Extinction is Utopian, Too 

Photograph by Elliot Sperber

The world is growing hotter, sicker, and deadlier. And, because it’s an election year, we’ll soon be given the choice of voting for one of several Republican fascist lunatics, or Genocide Joe Biden. Either way, all that’s on offer is someone who will make things worse. Choose the lesser evil, they tell us. But when evil and lesser evil are the only choices a system allows, one must conclude that the system itself is evil. And if it’s evil, it must be changed. But how? We can look to our own history for ideas. 

For instance, you probably knew that John Quincy Adams was elected president 200 years ago, in 1824. But did you know that he, and nearly every U.S. president before him, promoted the idea of establishing a federal university system? The idea originated with the early abolitionist, pamphleteer, and Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush, in the 1780s. 

Though Rush’s idea of how this university would operate, and the ends it would serve (training for technocrats, basically), are old-fashioned and deeply problematic, a reimagining of this idea as a radically democratic complex of colleges could allow us to meaningfully address today’s existential social, economic, and ecological crises.

A society in desperate need of health care, healthy food, water, environmental cleanup, decent housing, libraries and schools, among other things we associate with a decent standard of living, should build this. Though there could be, and should be, many more, just one campus in every federal congressional district would amount to 435 campuses.

These free, public colleges (which could develop into semi-autonomous communes) could have agricultural departments that could grow nutritious food for their respective communities, fighting food insecurity. Ecology departments could allow ecosystems damaged by exploitation and pollution to regenerate.

Engineering departments, in coordination and cooperation with others, could develop clean water systems, providing healthy, necessary water to their communities. These could also develop public transportation systems, communication systems, clean energy systems, and other infrastructure, helping to transition society to one that can flourish in the changing, volatile climate of the 21st century.

Health and medical departments could train members of the community to staff clinics that could provide free health care to the community. And because it’s free it would be free of the conflict of interests that exists between providing care and raking in profits (between caring for lives and making a killing), that plagues our current medical system.

These colleges would, of course, also include child care centers, libraries, theaters, music departments, sports complexes, art galleries and studios, allowing every member of the community to develop their potential and engage in satisfying, meaningful work (as opposed to the alienating, meaningless, dis-easing work this economic system forces most people to sacrifice themselves to). 

Dispute resolution centers could help communities resolve problems equitably. Film departments could produce and screen movies and, along with film departments of other campuses, host film festivals. Fashion departments could help people to design and produce their own clothes.

In short, everything an actually democratic society needs could be fit into and produced by what in effect would be a federation of democratically organized villages. And, since everyone could be a student, in addition to free healthcare, everyone could enjoy free student housing.

Many will no doubt dismiss this idea as utopian. And it obviously is. But is that so bad? As Thomas More, who coined the term utopia, pointed out, utopian can mean both no place (outopian) and good place (eutopian). And while this proposal may be nowhere, it is also eutopian. Extinction, on the other hand, toward which our present arrangement of life is leading us, will only be outopian (as well as dystopian). It’s one or the other. Extinction is utopian, too.

Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and adjunct professor. He lives in New York City and can be reached at elliot.sperber@gmail.com and on twitter @elliot_sperber