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A Practical Need for Utopianism

Who doesn’t love the Apocalypse? Society collapses, people run around in chaos, and we try to imitate the survival strategies culled from too many Hollywood end-of-the world blockbusters. Apocalyptic predictions have always been part of American culture, and why not?
Greg Smithsimon | February 6, 2008, 2pm PST
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Who doesn't love the Apocalypse? Society collapses, people run around in chaos, and we try to imitate the survival strategies culled from too many Hollywood end-of-the world blockbusters. Apocalyptic predictions have always been part of American culture, and why not? They're a great alternative to everyday life, and beckon with the tempting promise that when it comes, we can stop setting our alarm clocks, ironing our shirts, and getting meeting reminders in Outlook. But on closer inspection, there's good news and bad news about the Apocalypse: the End Is Near, but it means you'll be putting in some overtime at the office.

Sure, the end could come from many sources, but let's look at one that's become widely accepted: peak oil. Peak oil is the notion that world oil reserves are about halfway used up, and after that halfway point, demand continues to increase while supply decreases, prices go through the roof, and our oil-dependent, car-centric way of life comes to a halt. Today, the theory is mainstream enough to be part of oil companies' own advertising-Chevron acknowledges they're selling more than they're discovering, other ads say they want to wisely use the half of the oil that's left. So the date is still uncertain, but the outcome-really pricey gas-seems likely enough.

This has led to some good old American-style millenarianism: Some "peak oilers," as they're called, build communities they call "lifeboats" for themselves and kindred spirits. (See Bryant Urstadt's Harper's article on the movement.) Survivalists' assumption is that with the end of oil there'll be an end to bureaucracy, government, society, social collaboration, and reality TV. They'll be on their own.

On the last point, for better or for worse, they're wrong. Plenty of places, in the US and around the world, have faced devastating catastrophes. And without denying the social transformations that can accompany something like a flood, a tsunami, or Hurricane Katrina, the fabric of our social existence doesn't dissolve when it gets drenched. So if gas is going to get really expensive, it won't be lifeboats that face up to the problem, it will be planners. (The more complete answer is that it will be that ad hoc collection of community activists, municipal government planners, real estate interests, politicians and resourceful everyday people who always respond, with an outcome whose balance between altruism and avarice will depend on the relative power of the different players. But we'll leave that for another time.)

What will planners' response be to suburbs without automobiles? Even among the suburban planners I've interviewed the initial response will be ten minutes of sustained applause. After that, the response to a crisis comes from the ideas "that are lying around," as economist Milton Friedman has pointed out. (Naomi Klein observes in the Shock Doctrine how Friedman's devotees have used that realization to impose a wide range of regressive economic policies that never could have been imposed except in times of crisis.)

And that's what brings us to the practical need for utopianism today. We will need ideas just "lying around" for lower-energy-consuming suburbs when the cheap oil that's the foundation of suburbs (home to half the US population) weakens. To date, we've produced but never implemented those utopian retrofits to the suburbs. One of my all-time favorites is Dolores Hayden's plans for reconfiguring suburbs along feminist principles. As an 18-year old fresh from the suburbs in my first year of college, the idea that the revolution could occur simply by combining back yards into collective play spaces, building shared laundry facilities, and inserting small apartments for older generations was exhilarating. Most recently, there have been a series of projects to design environmentally sustainable suburbs. One that stands out for its name alone is the project to transform suburbia into "Superurbia." Superbia's superb recipe includes building community, reorienting suburbs to pedestrians from cars, and growing more local organic produce-the kind of improvements just sweet enough to taste like pie-in-the-sky.

But we need more of that pie in the sky, because having good plans lying around is half of what's required to implement them when there's a recognized need. My field research on another topic in the auto-dependent suburbs of Baltimore County made me realize that even there, most county residents could be reached by mass transit plying the commercial streets and rail lines radiating out from the city, with the addition of my own favorite mode of transport, bicycles. (If global warming doesn't as least extend the biking season with better weather, I'm really going to feel short-changed by our petro-economy.) Contrary to the lifeboat survivalists, in a crisis we won't abandon what we have and start new, we'll adapt what we've got.

If hoping global warming brings better biking sounds inappropriately glib, I say so only because of my reluctance to remain straight-faced about a topic that's already rife with post-millenialists building lifeboats and hoping for a petroleum-free plague on their neighbors' houses. But the point is utterly serious: our first impulse is often to imagine that dramatic changes to our environment will vaporize all the social relations that make up our everyday lives. In fact, we'll still be the social beings we are today after catastrophe. We don't go it alone, we work on it, imperfectly, together. Western Europe, it's often pointed out, has half the carbon energy footprint of the US, but it's hard to find a measure by which life there isn't as good there (or, let's dispense with pleasantries, better, by several key indices). So reducing energy usage doesn't mean devastation, it could even lead to progress. What we need, though, are good ideas. And the time to draw them up is now. So take a little time. Come up with your best-case scenario. Draw up the plans, email them out, and make sure they're lying around when you need them.
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