Craig Chalquist, PhD
I am English by origin but I am early World-Man, and I live in exile from the world community of my desires.
I salute that finer larger world from across the generations, and maybe someone down the vista may look back
and appreciate an ancestral salutation.
— H.G. Wells
As a boy I loved reading fantasy and science fiction stories about advanced cultures of people who lived in verdant, spacious homes, led healthy lives, cared for each other, and felt at home. As I got older, images of these cultures kept pursuing me, each describing one little corner of possibility–Modern Utopia, 24th Century Earth, Pala, Ecotopia, Terra, Magic Theater–and stimulating a question that would guide much of my adult thought:
Why don’t we live like this already?
We can make stupendous, terrifying, marvelous things, we humans: cities dwarfing their inhabitants, worldwide libraries, ocean-crossing ships, sky-crossing aircraft. Humans have landed on the Moon and, given an adequate space program budget, could have stood on other worlds by now. Our telescopes reveal the very edges of the universe. The best of humanity’s music, art, literature, science, philosophy, mythology, and wisdom await as close at hand as an Internet connection.
Clearly, building safe, beautiful, and just places to live isn’t a question of technological capability. Nor is it a question of mere finance: people crafted miracles long before money existed. Yet in this year of 2012, most of humanity goes hungry, thirsty, and homeless, undeclared wars rage continually, entire countries are ruled by delusional zealots, foreign policy descends into thuggery, and unregulated heavy industry carves the planet into mass extinction, intercontinental pollution, ocean acidification, and global warming.
Explanations abound about how it all came to this, but instead of bothering with causal oversimplification, one might as well select a recurrent scenario–not a cause, but an observable reality common to every large-scale disaster–and go from there: ambitious and fearful men who do not feel at home on Earth, or responsible for it or for its creatures, invading the pivotal institutions of civilization and seizing positions of power and control, much as tumors invade cells in a weakened body and reprogram them to destroy. When that happens, governments crush liberties instead of strengthening them, religions sell hatred instead of love, universities produce conformity instead of well-rounded education, and industries tear nature apart instead of learning from its architecture and abundant creativity.
Likely outcomes should this mad Titanic recklessness continue include world-wracking resource wars over what petroleum, soil, fresh water, and food remain, the collapse of entire economies as the debts on which they are so irresponsibly based come due, the ultra-wealthy walling themselves up in well-guarded enclaves as millions perish, rising oceans swamping coastal cities, and, later in the century, mass migrations of what survivors remain–if any after half the plants and animals on Earth are extinct–north and south to the planet’s poles because runaway warming has dried up the rest of the biosphere. If the oceans collapse, the atmosphere will not hold enough oxygen for any life but bacteria, yeast, and fungi to continue. Not a pleasant future to contemplate.
In spite of this, and very much to my surprise, fantasies, hopes for, and even dreams about Terrania–to give a fanciful name to the just, peaceful, and sustainable world civilization whose imaginal presence has tracked me across the years–persist, recur, and come forth in ever more brilliant colors. Why?
During my undergrad years I remained at the college one Christmas because I was too depressed to go home. Mired in the existential nausea over how thoroughly the United States, always aristocratically run, had sold itself to mindless money and power and hubris (the actor Ronald Reagan had been elected President), I went to bed on Christmas Eve wondering what might be left worth living for if the world’s former beacon of democracy had descended to this. As though in response, the following dream visited me that night:
I walk in the wind up a grassy hill. Midway up I find an old lodge like that once built by my Celtic and Norse ancestors. Within the lodge, its inhabitants greet me and invite me to go outside with them. Still depressed, I agree because where I go makes no real difference now. They lead me outside and we walk up the rest of the hill.
Once we walk over the crest we all sit down in the grass and look out over the vista.
Before me rolls the most beautiful valley I have ever seen. Beyond low pink bungalows perfectly placed into the slopes on which we sit stand coppices of trees–waving leaves as green as perfect emeralds–above grottos and clearings in which large brown and tan animals pass through patches of sunlight and cool shade. Herds of distant horses graze the plains, and at the valley’s bottom winds a blue creek flowing with such crystal clarity that the schools of fish within it seem to glow.
Above and behind the valley, storm clouds puffy with moisture bring rain to verdant lands lit by flashes of lightning. The storm moves on to reveal an impossibly blue sky above a sea so rich in royal blues and purples that it could have been painted by Van Gogh.
