We need utopias

Summary

Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus believes in the importance of “social fiction” in sketching a desirable future for mankind. Imagination has immense power to drive change, and in a pessimistic world like ours, we could use uninhibited optimism.

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At the Earth University in Paris last month, Muhammad Yunus urged the audience to start writing “social fiction”: “All impossible things happen because we want them intensely, we desire them, we imagine them. Then they happen.” At the Skoll Forum on Social Entrepreneurship (Oxford, 10-12 April 2013), he had already insisted on the need for inspirational fiction for the future:

We have science fiction, and science follows it. We imagine it, and it comes true. Yet we don’t have social fiction, so nothing changes.

Muhammad Yunus sees social fiction as very concrete because it gives motivation and goals; it inspires and drives change. And it is true that imagination is a powerful tool for creating and innovating.

 

The power of utopias

 

A handful of scientific progresses were inspired by works of fiction that seemed extremely bold when they were published, but eventually came true. Many futurists thus cite Jules Verne, who wrote about travel to the moon in 1865, a century before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first set foot on our satellite. Verne can be praised for his clear-sightedness and seen as the man who predicted that mankind would one day be able to “fly to the moon”, as Sinatra sang. But what he did was even more important than that: he provided the men of his time with a goal and a horizon. He gave them, and those who came after them, an aim. It is often said of prophecies that they are self-fulfilling: stating them immediately makes them desirable – or despicable. It turns them into a reference either to reach or to avoid. This is true of scientific exploits, but not exclusively. In fact, a significant proportion of science fiction feeds on anthropological, social and cultural questions, rather than on scientific challenges. Science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin calls this subgenre “social science fiction”. She has herself written many science-fiction books set in other universes, reflecting on gender and sexual identity, for instance. Isaac Asimov, one of the greatest American sci-fi writers, also described his work as “social science fiction”. Many famous science-fiction books are in fact more focused on social structures than on mere science, even though the two are often tightly linked: Brave New World (Aldous Huxley, 1931), 1984 (George Orwell, 1949), Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury, 1953), The Time Machine (H.G. Wells, 1895), etc.

In a way, “social fiction” already exists.

But it lacks something essential: optimism. Most social science fiction stories are dystopias, i.e. set in a future or a world where things have gone wrong.

They often include strong political and social criticism and work as repellent models, as examples of what mankind should avoid. They do not give a horizon to run to, but to run away from. What we really need are utopias. Tales of a better world, told by social entrepreneurs and everyone who believes in the future. This is the kind of story we should start writing, relying on science, social progress, political advances, new communication forms, reinvented consumption and production, etc. Nothing is more powerful than a good story, and we should not be afraid to invent desirable new worlds, and to set them on planets far, far away or in a remote future. We need to write adventures that our own children will read and identify with. Wild imagination has the power to influence the actions that we take today. We need utopias.

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