Living as we do at the close of the twentieth century, enjoying the blessings of a social order at once so simple and logical that it seems but the triumph of common sense…
—Julian West, in a speech at Shawmut College, Boston, December 26, 2000
Julian West is a fictional character created by the late American writer, Edward Bellamy, for the preface of his utopian and futurist novel, Looking Backward 1887-2000. The novel, and the quote above, are not contemporary but rather were first published in 1888. The story revolves around a man named Julian West who was put into a trance by a “mesmerist,” accidentally sealed in an underground vault in 1887, and discovered in the year 2000 after being in a state of suspended animation for 113 years. Bellamy’s character awakens at the dawn of the 21st century to find a world of technological marvels. Writing seven years before the publication of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, Bellamy predicted the invention of something he quaintly called a “musical telephone,” which could deliver live music and speeches directly into people’s homes. The volume of the broadcasts could even be adjusted with a “screw” to accommodate individual listeners or a whole room. These musical telephones also had a clock mechanism that could be set in order to awaken someone to the sound of music. In addition to radios and clock radios he also imagined a credit card that would replace money, and would be used internationally in enormous indoor shopping malls. Americans traveling abroad would use an American credit card.
Bellamy predicted that the twentieth century would usher in a paradise that would be free of war, poverty, economic downturns, religious conflict, political corruption, social injustice, and inequality of the sexes. He thought the average person in the year 2000 would live to be 85 or 90 and there would be universal health care, maternity leave, and retirement at age 45. Bellamy also envisioned a world without tax collectors, bankers, merchants, lawyers, police, armies, prisons, private wealth or competition.
Bellamy’s description of where technology would be in the year 2000 has been realized and far exceeded. However, as regards social and economic issues we have fallen far short of Bellamy’s vision. In short, we still live in a world that is more dystopian than utopian.
In the 19th century, Bellamy’s best-selling book enthralled readers and became a catalyst for social reform. Bellamy himself became a reformer and helped usher in the Progressive movement, thus profoundly changing the way Americans treat each other.
Looking Backward is written from the perspective of a man who has the good fortune of being able to fall asleep and wake up in a perfect world. If we run the clock forward and look backward, as Bellamy did, we can arrive at solutions to our current problems that also seem at once simple and logical. Thus implemented, these solutions could also represent, in Bellamy’s words, a “triumph of common sense.”
Bellamy wrote a postscript to his book answering a critic who thought he should have put his story of a Golden Age twenty-five centuries into the future. Bellamy responded by giving examples from history showing that when the time is right, things can change very quickly. We now live in a time of accelerating technological change that compounds the smallest initial effects in unpredictable ways, far beyond anything Bellamy could have imagined. This is making it more and more difficult for our institutions to anticipate changes. I was in the former Soviet Union in 1978 and it was inconceivable to me at the time that the Cold War would be over and that the Soviet Union would peacefully cease to exist within twelve years. It will also be difficult for many to believe that we could make serious progress on these twelve labors in a reasonable length of time. But I believe the time is right for action and that, with a collective effort, a real Golden Age will be upon us.
The idea for this book was conceived 15 years ago on Earth Day (April 22, 1994) as the culmination of my growing crisis of conscience. Since 1969, when the oil-covered Cuyahoga River caught fire for the second time in Cleveland, and the beaches of Santa Barbara were fouled by a huge oil spill, I had periodically asked myself what I was doing to help. The exercise always ended in anger and frustration. Part of my dilemma can be traced to the self-deceptions woven into the fabric of our society. In much the same way we avoid the topics of politics and religion in polite company, we also tend to focus on frivolous or peripheral issues while the most volatile subjects are ignored. At the same time, in order to soothe the emptiness that comes from the ache of denial, empty gestures and half measures are stuffed into the hole.
