Imagining Shangri-La: In Defence of Utopian Thinking

Imagine:

You have been given a chance to recreate society completely from scratch. Yes, you personally have to devise a set of principles by which we will all live.

But there’s a catch: You don’t get to know who you will be in this society. You don’t know if you will be rich or poor, ruler or ruled, white or brown, male or female, intelligent or unintelligent, strong or weak, beautiful or ugly, etc. etc.

After you create your principles, a random lottery will decide who you get to be in it.

Credit for this thought experiment goes to philosopher John Rawls, and obviously the point is to eliminate self-interest in the creation of “utopia” or the “ideal society.”

And yet, as just and fair as Rawls’ thought experiment seems, it’s still something of a taboo to even talk about creating a utopia. Even in writing this sentence I feel like I should be looking over my shoulder.

I can only speculate on the origins of this war on hope and imagination. Maybe it’s post-Cold War disillusionment with the Soviet experiment. Maybe it’s Postmodern cynicism, branding every vision of “progress” as merely an expression of a “will to power” over others. Maybe it’s Western elites, demonising any other way of organising society simply because they like the way things are.

But it’s also the thinking of many of our leading intellectual champions. It actually wounds me too much to “name-and-shame,” but it’s safe to say that it’s the “received wisdom” in Arts and Humanities departments across the world, among people who can hardly be branded as establishment boot-lickers.

After all, isn’t the creation of utopia what they tried to do in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and North Korea? Didn’t it lead to the unprecedented slaughter of countless millions in the twentieth century?

Rawls’ thought experiment is all well and good in theory (the thinking goes) but the real world throws up complications: even if you did somehow have the power to implement your utopian vision, inevitably there will be those who dissent, who have alternative visions for society; and just what are you going to do about them?

The answer, such critics assume, is that you will be compelled to censor and persecute the dissenters in order to make your society work. In other words, you will have to devolve into a violent dictatorship – like Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and North Korea – whereby your utopia collapses into a dystopia. This, indeed, is one of the most prominent themes in dystopian fiction.

However, there’s three things that the anti-utopian chorus needs to remember:

First, every society is already a utopia to those who have power in it. Our current society is a utopia to the likes of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and other one-percenters. Our society is a utopia if you’re a fossil fuel company or Wall Street banker putting profits before people, the planet and the future itself.

The only utopia we’re being told we can’t have, then, is one that serves ordinary people. This is why I contend that the real question is not whether we should create utopia but who we should create it for.

Second, every society already has dissenters. In every society there are people who disagree with the status quo and want things to be different. I should know; I’m one of them. And how do we respond to dissenters in the Western world today?

We pretty much just let them be.

This answer doesn’t exactly make for gripping dramatic fiction (which might be why it’s less heard of) but it’s true. Sure, you might be able to point to the odd exception, but on the whole we’re not rounding up dissenters and hurling them into labour camps and gas chambers. And there’s absolutely no reason why a push for a better world needs to be any different. If you can get enough people to agree with you that things should be different, then that’s all you need; you can just let the dissenters be. Change need be no more violent or scary than a majority vote.

Third, the odds are that you are already a utopian thinker. Yes, even if you believe yourself to be among the anti-utopians. How can I possibly say this? Because if you at all believe in “making the world a better place” (and granted, I may be going out on a limb here in assuming that you do) then you need to have at least some notion of an “ideal society” in that head of yours, some vision of what it is you want society to move towards, some standard by which you judge “better” and “worse” in the first place.

We might as well call this kind of thinking “utopian.”

THE OVERTON WINDOW

Of course, even if you decide that utopian thinking is a good idea, the first stumbling block you’ll face is a crowd of naysayers declaring: “It’s impossible!” “It’s naive!” Or my favourite piece of patronising condescension; “It’s nice in theory but doesn’t work in practice.”

I can’t help but wonder if they think society as it currently is “works well in practice,” and for whom? Sure, as we’ve seen, the status quo is fantastic if you’re currently sun-bathing poolside at your Malibu mansion, your biggest problem being the decision around whether to order steak or lobster for dinner. But ask an Amazon worker whose pay is docked for taking bathroom breaks, or a resident of the homeless encampments springing up around Los Angeles, if the status quo “works well in practice,” and you might get a somewhat different answer.

But ok, I’ll address the charge that an alternative is “impossible.” I’ll address it by saying I really don’t think it matters. After all, when 19th century advocates of the slave trade declared “It’s impossible to get rid of slavery” they were actually right; or at least, they have been right so far.

The Global Slavery Index estimates that roughly 40.3 million people – 71% women and 25% children – are currently living in modern day slavery.1 But this doesn’t mean we just throw up our hands and say “Ok, ending slavery is impossible so let’s just allow it.” No, we fight slavery anyway – whether ultimate victory is “possible” or not – because it’s the right thing to do.

But the main thing to remember about the charge that an alternative is impossible is that they always say that. Whatever it was – democracy, women’s rights, minority rights – those who benefited from things staying the same always shouted “It would never work!”