As my eyes rove this scene of indescribable loveliness, my despair slips away, replaced by a growing feeling of elation. When the other viewers and even the hillside and valley “tell” me subvocally that I am part of the work that makes this fresh, clean place possible, the elation turns to joy. How long I sit here I cannot tell, but after some timeless time I nod to one of my companions– “I’m ready to go back now”–and….
….I awaken in bed on Christmas Day with the joy still cresting through me.
Since that dream, a gift followed by other hopeful dream-gifts through the years, I have never doubted that we could find on Earth a paradise of our desire. In fact, it often feels to me as though future Earth–Terrania–shimmers just up ahead, its presence emanating from deep in the human psyche, summoning us to bring it forth, like a giggling, gurgling baby appearing in the dreams of a woman about to become pregnant. Warfare, collapse, and terror, then, as the birth pangs of a new world.
The literal meaning of “utopia,” of course, is “nowhere.” Catholic statesman Thomas More coined it for his book of that title, which he published before declaring the Reformation a heresy and losing his head as a result. What has followed me around does not feel like a retreat, regression, or ethereal impossibility. It feels, not like Utopia, but like Heretopia.
If Terrania calls out as an imaginal possibility awaiting birth, then it should already live, to some extent, today. Does it? Consider the following observations:
Indigenous people have often claimed (and historical documentation substantiates it) that before colonization and religious indoctrination, their ancestors believed they already lived in paradise. In other words, it’s been done already.
Tribal skirmishes go all the way back in time, but archeological evidence suggests that organized warfare–institutionalized, officered, and designed to kill large numbers of people–is only ten thousand years old. In fact, its emergence corresponds with that of patriarchy, monocrop agriculture, and centralized power.
Wars begin when the leaders of one society simultaneously covet the resources of another society and project their paranoid hostility onto it–even when a majority of either side would rather live in peace. Citizens will not fight unless conditioned by paranoid leaders to despise and objectify their new opponents as subhuman.
Racism is not endemic to being human. It always follows economic disparity for the obvious reason that you can’t get people to labor for you in unfair and even lethal conditions unless you teach them to hate themselves. The self- hatred and the racism can both outlive the conditions.
Sexism and contempt for non-heterosexuals rise when powerful institutions, religious and otherwise, launch attempts to control procreation. In tribal cultures, by contrast, transgender people often hold respected positions as priests, mystics, and relationship advisers–until institutions take over. Midwives have known a similar displacement.
Scarcity of food, water, shelter, and livelihood do not hang on from pre-industrial modes of life, they follow predictably and inevitably from unregulated, undemocratic industrialization of the kind that undermines sovereignty, uproots culture, and paves over once-thriving ecosystems.
View of the natural world that emphasize competition over cooperation always serve as an apologetics for colonization and predatory capitalism. They are political rather than scientific. Scratch a cynic about human nature and find an apologist for enforcement of the status quo.
Humans–a herd species–do best when we cooperate, empathize, create, love, celebrate, explore, and enjoy our time on earth. Cynicism, alienation, destructiveness, ruthless ambition, lack of caring, and taking from each other and the natural world without responsibility or reciprocity always indicate, not that we are a brutal or failed species, but that we’ve been turned against ourselves, each other, and Earth, our home, by the sickest members of our troubled societies: developmentally crippled people who care for nothing but psychologically childish personal gain.
If by “Terrania” we refer to a just, well-educated, diveristy-valuing, and peacefully managed world civilization that cares for citizens and planet alike, what might be some possible hints of Terrania already among us?
Think about the experiments going on now in
Urban and rural redesign: ecovillages, Transition Towns, intersection repair, mixed-use zoning, reclaiming of the commons, porous paving to recharge groundwater, cross-border community (e.g., Bajalta, Samiland, Salmon Nation), clean public transit, car sharing.
Food production: permaculture, Slow Food, locavores, fair trade, biodynamic and organic farming, urban farming, victory gardens, rooftop and vertical gardens, aquaculture, community-supported agriculture (CSA).
Industry and finance: alternative economies, simplicity circles, reskilling, repurposing, Cradle-to-Cradle no-waste industry, micro-lending, neighborhood barter and food exchange, biomimicry techniques that rely on nature’s wisdom.
Science and ecology: Systems Theory, Chaos and Complexity, indigenous science, human ecology, cognitive ethology, interspecies communication, mycoremediation, smart networks, energy from sun, winds, and tides, and even from micro-generators in homes, on sidewalks, in clothing.
