by Leo Babauta
Sometimes I wonder if society could be vastly different, redesigned almost from scratch.
It stems from my belief that somewhere along the line, we allowed ourselves to be sidetracked from what’s important — people — and instead have put profits, corporations, productivity, and consuming at the forefront of everything we do.
We’ve become workers focused on productivity, because we need to earn a living, so that we can … buy things (including entertainment). Including a car, which is needed to go to work and to shop. We need to send our kids to school, so we don’t need to worry about them when we work, and so that they can grow up to be good workers. We need to buy fast food and convenience food, because we’re too busy or tired from work to cook.
We’ve gotten fat, tired, sick, deep in debt, disconnected from our kids and other family members, divorced, separated from our neighbors. We’re polluting and causing global warming, all in the name of money and work and profits and buying. This seems broken, to me.
But what’s a better way of living? A society reimagined, built around people and a love for our environment and living and working and playing together, a love for being outside and playing and being active, a love for doing things and spending time with people rather than for buying things and working to support that buying habit.
What would such a society look like? I hesitate to put forth my vision, because it shouldn’t come from one person but should be reimagined by everyone who will live it. However, I’ll put forth a small sliver of such a vision, just to get the conversation started.
The car, junked
I’d start by banishing the car. It’s supposed to give us freedom, but we’re chained to it and its expensive payments, maintenance, repairs, fuel, parking, pollution, and so on. I’d prefer the freedom to walk, bike, and take good mass transit, and to play in the roads again. We’d reclaim the roads as public spaces for the community, and redesign life so that most everything we need (food, work, school, play, stores, restaurants, etc.) are within walking or biking distance, and mass transit is available for everything else.
That means we’d need to stop commuting to work. I’d propose that many people could work from home, either as entrepreneurs and small business people or telecommute or collaborate online. Close to our homes, we’d also need marktets for food and tools and whatnot, and people who make clothes and food and bikes and all that kind of stuff, not to mention repair and maintain everything in the community. We’d need builders and musicians and all of that too, but it could be done much closer to home.
I’d also banish the school, at least as we know it: institutions that force learning, that homegenize children, that teach them to be robotic workers instead of thinkers, creators, independent learners. This isn’t a criticism of teachers (who I think are saints), but of the system itself. Kids are turned off to learning because they’re forced to go to school for 6-8 hours a day, sit at desks, not talk or play with their classmates except at designated times, do work they’re not interested in, memorize things without thinking much … pretty much what they’re expected to do for most of their adult lives, unless they’re lucky enough to break out of this thinking.
What’s better? I unschool my kids, and I think this is a much more human system, and better if your goal is to get the kids to actually learn, to enjoy learning, to figure out how to do things themselves, to create and be self-motivated … pretty much what I hope my kids will do as adults. How do we do this? We help them find things they’re interested in, and try not to force them to do anything. They read books they find interesting, work on projects that are fun to them, get excited about things, make things. Revolutionary, I know, but not that hard once you break out of the schooling mindset. We’re still learning how to unschool, as are our kids, but if it weren’t a learning process, it wouldn’t be worthwhile.
So kids could be unschooled in my reimagined society, learning from their parents or siblings or grandparents, or on their own, or from working members in their neighborhood who are doing things they’re interested in. Or we could have learning centers, where kids go if they’re interested in learning about art or music or writing or computers or cooking or building or whatever — they wouldn’t be forced to go here, but would be provided with the resources.
Unschools, provided by the community, supplanting the cost of running the old-fashioned style schools.
Sharing vs. consumerism
I’d get rid of supermarkets and huge agribusinesses and food flown and shipped from thousands of miles away. Instead, we’d grow our own food, right in our backyards, or in community gardens. We’d swap foods with neighbors — some of my sweet potatoes for some of your quinoa. I think more people would become vegetarian/vegan this way, but it wouldn’t be required — if you wanted to raise your own animals and kill them, you could. This system would be hugely better for the environment, and our health, and would reconnect us with our food and nature. We’d eat whole, unprocessed foods, cooked tastily. It would take more time, I’m sure, but slow food isn’t such a bad thing, and if done right, it wouldn’t have to be too time consuming, especially if everyone pitched in.
I’d do away with the corporation, and put the cooperative in its place.
