Saturday, May 25, 2013

Fixing Poverty, the Meaning of Life & It's Okay to be Depressed - or - How to Save the World Through Utopian Fiction

The current social climate & general awareness of our species self-accelerated extinction has left the world, perhaps justifiably, with an over-saturation of dystopian stories. Zombie apocalypse is now its own genre with small variations of format; fast zombies, zombies in Europe, zombies in snow, paleo-zombies, vampire zombies... Like many other people I have gone through periods of indulging in these dystopian stories in one format or another. At first I suspected that such enjoyment originated from the love of macabre that seems to permeate into some aspect of every depressed persons life, but after some time I begin to conclude that the love of stories about societies fall are more complex than that. Going further, that dystopian stories are effective as a warning message but will always fall one step back of solving societies problems because the very nature of a dystopian novel is the fall of society.

Today there is a need to 'fight back' by demanding, or creating, more Utopian stories as a way of commenting on the problems with the world today while also offering possible solutions; where dystopia glances Utopia inquires & acts.

There are three main stages of realization of life; the first is how to survive which involves learning (how to eat, walk, climb a tree, etc), drama (relationships, stubbing a toe) and comedy (watching someone else stub their toe). Then there's surviving at a consistent pace (also known as "being in a  rut") and with this comes boredom and depression which people satisfy with illusions like the offerings of the entertainment industry which is over saturated in advertisements, promotes wasteful excess & is almost always vapid and often times immoral.

When one is surviving/in-a-rut they eventually become depressed, wanting 'more'. This is when people turn to dystopian storytelling, for a two fold reason. First, dystopian stories show that there is an existence worse than our own (a strange form of shock doctrine) that, even though it is fictional, usually does not stray to far from reality (for example; the failure of nuclear deterrence during the cold war is often used as the starting point for dystopian stories). Second, dystopian novels offer a way for in-a-rut/frustrated/confused/angry people to soothe their evolving presuppositions.The final stage is trying to change things around a person that affect their life in a manner that brings success (not monetary), & this is where the theme of Utopia excels.

When one is surviving and 'in-a-rut' they start to question presuppositions to life (what we have to know without knowing of it). Questions come up such as what do I do next or how come other people aren't able to be complacent or, the usual big one, what is the meaning to our/this/a life.

Looking for meaning to life is like looking for meaning in nature; something that's capable of both waterfalls & AIDS, rainbows & tsunamis, diversity & chaos. Life 'is'; it exists therefore we are. This means that there is reason for our species to try to control nature due to its unpredictability. Imagine if the tornadoes that have ravaged the Midwest for years, 7 times in Oklahoma in about as many years (ABC News), had their terrible power weakened or deflected. While this is not possible & an extreme example it only helps illustrate the validity of exploring certain aspects of nature to better our species.

I believe no one would argue that manipulating nature in a careful & consistent manner is desirable for our species, even among organic farmers & those that are ecologically minded. This is because organic farming itself is a manipulation of nature, but a good one, much as removing cancer is a manipulation of nature. That's not to say that GMO food is the answer to food production, which is potentially just as absurd as denying modern cancer treatment if available (and insured) or not improving preventive medicine.

Those that work hard to question the loose regulations of the industrial food industry are wise to do so; hardly any research goes into modified crops & no one likes walking through a mine field blindfolded. Still, if nature were to run completely on its own that would not be the ideal situation for our species. So one should not become complacent but one should learn where to direct their energy so that they can have a life where their actions affect the things around them. That brings us to the third stage of the realization of life; Utopia or active change.