Yes, at first, a new way of doing things is always seen as “unthinkable.” But give it time; sometimes the “unthinkable” comes to be seen merely as “radical.” And one generation’s idea of “radical” can become the next generation’s “acceptable.” If you’re lucky, the “acceptable” graduates into “sensible,” which is the precursor to it becoming “popular,” and finally, “inevitable.”

This is called the “Overton Window” in political science; that is, the “window” showing the range of “acceptable opinion” in society.2

Once upon a time, feudalism, torture, wife-beating, abducting human beings from their homes and selling them as farm equipment, were all “within” the Overton Window. Basic human decency and treating human beings as human beings all fell far outside of it in the “radical” and “unthinkable” zones.

Thankfully, the Overton Window has moved over time- but only because we didn’t listen to the cries of “It’s impossible!” and we made it move.

All of which, of course, only begs the question: Where could – or should – the Overton Window move next? And with that in mind, I think it’s time to take Rawls up on his challenge, to do the “unthinkable” and “radical” thing of actually imagining an “ideal society.”

REASON

This has to be “first principle” of any society that claims to be sane. Though some like to talk about “common sense,” this term has long been deployed as a cover for a lack of any actual reason and evidence. It’s almost synonymous with “going with your gut,” which really amounts to little more than relying on your personal biases and prejudices.

Basing a society on reason means basing policy on actual scientific evidence and the consensus of expert opinion. Reason means that, actually, not all opinions are equal, that we don’t have to give “equal time” to “both sides” when one side is the majority of experts in the relevant field, and the other side is a minority of internet trolls and Joe Randoms who watched some Youtube videos.

This is worlds away from what we often get, which is policy based either on ideology, in which it’s impossible to change one’s mind, or on simple loyalty to one’s political or religious “tribe.” Should we tax the rich? Legalise gay marriage? Regulate businesses? Forget the evidence, what does my tribe believe? What will make me “part of the group” and what will ostracise me as an “outsider”?

We’re social animals and, as such, none of us are immune to the siren-song of tribalism. But we also carry within us the antidote, and that is our capacity to reason.

Of course, “reason” itself has long had its sceptics, but as I’ve dealt with this at length in another post I won’t labour the point here. I’ll just say that, sure, human reason is fallible, it does make mistakes, but at the end of the day it’s all we’ve got; to give up on it is to surrender to madness.

WELL-BEING

Imagine a society that prioritises well-being as its primary indicator of societal health, rather than wealth. The difference is that while caring about well-being would necessarily include caring about its wealth, just caring about its wealth does not necessarily include caring about its well-being.

You don’t have to imagine too much; Bhutan has become famous for replacing its measurement for national success from Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for Gross National Happiness (GNH).3 This is a victory for the “naive” and “idealistic” notion of putting people before profits.

Such a society might put more resources into mental health, rather than profit-seeking drug companies. It might support ethical businesses that are good to workers, consumers and the environment, not ones that wage war on all that is good, and so forth.

Conservative voices of the world’s superpowers have always trumpeted that their nation is “number one” – the Roman Empire, the British Empire, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, the United States. There’s nothing less exceptional than loud claims of exceptionalism. Yet what such voices usually mean is that they’re “number one” in terms of wealth and power.

But by the GNH metric – that is, the metric of what really matters- you are only “number one” if you top the world in healthcare, education, human rights, happiness. You are only “number one” if you use your wealth for more than just the acquisition of more wealth.

FREEDOM

Who doesn’t love freedom? Well, actually, dig just a little beneath the surface and you might find that some of the loudest defenders of “freedom” really only love freedom for themselves; screw everyone else. 19th century American slave owners fought an entire war to defend their “freedoms.” The freedom to do what? To own slaves. It’s like some sort of dark, twisted sit-com.

Maybe that’s just one those historical oddities that we look back on in disbelief, as we tell ourselves that we’re so much more enlightened in this day and age.

But the logic is really no different to those corporations today, who – in the name of “freedom” – want to scrap regulations protecting workers, consumers and the environment, while accusing anyone who questions them of being Nazis or Stalinists.

And then there are those ordinary people who, while claiming to be staunch advocates of “freedom,” are still oddly obsessed with discriminating against people for their sexual orientation, gender identity or lifestyle choices even when they cause no harm to anyone else whatsoever. I wonder what the word “freedom” could possibly mean in their vocabulary.

Because I know what it means in mine; the classical formulation of freedom, that is, the freedom of people to do as they like so long as it doesn’t harm anyone else. Somehow, the second part of that sentence has been forgotten by some. It shouldn’t really need to be said that to care about freedom is also to care about the freedom of others, and that to care about the freedom of others is not to be a Nazi or Stalinist sympathiser.

Now that might just be the strangest sentence I’ve ever had to write.

DEMOCRACY

In Western nations, we all say we believe in it and we all believe we live in it. But how true is that, really? We vote every few years for other people to make decisions for us and congratulate ourselves on how we live in a country “of the people, by the people and for the people.” But any country with inequality will tend see democracy distorted in favour of those at the top of society.

