History Gives Kristen R. Ghodsee Hope for the Future

I was riding the train home to Maine when I finished Kristen R. Ghodsee’s latest book, Everyday Utopia: What 2,000 Years of Wild Experiments Can Teach Us About the Good Life. I found myself teary-eyed and tingly with hope, an increasingly rare emotion in our age of pandemics, climate catastrophe, political paralysis, and widespread loneliness. I immediately reached out to Ghodsee, who just happened to be coming through Maine to visit friends. We met for coffee in Portland as a summer thunderstorm swept through the city. The following is a conversation about her fascinating, optimistic exploration into human progress. 

Nick Fuller Googins: Last summer was the warmest in human record. Maui burned, wildfire smoke consumed New York. It feels like there are so many reasons to despair, environmentally, economically, politically. So why write about utopia now?

Kristen R. Ghodsee: Let’s face it, there have always been reasons to despair. Humanity had the Black Plague. We had slavery. We had serfdom. What makes us capable of surviving and thriving is our adaptability and flexibility. Our creative impulse. So it’s precisely because we’re in a terribly despairing moment right now that we need utopia more than ever.

NFG: Is that what you mean when you write about “the other 1%” as essential for our survival?

KRG: Exactly. The other 1% is the utopian 1%. The dreamers on the margins. They are often liminal people. They’re poets. They’ve been shamans. Medicine people. Every historical epoch and culture has them. They’re the ones who envision a better world, and move communities forward. They inspire political, social, economic change, cultural change. And we need them. If we don’t have the other 1%, we get stuck, and that means that as the world is changing—which it is pretty dramatically right now—we won’t have the tools to deal with those changes.

NFG: And you’ve found that these utopian dreamers go as far back as Ancient Greece?

KRG: The mathematician Pythagoras was in many ways the great-great-grandfather of utopian thinking. He was extremely unhappy with the social mores of mainland Greece, so he and a group of his followers left and settled in what is now southern Italy. They set up what we would think of today as a commune. They lived together, owned all their property in common, treated men and women equally, and raised their children together. The world’s first named woman mathematician, Theano, was a Pythagorean. The idea was to free themselves from the constraints of Greek society that made it difficult for them to spend their time thinking about mathematics and the mysteries of the universe. And it worked! This is when Pythagoras developed his right triangle theorem, which we still use as a touchstone of geometry. coverYet we forget that it was the product of a deliberate utopian community. And the Pythagoreans were very influential on Plato when he was writing The Republic. So, in many ways, the entire history of Western philosophy is derivative of the Pythagoreans’ commune.

NFG: What trends have you noticed in utopia throughout history?

KRG: When I look cross-culturally and trans-historically at different utopian communities, they all have certain things in common. The first is they live together in wider groups of non-blood-related kin. They also tend to own property in common: their homes, their land, and so on. And they raise their children together. These communities also tend to have specific ideas about the family; most of them try to disentangle the romantic relationship from child rearing. This allows for what we call “cooperative breeding,” which is what humans evolved to do, from an evolutionary anthropological point of view. What it means is that they raise children in common, as part of a big family, rather than the exclusive bi-parental care model we see today.

NFG: My wife and I lived the first six years of our marriage with family. Now that we finally have our own house, we’re pretty lonely. How has utopia addressed the ways in which people live with one another?

KRG: We’ve been told, especially in the United States, with our fantasy of rugged individualism, that we’re “really” adults when we strike out on our own and buy our own house. But the fact is that many people are suffering terribly from loneliness and isolation. What utopian communities around the world, in many different cultural contexts and historical eras, have shown is that when people decide to live together in community, everybody benefits, from the children to the adults. I’m not saying that we should be giving up privacy altogether. I’m a writer, you’re a writer; sometimes we need “a room of our own” to work. But privacy has to be balanced with connection to our societies and our communities, our friends and neighbors.

NFG: My mother lives in a cohousing community. It sounds frustrating at times, but it also sounds like a lot of joy.

KRG: I lived in a kind of academic commune for a year at the Institute for Advanced Study in New Jersey. We all had identically furnished apartments, but we didn’t have our own private laundry. At the time I was a single mom, I had a little kid, and not having my own private laundry was a challenge. It took a good couple of weeks for me to accept that, “Okay, I’m gonna have to haul my laundry to this room where there’s going to be a bunch of other people.” But it was wonderful. I met so many people that I would not have otherwise, just standing around waiting for my wash. It is so easy to do laundry in your house. But what that means is that when we all have our own individual washers and dryers, we are giving up the community that we might have when we do laundry with other people. It speaks to a larger, more profound problem that we have today: we trade community for convenience.

NFG: You write that women in particular could benefit from reimagining how we live together.

KRG: When I looked at cohousing communities, where there are labor requirements for each member, one outcome was universal: the work that caregivers do to support the family is considered a labor contribution to that community. Whereas in a nuclear family in a private home, women’s labor, or caregivers’ labor, is invisible. We have good evidence that women who live in communities where chores are shared are happier; they spend less time on domestic work, which means they have more time for other things in life.

NFG: You also write that “we will all be better off if we open ourselves up to ways of reimagining a nuclear family.” Thousands of years ago, Plato had some similarly strong words about the nuclear family.

KRG: Plato, in The Republic, imagined a utopian society without the nuclear family, because he saw the nuclear family as a divisive force that would make people care more about their blood relations than they do about society. Well, we see the same basic problem throughout history, from antiquity to feudalism to capitalism—the nuclear family is the institution that promotes an intergenerational transfer of wealth and privilege. So when we talk about different utopian visions, from Plato, to Sir Thomas Moore, to Tommaso Campanella, we’re challenging the nuclear family as an institution that upholds inequality.

