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Entropia: Life Beyond Industrial Civilisation

Below is an excerpt from Samuel Alexander’s new book, Entropia: Life Beyond Industrial Civilisation. This book is a creative work of fiction – a ‘utopia of sufficiency’ – which brings to life a simple living community that became isolated on a small island after the collapse of industrial civilisation. Looking back from the future, the book describes the economy, culture, and politics of the community.

Here is the book’s prologue:

After the poets were banished from Plato’s Republic it is said that they set sail into unknown horizons in search of a new place to call home. They had come to the conclusion that being accepted in such a civilisation was not a prize worth fighting for, so they chose not to resist their violent eviction and just left civilisation to itself, liberating themselves from its curse in the process. No matter how heavy the burden of freedom might be, the poets knew that the burden would always be preferable to the chains from which it arose. For months the poets searched for new lands, often in raging seas, exploring the vast blue yonder with hopeful determination. But, alas, all their efforts met with no success. As food supplies diminished, and finding the oceans empty, hopes of survival began to fade. One poet even expressed the grim judgment that their collective existence would soon expire, and in silence they all began meditating on this imminent and seemingly unavoidable reality with stoic resignation. That fateful night, as the poets were on the brink of starvation, the seas raged higher than ever before, thunder roared fiercely and lighting crashed, and in the darkness it seemed as if their story was in fact in its closing chapter. Looking death in the face, the poets began chanting their own requiem in a state of passionate tranquillity – ‘Amor fati! Amor fati!’ – accompanied in the background by Nature’s primal scream. As the waves reached upward into the infinite abyss, it seemed their story was complete.

But life proceeds in twists and turns, not straight lines. After losing consciousness in the midst of this perfect storm, the lost poets found themselves washed ashore on a small, fertile island, which was uninhabited and isolated entirely from the rest of civilisation. The boundless opportunities presented by this merciful twist of fate were immediately clear to all. Far from being complete, it seemed their story was just beginning! The poets subsisted for a short time on whatever they could find, roaming the island’s forests and meadows in search of food, drinking from its rivers and ponds, and sleeping in caves. But before long they settled as subsistence farmers and began building a New World according to their own poetic conception of life. They had been given what was essentially a blank canvas and were determined to live the life they had imagined. It was their duty as well as their destiny.

Determined above all else to transcend the materialistic values of the Old World, the members of this unique poetic community made a commitment early on to live materially simple lives, convinced that this was the surest path to genuine freedom, peace, and prosperity. The poets thus dedicated their time and energy not to the endless pursuit of material riches, fine clothing, or extravagant architecture, but to exploring the simple but infinite joys of nature, society, gardening, sensuality, spiritual exploration, and uninhibited creative activity – especially writing, craft, and music. It was in this very simplicity of living that they discovered a new consciousness and an unimagined existential wealth. Life was universally affirmed by these poet-farmers, and for the first and only time in human history the distinction between art and life blurred to vanishing point. This was truly a Golden Age in the human story – the peak of civilisation.

Some people believe this simple living community flourishes peacefully to this day, lost to the world in its own harmonious, aesthetic existence. But like Atlantis, the Isle of Furor Poeticus, as it has come to be known, has never been found.

• • •

The Isle of Furor Poeticus is a utopian romance of course – a myth. But we should remember that human existence has always been shaped and guided by myths and stories, so let us not dismiss the story of the lost poets too quickly or proudly. After all, we may not be so free from superstitions of our own. Modernity’s ‘myth of progress’ might itself just be a story we have been telling ourselves in recent centuries, one in fact that could soon be dismissed as a story no longer worth telling. Indeed, perhaps that book is closing before our very eyes – has already closed – leaving us to reflect on its themes from beyond as we step forth into unknown pages. And yet, it seems we have not found a new story by which to live. We are the generation in-between stories, desperately clinging to yesterday’s story but uncertain of tomorrow’s. Adrift in the cosmos, without a narrative in which to lay down new roots, humanity marches on – lost and directionless. But then again, perhaps the new words we need are already with us. Perhaps we just need to live them into existence.

• • •

Human beings are story-telling creatures. This has always been so. We tell each other stories to ask and explore the question of what it means to be human, even though we usually discover that the answer lies simply in the questioning itself. Every individual life and every society is an enactment of a story people tell themselves about the nature and purpose of their existence and of the world they live in. The myths we tell ourselves shape our perception of the present and guide us as we move into the future, influencing our interpretations of what is possible, proper, and important. Operating most of the time beneath the level of consciousness, myths define the contours of the human situation and the human condition, placing us in the cosmos and structuring our identities. As poetic phenomena, myths are both the centre and the circumference of our Being.

