The Climate Crisis and the Need for Utopian Thinking

Contributing editor Graeme Pente highlights the prescience of nineteenth-century utopian thinker J.A. Etzler and what that might offer us in the face of climate catastrophe.

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Flooding in New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina. Credit AP.

The future is grim. David Wallace-Wells’s recent New York Times bestseller The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming (2019) looks unflinchingly at what the latest science on climate change suggests is in store for us humans. Of course, as Wallace-Wells points out, we need not rely on climate models and predictions to glimpse the future; the devastating effects of a warming planet already surround us. And they’re only going to get worse. What he calls the cascading effects of climate change will accelerate and compound. Deadly heat waves, drought and food shortages, wildfires, air pollution, lack of fresh water, ocean acidification, and weather disasters will place increasing stress on our economic, political, and social systems—on, in a word, our civilization. Surviving these changes will require bold, even fantastical thinking. Indeed, we may seek inspiration from the visionary thinkers of the Antebellum United States.

In the 1830s and 1840s, reform movements proliferated to address the social disruption of industrialization and the spread of market capitalism. John Adolphus Etzler, a German immigrant with an engineering background, articulated one potential solution. In The Paradise within the Reach of All Men, without Labor, by Powers of Nature and Machinery (1833), Etzler advocated harnessing the continuous power generated by the sun, wind, and tides. In short, he predicted renewable energy—and a battery for its storage—some one hundred and fifty years before it became commercially viable.

There were two constituent elements to this vision. Etzler believed that in less than ten years, humans could harness these naturally recurring energies and free themselves from the necessity of labor. Unlike the wood and coal powering the industrial revolution around him, the sun, wind, and tides offered sources of infinite energy. This was energy, as Wallace-Wells notes of renewables, that would be “harnessed rather than harvested.”[1] For his part, Etzler then sought to apply this principle of self-perpetuation to machinery that would produce the goods of human consumption. Rather than exploiting the labor-power of an industrial proletariat, Etzler imagined a machine with “a power of many thousands or even millions of men [that] may perpetually continue its play until the machinery is worn out by length of time ; and but one or a few men will be required, to keep it in order and direct its application.”[2] In short, he wanted to apply renewable energy to automation, freeing up humanity for other pursuits. With their newfound free time, human ingenuity would be capable of producing “large floating islands, which may come from, and go to distant parts of the world, islands that have every commodity and security for their inhabitants” and which would funnel waves through the massive vessels to propel the islands along the surface of the ocean.[3] While this latter vision may still seem fantastic to us in the twenty-first century, the machines to harness renewable energy surely sounded preposterous to Etzler’s contemporaries. Etzler anticipated such resistance, arguing that historically “individuals, who attempted sometimes to disperse new valuable truths, were not listened to, and considered insane in proportion [to the degree that] their truths deviated from the common track of the unthinking, or unreasoning multitude.”[4] Habit and custom often stymied change in technology and social organization. In the face of our warming planet, we cannot afford such obstinance.

Flood evacuees

The aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Image by David C. Phillip for the AP.

The most dire predictions of humanity’s future center on the very extinction of our species.[5] The climate crisis is thus an existential one. For other writers, however, the strength of human adaptability suggests a vastly unequal and oppressive future hellscape in which the few horde the earth’s diminishing resources while the many fight over the scraps. In Four Futures: Life After Capitalism (2016), sociologist Peter Frase notes how current injustices might presage the competition for resources: “Gated communities, private islands, ghettos, prisons, terrorism paranoia, biological quarantines [we might add caged immigrant children to this list]—these amount to an inverted global gulag, where the rich live in tiny islands of wealth strewn around an ocean of misery.”[6] Couple these trends with our already militarized police forces, suggests Frase, and you have a recipe for a future along the lines of Mad Max.

For his part, Etzler predicted that being freed of want would change social relations and eliminate the inequalities of industrial society. He allowed for people who would want to live alone, but he suggested they would soon join larger communities once they saw the benefits of sociability. He pictured small communities of people in apartment blocks. Residents could “ascend and descend in boxes, which are moveable up and down without exertion or trouble”—which is to say via automated elevator.[7] Because of the availability of goods and energy, there would be “no fear of being robbed or cheated… no anxiety for preserving or increasing property… no low vices and crimes resulting from want, or fear of want, and poverty… no cause any more for low cunning and deceit, for gaining advantage over [a] fellow-creature in fortune and rank.”[8] The point, rather, would simply be the enjoyment of life.

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View of a communal building envisioned by French utopian thinker Charles Fourier, ca. 1814. Fourier’s works were an influence on Etzler.

Both Wallace-Wells and the journalist Naomi Klein argue that the coming changes will threaten not only our infrastructure but our very conceptions of history and the relation of humans to nature. As Klein points out in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (2014), “the roots of the climate crisis date back to core civilizational myths on which post-Enlightenment Western culture is founded—myths about humanity’s duty to dominate a natural world that is believed to be at once limitless and entirely controllable.”[9] Etzler’s vision fits fully within this mold. Massive environmental change would make possible the lives of leisure and consumption he described. In painting a picture of the future of agriculture, for instance, Etzler explained how his machines would “level the ground perfectly, in planing it, filling the excavations or taking off the elevations of ground until all is level. If the hills or valleys are considerable, the same machine cuts terraces, winding around them up to the top in elegant shapes.”[10] Like many nineteenth-century Westerners, impressed as they were with the powers unleashed in the Industrial Revolution, Etzler wanted to transform nature entirely. In approaching the climate crisis, we will have to reconceive our position in the world not as above nature but as an integral part of it.

Of course, it is not Etzler’s vision itself I suggest we adopt, but rather the bold, inventive posture of his thinking. We must dare to dream in ways unmoored from the contemporary limits of what is considered practical. Staying on the current path only promises our mutual ruin. The twentieth-century intellectual C. Wright Mills articulated the challenges of potential nuclear holocaust as being “at a curious juncture in the history of human insanity; in the name of realism, men are quite mad, and precisely what they call utopian is now the condition of human survival.”[11] In the twenty-first century, our need for utopian thinking is even greater.

 


[1] David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2019), 181.

[2] J.A. Etzler, The Paradise within the Reach of All Men, without Labor, by Powers of Nature and Machinery. An Address to All Intelligent Men. In Two Parts (Pittsburgh, PA: Etzler and Reinhold, 1833), 53.

[3] Ibid., 26.

[4] Ibid., 2.

[5] See Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth, 34 and Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014).

[6] Peter Frase, Four Futures: Life After Capitalism (London: Verso, 2016), 129. Also consider that weapons manufacturers such as Raytheon view the anxieties our changing climate is producing as potential boons to demand for military products and services. See Klein, This Changes Everything, 9.

[7] Etzler, The Paradise, 73.

[8] Ibid., 82-83.

[9] Klein, This Changes Everything, 159.

[10] Etzler, The Paradise, 63.

[11] C. Wright Mills, The Causes of World War Three (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1958), 113.

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3 thoughts on “The Climate Crisis and the Need for Utopian Thinking

    • Thanks for your comment, Cláudia. I agree. Something I didn’t have time to go into: even though we have increased the number of sources of renewable energy, they have not increased as a proportion of the energy we consume. They’re simply buttressing higher levels of consumption. So technology alone will not save us. As you say, we’ll have to take a look at changing from the roots.

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