A Crisis of Imagination


The latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that humanity is on the brink of disaster. Time is running out to save the planet from the catastrophic effects of climate change. It is “now or never.” Yet governments and corporations are not doing enough to build a low-carbon society, and the citizens of the states that pollute the most appear unwilling or unable to make the significant lifestyle changes necessary to make the transition. The popularity among climate scientists of the clunky Hollywood blockbuster Don’t Look Up (2021) speaks to a sense of frustration, exasperation, even despair, about the possibility of a collective response adequate to the task. Perhaps an increase in the severity and frequency of climate disruption will provoke the necessary political, economic and cultural changes. Perhaps bold new technologies can limit the damage without radical changes to existing norms, values, and institutions. Perhaps states will, for once, collaborate effectively on addressing the crisis. Or perhaps it is already too late, and the apocalypse is now inevitable. The future of humanity is radically uncertain.

How, then, should scholars think about the future in the face of catastrophe? Do existing genres and styles of speculative thinking offer suitable imaginative resources? Does the onset of the Anthropocene, and the acceleration of human-created damage to the environment, render utopian thought obsolete or does it make it essential? What might it mean to hope for a better future when it is far from clear that humanity has any future at all?

Mathias’s Thaler’s excellent scholarly monograph No Other Planet explores such questions in exemplary fashion. Thaler, a political theorist based at the University of Edinburgh, brings an admirable combination of theoretical sophistication, interdisciplinary erudition, and hermeneutical sensitivity, to bear on them. The result is an original piece of work that should be of considerable interest to scholars within and beyond political theory. Thaler contends that we – decision-makers, citizens, political theorists – face a “crisis of the imagination,” a failure to think boldly about other ways of being, other forms of life suitable to living – whether thriving of just surviving – in a climate-changed world. We are sleep-walking to disaster. There is a growing body of social scientific work dedicated to exploring the impacts of climate change and designing policy responses to it. (Despite the growth of interest in the subject, it continues to play a surprisingly limited role in political science). Much of the scholarship in environmental political theory focuses on questions of justice, rights, and duties, exploring (for example) the obligations that the high polluting states owe to lower polluting ones, or what current generations owe to future generations, or what sets of political institutions and public policies are best fitted to realizing particular conceptions of justice, equality, liberty or democratic governance. Thaler blazes a different trail, making a cogent and impassioned case for the necessity of utopian thinking – and the salience of fictional world-building – in navigating a deeply uncertain future. “[W]e do not have much chance of survival unless we take the task of figuring out better ways of being and living very seriously indeed,” he warns. The conventional tools of social science and political theory, while useful in various ways, offer little help in imagining alternative worlds. Indeed it is precisely because the future is so radically uncertain that the ability to conjure up different worlds, from the eutopian through to the apocalyptic, is vital for orienting us. New maps are needed when the old ones no longer help to make sense of the terrain. Disciplined speculation of one kind or another is a key element of any convincing answer to the crisis of imagination.

Standing at the intersection of political theory, utopian studies, and environmental humanities, No Other Planet offers a valuable model of boundary-crossing interdisciplinarity. Thaler has two primary goals: to offer a critical analysis of the forms of thinking about the future found in contemporary environmental discourse, and to defend the importance of utopianism in remaking the world. (Like most contemporary scholarship on the subject, he reads dystopianism as a part of the utopian tradition). He is alive to the dangers of utopian thought. Steering a course between two conventional traps that confront utopians, wishful thinking – here represented by a glib form of techno “solutionism” – and political fatalism – which besets some types of dystopianism – he offers an account of political hope that aims to be realistic about the present conjuncture. Following political philosopher Miguel Abensour, Thaler defines utopianism as “the education of a desire for being and living otherwise.” Neither a static and detailed blueprint for an ideal society, nor a form of political perfectionism, utopianism instead “amounts to a flexible method … that can be applied to the anticipatory modelling of an uncertain and risky future.”

