how to find nowhere: step-by-step instructions (an exercise in imagination)
We know that utopia means nowhere. As Sir Thomas More, who popularized the use of the term 400 years ago was aware, the paradox of the truly good society is that it exists nowhere. But I have been there, repeatedly, in my imagination, and the exercise of entering that world, moving around in it, and discovering its specific qualities: sights, sounds and smells, has always been a powerful one. It clarifies, sharpens and deepens my understanding of why, in a more abstract way, I believe the things I do. And it is surprisingly simple.
To begin, IMAGINE THAT YOU ARE HOME.
An image comes to me in detail of a place that is HOME. Not home as it is or ever has been for me, but what I envision when I think of my true home. In my case the image is always this one: a small earth-colored house on a hill, surrounded by trees and shrubs, vegetable and flower gardens, with a path leading up to it. The air is clear and soft, there are sounds of birds and wind. Imagining this place I feel an immediate sense of recognition, contentment and belonging.
A scene begins to form within the image. A person is pushing a bicycle up the path. Someone is in the garden harvesting ripe tomatoes (or squash, or carrots…) Other bicycles lean against the porch wall. I am in the kitchen, the main room of the house, preparing a meal. Friends are gathered around a large kitchen table talking and laughing. More details begin to emerge: most of these people all live within a radius of a few miles, though there is one visiting friend from far away, and another is a visitor previously unknown to me, a traveler who has stopped to ask for a place to spend a day or two. The amount of work that most people must do to sustain themselves is not onerous, so visiting and other social activities, both impromptu and organized, are how many people spend much of their time. There are few children at this gathering—most of the people visiting have grown children now but no grandchildren yet. One man is there with his grown son, who works with him as a boat builder. Only one woman carries a tiny baby. It is uncommon among the women I know for anyone to give birth to more than two children, and most parents with growing children live in larger, conjoined houses in the village.
My mind leaves this gathering, which will pass from talk to dinner, to singing and poetry and later, stargazing and more conversation for those who will spend the night. It follows the path that winds past the front gardens, up and down a couple of small hills, one of them spiked with windmills, through a copse of trees. One or two bicycles and motor-carts pass along the path, which has widened somewhat. There are of course no fences or walls, but at a certain point the scattered houses and gardens begin to thicken and cluster, and then there is a belt of gardens all together, a colorful quilt of cultivated land, and the path joins a network of other paths that connect houses, workshops where all types of necessities are made, meeting halls, playgrounds, musicians’ and artists’ studios. There are a couple of “restaurants,” that is, places where people who like to cook periodically offer “performances,” or meals that are offered to everyone who wants to partake, until the food runs out. The variety and savoriness of the food in this place is a feature I am particularly fond of imagining. The dwellings, mostly single or dual story, are constructed ingeniously, in a variety of basic shapes, many with thick walls made of earth or straw bales. Many roofs are topped with flowering ground cover, like a living head of hair. This is the village.
As I pass through the village, solar panels are being covered, lights are just beginning to come on in the twilight, music wafts from some buildings, and there are many people on the paths, or sitting together outside houses and halls. Here and there are numbers of children and young people, in small groups, coming from study or play. It was a market day; the market is just closing. Once or twice a month most villages have a market day when goods produced there and in other settlements are exchanged by those who make them. Those who come from other villages will usually spend the night, guests of those with whom they have traded. There is the smell of food cooking, the sound of many voices. There are old people too, in the most central part of the village, the green. Younger adults, men and women, are talking earnestly with the elders, and some teens and children stand at the edges of the knots of people, listening. Other children still run and play, some young couples stroll, or stand slightly apart, talking or gazing at each other. A group of musicians improvises at one end of the green.
Now my imagination moves from simply observing to questioning. I begin to ask: what sustains this place? What work is done? Who does what, and why? And how are they governed?
I am surprised that the answers that come back are fairly simple. The people do, amongst them, and according to the abilities and interests of each, all (and only) the work that needs to be done in order to sustain their bodies, intellects and imaginations, and the health of the ecosystem in which they live. They are governed by nothing at all— other than the unconditional understanding that all beings are inextricably linked. Material things can be lovely and useful, but only living things are precious. Their relationships are not a hierarchy, but a web.
What types of work/activities are there?
Construction and design of structures
Water works: wells, irrigation, cisterns
Caring for children, caring for the infirm
Tool making. That is, technology: the invention, construction and maintenance of all necessary tools including vehicles, communication and information devices, household objects, and the tools used in other activities.
Art, music, dance, theater, storytelling, poetry
Making of cloth and clothing
Maintenance and improvement of structures, tools, paths, waterways
Study of the living and physical universe, past, present and future
Study of the human past
Generation of electricity
Sport: races, contests, physical arts, games.
Any person in this society would probably have some ability in many of these activities, and excel at one or several of them.
In my imagination I would be one of those who did a little of several things: a little growing (and much preparing!) of food, a little research, into human or cosmological history perhaps. My house would always be open to visitors and travelers, especially actors, musicians and poets from other villages. I would study to be a Listener: one of those healers who listens to the troubles of others when they are feeling confused, alone or sad, and tries by listening to help their minds to clear.
