My utopian friend Micheal Bauwens points me to a piece which applies utopian thinking - the habitual mind-set of the authentic player - to our ecological crisis. But from a writer who's utopianism is about as hard-won as it can be.
I first read Mike Davis while spending some time in LA as a musician in the late eighties. I dimly wish I hadn't been reading his dissection of Los Angeles, City of Quartz (one of the best combinations of topic, style and intellectual rigour I've ever encountered) - I might have had a little more fun amid the pines in Laurel Canyon. I later met Mike in Sunnyvale, while doing a documentary for the BBC, and he spoke in paragraphs as lucid as his writing. I love embattled, yet deeply patriotic American socialists (Micheal Harrington, C. Wright Mills, Cornel West... don't start me) - as much for the impossibility of their aspiration as anything else. (And although I do have an Obama/Marx t-shirt, I ain't kidding myself).
This speech, delivered at the Brecht Forum, in New York, is called 'Who Will Build The Ark?" - and it's a summation of his recent writings warning us about megacities, avian flu and the ubiquity of violent terror. But with ineffable coolness - and this is enough to lead you into the rest of the piece - Mike has chosen to structure his essay according to a scene from Orson Welles' Lady From Shanghai, where a defence lawyer interrogates himself at the witness stand:
In the spirit of 'Lady from Shanghai,' I've organized this talk as a debate with myself, a mental tournament between analytic despair and utopian possibility that is personally, and probably objectively, irresolvable.
In the first half of the presentation, 'Pessimism of the Intellect,' I adduce arguments for believing that we've already lost the first, epochal stage of the battle against global warming. The Kyoto Protocol, in the smug but sadly accurate words of one of its chief opponents, has done "nothing measurable about climate change. Global carbon dioxide emissions arose by the same amount they were supposed to fall because of it." It is unlikely, moreover, that a post-Kyoto process can stabilize greenhouse gas accumulation this side of the famous 'red line' of 450 ppm by 2020.
If this is the case, the most heroic efforts of our children's generation will be unable to forestall a radical reshaping of ecologies, water resources, and agricultural systems. In a warmer world. Moreover, socio-economic inequality will have a meteorological mandate, and there will be little incentive for the rich Northern Hemisphere countries whose carbon emissions have destroyed the climate equilibrium of the Holocene to share resources for adaptation with those poor subtropical countries most vulnerable to droughts and floods.
The second part of the talk is my self-rebuttal ('Optimism of the Imagination'). I appeal to the paradox that the single most important cause of global warming - the urbanization of humanity - is also potentially the principal solution to the problem of human survival in the later twenty-first century. Left to the dismal politics of the present, of course, cities of poverty will almost certainly become the coffins of hope; but all the more reason that we must start thinking like Noah. Since most of history's giant trees have already been cut down, a new Ark will have to be constructed out of the materials that a desperate humanity finds at hand in insurgent communities, pirate technologies, bootlegged media, rebel science, and forgotten utopias.