Utopian writers, Thaler argues, deploy three main mechanisms for achieving affective and cognitive results: estranging people from their existing world, galvanizing action through identifying appropriate forms of collective action, and cautioning against the dangers of adopting particular options. One size does not fit all. Different types of utopian/dystopian writing perform different imaginative and political roles. Estrangement aims to defamiliarize the audience, making people see the world from a different perspective, and in so doing unsettling their understanding of it. Utopian estrangement is essential for precipitating change, as it shows both the arbitrariness of the existing order and posits alternatives to it. As Thaler puts it:

Utopias supply us with one possible antidote to the crippling sensation that the “game is over”, by demonstrating that things could be otherwise and by restoring a sense of self-reflective orientation, through the manufacturing of imaginary maps that may guide us out of these greatly deranged times. In this process, the importance of estrangement cannot be overestimated. Estrangement takes a first step toward changing the status quo: once the taken-for-grantedness of reality has been thoroughly shattered, it becomes feasible, in principle and in practice, to contemplate how one may improve the current order.

This is the predominant mode of utopianism, found in Thomas More’s genre-naming Utopia (1516) through the classics of nineteenth and early twentieth century utopian speculation – such as Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888), William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890), H. G. Wells’s A Modern Utopia (1905), and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1916) – to late twentieth century utopias, such as Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974). The risk of this kind of work is that the alternatives worlds fail to resonate, that they are too implausible, too distant from lived experience to generate critical reflection, and serve instead as a form of escapist fantasy. Galvanizing aims to convince people that there are feasible choices available for transforming society, that there is hope, even if limited, of creating change through concerted collective action. Work in this vein runs the risk of wishful-thinking, of downplaying the difficulties facing those seeking change or exaggerating the effectiveness of particular solutions. Cautioning, meanwhile, is the province of dystopian speculation. At its most effective – in Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) or Orwell’s 1984 (1948), for example – it can serve as a powerful warning against particular types of social and political order. Thaler is right to argue that dystopianism isn’t necessarily a form of anti-eutopianism (though it can perform that role). Many of the most significant dystopias leave room for utopian hope. The most compelling dystopias, then, “permanently strive to leave space for the cultivation of a radical sort of hope that is supposed to banish the shadow of defeatism. In other words, they do not stifle the basic dynamic from which all utopias spring.” But dystopia is haunted by the danger of fatalism, of presenting a world so grim, so overbearingly awful, that it offers little basis for hope, and as such is politically debilitating.

In defending utopianism against its massed ranks of critics, Thaler intervenes in a long-running set of debates in political theory. During the Cold War, prominent liberal thinkers such as Isiah Berlin, Karl Popper and Raymond Aron, turned firmly against the utopian impulse. Sometimes it was argued that utopian thought was largely irrelevant, a waste of time and energy. A distraction. Attention was better spent on more grounded, more realistic, more moderate, forms of politics. But the most common, and most influential, argument was that utopian thought was profoundly, and inherently, dangerous. The shadows of Auschwitz and the Gulag hung heavily over this line of critique, which was bound up with the general discourse on the causes and consequences of totalitarianism. Utopian politics, the Cold War liberals argued, necessitated the fundamental transformation of society in order to build a new promised land, and such change always involved violence – the repression, even the killing, of those who did not fit the model, or who wanted nothing to do with it. The Ends justified the Means. Eggs had to be broken to make the omelette. The middle decades of the twentieth century in Europe had demonstrated, once and forever, that political perfectionism exacted a terrible cost. Not everyone was convinced by that sweeping dismissal. New left thinkers, drawing from the well of Western Marxism, insisted on the continuing value of radical social dreaming in the face of domestic and global repression, poverty, and inequality. Thinkers such as Herbert Marcuse and Ernst Bloch developed sophisticated accounts of utopian thought that responded simultaneously to the traditional Marxist scepticism about utopianism – a line traceable to Marx and Engels’s contrast between utopian and scientific socialism – and the ideological blinkers of the Cold War. Their ideas helped to shape the field of utopian studies, which emerged in the 1970s, and Thaler engages at length with, and draws numerous insights from, a number of key thinkers working in this tradition, including Frederic Jameson, Darko Suvin, and Ruth Levitas.

