At the height of the Renaissance, Rabelais cleverly inverted the monastic ideal – a life of labour and prayer – to explore the other Utopian extreme: hedonistic leisure amid inexhaustible abundance. At his fictitious Abbey of Thelème, the inhabitants comport themselves in a regal spendour that was clearly the stuff of fantasy in the early sixteenth century.
But a century later, Francis Bacon decisively transformed the Utopian tradition. He raised the possibility that, given sufficient technological power over nature, the hope of a democratic abundance might not be unrealistic. Bacon’s New Atlantis holds its place as the first scientific Utopia, a bold prediction of good things to come based on unlimited proliferation of material goods. That vision has hovered in the background of the entire industrial process as one justification for the privation, harsh discipline, wrenching dislocation, grime and soot that this great adventure has cost. The concept of plenitude went into eclipse; the foundation of our contemporary ecological crisis was laid.
It was not until the waste, drudgery and filth of industrialism were vividly imprinted on the historical landscape that the plenitude formerly sought became a timely topic once again.
William Morris, the Victorian poet, painter and political philosopher, was among the first to take up the discussion in his Utopian novel, News From Nowhere.
Morris, a bitter critic of both the ugliness and injustice of the industrial system, laid his hopes for a balanced economic order upon a reformation of taste.
In Morris’ land of Nowhere, aesthetics is the context of economic life. The sensibilities of people have been schooled to value the quality, not the quantity of goods. For Morris, this meant a handicraft standard of excellence, as exemplified by his Arts and Crafts Movement, which he took to be of benefit for the soul as well as the body.
One need not endorse Morris’ doctrinaire anti-industrial stance in order to see great practical sense in his proposal. As a matter of environmental sanity, there may be a point at which industrial societies will have to revive the handicraft standard, emphasizing the value of fine design and durability as an alternative to disposability or wasteful turnover.
In her ecological Utopia Woman on the Edge of Time, Marge Piercy proposes another approach to plenitude. In the environmentally intelligent future she envisions – a worldwide society of well-kept rural communes – there exists a globe lending library of luxuries, from which jewels, objects d’art, fashionable clothes may be borrowed and examined by the entire population. It is an idea worth pondering.
In one of the mostly highly developed ecological Utopias, Ernest Callenbach deals with problems of necessity and luxury by imagining an economy that redirects the gratifications of high consumption toward a variety of cheap, non-material pleasures. The citizens of Ecotopia own little, but it is elegantly handmade; beyond that, the prevailing style of housing and dress is dropped-out funky. The workweek has been pared back to twenty hours; leisure becomes a value in its own right, used for the arts and crafts, for play, for recreational sports, espeically in the fiercely defended wilderness, which has come to be respected as Ecotopia‘s principal public asset.
An economy of modest means makes possible a simplicity that allows other needs to be gratified. The goal is not cathartic suffering, but pleasure of a superior order.
~ Theodore Roszak, The Voice of the Earth
Image: Dubai Lagoon