When a Princeton University study found that the United States government served the wealthy far more than it served ordinary people, it wasn’t a matter of conspiracy theory or some radical’s hyperbole; it was the result of sober research comparing the likelihood of a law being passed with whose interest that law served.4 The United States is one of the clearest examples of money’s distortion of democracy.

The simplest solution is to get money out of politics with publicly funded elections. Politicians serve those who pay them. If they’re paid by private donors, then they will serve those private donors; it’s a system of “legalised bribery.” But if they’re paid by the people, then they are more likely to serve the people. That’s just a fact.

But a call for greater democracy need not stop there. What about democracy in the workplace? Think about how odd it is that we say we live in a democracy, and yet we actually spend most of every day inside an institution that is, to all intents and purposes, a dictatorship.

Workplace democracy essentially means that workers own (or co-own) their own workplaces. Gone is the separation between boss and worker; gone is the fundamental divide between owning class and working class; gone is the age-old exploitation of one by the other. The workers hold the power, elect their managers, and divide profits equitably.

It is in this way that a more equal society, with less of the democracy-distorting tendencies that inequality brings, can be created bottom-up; not just through top-down taxation that doesn’t really change the fundamental structure of the economy.

I’m sure I’ve strayed far outside the Overton Window now, but calls for “workplace democracy” are nothing new. In fact, any cries of “It’s impossible!” need to remember that this has already long existed in the form of worker cooperatives; I’m just calling for this long-standing model to become more commonplace.

MERITOCRACY

The issue of inequality has crept in, and that won’t go unchallenged, I’m sure. Yes, today’s CEOs earn 354 times their average workers’ salaries,5 and the world’s billionaires earn enough extra billions in a year to solve world poverty seven times over.6 But the “richsplainers” tell us this is all ok; the rich are rich because they earned it and the poor and poor because they’re lazy. Meritocracy, not equality, is the mantra of the day.

Well, fine. Of course people should be rewarded for the value of their contribution to society, and not for their laziness, incompetence or downright anti-social behaviour. But I guess that means teachers, nurses, garbage collectors, and so forth are all in for a massive pay rise; while all those CEOs, corporate lawyers, hedge fund managers and Wall Street bankers may well see their bank balances plunge into the negatives.

Oops.

Oh, but those corporate types work hard? Well, those teachers and nurses work hard too. Maybe harder. Besides, I’m sure Hitler “worked hard” on his rise to power too, so forgive me if I don’t find this point compelling. I’d say that if even a casual, part-time sandwich maker makes a more positive net contribution to society in a day than Wall Street bankers and so forth do in their entire “hard-working” careers, then the “merit” belongs to the sandwich-maker.

The truth is, a real meritocracy might well see society become more equal, not less. After all, no one really believes that CEOs work 354 times harder than their average workers, or that their work is 354 times more valuable. If those CEOs were remunerated according to the actual “merit” of what they do, they might just find themselves on a more level footing with their average workers.

JUSTICE

There’s few things more instinctive that our sense of fairness. Every two-year-old who’s been given less ice cream than their sibling has a concept of justice. Yet just as inequality distorts democracy, it also inevitably distorts justice.

Not to pick on the United States, but – for some reason – the evidence of a “two-tiered justice system” seems to be clearest there. Take Ethan Couch, who got behind the wheel drunk and ended up killing four pedestrians and injuring several others; who was let off lightly because his lawyer argued he suffered “affluenza,” the supposed “condition” of being raised in such affluence that he didn’t know the consequences of his actions.7

Or there’s Brock Turner, who, for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman, received a pathetic sentence of only 6 months jail time.

He was released after 3 months.

For “good behaviour.”8

Clearly, having the money to afford good lawyers and long trials, or even just money to have well-to-do judges sympathise with you as “one of their own,” pays off. But I can’t help imagine what would happen if a poor black man had committed the exact same crimes…

Actually, of course, I don’t need to imagine; most of us know perfectly well the stats showing that minorities tend to get longer and harsher sentences than whites for similar crimes, if not just killed outright in the street.

No, an “ideal society” has to have a better concept of justice than this; and it begins by mitigating the distorting effects of inequality through genuine democracy and genuine meritocracy.

ENVIRONMENTALISM

Obviously we need to put the environment front and centre. No environment means no society; without it none of the other principles matter. There should be a minimum “green standard” for any new law, regulation or technology. An environmental crisis like the one we are currently facing should be treated as much of an emergency as an existential war. I think this is obvious enough that I don’t need to explain it more than this.

IMAGINING SHANGRI-LA

I don’t want to be misunderstood. When I list problems with the status quo, I don’t do so to get down about society but because I see hope for something better. And the reason I see hope for something better is because of how far we have come; something we should never lose sight of.

And there’s no reason why progress can’t continue. Just as we look upon our ancestors and shake our heads in disbelief at their backwardness and barbarism, so too might our descendants shake their heads in disbelief at us; at the way we treat animals, or the environment, or each other.

And that will be a good thing; because it means we will have grown. It will mean we didn’t listen to the naysayers and the chorus of “It’s impossible.”

It means we will have taken a step towards Shangri-La.

What Dreams May Come: Dealing With Anxiety About the Future

You and your family board a plane.