Another response came from within the liberal tradition. John Rawls, the most influential liberal political philosopher of the closing decades of the twentieth century, defended a thin version of “realistic utopia” that spawned a research agenda built-round a distinction between what he termed “ideal” and “non-ideal” theorising. Insisting that both were essential, he nevertheless gave priority to the former, while mush recent liberal thought has sought to flesh out the latter. In contrast – in a position that Thaler doesn’t engage – Robert Nozick, Rawls’s Harvard colleague and libertarian critic, outlined a vision of utopia as a pluralistic framework in which radically different utopian communities might flourish. This would allow people to pursue diverse projects and goals rather than having to subscribe to a singular set of institutions and values. Working broadly within the tradition of critical theory, Thaler offers an effective rejoinder to both the Cold war liberal perspective and the Rawls-inspired debate over ideal and non-ideal theory. Against the Cold War liberals and their numerous heirs, he shows that utopianism cannot be reduced to the static blueprint models, or forms of perfectionist politics, that they worried about. Thaler is far from alone in pushing back in this manner – the Cold War liberal view is based on a crude caricature, and has been debunked many times, though it remains remarkably resilient. Gregory Claeys, one of the leading historians of utopianism, goes as far as to argue that the tradition is instead characterised by a prevailing anti-perfectionism (perfectionism, he avers, is a theological not a political ideal). While Thaler rightly accepts that the Cold warriors were correct to criticise some forms of utopianism as exceptionally dangerous, they erred in generalizing their critique, throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. They fell prey to the kind of totalizing claims they  sought to discredit. While Thaler’s discussion of Cold war liberalism will be familiar to scholars of utopian thought, his analysis is convincing and well-executed. In response to debates over ideal and non-ideal theory, he shows that the binary distinction is unhelpfully narrow, and that the debate as a whole is limited and offers little insight into the benefits and pathologies of speculative thinking. This line of argument is less familiar, as scholars in utopian studies rarely engage with “analytical” political theory in a Rawlsian mode (a notable recent exception is Douglas Mao’s Inventions of Nemesis: Utopia, Indignation, and Justice (2020), though Mao is rather more sceptical about the value of utopianism than Thaler). Methodological debates in political theory would be greatly enriched by a more serious engagement with the flourishing scholarship on utopianism produced outside of political theory – by sociologists, literary scholars, novelists, and cultural critics, among others – in the last half-century. Part of the problem, Thaler suggests, is an unwillingness to engage in serious interdisciplinary conversation.

The extensive analysis of the meanings of utopianism in No Other Planet is the most illuminating that I have come across in political theory. This is in large part a result of Thaler’s style and sensibility. He is a very generous interlocutor: rather than seeking to discredit or dismiss alternative viewpoints, or engaging in polemics with authors he disagrees with, he seeks out points of agreement or constructive elements that he can build on or incorporate into his own thinking, even as he is clear about what he rejects. As such, the book has an admirable cumulative synthetic quality, grounded in a view of scholarship as a shared endeavour rather than a blood-sport. It is an attractive scholarly virtue. Indeed it can be read as modelling some of the utopian openness and generosity that he seeks to diagnose and prescribe.

To demonstrate the value of his approach to utopianism, Thaler explores three of its principal forms in successive chapters. In each case he reads a handful of theoretical texts or policy documents alongside carefully chosen examples of speculative fiction. Rather than prioritizing one form of writing over another the aim is to use them to elucidate each other. The method works very well. An exercise in defamiliarization, Chapter 2 explores the idea that the Earth is an actor, capable of registering human impact and possibly fighting back against it. Thaler puts social theorist Bruno Latour’s re-conceptualization of the Gaia hypothesis (originally formulated by scientist James Lovelock) of the earth as a living system in dialogue with award-winning novelist N. K. Jemisin’s astonishing Broken Earth trilogy (2015-17). The most original pairing of theory and storyline in the book, this is a powerful meditation on both the nature of agency and the powers of the imagination in estranging us from our existing habits of thought. Thaler concludes by noting the characteristic weakness of this form of utopian thought – its lack of concreteness about what is to be done.