There is self-congratulation about recycling some of our garbage while runaway consumerism and inefficient processing of the world’s resources are making a mockery of conservation. Auto and oil companies—as well as the politicians they support—proclaim that gasoline is getting cleaner and car engines are getting more efficient, even as a volume of oil equivalent to dozens of 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spills is released into the environment every year. We are still fighting resource wars and polluting the Earth because we have not weaned ourselves from fossil fuels. At the same time U.S. oil production is declining and global oil production is peaking oil prices are subsidized by environmentally destructive policies. These practices have increased our dependency on oil and helped spawn the legions of huge, gas-guzzling trucks and sport utility vehicles that now crowd our roads.
An expensive, harmful drug war is still being waged on a broad range of drugs, some lethal, many not; while two legal drugs, tobacco and alcohol, are doing the most serious damage. At the same time, handguns—which are well suited for deliberately or accidentally killing children, friends, and family—are not only perfectly legal, but in some ways less regulated than toy guns.
Our religions have been severed from their mystical roots and organized into rigid demands for faith in unproved and illogical dogmas that are distortions of genuine religious experience, ancient stories, and myths. One result has been that organized religions help cement the status quo by preventing reasonable political and social reform. In addition, they make nationalism palatable because if something can be believed without evidence then my country can also be right no matter what.
Reform is also hindered by a corrupt political system, well-oiled by cash, and an undemocratic voting system. Presidential elections are little more than personality pageants run by corporate sponsors.
Worst of all, efforts to feed the hungry, or reverse the destruction of the planet, are being utterly overwhelmed by addition of 200,000 people to the world’s population every day.
It became increasingly clear to me that, as a disenfranchised voter, or as a consumer focused on personal or business projects, I was part of the problem. Nevertheless, I labored under the assumption that I should understand myself first before trying to sort out the world’s problems; thus in 1994 I was working on another book, my interminable memoir and philosophical noodle-knocker. Writing when I was not designing or building houses, I had piled up almost two thousand pages and there was no end in sight. Partly in capitulation to my nagging conscience, I decided I would take what I thought would be a six-month break and write something less self-indulgent. As a generalist with wide-ranging interests, I had done a fair amount of reading and armchair philosophizing about global issues. Now with a goal in mind, I began what would ultimately become a Herculean project.
During this period, one book or web site maddeningly led to another as endless digressions and new interests sprouted like weeds; but no matter how far afield I strayed on a single issue, even if it involved chasing some wild tangent, all the other issues circled menacingly on the horizon. At every step of the way I tried to step back and get a perspective. Most problem-solving strategies showed themselves to be inadequate when the problems were taken in isolation. Thus, as it became increasingly clear that all the problems and solutions are intrinsically intertwined, it became correspondingly more imperative to address all these problems in one forum.
Our global society is a morass of conflicting and inefficient beliefs that produce corrupt and ignorant leaders who continually reaffirm the same failed policies. The creation of a consistent worldview has been avoided because of our tradition of compartmentalizing the different aspects of our complex world. Thus religion is not consistent with science, politics is not consistent with democratic ideals, economic practices are not consistent with sustainability or justice, and the way we live is not consistent with happiness.
Two years passed while I tried to sort all this out. What had initially seemed like a tidy little book, tossed off while on break from a grander project, became a Hydra-headed mess. It was depressing to sink into the dank muddle of the world’s problems. Under the onslaught of multiplying folders and files on a hard drive gone into overdrive, while cowering under the lengthening shadow of a mountain of books, notes and clippings, the project at times seemed hopelessly ambitious. During this time, I often discussed the book with family, friends and anyone else I could corner into talking about it. Many thought that the book was a good idea, while it seemed to awaken in others a certain amount of lost idealism. Some people were downright hostile, especially if they felt that the comfortable niches they had carved out were threatened. I took it as encouragement that almost no one was indifferent. It seems that many of us want to do something about our modern dilemma, but we do not know where to begin; and there is also fear that our efforts might make things worse.
