Is Utopia Impossible?

Is Utopia Impossible?

By David Hallquist

The idea of ″post-scarcity″ postulates the idea that when technology advances to the point that everyone has their basic needs fulfilled, want, and need will disappear, and conflict over scarce resources will be limited and even disappear. At first glance, it is an attractive, and even plausible idea. Why not? Technology has enabled a level of material abundance where people can now live better then the kings of old. Certainly it can advance further, and provide even further abundance. Theoretically, with physical needs and security fulfilled, people would be able then to fulfill ever higher purposes. There are a number of premises at error with such post-scarcity utopian arguments.

One issue is that at any point in time, resources available are limited, and wants and desires are unlimited. Even were we to advance to a Type II civilization able to harass the entire energy of the sun, such abundance is not unlimited. What if I have a project I desire that requires two suns of energy? What happens when there are multiple claims upon the same amount of resources? Who decides how they are allocated, and by what criteria and method?

As to desires, we have seen when someone gets a car or computer, and then immediately desires the better model available. We could subsist upon bland, tasteless food and water, but once that basic need is filled, we desire food with actual taste. We do not simply desire a corrugated metal shed for shelter, but also light, air-conditioning, and computer access. We compete with each other, desiring what is better as soon as we become aware of it. Ultimately, whatever resources we develop, we will find more and more use for them, rendering them insufficient. This is not a critique of this human drive, after all, without it we likely would never have gotten out of the caves or developed space-flight.

Another issue is the constant need for challenges and stress. As intelligent mammals, we naturally want to conserve energy, time and valuable resources in our pursuit of goods. This prevents wasteful activity. However, in circumstances where we do not struggle at all, we decay in ability and health. The physical body declines in health and strength without strenuous activity, as does mental sharpness and memory. Activity, volunteerism, sports and other challenges are essential for living long into retirement. When human beings are not under some degree of stress and strain, we start to decay.

John Calhoun′s ″Mouse Utopia″ experiment provided all of the necessary space and food for rodents in an ideal physical environment free of predators, environmental hazards and other stresses. At first the population swelled, peaked and then crashed. It was not physical barriers that limited growth, though, as the population never reached anywhere near the limits of food and space in the ″utopia″. Behavioral changes, such as females attacking their own young, cannibalism, males attacking and seeking to mate with anything, and asexual mice retiring to the periphery all led to a population decline and collapse. Even when the population had declined substantially, normal behaviors did not return and the population collapsed to zero.

I submit that it was not the physical population limits that caused the issue (as the populations never reached the maximum) but the very ″Utopia″ itself that killed off the rodents. The mice and rats studied normally live in a very dangerous environment with hazards and predators, and with food and shelter scarcity that require their persistence and all the cleverness their little brains can manage. The ″Utopia″ environment was so alien to what they were adapted to, that they all went insane. Genetically, they were still the same. The physical environment had not changed and still had far more capacity. The behaviors which killed them then had to be learned. Behaviors which were needed to stay safe, obtain food and to mate, were no longer needed and thus not passed on. The rodents forgot how to live over multiple generations.

We are not mice, but we are living social learning beings. Human beings have come from an incredibly violent and dangerous environment where violent death and starvation were the common killers. A sedentary, passive ″Utopia″ where all of our whims were granted with minimum effort would likely be the end of us. We need challenges in order to live.

  • David, I agree with every word of your argument. Humans evolved to overcome challenges. Our minds developed to give us an advantage because they can solve problems. Without challenges and problems, we stop being human.

    That said, perhaps we will always succeed in finding problems even when none exist. For example, global poverty has been falling at an unprecedented rate, but many people believe the opposite. Our concept of what is a problem changes over time. A few decades ago nobody had a mobile telecommunications device (except the crew of the Starship Enterprise). Now they are so widespread that not owning a mobile phone is included in some definitions of poverty. The idea of relative poverty means that, in future, some will have rocket cars that can take them to Saturn, leading to poverty for those with a rocket car that goes no further than the Moon. Perhaps the pursuit of utopia guarantees we will never realize it?