We are now a year into the Covid-19 triggered nation-wide lockdowns in Singapore and around the world. Apart from the health crisis, the focus is also shifting onto the growing debt crisis of nations that borrowed to stay afloat in the pandemic. Poverty, inequalities and divisiveness are surging and there is no clarity on actionable solutions yet.
As a species, we have not dealt with current challenges well. More formidable ones lie ahead. We watch the world simultaneously burn and drown. Realisation is dawning that this is only the start of a relentless march of violent climate shocks. Antagonistic artificial general superintelligence is the other potentially non-survivable iceberg that looms ahead of our civilisational ship.
To talk of utopia in such dark times sound like a wilful act of delusion and denial. But it is precisely in the deepest nights when the glow of a compelling utopia can best illuminate the viable paths ahead.
The word ‘utopia’ was coined by the Renaissance humanist Thomas More from the Greek ‘ou-topos’ (‘no place’) and the almost identical ‘eu-topos’ (‘a good place’). In his 1516 book, More imagined a tolerant and sophisticated island made up of many self-contained small communities that prioritised learning and sharing over wealth and might.
1516 was a time of great chaos in Europe. The average life expectancy of a citizen in the wealthiest countries at that time was under 40 years old, literacy rates were under 10%, and it took 10 weeks to sail from Europe to North America. To a Spanish citizen in 1516 (then the world’s richest country), 1890 can seem like utopia. By 1890, life expectancy in the wealthiest nations was nearly 50, and steamships took 29 days to travel from Europe to America.
To a radical futurist in 1890, the future utopia might be one with fantastic flying ships. The first commercial transatlantic flights would commence 49 years later, in 1939, except with aircraft better than they could have imagined. And to the futurists of the 1930s, they dreamed of a world so fantastic that you could read newspapers from the television screens.
Other utopian visions that have shaped our aspirations over the centuries include Plato’s Republic, Voltaire’s El Dorado, Christianity’s Garden of Eden and the Ketumati of ancient Indian religions. A personal favourite growing up was The Peach Blossom Spring, written by the Chinese poet Tao Yuan Ming in the strife-torn 5th century.
More recently, utopian goals have found a place in the founding constitutions during the birth of nations. Home in Singapore, the national anthem and national pledge were utopian aspirations amidst the uncertainty, unemployment, racial and religious violence so pervasive in the independence years.
It seems clear that the capability of imagining a utopia has been beneficial to humanity’s progress. If it is compelling enough, a utopian vision inspires and mobilises the best generational talent to make it come true.
Looking at our civilisational rear-view mirror, we have surpassed many utopias.
Looking ahead, we should ask ourselves what compelling vision are we steering towards?
Jeremy Sim & Tan Yang En
April 6, 2021