Have we reached something of a turning-point in public understanding of anthropogenic climate change? At long last, possibly. Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, recent back-to-back record breaking hurricanes, brought home (to all those with more than a couple of brain cells to rub together) the urgency of the long climate crisis we are now entering. Many (most recently, George Monbiot) have argued compellingly that what we are most missing now is a narrative that speaks to that crisis and how to address it. Philosophy and the arts have a crucial role to play here. In particular, it needs to be possible for us to picture what it would actually be like to get through and survive the crisis.
The crisis is now so dire (see Kevin Anderson's writing), that mere reformism is now useless. Being realistic now demands the politically 'impossible'. It demands, in short, utopian levels of ambition for transformation. What will be needed to see us through is a transformation of societal values and institutions more radical than has ever been seen before.
But it is too late now for our survival to be pictured in utopian terms in the sense of the society that the changes needed produce being ideal. Grand technological utopias or purely localist utopias are no longer credible, because it is clear that climate chaos is going to reap untold devastation across the planet before we get through it (if we ever do). It is no good any more to put on a happy face and pretend that a brighter-than-bright future awaits us if we get the wicked problem of climate right. Twenty or thirty years ago, maybe, but not now.
There are a number of major artistic works that either literally or metaphorically offer us climatic-dystopias: The Road, Snowpiercer, Never Let Me Go, Melancholia, Far North, Avatar... and they've much to teach us by way of warning and of possible redemption. But they aren't quite enough, either. For what is desperately needed is artistic or philosophical vision that can show us how to avoid doom (and gloom).
What are desperately needed, but as yet barely exist, are what I term thrutopias . Thrutopias would be about how to get from here to there, where 'there' is far far away in time. How to live and love and vision and carve out a future, through pressed times that will endure. The climate crisis is going to be a long emergency, probably lasting hundreds of years. It is useless to fantasise a shining sheer escape from it to utopia. But it's similarly useless, dangerously defeatist, to wallow around in dystopias. We need ways of seeing, understanding, inhabiting, creating what will be needed for the very long haul. Visioning the politics and ecology of getting through.
The nearest we have to a detailed thrutopia of the imagination is Ursula le Guin's The Dispossessed. That sci-fi work brilliantly juxtaposes a superficially-attractive but dystopian world of extreme inequality and only marginal democracy (a world disturbingly like our own) with what appears at first to be an anarchist utopia. But the true genius of the novel is one's gradual realisation that utopia could never be static. Any true utopia demands being continually remade. In this way, we come to understand that any utopia has to be what I call a thrutopia, on a long-term basis. On, to be precise, a pretty much permanent basis. Thrutopia isn't second best, it's the genuine article.
And once we see this, we realise how deeply the putting off of our dreams to some distant allegedly secure place - a utopia - gets things wrong. A thrutopia by contrast, though beginning with the idea of us getting through crisis, actually emphasises paying attention to the present, indefinitely (or even infinitely) into the future. It doesn't let us defer our dreams to somewhere else, 'utopia'. We have to realise what we need now. The better society we want to attain cannot wait. We need a vast transformation starting now; nothing else is going to be enough. And we need to enjoy and to be present now; because there may not be a future to enjoy (we may not get 'through').
The concept of thrutopia says: Don't defer your dreams. We need those dreams now. Experience the present as paradisiacal, and change it where it isn't, and then we might just get through.
Le Guin's book is a generation old, and has in any case no direct bearing on the climate crisis. It's time for political thinkers of vision, for economists who dare to escape the death grip of their discipline, for applied ecologists and philosophers, for intellectuals of all stripes, and above all for creative artists, to turn their talents to thrutopianism. For only when the many who are looking for somewhere to turn in the wake of these harbinger storms are shown a truly realistic way forward -- rather than merely offered the weak gruel of Pollyanna-ish fantasies or told cynically that its too late to do anything -- will our love for our children be able to flower again. Being the clever, creative mammals that we are, it's time to think seriously about the way through the storms of our children and grandchildren and beyond.
...It's time for the Sisyphean but joyful era of thrutopianism...
University of East Anglia