Tragedies in Utopia, or KSR’s blind spot

Kim Stanley Robinson has devoted most of his career to trying to imagine Utopia, producing some good books on the way. As a conscientious multiculturalist, he even takes pains to incorporate an impressive array of cultures around the world into his books, though all of them somehow throw up heroes feeling precisely the same feelings and striving to achieve precisely the same ideals as middle-class left-wing late twentieth century Californians. One of the most obvious common features of all his Utopias is that material tragedies like starvation, poverty, violence, or oppression will be firmly tackled, yet emotional tragedies like broken hearts, betrayals, power games, even unloved or ungrateful children will continue as an inevitable part of life. After all, fixing material tragedies is just a matter of technology and organisation, whereas emotional tragedies just happen.

The only problem with that view is that it’s absurd.  No society, including our own, leaves emotional tragedies entirely to chance.  Every society has norms (starting as basic as “Don’t covet another person’s spouse”) which help minimise particular kinds of emotional tragedies, and the norms chosen have a strong effect on the frequency and nature of emotional tragedies.  For instance, if it’s socially unacceptable to live in the same house as your parents, there will be more lonely old people around than if it’s socially unacceptable to leave your parents on their own. If young people are encouraged to try living with and comparing several partners before making any commitment, then there will be more breakups – with all the accompanying suffering that we laugh uncomfortably about – than if young people are encouraged to avoid relationships until they’re ready to get married.

No doubt you can immediately see the problems that those particular solutions would cause – what about people who don’t get along with their parents, or people who commit to a partner who’s wrong for them? But if you suggested to, say, a Bedouin that they should adopt modern Western norms, they would just as quickly point to the problems I’ve mentioned.  Did you ever make an informed decision that the trade-off is worth it?  Or did you just accept these as the way things are?

The unexamined life may be worth living, but it’s no basis for a Utopia.  We devote enormous energy to creating prosperity and safety, which is well and good – but if we seriously want a better world, we need to think about interpersonal relations too.

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