Corporations are so inhuman, so profit-driven, so horrible for employees and the environment (in general, with exceptions). Cooperatives are owned by the workers, and so obviously treat the workers with more humanity. They’re also less likely to rape the earth or damage the community or customers. They’re simply a way for people to work together democratically and cooperatively.
I’d change the concept of housing, somehow. Right now, it’s hugely wasteful, with people buying gigantic homes with all kinds of space they don’t need, needing all kinds of heating/cooling as a result, and forcing people to work long hours to pay for it. Instead, we could have smaller homes, built with the help of neighbors (think Amish barn-raising), so we’d need far fewer resources to build them and far less debt to own them. We might even have community homes, if people felt like it, though that wouldn’t be mandatory. This would allow sharing_of_resources, and would reduce the cost of living for everyone involved.
I’d have libraries_for_everything. Just as bike libraries are springing up, and car sharing is becoming more common in cities, and other libraries like tool libraries are coming into public consciousness, we could have libraries for any kind of resources: computers, clothing, furniture, even houses. This would mean things would be far cheaper to use, as we’d be sharing them, and it would mean far less waste as well.
I’d have zero advertising, and close to zero consumerism. We’d discourage people “shopping” and paying for entertainment and trying to buy more and more just to impress others, and instead focus on experiences and sharing and doing things together — reading and creating and going outside for hikes and cooking together and gardening together and building together and fixing things together or being alone … but not buying.
Work, living, and community needs could be reimagined too — perhaps we’d form voluntary teams to take care of different things. For example, if parks or streets needed to be cleaned, we could have teams to do that, and everyone could volunteer a certain number of hours (not forced, but you’d probably be embarrassed if you didn’t pull your share). Anything could be organized this way, voluntarily and democratically: workplaces, teaching, cooking, care of young children, whatever the community wanted. This would take closer-knit communities, but I think that would be more possible without cars and with people walking and biking, and doing things together such as community gardens and building neighbors’ houses.
A digital world
I’d have free wireless Internet for the entire community, so that everyone could collaborate and have access to information and education. Online sites could be used to organize the community and put forth proposals and build consensus. The wireless would be paid for by everyone, and could be done with the money we save from food and not having to build infrastructure for cars and so forth. We could also eliminate the need for a telephone system, and I’d also get rid of cable TV systems, which would help pay for free wireless.
I’d eliminate paper, for the most part. It’s a waste of trees and takes up a lot of space in offices and people’s houses, and then often becomes waste.
Books, magazines, newspapers, CDs, DVDs all become digital (as they are already). Paperwork becomes digital, and faxes are killed two decades after they should have been killed. We eliminate printers and save more money. All we have are little notebooks and journals and sketchpads for those who like to write and draw on paper.
Think about this: with these changes, we’d have much smaller living expenses, because housing would be affordable, we wouldn’t be paying for cars, food would be cheaper, school would be free, other things would be cheap because we’d be using libraries for everything. We’d not be consumers, but builders and creators and growers. And so, with such small expenses, we would have to work far less to earn a living.
Imagine that: lower expenses means working less, which means more free time to … do anything you want. To spend time with friends, family, kids, neighbors. To be alone. To create, to commune with nature, to be free. To do_interesting things. All of that free time, far from being a drain on society, could be a huge benefit, as people would be happier, have better family lives, would create more interesting things, would be less likely to commit crimes, and so on. I’m not saying this would create a utopia, but I think it would have a positive effect. We’d, of course, be much better for the environment and much better for our health, our sanity, our happiness.
Back to reality
OK, so by now you’re saying, “Yeah right, Leo. Keep dreaming.” And I acknowledge this is a dream, but the conversation needs to be started somewhere. On the note of practicality, we wouldn’t need to change the entire world, or the entire country or culture. Just one community, and it could be a small one — a college town such as Austin or Davis or Eugene, or a neighborhood such as Nopa (in S.F.). This community could organize itself and reimagine itself, and make one change at a time towards a more positive future.
This community, I think, would inspire others, and other communities might soon follow, just as Bogota has inspired many other places with some of its progressive policies. By showing it can be done, and sharing some of what they learned, these early communities would pave the way for others to start down this road.
It’s a road I’d love to walk down myself. But don’t let me tell you what to do: reimagine the future yourself, and join the conversation.
— See part two of this post: society, reimagined: how to make it reality