On the better writing days I imagined myself to be heroic, bringing light like the sun god Hercules. On the darkest days I saw myself as Sisyphus, who had been sentenced to uselessly and interminably pushing a boulder up a steep hill in the depths of Hades. But most of the time I was symbolically somewhere in between, perhaps something like the ancient Egyptian scarab—the mythical dung beetle that pushed the blazing, solar turd ball across the sky everyday.
For comfort in the midst of this project, I often drew from the literature of science as well as the reservoir of my own personal experience. The elegant, replicable experiments of science were reassuring, especially in light of the infinite variables inherent in our psyche, our society, our beliefs, and the interaction with the biosphere in which all of us are imbedded. In science, it was clear that progress was being made to understand the structure of the universe. It was reassuring to read about how everything on our planet and throughout the universe appears to be fundamentally interconnected and consistent, with the greater underlying mystery of it all still lurking out there. Whether I saw myself as Hercules, Sisyphus or the Dung Beetle, the writing also became a meditation on the dynamic rhythms of nature, where through interacting systems and patterns the answers to our practical concerns could be discerned as interlocking pieces of a multi-dimensional puzzle.
In 1997 and 1998 I traveled around the world gathering interviews and other material for this book and a related documentary. It was instructional to revisit many of the places I had visited twenty years earlier when I had spent two and half years living and traveling around the world. I was able to compare, for example, the modernization that has occurred in China with the stagnation in India that preceded the information technology boom. China’s rising standard of living is to a large degree due to the slowing of runaway population growth. Meanwhile India, only one-third the size of China, has now surged past the one billion mark. In a few decades, India will be the world’s most populous nation. Unfortunately, I was also able to observe how Asia’s modernization is being paid for with rampant ecological destruction. The charm and beauty of old Asia is fast disappearing under the onslaught of cars, freeways and the artless crud of modern development.
Finally, I put my book on hold for seven years to create a living laboratory of The Labors of Hercules by rehabilitating a nasty crack-house-ridden slum in a small Florida town into a historic, pedestrian-oriented neighborhood. The process of dealing with many severely troubled residents and workers while also renovating 32 homes and businesses was as Herculean a task as I hope to ever face. The former slum neighborhood, which I renamed The Garden District, became for me a microcosm of society at large, and for that reason was quite instructive. As a result of that project, each of the Labors will be treated from three points of view: mythical, personal, and general.
It was 2008. The neighborhood was rehabilitated. My daughter, who had been born in a former crack house, was now in first grade. I could now re-examine the dark corridors of a half-written, labyrinthine book, parts of which were by now over 14 years old. The world had changed, and not for the better. As I rewrote the book, the country went into a severe economic downturn. At the same time a nearly two-year-old presidential campaign ended with the improbable election of a biracial man with an Arabic name. It was cheering to know that my friends around the world were looking at the United States again without cringing even while I was wondering whether the new president would really do something about the many important issues not discussed in the campaign. So far, the only pleasant surprise has been his pledge to get rid of nuclear weapons. If this actually happened it would be momentous.
I was also cheered and even thrilled by the largesse provided at little cost by the Internet, a prism through which everyone could see everyone else in an increasingly transparent world. The World Wide Web, an almost magical looking glass, had become an indispensable research tool, and it had also become one of the most important tools for solving our problems. We are only witnessing only the beginning of a potentially momentous new era. The best course for humanity is a complex formula consisting of changing variables, but the collective wisdom distilled and enhanced by instantaneous communication and artificial intelligence may help us sort this out in ways never even imagined.
After the seemingly endless research, travel, physical toil, and writing, the knots I had tied myself in gradually loosened. I could see there are practical solutions to most of the world’s problems and they had begun to be sketched out on these pages. Of course I did not find all the answers—sorting out that complex formula of changing variables that would consistently determine the highest good for the highest number all the time would truly be a Herculean challenge. Nevertheless it is a goal that is relatively attainable and we know enough to get started. By the time I finished writing, I thought it might really be possible to leave behind the boulder or the dung ball, crawl out of Hades, ascend Mt. Olympus, and catch a glimpse of the Golden Age.
Michael E. Arth
April 22, 2009