Education: campusless universities, free courses on just about everything, integral and transdisciplinary education, affordable certificate programs, free-ranging workshops on how to improve communication and relationships, conflict resolution and peaceful negotiation consulting, networked centers of higher learning, education for nonlinear, Systems- and Complexity-oriented perspectives necessary for dealing with life on a complicated world. (So many of our entrenched problems come from applying oversimplified, linear, mechanical thinking to complex systems! No wonder such “solutions” so often accelerate destabilization.)
Social change and movements of liberation: subtle activism, Joanna Macy’s Great Turning, David Korten’s Earth Community, deep ecology, ecopsychology, ecofeminism, LGBTQ rights, liberation psychology, terrapsychology, Earth Charter Initiative, Environmental Justice Movement, Post-Carbon Institute, rewilding, participatory spirituality.
Leadership and community-making: transformative leadership, networkweaving, collaborative inquiry, community mentoring, organic inquiry, Open Space Technology, learning organizations, indigenous practice of council.
Anyone who believes that we are short of answers should reflect that the experiments mentioned above represent only a tiny sample of the bold new visions being implemented all over the world.
What we really need are ways to bring all these experiments together for maximum synergy and reach on a planetary scale. To do that requires vibrant visions of how we want to live on Earth, and those visions must include a sense of ourselves as Earth Community members beyond differences of ideology or territory. Is this possible?
Our history suggests so. At one time Native Americans thought of themselves as separate tribes. Genocide pushed them into reimagining themselves as a common group, a sense of identity that expanded to include indigenous people from every continent. But note: this commonality has not erased or repressed locally grounded solidarity. In fact, a secure attachment to one’s people and place provides a base for a much larger sphere of kinship. (During World War I, when nomadic Arabs moved beyond clan warfare to stand up to the Ottoman Turks, a tribal leader told T.E. Lawrence: We are not just “Arabs” anymore. We are a people.) It’s really only the insecurely attached who idolize and ideologize and fight over those “heartlands” whose tangible features and presences succumb to myocardial eco-infarctions of conflict and ruin.
Shifting our loyalty from nation states to Earth, state of states; conducting small, local experiments in living, thinking, and relating as planetary citizens; and networking these groups with so much backup and resiliency that the seedlings of Earth culture they grow will withstand whatever befalls: those could be firm steps toward what Wells named for many of us “the world community of my desires.”
This essay began (the boy inside me still dreaming, perhaps) with an emblem and a motto for future Earth. It continues with a speculative future history of that Earth:
When sixty essayists speculated about what the world would be like in 2058, the visions they traded included the obvious–cybernetic transplants, control of terrorism, etc.–and the not-so-obvious. Because the first step toward a regenerating world is imagining it, I used this challenge as an opportunity to write my own vision–not sparing some likely disasters that do not have to happen!–from the standpoint of a future scholar of, say, 2112 trying to explain the crazy time we now live in–and giving us, perhaps, the view from Terrania:
Although limitless access to an interplanetary information net offers too many advantages to list, the automatic dispersal of misunderstandings is not yet among them. As a psychohistorian I am no stranger to the difficulty of grasping how fragilely and primitively human beings once lived on our homeworld: I accepted long ago that providing explanations of those dark times comes with the scholarly territory.
We should begin by noting that at least some of the difficulty is due to the gap between our psychology and that of humans living and dying before and during the last of the Resource Wars. We all know and accept that those disastrous conflicts put an abrupt end to the long Age of Empires stretching back to ancient Sumer. To us, however, it is inconceivable that people should thirst or starve, lack housing or health, or do without comprehensive education, birth control, or full participation in civic affairs. Yet most of our ancestors did not receive consistent access to such basic necessities. Not because the basics were scarce, at least at first, but because they were for sale by whomever got control of them.
Nor can we know, fortunately, what it felt like to watch entire ecosystems die, oceans turn to acid, or tops of mountains be blown into rubble. We don’t know what it is to be under the domination of delusional, ranting leaders of business, government, or religion, for the obvious reason that we learned along the way to prevent the pathologically ambitious from obtaining power over what others need to survive. As little would responsible parents let an impulsive youngster pilot a spacecraft. The consequences would be disastrous, and they were. It might startle you to know that zealots were allowed to hold office even though they looked forward to a fiery Last Judgment and did their very best to ignite it. Or that activists who sided with the displaced and hungry were demonized as unpatriotic “do-gooders.” It’s amazing to consider how flagrantly and unworkably backwards all this was.
