us, regardless of the authors intentions. Slowly, we spiral into the belief that our future bears only darkness, and that there is nothing we can do to change course.

It might very well be that we are victims of a dark circle, but I don’t think our lack of Utopianism is due to our storytelling. I think our storytelling is a product of the cultural, political and social landscape. Historically, we have always had visionaries speaking about a better world. In my life-time, I feel like instead of talking of a Utopia, we’re mostly talking about how to avoid the Dystopia. What we can do to fight global warming, or the current global Corona pandemic, or other inconveniences, so that we then can go back and live on with our lives again like “normal”. As the focus is on the Dystopia, we cannot see past it.

Apart from futuristic fiction, I’m also thinking about non-fiction like Superintelligence, Cowspiracy and What the health, where problems and risks are laid out very well, but where I feel like there’s no real spark of hope or opportunity. I get the feeling that liberals almost prefer a future of saying “I told you so” over one where we have overcome our challenges. Do we not need to speak about the dreams we are having more than the problems we are facing? When do we ever ask ourselves today what future we want to see rather than the one we want to avoid?

“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 realisation of Utopias.”

Oscar Wilde

In the western world today, we cherish our comfort, and we pretend like the state of our world is as good as it can be. We sure have been progressing. People in the past use to dream of what we have now. Global life expectancy has never been as high [1]. In 1820, the number of people in extreme poverty was 84%. Today it is less than 10%. As low as it has ever been [2]. Child mortality and illiterate population is also at an all time low [3, 4]. Many are today living happy and comfortable lives in functional societies. In many ways, we are living a Utopia, but a Utopia of the past. There are so many things we could, and must improve. So what made us stop dreaming about a brighter future?

I think the education system plays a major role. Since our legacy from the industrialisation, education is preparing children for the world that exists, and not the world that should be created. We kill creativity and reward rigidity. We focus on competence instead of value and meaning. We value the ability of problem-solving and forget to question what problems should be solved. We focus on interpreting the trends and ideals, instead of creating them. We’re basically teaching our children to stop their dreaming and go polish the status quo.

Within this status quo though, we all still work our asses off. What are we actually doing? As Rutger Bregman points out in his book Utopia for realists, there is a significant faulty assumption in play that is supporting this idleness, that all work is meaningful. Farmers create food. Doctors save lives. Garbage collectors keep our streets clean. In comparison, day-trading is really just a redistribution of well-being. The work doesn’t actually create any value.

With the help of technological advancements, one person in agriculture can today do what 200 people did many years ago, and a similar increase in efficiency goes for most industries. The Swedish researcher Roland Paulsen asks a very simple question; Why has this optimization of work not led us to work less? A full-time worker today actually has less free time than a farmer had in the 14th century. Well, the answer is probably our capitalistic economic system.

We call it unemployemt. Oh, the horror, the shame, to not have a job. We have to make sure everyone pays tribute to the divine work society. So rather than sharing the workload between us and spend the rest of the time doing more meaningful things, we make up heaps of pointless and undignified jobs. There’s always more stuff we can administrate, control, redistribute, measure and manage. We also control what people are doing. We even build tools so that the controllers of a controlling body can control what is actually being done. Arbetsförmedlingen and Försäkringskassan, I’m looking at you. All this to force people into a fake purpose, because everyone desperately needs an income.

I think this is partly a problem of ideals and norms in society, which are set deep in our view of reality. But, it is also the case that today in the western world there simply are no economic incentives for doing meaningful work. As Bregman stresses, a high salary is today far from evidence of doing something valuable. What value does for example marketing really give? Our brightest minds spend their careers on how to make more people click on Facebook ads, because in our current economic system, that’s what pays well.

The question is in the end, what do we actually want to do with our time? The education of today prepares us for work, but should it not also prepare us for life? In this ongoing crisis of COVID-19, I feel that we have a golden opportunity to break out of our coma, to actually manifest the future we want to see and start to work towards it.

I think the signs are telling us to pivot. It’s time to reimagine and prototype new paths. A Utopia is always far-fetched until it happens. Just like many past dreams throughout history that already happened.

How about a society where we have time to do exactly what we want, to play, grow and be happy? To be with our loved ones and to meet new loved ones. We share our welfare equally. We get rid of all the controlling activity. We raise the tax on the extremely wealthy. We give all people an equal basic income, everywhere, and we trust each individual to use it how they deem fit. We allow everyone to spend more time doing what they feel is meaningful. We keep the free market but let people have more time to create the change they want to see, released from the struggle for an income. People work for a larger income than others, but the salary is decided on how important the work actually is. A society where a nurse earns more money than a banker.

How about living in more connection to nature? Living within a threshold footprint and where we cultivate biodiversity and reforestation. We live off the abundant resources nature provides, without harming the ecosystem. Renewable energy and veganism are examples of a normative non-violent way of life. We use a life-centered measure on progress and growth. All life flourish. There’s no scarcity. Still, we can enjoy all the pleasures of our technologically advanced and connected world.

How about we all live in trust, community and psychological safety? We don’t have to constantly assert ourselves in a climate of competition and individualism, because we feel held by our peers no matter who we are and what we want to do in life. There is only love for one another and our differences in appearance or personality are celebrated. There exists no racial injustice or inequality. We are all free equal beings. There is no surveillance because people would not have any reason to gain from a hidden agenda. There is no war. Only peace.

How about we all share a holistic way of looking at health and well-being? The healthcare system promotes a healthy lifestyle at the ground level and treat root causes of illness and distress. Medicine and diet are composed to help people live healthy, and not treat only their symptoms. We are all on a level of fitness to meet our personal needs, be it physically or mentally.

How about a world where we have open borders everywhere? Everyone is free to travel wherever they would like and can do so with climate-neutral high-speed underground trains, electric cars, or by foot. Whatever they prefer.

How about an educational system that lets children chase their dreams and deepest passions? They are allowed to play indefinitely, and learn what they want to learn. The one who is fascinated about spaceships might want to study how to get us to Mars, while another might want to become a shaman.

How about having a more democratic rule? A society where major political accords are taken to be long-term beneficial and taken by a true representation of the people. Citizen assemblies, fact-based material and diverse standpoints are culminated for a well-balanced and prosperous decision-making climate.

What is your Utopia?