The concept of utopia is frustrating because "people see that utopia is possible in there lifetime, right now, but it is not happening" (The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, Zizek).  These reasons are due to poverty, education, healthcare & ability to live/work/do-what-you-do/whatever-you-want-to-call-it being possible for all but not distributed fairly. Fixing poverty is not something I want to say is simple because I am not qualified to make that generalization but anyone can easily find proof of bad behavior from the super-rich that imbalances the world. This is a historical trope through time; those in power that have been abused will abuse those they try to subjugate, usually by reducing agency & income under the mask of efficiency, nationalism and job creation. Considering this, the next step is to locate where to start creating a better balance. That would be by reducing the size of the largest entities that are destroying the source, much how cloning insects will decimate a plant by feeding on its chloroplast to the point of killing itself. This happens in an ecosystem if the insect is not practicing niche separation (this is usually due to an invasive species, botanically meaning non-native). The source is the economy/citizens/raw-resources but in a more physical sense. The silly notion of constant perpetual wealth must not be completely destroyed, as that would so damage the illusion of those entranced they would not be able to handle the change (and indeed may riot themselves) but simply capped or changed to prevent such flagrant abuse, much like using niche separation & population control so that both the mentioned insect & plant survive. Consider the separation of church and state; neither wanted the other removed but through time they have challenged each other when the other gets to large. The third player, the market based economy, entered the ring (for the West) a few hundred years ago (arguably around the 16th-17th century) & now battles with the other two. Regarding poverty, consider that the top 100 richest people in the world could end poverty according to Oxfam. Seventeen organizations form the confederacy that is Oxfam who work in over 90 countries to try to create a "just world without poverty" & they "envision a world in which people can influence decisions which affect their lives, enjoy their rights, and assume their responsibilities as full citizens of a world in which all human beings are valued and treated equally." (Oxfam International)

While the giants of religion, state & economy battle over who gets to destroy the source the quickest the general public suffers. Since this is a long historical trope (for those that disagree please see: there have always been forecasters of both the problems & possible future for society & it's economy (since the two are so intertwined/connected). Economists like Jeffrey Sachs have said that "Extreme poverty can be ended, not in the time of our grandchildren, but our time." (Earth Institute). Adding to the frustration are statistics from Oxfam Canada that reveal the world produces 17% more food per person today than 30 years ago (Oxfam Canada) but more than 14% of the worlds population goes hungry, possibly much more (World Hunger Education). These conditions cause people to have a general feeling of uncertainty & frustration which causes dystopian stories to becoming alluring, usually as a form of releasing those frustrations and uncertainties. This can be a tragic thing; dystopian storytelling takes energy away from individuals that could instead make active change.

Aaron Swartz, one of the creators of Reddit who was persecuted for downloading to many academic articles (this lead to his suicide) wrote:

"No, you can’t force other people to change. You can, however, change just about everything else. And usually, that’s enough" (Raw Thought).

The importance of having agency to make change is obvious; its a silent presupposition. This agency has been continually reduced among the general people across the world, a trope that emerges when any organization/entity becomes to large with unchecked power/to-fail. This brings me to the final stage of this 3 stage approach of realization of life; working to make things better, working for the utopia. This is a life long step where one moves in a direction toward solving the problem rather than being a part of the problem. Being active in ones community is a cornerstone of this as well as questioning problems so they are properly identified. This allows for more efficient policy making as well as general thinking. It's important to note that actively working for the better conditions and agency of the general population is usually a gradual change & does not happen overnight or easily. On the plus side, it doesn't taste bitter in the slightest & becomes preferable in time.

Some people may not want to get involved or work harder toward better communities because it does not provide a quick or easy route to happiness. The role of happiness is important to consider because it is unethical, but not mutually exclusive, from Utopia.

Working for the better of others should not be about happiness. Happiness should not even be a goal, but it is a wonderful side effect that happens when people can influence decisions which affect their lives. Consider the arctic climber who screams joy at the top of his lungs only to sit shocked in belief, all over an old stash of cheese doodles (Basic Needs, Extreme Happiness). When asked what makes happiness the climber said "30 days of starvation" (Radiolab). So happiness comes from sometimes arbitrary things. Happiness can also be used in a negative way which is most easily noted in any form of shock doctrine to control populations as seen in Pinochet’s coup in Chile in 1973, the Falklands War in 1982, the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Asian Financial crisis in 1997 and Hurricane Mitch in 1998. In short, happiness is not a barometer for living life in a moral or efficient way.

Zizek had this to say on happiness:

"You can be happy without being moral. You can be happy without being interesting or engaged in the world around you. You can be happy without having a single creative idea or interest or passion. You can get everything you desire, and still not be happy. So why even focus on finding bliss?" (Big Think)

If understanding the problems to life seem difficult then fixing them can seem almost insurmountable. Still, the cart must come before the horse. Instead of a Utopian story that goes back, usually circa WW2 to re-imagine how our society could of been through alternative history games, there should be utopian novels and serials in all mediums that imagine the very realistic possibility of Utopia being achieved right now, in real life.

Works Cited

The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, Slavoj Zizek.

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