You might wonder why so many put up with such madness. Like the oblivious Roman citizenry watching the gladiatorial games around the pivotal year 410, most had no idea how cataclysmic things really were, let alone how most of what they depended on for sustenance and sanity was about to disappear. The media of communication and news services were owned by a handful of powerful corporations determined to hide unprofitable truths from the public. Instead of accurate information, they promoted continuous distraction to keep “the masses” psychically numb and entertained: “alone together” as one film of that era expressed it.
The distractions also kept the employed from thinking too much about the drudgery they were forced to perform for a living. The unemployed went hungry and homeless and died in numbers too huge to imagine.
To cite an example of the rampant inequality that passed for normality back then, by the year 2012, roughly a hundred people owned half the fiscal wealth of the United States of America, one of the world’s wealthiest nations–and this as infrastructure corroded, cities and counties went bankrupt, a fourth of the nation’s children went hungry, and education, medicine, and law enforcement disintegrated for lack of revenue. An enormous state security system quietly maintained by network and phone service providers (remember telephones?) spied on citizens day and night, in effect charging customers to be reported to their own government. Perhaps this level of deception is why it took so long for the rioting to begin.
Little wonder, then, that by 2012, some had began speaking fearfully about apocalyptic prophecies and the end of the world. Humanity scarcely suspected that what was about to end was not a world, but a worldview: that of a protracted, grasping, species-wide adolescence about to break painfully into adulthood.
Although we no longer use material money, we all know what will happen if we borrow and spend without limiting our desires. Eventually the bill arrives. Imagine entire economies functioning on the principle of borrowing and overspending and incurring forms of debt that used to be called “credit.” (The word comes from Latin roots that mean “believe” and “trust.”) Imagine a world plagued by mass extinction and failing ecosystems as two centuries of heavy industry took their toll on lands, seas, and darkening skies. Imagine global warming, and the fight to dispute the facts of it–yes, I know it’s hard to fathom that level of corruption and ecocidality–even as the polar ice caps melted.
It took time for the inevitable series of crashes to arrive. Those loyal to the old system worked valiantly to keep it running. History books sometimes describe the collapse as sudden, but the sound of it had been clanging in thoughtful ears for decades before things fell apart.
In retrospect the short-sightedness of what passed for political leadership in those days staggers the mind. Money spent fighting over what sources of petroleum and natural gas remained to exploit could have funded clean energy research, cleared the skies, eliminated wars, revitalized food production. Instead, nation attacked nation even as their borders crumbled, internal dissent torched once-proud cities, topsoil around them blew away, and storms fed by global warming battered coastlines, “heartlands,” and a diminishing supply of food and fresh water. Humanity entered a worldwide crucible not seen for seventy thousand years, when a volcanic eruption that cooled the planet thinned us down to a hardy few thousand.
The realistic idealists and progressives who survived the more recent series of calamities absorbed difficult lessons, as humans always do when finally pushed to the wall of nonexistence: not to underestimate the delusional paranoia behind “patriotic” extremism and flagolatry; not to split activism from deep reflection; not to place faith and hope in politicians promising change (they all do); not to stereotype all business as irredeemably evil; not to “go local” to retreat from the international; not to ignore “the voice of the Earth”….Perhaps the most difficult lesson, the lesson to which all humans today owe so much, was shifting primary loyalties from falling governments and failing nations to locally anchored forms of global community not yet tried and scarcely dreamed.
As permaculturalists, urban gardeners, and agroecologists tended their crops among the ruins, their labors feeding the hungry while sequestering dangerous atmospheric carbon, and as new methods and rituals for collective healing opened safe, creative spaces to support the politically and ecologically traumatized, crises framed as problems awaiting a fix or solution were slowly understood to be symptoms of social and psychological immaturity needing to be outgrown. It wasn’t a question of revolution, the violent replacement of previous owners with new ones, but of seeing through and discarding worn-out habits, hierarchies, and attitudes while committing one’s energies to sensible experimentation in the service of new kinds of community.
The rude awakening to the need for social resiliency reinforced the value of sharing, a simple lesson long forgotten, and taught us the difference between retreating into pastoral ideals and actively renewing our partnership with the natural world. While bands of survivalists and remnants of states and armies killed each other off in pointless battles for illusory supremacy, largely unmolested networks built out of reliable communications, cooperative support, mutual trade, cultural restoration, psychological sophistication, and democratic practice energized by young activists and facilitated by wise elders grew in strength almost daily.
From these resilient networks of hope, imagination, collaboration, and innovation rose the just and sustainable civilization we now enjoy.