As the plane takes off, something strange starts to happen. The passengers get out of their seats and start removing or damaging ever-increasing portions of the plane itself: engine, wings, fuel pumps, navigation, electrical, windows, steering, etc.

Understandably, you start to panic. You rush over to the passengers and confront them one by one, trying to talk to them, shake some sense into them. Their response?

“What? The plane isn’t being destroyed.”

“Ok, the plane is being destroyed, but it’s not being destroyed by human action.”

“Fine, the plane is being destroyed by human action but saving it would be bad for the economy.”

“Look, to be honest, I don’t really care about the plane.”

There’s no prizes for guessing what this is about.

ANXIETY ABOUT THE FUTURE

It’s the blessing and the curse of the human race: our ability to imagine the future.

We live in the best time to be alive in all of history, yet research shows that anxiety about the future is on the rise.1 The reason for this is no great mystery: climate change, pollution, ocean plastic, etc. etc. etc.- we’re all so familiar with this list of human stupidity that I’m sure I don’t need to give you a full run-down.

Yet frankly, our responses to the planetary crisis have been those of children. I’m not just talking about politicians and corporations who refuse to take action because they stand to lose out on short-term profits. To call these people “children” is an insult to children.

No, I’m talking about us. Some of us also find it easier to bury our head in the sand and ignore the problem. Some of us even do so in the name of “mindfulness” and “being present,” as though mindfulness can be equated with its opposite: wilful ignorance and distraction.

Still others resort to the infamous defence mechanisms of denialism and minimisation, somehow convincing themselves that they, their favourite media pundits and their social media memes know better than 97-98% of the world’s scientists. Who knows, maybe they find refuge in the other 2-3%, whose results either can’t be replicated or contain errors.2

And even our intelligent, trained and experienced therapists seem to have difficulty coming to terms with reality-based anxiety. It’s one thing to coach someone through their delusional or distorted thinking about the future, but what do you do when the person’s anxiety is a completely natural, normal, human response to the existential threat of living on the cusp of the earth’s “sixth mass extinction”?3

There appears to have been an almost reflexive tendency to pathologise such people, to treat them as though it’s all just in their head. One story tells about a woman who spoke up about her anxiety over the increasing severity of droughts in her area, only to have her therapist respond with: “Ok, but what is this really about?”4 The notion that climate change might actually be the sole cause of the woman’s anxiety seems to have been outside the therapist’s idea of legitimate options.

Then we have people who acknowledge reality, yet who shut down under the weight of it all, losing all hope and motivation to do, well, anything at all. And – full disclosure – I’m really talking about myself here. But then I decided that this kind of curling-up-in-a-ball-in-the-corner response is not much more useful than denialism.

I refuse to believe that the only answer is to ignore the problem, deny the problem, pathologise the problem or shut down. I refuse to believe that there is no mature, responsible way of managing our entirely natural anxiety about the future.

What follows is my attempt at sketching out a road map for navigating this problem. It’s actually a road map for navigating any crisis that might be causing us anxiety about the future, whether on the personal level or the global; but here, I’m applying it to the environmental crisis, as it the one that affects us all.

GROUND YOURSELF IN THE PRESENT MOMENT

I know, I know, I can see your eyes rolling. What good is meditation in a emergency? Don’t we have more important things to do? Isn’t meditation a luxury that should wait for later?

I say no. In fact, I contend that some degree of meditation is essential in an emergency. If you want to do your best thinking about any problem, you need to calm yourself first. Just think about the last time you were stressed out or anxious. Did you see things clearly and rationally? Did you make the best decisions? Were you your best self? I’m going to hazard a guess that the answer is no. So yes, I will start with meditation.

I’m not talking about a sitting-down, eyes-closed, legs-folded formal meditation, necessarily. I’m just talking about dropping into the present moment, taking a deep breath, relaxing your jaw, face, arms, body, taking a look at the people and objects around you; I’m talking about grounding yourself in the here-and-now.

You’re not trying to repress or ignore your anxiety about the future. You’re allowing it to be there, you’re just observing it from this place of calm in the present moment, this healthy distance where it has no power to overwhelm you. Because as long as you are grounded in the present moment, it doesn’t matter where your thoughts come and go, you always remain still. You become the rock in the storm.

And now you’re ready to “see things as they really are.”

KNOW YOUR DICHOTOMY OF CONTROL

Put everything into perspective by knowing your “Dichotomy of Control.” Write it down if you need to. Take all the things causing your anxiety about the future and sort them into two lists: the things you can control and the things you can’t. And recognise that if you control it, then there is no need to worry, and that if you don’t control it then there’s no point to worry.

You only really control yourself and what you do. You control whether you behave like an environmentalist or like a sociopath. You control whether you are a voice for reason or for madness, for sane environmental policy or for more of the same. You control what steps you take to organise with other like-minded non-sociopaths to put pressure on politicians and corporations.

Sure, most of what you worry about are probably the things you don’t control: the fires, the droughts, the floods, the sea level rise, etc. But if you don’t control them then you must recognise the utter pointlessness of your worry. As long as you’re doing whatever is in your power to control, then you’re doing enough.