It would seem to be of some importance, therefore, to expose and understand the myths that dominate the present, so far as that is possible, while also trying to envision what life would be like, or could be like, if we were to liberate ourselves from today’s myths and step into new myths. Unfortunately, however, our myths today have become so entrenched that they have assumed a false necessity, which is to say, they no longer seem to be myths at all. Rather, the myths of industrial civilisation – which are the myths of growth, technology, and affluence – seem to be a reflection of some brute laws of history from which we cannot escape. This tempts us to submit to the existing order of things, and surrender to its dictates, as if there were no alternative paths to follow or create. But we could free ourselves from this bondage of the mind, and free ourselves from ourselves in the process, if only in a moment of madness we dared to plunge into the icy waters of introspection and shake ourselves awake. By choosing to do so we could again become the poets of our own lives and of a new generation, instead of merely reading out a pre-written script to an audience that is no longer listening. So open your mind, gentle reader, for the future is but clay in the hands of our imaginations.

We are being called to make things new.

The following excerpt is from Chapter Five, ‘Politics and the Art of Freedom’.

At this stage the role of education in our community should be addressed, for it is fair to say that sound education is what makes our way of life possible. I am not referring to the thorough training and guidance our children and young adults receive in the practical skills of life – especially gardening, sewing, energy conservation, and conflict resolution – important though those lessons are. Nor am I referring to the vast array of intellectual or artistic studies on offer at the Academy, which people undertake throughout their lives. I refer instead to the lessons we all receive in the ‘philosophy of wealth’, through which we engage questions about how to live a meaningful and fulfilling life in a world of limited resources. Of particular importance is the formal and informal education we receive in relation to money and material possessions, for ignorance on these matters insidiously brings ruin to one and all. Like any society, the ideas and values to which we are exposed inevitably become reflected in our lives, and this has enormous political implications. As such, education is a subject that deserves some elaboration.

It was the arch-poet Goethe who once wrote: ‘All truly wise thoughts have been thought already thousands of times; but to make them truly ours, we must think them over again honestly, till they take root in personal experience’. This insight applies especially to the philosophy of wealth, for it is not enough merely to think wise thoughts about money and possessions; individuals must learn how to infuse those insights into lived experience. In attempting to achieve this we are assisted greatly by an edited anthology, called Meditations on Simplicity, which was first published on the Isle almost sixty years ago. Still used widely today, the main themes of the book are summarised well in its opening paragraph:

As biophysical life forms, human beings obviously require a certain material standard of living to prosper, and below a certain threshold, we suffer. When people are hungry, they understandably desire more food; when people are cold, warmer clothing and adequate housing are critically important; when people are ill, they naturally want access to basic medical supplies. But when our basic needs for food, clothing, shelter, medical care, etc. are met, is more material wealth a goal for which we should constantly strive? How much is actually needed to live a full and prosperous life? And does there come a point when getting materially richer stops contributing to wellbeing? Ancient but ever new, these questions deserve sustained attention throughout our lives, for they expose the hidden pitfalls of greed and acquisitiveness, while illuminating the path of genuine prosperity. A society that neglects such questions does so at its own peril.

I remember studying this text closely throughout my schooling years, and beyond the classroom its themes inevitably arise in all sorts of conversations and situations. This is not surprising, of course, given that the book addresses not merely the philosophy of wealth, but the philosophy of life itself. Even today I dip into its pages regularly, as a source of inspiration, guidance, and affirmation, and like most people, I have a copy lying around the house, the pages respectfully worn with many years of attention.

Before I unpack the political implications of our education with respect to wealth, let me briefly recount a recent experience of mine, which provides a little more insight into what issues our syllabus invites people to consider. Wandering home through the central garden one afternoon, my attention was drawn toward one of the open-aired rotundas, where I heard one of my colleagues at the Academy, a psychologist, addressing a class of school students. As I moved nearer I noticed that the class was discussing themes raised in Henry David Thoreau’s, Walden, so I decided to join the class quietly, drawn in by fond memories of my own schooling years. I took notes on the following conversation, in which a thoughtful student was challenging the professor:

Student: It is not clear to me why material simplicity is the virtue you and Thoreau say it is. Is it not the case that money brings freedom and power? And is it not the case that with freedom and power we can live the life we have imagined?

Teacher: These are good questions, but keep your mind open as we explore them more deeply. The relationship between material wealth and human wellbeing is complex and at times counter-intuitive. Human beings tend to think that getting richer will always improve their lives, on the assumption that they can use money in the marketplace to satisfy their most pressing desires, and up to a point, this may be true. In circumstances of material destitution, for example, getting richer is likely to improve a person’s life. But just as the pursuit of material wealth can bring benefits, it also exacts costs – such as time and ecological impact – and it turns out that there comes a point when the costs begin to outweigh the benefits. Beyond that point, the pursuit of wealth becomes, you might say, ‘uneconomic’ or wasteful. Indeed, beyond a surprisingly low threshold, getting richer in material terms stops contributing significantly to wellbeing. This conclusion is supported both by ancient wisdom traditions and by modern empirical studies, even if our intuitions or instincts sometimes lead us to assume otherwise. You will find that throughout history people have sought happiness by accumulating money and possessions, only to discover that happiness resides elsewhere.

