the end of utopia

As Yukoners, we face the first real chill of the winter of 2011-2012 with a certain resignation. We generally know what the inevitable round of the year has in store for us. We are northerners, after all.

As Yukoners, we face the first real chill of the winter of 2011-2012 with a certain resignation. We generally know what the inevitable round of the year has in store for us. We are northerners, after all.

There always are surprises though.

I remember 10 or 12 years ago playing baseball with a high school phys-ed class on the FH Collins’ lower field in mid-November. Then again, there was the winter of ‘94-95 when I learned how to use a tiger torch for the first time and ice formed on the inside of triple-pane windows here in Whitehorse.

As for the current global season of discontent, no one seems able to be able to anticipate how the mounting series of economic, environmental and social crises leading us all awry will turn out.

The G-20 leaders gathered in Cannes, France, appear stuck. They seem more like micromanagers racing around desperately trying to patch up the leaks in a system that really demands a sweeping overhaul and visionaries able to see a way forward.

Has the die already been cast?

Lewis Mumford published his classic work The City in History in 1961. In it he pointed to two archetypal models of development.

“The first was the path of voluntary co-operation, that of mutual accommodation, of communication and of broader understanding. The other was that of predatory domination that leads to exploitation without mercy and, in time, to a parasitic weakening since the way of expansion, with its violence and conflicts, transformed the city itself into an instrument destined to extraction and concentration of surplus.”

We know which way global development has gone.

Thomas More published a small work in 1516 on the fictional discovery of a new island he called Utopia. Wars and the bleeding away of resources in empire building and other costly ventures, coupled with poverty-creating wealth grabs, like enclosure movement in England, demanded a response. Reflecting on this model offered More the opportunity to critique of the state of Europe in the early 16th century.

Some people, like Vasco de Quiroga, a 16th-century judge and bishop in Mexico, took More’s ideas to heart. He sought to create model communities for indigenous Mexicans free from the gross exploitation and abuse that followed hard on the heels of the Spanish colonization of their lands.

Years ago, I worked in one of Quiroga’s rural villages, Santa Fe de los Altos, outside Mexico City. It has since been swallowed by that megalopolis.

Are Utopian ideas even possible to imagine now? The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan proposed another measure for development some years ago. Instead of the Gross National Product as the marker of progress, they called for a Gross National Happiness quotient. Other countries of the global South, like Ecuador and Bolivia, are looking at their indigenous roots and rewriting their national constitutions to focus on ideals like the Quechua concept of “sumak kawsay” or a “good way of living.”

Maybe we now should be looking to the global South for our utopian inspiration and the leaders to move us all forward.

As the Brazilian theologian Paulo Suess says in the 2012 edition of the Latin American Agenda, “In human history, what appears radically new, revolutionary and messianic is always born in the peripheries and frontiers of empires.”

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact pazypan@yukon.net.