This faultline leads Thaler neatly into Chapter 3, which explores assorted eco-modernist arguments that stress the powers of technological ingenuity to successfully address the threat of climate change. Such work, he suggests, aims to galvanize action, identifying realistic prospects for change. After a subtle discussion of the differences in means and ends between socialist and liberal ecomodernists – a difference rooted in their contrasting evaluations of capitalism – Thaler turns to the work of the leading contemporary utopian fiction writer, Kim Stanley Robinson. Focusing in particular on Robinson’s Science in the Capital trilogy (2004-7), though ranging across his vast oeuvre, Thaler argues convincingly that Robinson attempts to “decouple” technoscience from the market in order to offer a plausible response to the current crisis. While Thaler acknowledges that at times Robinson’s work is open to the charge of wishful-thinking, he concludes that through his commitment to proceduralism, the incorporation of social-political conflict in his utopian visions, and the endorsement of open-endedness, Robinson offers a compelling response to the crisis of imagination. To probe the value – and the danger – of Anthropocene dystopias, Thaler turns to visions of apocalypse. Thaler reads some prominent lines of pessimistic climate literature, notably the writings of Roy Scranton the Dark Mountain Collective, against Margaret Atwood’s post-apocalyptic MaddAddam trilogy (2003-13). He argues that rather than eliminating hope entirely, such dystopian cautionary work aims “to recuperate a new kind of social dreaming that strives to become inoculated against wishful thinking.” The characteristic danger of this kind of work is that is collapses into defeatism, but the best writing in this vein – Atwood included – manage to avoid this fate. Even visions of the apocalypse, Thaler shows, contain within them seeds of utopian desire.

I’m left with a worry about the meaning and scope of utopianism. This is less a criticism of Thaler’s superb book than of prevailing understandings of utopianism. In short, I wonder if it is not now used in a manner that is too broad, too all-encompassing – the capacious breadth of utopianism means that it is in danger of losing its specificity and analytical purchase. If any and all attempts to change or improve the world can be subsumed under the utopian label, it isn’t clear what conceptual or political value it adds (indeed, given the still common scepticism about anything labelled utopian, it could serve as an impediment to political action). It might well be worth uncoupling utopia from other forms of political hope or desire. Not all social dreaming is utopian. I would suggest that utopianism is a category best reserved for visions of the world that are radically different from the present one, that involve a fundamental change in the order of things. In my book Dreamworlds of Race (2021) I suggested that we might distinguish between “anthropic” and “programmatic” modes of utopianism. The former conceives of utopianism as a pervasive aspect of the human condition: it names a longing for a better world. Thus in Michael Robertson’s recent book The Last Utopians (2018), utopianism is defined as “the envisioning of a transformed, better world.” On such accounts, it can cover anything from modest reform to revolution. The programmatic form is more restricted. On this account, I suggest, a political project can be considered utopian if, and only if, it invokes or prescribes the radical transformation, transcendence or elimination, of one or more pervasive practices, structures or ordering principles, that shape human collective life. This includes poverty, socio-economic inequality, organized violence, political authority, capitalism, the biochemical composition of the environment, or the ontological constitution of human beings, including death itself. Much of the material discussed in No Other Planet falls into that latter category, though not all of it – liberal eco-modernist work isn’t an easy fit, for example. But how could it be otherwise? To avoid the end of the world it will be necessary to change it fundamentally. Rather than something to be derided or avoided at all costs, utopian thought is more important now than ever before. Thaler offers us some essential insights into how we might think the daunting future.

About the Author

Duncan Bell is Professor of Political Thought and International Relations at the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of Christ’s College.