Relax. You can only do what you can do.

CHECK YOUR FRAMING

Part of what’s in your control is checking that you’re framing the situation correctly. After all, the human brain’s tendency for cognitive lies, biases and distortions has a way of mutating problems into something they’re not.

Don’t let your negativity bias get the better of you, focusing disproportionately on the torrent of bad news and filtering out any good news. Certainly don’t do catastrophic thinking, blowing things out of proportion until you conclude that all is lost and there’s nothing for us to do but give up and shut down.

Stay clear of unfalsifiable thinking, insisting on your catastrophic framing against all reason. Avoid fortune telling, coming up with endless “what ifs” conjured up by fear. You are not a psychic and your knowledge of what will happen is limited.

Even if such biases are not distorting your thinking, chances are that you’re still framing the environmental crisis as a terrible problem for you to have. Sure it is; but do spare a thought for those who would consider all their prayers answered if only climate change was their problem.

There are people who have died in childhood, or who have endured harrowing lives in the shadow of war or poverty or oppression. There are people who have lived in times and places when the average life expectancy was 25, or when devastating plagues and invading armies could materialise on the horizon and destroy everything they know and love without warning.

In all likelihood, these people – these thousands, these millions, of people in human history – wouldn’t hesitate to trade places with you, even just to have had the life that you’ve had so far.

HOPE

Part of taking control of your framing, of not just focusing on the negative and the catastrophic, is to see the whole picture; and that includes the positive side.

I do get it; we do need people to grasp the truth of what’s going on, to not get complacent, and appeals to fear through scary statistics and wall-to-wall disaster coverage do make for potent calls to action. But doing this exclusively can just make people feel overwhelmed and burnt out. Worse, it seems that doom-and-gloom news only makes the deniers and minimisers dig in their heels even more. Which does make a kind of sense- how can appeals to fear break through their defence mechanisms when fear is the trigger of those very mechanisms?

We also need appeals to hope. If you can’t find it in politicians and corporations, find it in ordinary people; after all, those who benefit from things staying the same have never granted change willingly, they’ve always had to be pushed from below.

And the thing is – despite the loudness of deniers and minimisers online distorting our sense of their numbers – most ordinary people do live in the real world and do accept that climate change is real. This is especially true of the younger generation, and they will be the ones taking the reins in the future.

This is a good sign. As more people become aware and concerned, more pressure will be put on politicians and corporations. The more pressure is put on them, the more likely it is that politicians will pay a political price for their inaction, and that corporations will be wasting their money if they invest in environmentally harmful practices.

In fact, this is already happening; renewable energy overtook fossil fuels in 2020, in Europe.5 Even the United States, under a climate-change denying, coal-loving President, saw renewables on the upswing against fossil fuels: “Solar and wind farms dominated new power plant builds… while fossil fuel plants continue to be retired at record pace.”6

As the people change, the market changes. So even if you hold politicians and corporations to be greedy as all sin, just following the money wherever it leads like pigs to a trough regardless of damage to the planet, they may just end up following that money into an environmentally sane world anyway; because we will have made that happen.

Hope is more than just wishful thinking; it is a strategy. Research shows that hope allows us to see opportunities that pessimism might well make us miss.7 Hope motivates us to act on those opportunities, to persevere in the face of failure, setbacks and improbable odds. Hope gives us a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

As Noam Chomsky says: “If you assume that there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, that there are opportunities to change things, then there is a possibility that you can contribute to making a better world.”8

take courage from THE PAST

One of the most powerful ways to feel hope for the future is to look to the past.

Look at what we’ve achieved before. We fought slavery, feudalism, the divine right of kings. We took on draconian labour laws, misogyny and patriarchy, racism and white supremacy. The list goes on and on. Yes, of course we still have plenty of work to do on most of these things, but anyone who says we haven’t made significant progress in the past 200 years is just not paying attention.

They said slavery was necessary for the economy. They said democracy would lead to chaos and mob rule. They said workers’ rights would lead to all businesses shutting down. They said if we gave the vote to women then we’d have to give it to children and animals.

In short, they always said that we are naive radicals, that our demands are impossible, that a morally sane society is unworkable. They always said “That’s just life” and “It’s just the way things are.” They always said it with a straight face.

And each time, those of us on the right side of history won.

So chin up; we’ve done this before.

BECOME AN ACTIVIST

So you’ve calmed down, narrowed down what you control, corrected your framing, embraced hope and taken courage from the past; the only thing left for you to do now is take action.

Activism is, of course, the truest source of hope, since without it all of this is just academic anyway. The action you take could be anything from putting pressure on politicians and corporations directly, to raising awareness amongst the public to transform the political and economic landscape at large.

Organise; join with other like-minded “naive radicals” with “impossible” demands. Don’t believe the movies, whose protagonist-centred plots reinforce the myth that change is wrought by powerful individuals who rise above the huddled masses to become heroes. In the real world, the power of the people has always been the power of numbers; those huddled masses are the heroes.