Student: But why is it, exactly, that material wealth does not lead to happiness? Respectfully, I remain sceptical. After all, if someone walked up to you this very moment and gave you a bag of gold, would that not make you happy?

Teacher: I am happy to say that I am already happy, so why should I want to lug around a heavy bag of gold? In any case, people don’t just walk up to us and give us gold, we have to work for it, and personally, I would rather do other things with my time than work for superfluous wealth. But seriously, the issue is about finding the right balance. Let us examine this issue from the perspective of human psychology. Gold, jewels, fine clothing, sparkling ornaments, splendid houses, dazzling technologies, and so forth, may seem glamorous, but such things tend to provide only fleeting satisfaction, at most, eventually leaving people feeling unsatisfied, and forever wanting something more. Evidence suggests that human beings simply do not find superfluous consumption all that fulfilling, despite what the advertisements in the Old World used to promise. On the other hand, deeper and more enduring fulfilment does seem to flow from many non-materialistic sources of wellbeing, such as social engagement, creative activity, spiritual exploration, and time to enjoy the wonders of the natural world – none of which relies on money, or much money. What this means is that people can live very humble yet fulfilling lives, provided basic material needs are met. Affluence is by no means a precondition for human flourishing, and it can even be a social poison.

Student: If that is so, why did previous cultures dedicate so much of their energies to the pursuit of material wealth? Why didn’t they realise that affluence was not the path to prosperity? Sometimes I wonder whether we might enjoy a consumer way of life more than the simplicity of life on the Isle.

Teacher: It is natural to wonder about such things, but before you pursue affluence, bear this in mind: one of the problems with a consumer-orientated way of life is that people adapt to their material circumstances, and having adapted, their material expectations rise, leaving people constantly dissatisfied no matter how rich they might become. This phenomenon typically escapes notice, however, because its effects emerge slowly. At first the tepee was a happy advance on the cave, but then humans adapted to the tepee and wanted a hut; then they adapted to the hut and wanted a house; then a nicer house; then a bigger house; then a mansion, and so forth. But they who acquired a mansion inevitably became accustomed, even to such luxurious surroundings, and found themselves dissatisfied still, so they would seek a castle; then two castles; then all the castles. As people climb this ladder, they also tend to desire more luxurious and exotic foods, finer clothing, and more expensive jewels, to match the splendour of their castle.

Student: Are you saying that there is no final rung on the ladder of material desire, no end to the rat race?

Teacher: Precisely. My point is that if left to themselves, material desires will consume a human being until the moment of death, at which point it is too late to realise that the best things in life are free. Material desires need to be controlled, they need to be disciplined, or else they will lead us astray. Too many people have misspent their lives in the pursuit of things that were incapable of bringing lasting happiness. Too many have lain on their deathbeds amongst their fabulous riches, suffering the terrible pain of regret. But, please, do not take my word for any of this. As always, you must think for yourselves.

Student: I certainly do not want to die only to discover that I had not really lived – that much is clear to me!

Teacher: I am glad to hear this, but take note: even if you come to accept these lessons in theory, they can be very challenging to practise. How easy it is to lament the shallow endeavours of the materialist only then to spend all one’s time working to fund the very same lifestyle! Historically, many people were guilty of living this glaring contradiction.

Student: How, then, do we avoid this contradiction?

Teacher: The only reliable way to avoid the pitfalls of materialism and acquisitiveness is to practise what can be called ‘mindful sufficiency’. This practice lies at the centre of our lessons in the philosophy of wealth, and in a sense we are practising it right now. Put simply, mindful sufficiency calls on us to meditate regularly on the question ‘how much is enough?’ Only by taking this question seriously can we arrive at the marvellous realisation that ‘just enough is plenty’. Of course, far from being a new teaching, this is simply a dedicated application of ancient Stoic wisdom.

Student: What did the Stoics have to say about all this? Could you elaborate?

Teacher: I would be happy to. The Stoics argued that, while people cannot always be in control of how much worldly wealth and fame they attain, they are or can be in control of the attitudes they adopt in relation to such things. Accordingly, if a person lets their material desires escalate without limit, it may be that the person remains dissatisfied even in conditions of extreme opulence. But if someone thinks seriously about how much is actually needed to live a meaningful and happy life, they might find that they already have all they need, and so do not need to waste any more time and energy on materialistic pursuits.

Student: I suppose this means that two people both living lives of radical simplicity might experience such a low-consumption way of life in totally different ways, depending on the mindset that they bring to experience.

Teacher: You are right, again. Where one person bemoans how little they have, the other celebrates and affirms life because they have so much! Fortunately, the mindset is in our control, even if the circumstances may not always be. The path of mindful sufficiency, however, takes practice and discipline, for one must constantly be on guard against the seductions of wealth, fame, and status. But the journey is a rewarding one, so let us keep to the path.

To read more about Entropia or get yourself a copy, click here.

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