NFG: My father joined the Jesuits out of high school, living for two years in a cloistered seminary. Six decades later, he’s the happiest, most stress-free, social person I know. Could living in an intentional community, even for a short time, have long-term effects?

KRG: Absolutely. It’s an experience to live that closely with people. Think of first-year college students. A deep, lifelong bond that you form with people who share your domestic spaces. That’s why it’s important for us to reimagine the family and the home: because we could have those same deep bonds with more people than just our immediate family. But the other thing that happened with your father in the Jesuits is this shared sense of commitment. Community living tends to work best when people have a shared set of ideals. In Europe right now, eco-villages are proliferating because people want to live sustainably. Religious communities are similar; we have the Bruderhof and the Hutterites, what I call the “Bible Communists”—people who take Acts 2 and 4 of the Bible seriously, the verses that say that Christ’s disciples lived together and shared property in common. So I do think that your father’s experience shows the potential for this kind of living, but it has to become normalized. Connection and contentedness have to be prioritized over competition and acquisition.

NFG: I teach in a public school that sometimes feels like a utopia: every kid who walks through our doors gets free breakfast and lunch and transportation, plus counseling if they need it, and of course an education. Sometimes I take a step back and can’t believe that free public school exists in America. And sure enough, as you describe in your book, universal public education was long considered unrealistic and impractical.

coverKRG: Yes. Plain and simple. Marx and Engels, in 1848, demanded “free public education for all children” in The Communist Manifesto. At that time, it sounded like a radical utopian demand.

NFG: It makes me think on the other utopias I take for granted, like my local library, or public radio, or even my MFA writing program at Rutgers, which was mostly funded by the state of New Jersey.

KRG: Every time you drop off a kid at childcare, that was once a utopian demand. Every time a couple gets a no-fault divorce, that was a utopian demand. There are so many things that we forget were once utopian demands, and each was the result of people dreaming of a different future, then making that future real.

In science fiction, there’s this trope of the Butterfly Effect: the smallest change in the past could completely rearrange the future. Well, think about that, literally, in our present day: a bunch of people getting together, dreaming of a different world, and trying to build that world? Of course it’s going to evolve into a different future! That’s how the future happens! The future is contingent on the present because we are all individually making it. We are the Butterfly Effect. We have that power. But most of us forget that. We think that everything is fixed and we don’t have any influence.

NFG: Not only do we forget, we’re often fed the opposite message, as you write about.

KRG: We’re constantly bombarded with dystopian visions of the future. In the United States, especially, kids in middle school usually start with Lois Lowry‘s The Giver. And then Animal Farm, or Lord of the Flies, or 1984, or Brave New World. And then in popular culture, there’s The Hunger Games or Squid Game or Black Mirror. These dystopias bludgeon us into accepting the imperfect present, and make us forget that we have the ability to dream of building a better future. We become afraid that if we try to change things, it will devolve into a totalitarian nightmarish hellscape. It’s especially insidious to give this message to teenagers who are just exploring their own power and agency in the world—that if they try to make the future better, they risk making things worse, especially for themselves.

coverIt’s rare in popular culture that we get utopian imaginings of things being better in the future, and of us having the agency to make things better. You call your novel, The Great Transition, “utopian” cli-fi. I love that term, cli-fi, climate fiction. So many people are despondent about the planet, and they just don’t have the capacity to imagine net-zero emissions, or what that society could look like. Cli-fi is a beautiful way of exploring that question: “Hey, here’s an option. Here’s a way it could happen.” Utopia forces us to use our imaginations to be the creative, adaptive, and flexible people that we are.

NFG: In the book you describe hope as a “cognitive capacity.” What do you mean by that?

KRG: Hope is to the future what memory is to the past. Look at memory: we know that as we get older, or if you have an illness like long Covid, memory can atrophy. But we know that we can also strengthen memory; there are exercises anyone can do to build back the cognitive capacity to remember. Well, the same is true for hope: when we hope, we are identifying future goals, thinking about pathways to achieve those goals, and strategies for overcoming inevitable obstacles and challenges. That’s what social psychologists mean when they describe hope as a cognitive capacity. There’s good evidence from social psychology that people with ADHD or depression or anxiety benefit from “hope training”—identifying a future state that you would like to be in, and then imagining yourself moving towards that state in incremental steps, and predicting ways to overcome the obstacles.

And we can also do this collectively. We have a collective cognitive capacity for hope in imagining a better future. That’s what social movements are. That’s what utopian experiments are based on: imagining a future, together, every day out loud, and strengthening this part of our brain that allows us to see that we are agents in writing our own stories.

NFG: What gives you hope today?

KRG: A lot. There are so many ways that we can look around the world and despair. But when we give in to despair, we give in to the people who benefit from things to stay the same. So I say to myself, “Hey, wait. Things can be better.” If we know anything about history, it’s that history changes. Empires fall. Systems like slavery and monarchy, they fall too. A concrete example: I study the collapse of state socialism in Eastern Europe, and I’ve read many stories of people who committed suicide in early November of 1989, in places like East Germany, because they thought they would never see Paris, never leave their country, never be free. If they’d waited just a week, the thing that they thought lasted forever would suddenly be gone. We have to constantly remind ourselves of that: right around the corner there’s always the possibility of radical change. No matter how bad this present moment feels, there’s always a utopian future that we can orient towards. So if we think of hope as a cognitive capacity, we also have to think of hope as a political action. Radical hope. That’s how we change the world.

NFG: Team hope.

KRG: Team hope, absolutely. Team utopia.

Nick Fuller Googins
is the author of the novel, The Great Transition. His short fiction and essays have appeared in The Paris Review, The Sun, Men’s Health, and elsewhere. He lives in Maine, where he works as an elementary school teacher.

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