Shaping debate on religion in public life.

Remembering Utopia?

16 Nov 2018

Associate Research Fellow John Reader reflects on past visions, future projections, and the need for a better world in the here and now.

Kelmscott Manor stands on the banks of the Thames about three miles east of Lechlade and 40 minutes west of Oxford. This remote location (for Oxfordshire) was, between 1871 and 1913, rented by William Morris and his family, one of the founders of the Arts and Crafts movement and associated with the Pre-Raphaelites such as Rossetti. Twice a week, it is open to the public, who can gain a sense of the attraction of the place itself, which is in part what enabled the unconventional lifestyles of its former residents.

Better known for his designs, perhaps, Morris was also a writer and one of his books, “News from Nowhere”, is described as a mixture of a socialist utopia and soft science fiction. The first now seems a dated concept in both respects, while the second does have more contemporary resonances. With thoughts of remembrance and the legacy of those who perished in two world wars and subsequent conflicts in mind, it set me thinking about how we now project ideas for a better world into the future. Ideas of utopia (a non-place, set in the future, but building upon and replacing present realities) have been largely replaced by science fiction. Elon Musk has grand plans to penetrate space itself, for instance, and the prospect of more readily available space travel seems to be getting closer.

For Morris and his contemporary art critic John Ruskin, the reaction was against an apparently grim world of industrialisation (what we now call pollution), the destruction of a quaintly romanticised and nostalgic rural way of life (which only existed for those with the freedom to pursue it), and the vision of a more equitable society where individuals were free to develop their own talents and use them for the benefit of the greater good.

So, what has happened in the meantime? And how might those who sacrificed their futures in the hope of a better future for those who would come afterwards consider what we have created? In some ways, the concerns of Morris and Ruskin still seem relevant in today’s world with its Fourth Industrial Revolution in the physical, digital and biological spheres. Recent images of mounds of plastic waste clogging up rivers or the pouring of toxic waste into our oceans disturb our view of so-called progress, let alone reports which continue to flag up the approaching dangers of global warming.

It is not surprising, then, that our thoughts of the future have abandoned ideas of a utopia based on life on earth and have turned instead to science fiction and life in Star Trek territory. Humans have made such a mess of this planet that we have to start looking beyond it for some vision of a better life.

Is this any more than another version of romantic escapism though? What would those whose names are read out across the country on November 11th think of all this?

I believe they would want to see us continuing to work for a better world here and now (and I mean here, not in space). They might also be keen to ask how and why we have reached a situation where: global inequalities have increased over the last 30 years; there is growing disillusionment with professional politicians and “experts”; anyone promising simple solutions and quick fixes can grab power; and the planet itself is in such a state that millions faced being displaced from our coastal cities and low lying islands. Is this really the legacy the people fought to defend in the past?

So, although we rightly turn the spotlight onto the past and remember those who stood firm so that others might live and thrive, we also need to shine a light into the future via the present and ask ourselves what we have made of the legacy that they have passed down to us. Are we doing justice to their sacrifice in the here and now? What will future generations (assuming we get that far) say about earth’s inhabitants of 2018? Serious thoughts for serious times, and a need for a vision which goes beyond that Fourth Industrial Revolution and our mistaken belief that our own intelligence can get us out of the holes we have created for ourselves. A different sort of Kingdom and its values are as necessary now as they were in the time of Morris and Ruskin.

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