What have you got to lose?

imagine what story you want to tell

Suppose all is lost. Suppose nothing is done and all the most horrific climate predictions come true. Suppose we land in some dystopian, Mad Max style climate apocalypse- you can fill in the picture.

Imagine your elderly, future self, huddled around the campfire with other survivors, watching the sun go down on the ashes of civilisation. There’s no TV, no Netflix, no internet. Your old dead phone is currently being used as a doorstop. All that you and your fellow survivors have to do to kill the time is swap stories of your lives in the “before times.”

So what kind of story do you want to tell? Do you want it to be a story of how you wasted your life in the “before times” in a state of worry about the future; a story of despair, of giving up early, leaving you now wondering if you contributed to the end of the world because of it?

Or do you want it to be a story of how you enjoyed the “before times” that you had by remaining present, calm, and rational; a story of courage, of fighting the good fight regardless of how it turned out, leaving you with absolutely no regrets?

It’s worth thinking about.

WHAT DREAMS MAY COME

Yes, our ability to imagine the future may seem like a curse.

But don’t forget that it is also our blessing. It means that we’re not only able to see what’s coming but also that we’re able to prepare for it; that we’re able to say no, we will not “go gently into that good night,” we will fight the good fight.

Our ability to imagine the future is, in fact, our only hope; whatever “dreams may come.”

Our Better Angels: The Link Between Mindfulness and Compassion

Mindfulness changes the way you see people.

As meditation practice steadily erodes your fears, anxieties and insecurities you naturally find yourself becoming less self-focused and more other-focused. You realise just how much your view of the world and of other people have been obscured by your self and your endless obsessions. This move from worrying about yourself to caring about others is like bursting through the fog and into open sunshine.

You find that to savour the present moment just as it is, without judgement, has a flow on effect in terms of savouring people in the present moment; just as they are, without judgement. Doing the right thing becomes something we want to do because it is who we are and it makes us feel good, as opposed to just being something we have to do in spite of ourselves because of external rules and threats of punishment.

This promised increase in compassion is one of the key selling points of mindfulness. And the idea that compassion is the key to happiness is the central insight of positive psychology, the science of well-being. After all, love is a source of happiness and contentment, not hate.

However, this is not quite the whole story.

THE LINK BETWEEN MINDFULNESS AND… BEING AN ASSHOLE?

According to new research, there are some people who do not become more compassionate after meditation practice. In fact – somehow, bizarrely – it seems that meditation can actually turn some people into assholes.1 Or, at least, into bigger assholes than they already were.

And wrapping our heads around this strange fact is necessary if we want to practice meditation in a way that does bring out our better angels.

So how could meditation make you worse, if you were so inclined? Well in this scenario, as meditation erodes your fears, anxieties and insecurities, you might well reach a state where you don’t worry about anything; including other people or what they think of you. And for all that “not caring what other people think of you” is held up as a virtue in our culture, a healthy fear of the opinion of others is in fact a key part of what makes us consider other people’s feelings in the first place.

A lack of this kind of fear is a distinguishing trait of sociopaths.

As it turns out, the difference that makes the difference is one of framing. Those whose compassion is increased by meditation are those with a more collectivist outlook on life; they value interdependence, co-operation, the common good of the whole. While those who, well, become assholes, tend to have a more individualist outlook; they prize independence, competition and their own individual good.

In the first experiment, participants were screened for their attitudes towards individualism and collectivism, and then told about an opportunity to volunteer stuffing envelopes for a non-profit organisation. Those who already saw themselves in more individualistic terms were less likely to volunteer after meditation.

A second experiment was more interesting still; here, researchers actually chose people at random to be primed to think of themselves in individualistic or collectivistic terms. Stunningly, for those primed for individualism, meditation decreased their likelihood of volunteering by a shocking 33%. Yet for those primed for collectivism, meditation increased their likelihood of volunteering by a relatively encouraging 40%.

Historically, Eastern cultures where meditation has flourished have tended to be more collectivist, and this is reflected in their major religious traditions. Buddhism emphasises pratitya-samutpada, the interdependent origination of all things. Taoism has its Ying-Yang symbol, representing the dependence of seeming opposites upon eachother. And Hinduism gives us the poetic image of Indra’s Net, where each person is represented by a perfectly clear jewel that reflects every other jewel in the net.

Modern Western cultures, in contrast, have been individualist. This would seem to make the introduction of meditation to the West a mixed blessing at best, running the risk of turning us into a society of borderline sociopaths and narcissists. But the genie can’t be put back into the bottle; meditation can’t be untaught to the West, and nor should it.

The real solution for the West seems obvious: if we want meditation to cultivate our better angels and not our inner asshole, we need to bust the myth of individualism.

THE MYTH OF INDIVIDUALISM

Now, I know that by even daring to question the gospel of individualism, in some people’s minds I might as well be trying to argue against truth, justice, and all that is good and holy in the world. In the West, the word “individualism” still rings with positive connotations: it’s said to be about being your own person, bucking the trend, going against the grain, standing out from the crowd. It’s almost synonymous with freedom itself.