The great collective philosophical activity, if one can call it that, would probably be cosmology—projecting the character and destiny of the physical universe, and trying to develop the idea of a future for the human species that was tied to what one believed would happen to first the solar system and then the universe as a whole.
From here, my imagination begins to branch out: I envision what a whole day would be like in my new world; I imagine voyages to other societies, other cultures, distinct but without borders, with the possibility of being in almost instantaneous communication at all times.
I imagine the things that would and would not be found in the place to which my mind has traveled:
Computers—or something like what we now call computers—yes
Television, automobiles, no
Electricity yes, power plants, no
Public baths, concerts, dances, yes
Night clubs, bars, probably not (not because they had been suppressed but because they had become useless)
Hallucinogens and intoxicants, sure… but they would have returned to largely ritual use
Organized religion—what for?
Armies, police, prisons, parliaments, possessions—absolutely not, nowhere and nevermore.
In a society where the total interdependence of every living thing was the only absolute truth, such entities would be completely inexplicable, bizarre and pointless. Almost no activity that caused intentional or unmitigated damage to any aspect of the physical world, including persons themselves, would occur.
What would the conditions have to be, around our Earth, for such societies as this to sustain themselves?
There would be no attempt to make large settlements in waterless areas, because each settlement would have to be able to produce all its own basic foodstuffs. Animals would have ceased to be used for labor, food and clothing, except perhaps by a few wanderers living far from any settlement. Most of the planet’s land surface would have reverted to wilderness, but porous wilderness, through which humans moved lightly and easily, when they wished. Petroleum production would have long ceased. Wood and metals would still be used for tools and construction, but forestry and mining would have become very selective, limited activities. The vast majority of humans would have permanent settlements only in temperate areas where weather patterns allowed them to produce a variety of crops. Drip irrigation and biointensive cultivation might expand this belt somewhat, but humans would have realized the benefits of maintaining most of their communities in certain zones and limiting them to a certain range of sizes in order to preserve the health of the biosphere.
What about pathologies, problems? What about greed, domination, arrogance, deviousness, dishonesty, paranoia, brutality, repression, selfishness, envy, hatred? Aren’t these things innately human? Wouldn’t they persist, forever?
Think of what generates these conditions. In every case it is the failure of the human mind to imagine universal interdependence, and understand it as unequivocal. How many people tear off their own hands and feet, or try to buy and sell their own skin? This is what it would seem like to oppress or injure another being, steal another’s labor, degrade a complex living system.
There would still be challenges and obstacles to face. Illness and injury, disappointment in love, failure, loss, grief for the dead—how could these not be part of any natural human life? No one in this society would be so foolish or dangerous as to imagine that all suffering could be artificially eliminated. All would recognize these elements as essential in the web of conscious life.
Now the most difficult question has begun gnawing at the edges of my mind. How did this come to be? This society, which is what I think of when I begin to imagine HOME, is not anything like the society in which I live, into which I was born. How would I get from here to there? How would I get HOME?
When I start with the world in which we live now, I feel the distance yawn, almost infinitely great. I think: HOME would only have come to exist over many hundreds, perhaps thousands or tens of thousands of years, and only after some progressive weakening, decay and finally disappearance of the structures that surround us now. I think of the millennia of aggression that have brought human society to this point, and can only imagine an equal number of centuries of war leading away into the future, as long as the absurd concepts of ownership, and power over, and each-against-all retain their force in the human mind. With the pain of an exile watching a loved landscape recede forever, I see the unfolding of what, from here, seems an inevitable process: the climate shifts, species and complex ecosystems die out, deserts grow, human misery increases. How many eons will then be necessary to heal the destruction?
Yet how else can the reversal of a civilization happen? The human mind, the engine of our social organization, must have time to deepen, complexify. Imagined sudden catastrophes have tended to produce reactionary utopias—a kind of Crusades of the imagination, in which one group finally purges the planet of its enemy forever—but in reality what we know of such a process is that it does not create justice or enlightened stewardship; it creates the Final Solution. Social and environmental catastrophe are the inevitable result of human failure, and cannot in themselves produce new minds, or therefore, a new society. The ideas of justice and universal love have haunted human minds for millennia, but that is the blink of an eye to the millions of years before consciousness developed at all. How much more time will it take for us to develop a consciousness in which fear and aggression play only a minor, sublimated role, and the human mind resounds primarily to the harmonies of life, reflecting and deepening them?
However, there is also a concept of evolution which says that although the historical process is long overall, the significant changes necessary to take a species in a radically different direction can happen in a very short time, when the conditions are right. We can’t know how long it will take, but we can know what to look for: resistance to domination, oppression and the destruction of the natural world, wherever they arise. Humor and kindness, which imply insight and compassion. The dreams of writers, performers, and artists, brought into concrete, real time by their creative acts. And the efforts of those with few resources to join together and share equitably what they have in order to survive. We can help foster these efforts, wherever they flicker into existence. Like a small flame that we believe will someday be the energy that powers our world.
Till that time, resistance, imagination, and solidarity must be the tools we use to try to build the HOME we seek. It’s all of us or none.
Now: repeat Step One, supplying your own images.
Imagine that you have come HOME.