It is interesting to look back on predictions made about our time. Gadgetry dominated so many discussions! Some inventions came to pass: clean cities; frugal industries that waste nothing; free public transport all over Earth, with the scars of national borders long gone. Quantum computing, of course; stations on the Moon and on Mars, where Spaceguard protects us from asteroid strikes; medicine and health utterly transformed by the bountiful alchemy of stem cell research. Hard to imagine a home, a park, a neighborhood, or even a garment nowadays not equipped with self-generating sources of energy. Can you picture Halloween, May Day, or Earth Day without celebrants dancing in glowing garments?
With SETI and Mars research disclosing so spectacularly that we are not alone in the cosmos, a new consciousness of ourselves as one species among many began to ask itself: What might the Others out there think of us? Inviting earthly non-humans into ongoing discussion and civic participation took one giant leap toward recognizing that sentience is not an exclusive possession of Homo sapiens. Certainly we saw things differently once the cetacean and simian languages were finally deciphered.
Another learning to emerge once the Second Dark Ages ended was that gadgetry always rests upon a social-psychological foundation. We wield the science and technics that our lenses permit. Cultures good at transitioning their members into full psychological adulthood tend to use whatever machinery they invent for adult purposes. We can clone people now, for example, but we don’t because we left behind the narcissistic insecurities that drive the puerile urge for immortality. Like nuclear fission, portable black holes, replacement of healthy body parts with synthetics, and genetic engineering to “improve the species,” cloning is a dangerous practice we need not indulge. The fact that we can make something doesn’t mean we should.
We also learned to turn to the arts for wisdom tales of liberation and for the enrichment of life and culture. The arts instruct us that quality and imagination matter more than quantity or control; that what we value depends on our range of consciousness; that story and image are more basic than drive or defense; that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”; and that the greed, recklessness, and destructiveness once attributed to “human nature” are artifacts (as we now see with the benefit of hindsight) of a nature warped by authoritarian governance, chronic warfare, mass consumption, and chronic alienation from the natural world. So many supposedly fixed dichotomies–self/world, inner/outer, spirit/nature, indigenous/contemporary, city/country, rooted/migratory, local/global, male/female–dissolve once we put polarities into conscious dialogue.
Even now linger the signs of environmental damage left from the Age of Empire and the Industrial Revolution. Some of what was lost will not return. Nevertheless, we have finally learned, the hard way, never to let any person or group dominate or monopolize anything.
As a result, the vision once derided as hopelessly utopian, that of Earth blue, green, and parklike, and girdled in belts of undisturbed wilderness, is for us a fact of life. It would not occur to anyone now to build suburban tracts on fresh soil or to fund an industry that pollutes. Entire landscapes are drinkable and edible. Our oceans are filled with life, not death, and our rivers and streams sparkle as they run with healthy fish. Birds have returned to the skies above verdant cities powered by sun, wind, and wave.
Humans being humans, we still disagree, sometimes heatedly, but nobody physically fights anymore. Nobody needs to. We have learned to be as delighted by our differences as supported by our commonalities, and designing for abundance leaves nothing in the world to fight over.
We must bear in mind that we enjoy this lasting peace, active leisure, critical education, economic stability, and cultural, sexual, and biological diversity because some foresaw this kind of earthly life long before it came to be. Our joyful Earth of plenty and equality has gone by many names down the centuries, so many that some thinkers now interpret Eden, Shangri-La, the New Jerusalem, and the Anima Terrae as the deep psyche’s dreams of what lay ahead rather than behind. In the twentieth century Hermann Hesse wrote of Castalia, the League of Eastern Wayfarers, and the Magic Theater. An obscure depth psychologist from the twenty-first spoke about envisioning “Terrania.”
We conclude this brief summary of things outgrown, regrown, and grown up with an event that stands out as a signal perhaps from Earth itself summoning us to see our world as a whole being: I refer to “Earthrise,” one of the first photographs of our planet seen from space. With this view, ancient visions and dreams of paradise coagulated into one lovely blue-green ball lit by sunlight and starlight. Paradise is not elsewhere after all. It is here, and we live on and in it because our brave predecessors imagined and summoned it forth.
According to a twentieth-century mythologist, the entrenched, dualistic separations of higher and lower that caused so much misery down the bloody centuries began to collapse with that perception-shifting image transmitted back to us from space. And why?
With our view of Earthrise, we could see that the earth and the
heavens were no longer divided but that the earth is in the heavens.
— Joseph Campbell
© 2010 Craig Chalquist.