The word “collectivism,” on the other hand, has suffered enormously. While it may still have positive connotations in some quarters, it has generally been conflated with blind conformity and submission to authority. Even the notion of working for “the greater good” or “the common goal” has been demonised in Western film and literature as a kind of trick used to trample a character’s individual rights.

However, individualism has some crippling flaws. For example, going against the crowd isn’t always a good thing. Take this image, meant to embody the noble spirit of individualism in all its glory:

The spirit of individualism/entitled douchbaggery.

I’m sure to some people that little red man is a hero, refusing to march in the same direction as everyone else, boldly beating his own path and blah blah blah. But he is also clearly an asshole. Look at him, selfishly blocking the stairway and effectively saying “screw you” to everyone behind him who is just trying to make their way down- all because he wants to be a uniquely special individualistic douchebag.

Yes, little man, I get that you’re privileged enough to be all bright and red like that while everyone around you is condemned to a grey, colourless palette. Good for you. Now get over yourself.

Individualism isn’t even the bastion of freedom that it’s cracked up to be. Think about it: as a lone individual you have little power against an overbearing boss, or corporation, or government, or any other powerful entity. As a lone individual, you will be crushed and dismissed as a fringe radical at best.

No slave was ever freed, no woman ever got the vote and no minority group ever won civil rights because of a lone individual fighting the unjust power structures of society. Every instance of progress in history has only happened because of people joining together and using their collective strength to demand change.

There is, in fact, nothing that those with power would love more than for everyone to define themselves in solely individualistic terms, in which (despite some people’s delusions of grandeur) they are rendered an easily manageable non-threat.

Collectivism, on the other hand, literally just means working together for a common purpose. If the word bothers you so much then just substitute the word “teamwork” – no one criticises teamwork as hostile to personal freedom. That would be ridiculous.

Society is impossible without some degree of collectivism (a.k.a teamwork) simply because we have to work together to get anything done. There is a reason why collectivism, and not individualism, is the moral and social core of every major religious tradition; it’s not to try and control you (as some paranoiacs might think), but just so communities can function.

Take the shirt you’re wearing right now. Oh sure, you bought it yourself; congratulations on your “rugged individualism.” But who did you buy it from? What clerk at what store gave you the option to purchase that shirt? What truck driver delivered that shirt to the store? What cargo ship brought it across the sea from where it was originally made? Who actually cut the material and sewed the shirt together? Who was the cotton farmer who produced the material in the first place?

And that’s just your shirt. Take any item you use during the day – your phone, your computer, your cup of coffee, public roads, etc. etc. – and think about all the people who contributed to the stuff you enjoy – and need to survive – on a daily basis. As much as we like to think of ourselves as self-reliant, everything we have is the result of a collective effort where we enjoy the fruits of each other’s labour.

Our mutual interdependence, therefore, is not just some ancient piece of Eastern religious metaphysics; it’s not just some warm and fuzzy abstract concept for hippies to hug each other over; it’s a brute fact of life. If you insist on your individualism and self-reliance, I invite you to run naked into the woods and start making your own clothes, shelter, food, everything, from scratch. Good luck with the dental hygiene.

You’ve been lied to. Literature, film, the media, even the way we tell history, portray the world as though it’s all about exceptional individuals doing exceptional things. This effectively sidelines those countless invisible, nameless, forgotten persons who these individuals depended upon to make things happen.

Take lines in popular history books like “The Pharaoh Khufu built the Great Pyramid” or “Ghenghis Khan conquered Asia.” By themselves, I wonder? I would love to have seen them try. More likely both of these assholes were living it up in a relative lap of luxury (even if it was in a tent), while thousands of slaves and soldiers suffered and died doing all the real work.

Yes, sure, fine, sometimes a lone individual can be right while all the rest of society is wrong. Sometimes, a given collective can be tyrannical or oppressive. But even then, the stories of individuals fighting such collectives tend to impress us only because they ultimately benefit the collective whole; that is, the people at large. Those individuals who are just out for themselves – blocking the stairway, so to speak – do not inspire our awe and admiration in quite the same way.

Unless, of course, you’re an asshole.

AWAKENING our better angels

A core theme of mindfulness is that it’s supposed to lead to insight, to puncturing illusions, to “seeing things as they really are.” Seeing through the illusion of individualism is no different. And once we do – that is, once our meditation practice is properly aligned to reality and not to fantasies of complete independence and separation from others – then our meditation will indeed work as it should to make us more compassionate people.

Compassion can be an expression of who we are, and not merely of our fear of rules and punishment. The loss of fear in meditation can lead to opening up to other people, not to arrogant disregard of them. Savouring the present moment can lead to savouring other people, not to mindless self-absorption.

Collectivist – or reality – based meditation can awaken the better angels of our nature.

Be the Change: Mindfulness and Social Justice

What do you think of a monk going off to meditate in a cave for years at a time? How about decades?

Such a person might well be the world champion of meditation. Maybe they are a bona fide Enlightened One. Or maybe they’re a certifiable headcase from the lack of human social interaction.

But the thing is, either way, what good are they? What good is the infinite compassion of an Enlightened One who never interacts with people with whom they can be compassionate towards? What good is a Buddha or a Jesus who no one has ever heard of?

The issue of whether mindfulness is compatible with engaging with the world and seeking social justice is a surprisingly contentious one. I always just took it as a given that a practice centered on increasing your insight and compassion would make you think to extend that compassion beyond yourself and your immediate circles, to care about wider society.

At the very least, I would’ve thought that even a purely selfish person would have to care about the social, economic and environmental conditions in which they, themselves, live… But I was wrong.

THE OPIUM OF THE MASSES?

Some critics of the mindfulness movement have been concerned that it is essentially anti social change. In this view, meditation pretty much makes us like the monk in the cave, withdrawing from the world to self-indulgently work on changing ourselves at the expense of changing the world.

Ronald E. Purser, for instance, has infamously coined the term “McMindfulness” to describe the way that mindfulness has become “the new capitalist spirituality.” 1 Essentially, corporations have jumped on the mindfulness bandwagon; and anyone who has walked by a store and seen a sale sign for “Mindfully Made Jeans” and the like has an idea of how mindfulness has been co-opted by consumer materialism.

But Purser’s concerns go further than that. Employers have been forcing their workers to attend professional development meetings and workshops in mindfulness; not because they care about their workers gaining special insight into their minds or the world, but because a happy worker doesn’t complain or go on strike.

Turns out, when mindfulness is tweaked the right way, it can become the new opium of the masses, a potent concoction for creating a zombie horde of happy slaves, all “living in the moment” in order to avoid their real problems.

Far from empowering us to “see things as they really are,” then, meditation wraps us in a blindfold to blissfully sleepwalk into the abyss as the world burns down around us. At best, this “mindful” renunciation of the world is a tacit endorsement of the status quo, an unthinking embrace of the unfair and exploitative power relations that exist in our society.

And even if the workers themselves won’t have it, mindfulness is still a great excuse for employers to just pull out the classic and well-worn blame-the-victim card: “No, my workers’ problems can’t possibly have anything to do with the fact that they’re precariously employed, overworked and underpaid while facing crushing bills, no- it’s just because they’re not being mindful enough.”

PRIVILEGE BLINDNESS

More soul-crushing is that fact that there seem to be plenty of people in the mindfulness movement who are happily doing their utmost to prove their critics right. I’ve mingled in circles of people at meditation workshops or online forums who have quite cheerfully dismissed the idea of engaging in politics or social justice, viewing these as antithetical to their goal of cultivating mindfulness.

Fighting for a cause is frustrating, agonising, stressful. Why would you do it when you can just be blissfully mindful and non-attached to it all? I have no way of knowing scientifically just how widespread this frankly terrifying attitude is, but I’ve seen it enough to know it exists.

The truth is, it takes a certain degree of privilege to even be able to articulate the sentence “I don’t care about politics or social justice.” A slave – to take an extreme example – doesn’t have the luxury to utter such a sentence unless they are one hell of a masochist. All that sentence tells me is that you, personally, are comfortable enough that you are able to insulate yourself from society’s cracks and flaws and tell yourself that “all is well.”

When nothing is actually forcing you to look, it is always easier – less stressful, less frustrating – to just turn a blind eye than to make the effort to see the world from the point of view of someone less privileged than yourself. The term for this is “privilege blindness.”

And sure, it would have been much easier for 19th century abolitionists to not bother fighting slavery, to just retreat into a cave and bliss-out in meditation. But it should be obvious that the fact that something is easier and less stressful does not make it right. If your mindfulness practice makes you go for the easier option just because it’s less stressful, well… I can see why some might start to sympathise with mindfulness’ critics.

MINDFULNESS AND SOCIAL JUSTICE

But mindfulness critics like Purser are only half right. At the end of the day, meditation is a tool; whether it’s a “good thing” depends on how you use it. Just as a hammer can be used to build a house or to crush a skull, meditation can be used to deepen your insight into your mind and the world, or to turn you into a happy slave or a blissful ignoramus.

There is, in other words, such a thing as right mindfulness and wrong mindfulness; a distinction that was always present in Buddhism but which seems under-emphasised in the modern mindfulness movement.

As philosopher David Loy has said, mindfulness and social justice need each other. 2 Mindfulness without social justice is the shallow, self-absorbed mindfulness of the comfortable and the privileged; it is not the mindfulness of love and compassion.

And yes, fighting for social justice without mindfulness is indeed stressful and frustrating; it is easy to get down, get angry or get overwhelmed. Far from making us just drop out of the fight and ignore the world’s problems like a sociopath, mindfulness, by allowing us to just take a breath, step back and see things more rationally, can actually empower us to respond to such problems more effectively.

None of this is to say that there is never a time and place for focusing on yourself. I’ve been there. There was certainly a time when I had far too many problems of my own to contend with without also having to battle the Keystone Pipeline or the resurgence of Neo-Nazi numbskulls. Sometimes you do have to take the time to work on yourself before you can take on the world.

But if you claim to give a damn about others, that your mindfulness practice has something to do with compassion, then eventually – when you are able – you have to return to the world and show it.

Sure it’s a cliché, but that’s only because it’s true: You must be the change you want to see in the world.