One of the things we studied recently in our Urban Planning class was the utopian vision. Actually, full disclosure, we studied three utopian visions by three intelligent and well-meaning men: Ebenezer Howard, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Le Corbusier. Each of these three men came up with their own vision of the perfect society and perfect “city,” though the degree of “city” that they actually are is up for debate. Frank Lloyd Wright, for example, imagined the perfect society as a bunch of familial farms, each at least one acre large; this represented his belief that humans are, at their core, independent and self-sufficient, and that no family should be forced to live with any other. A bunch of open space and people living independently? Not exactly what you think of when you hear the word “city.”
But I digress. What I wanted to point out is that these men had a certain belief about what it was to be human, and thus what the perfect society should look like. Personally, I believe it’s important to have in mind a vision of what the perfect society looks like so that we have something to strive for and perfect. Otherwise, we find ourselves in a stagnant world without any hope for improvement. Sorry to get so philosophical so quickly, but that’s what this post is going to be: philosophical. You see, I think it’s high time for a new utopian vision, one based off our current knowledge of psychology, evolutionary biology, and the needs of humanity.
There is a new line of thinking today about tribal societies in terms of evolution. For a long time, scientists assumed that the natural evolution of man was from primate to early man to tribal man to modern, civilized man; basically, that the idea of tribal societies was destined to disappear in the face of agriculture, urbanization, and technology. Recently, however, a new idea has emerged: New Tribalism, which states that humans evolved to live in small tribal societies, to the point that we function at our best and are at our happiest when we exist in such small societies. Under this belief, our current mass societies aren’t the next step in evolution at all. They are a corruption of the way we should be living, and are responsible for a number of the ills we face today.
The importance of this idea cannot be overstated, because it reverberates throughout everything in our culture: work, relationships, parenthood, education, love, leisure, challenge, eating, sleeping, shelter, clothing, art, and even culture itself. We were designed to live as tribes with other people, and with those same people pretty much from birth to death, in that same society from birth to death. To our modern sensibilities, this sounds awful: “staying in the same place forever? Only knowing the same people for the rest of your life? LIVING WITHOUT THE INTERNET? No, no, no. This will not do.”
Yet there’s something to be said about the tribal way of life. For one thing, one of the main stereotypes we hold today – that such primitive living is full of fear and uncertainty about when you’ll eat or if you’ll survive into tomorrow – is completely unfounded. In fact, when we study surviving tribal societies today, what we find are groups with more leisure time than anyone in modern society that have no difficulty finding food. These societies are free of want for the most part, and while they may not have material wealth, they are often referred to as the original affluent society for the reasons just stated.
Additionally, living in a small group means everything you do is connected. You wake up, you go out and work. Said work, however, is for the good of your community (hunting and gathering food, or helping build tents, or something). You form close friendships with all the people in your tribe, meaning you never feel lonely. You’re constantly reinforced for mastering whatever skills you’re working on, whether they be basket weaving or archery. Your fun leisure time is spent on little hobbies with the other tribal members, perhaps DOING those basket weavings, art, or sports. In those tribal societies, there’s no such thing as depression or (to some degree) mental illness; the tribe acts as an emotional support system for every individual within, and proper consideration to feelings is given. Feeling like crap? Don’t go hunting. You’ll still be part of the tribe. And most importantly, children are educated by exposure to the tribal life. There’s no difference between “education” and “the real world.” Life is life, and the children learn the values and skills needed to survive in the tribe by being a part of it.
Modern society, by contrast, is inherently separate. You get a job that has almost nothing to do with helping your community. You form close relationships with random disparate people from throughout your life, but those relationships come and go. meanwhile, all that remains constant is you, and perhaps a significant other plus children. But there’s a much higher chance you’ll feel lonely, and your emotional support system is greatly reduced compared to the tribe. You don’t feel reinforcement or happiness from being successful at your job in most cases, because your job is something you hate (there are always exceptions to the rule, but the stereotype of hating your job exists because many people identify with it). You have almost no leisure time, especially if you work a high-paying, high-importance, high-stress job. And there’s no consideration for individuals. Get pregnant? Get sick? Get depressed? If it was up to your workplace, you’d be fired so they could replace you with someone who isn’t. It’s not a good system, because it focuses specifically on profit and economy rather than people.
Which brings me to my point: we need a new urban utopian vision, something that brings the tribal version of humanity into the modern age rather than throwing out that version altogether. A city that, rather than separating people, is so attractive that it keeps them coming back; where people can work to benefit the community and make a living at the same time. A place where people live at peace with the environment while enjoying the comforts of the 21st century (because, let’s be honest, that’s the dream). A place where people can grow up and learn from their parents and the community without going away to schools, so that they learn values and knowledge from the community. Basically, we need a brand new kind of city for a brand new kind of society, and that is a tall order. Honestly though, for a happier and better society, this is something we need to do.
The title of this post is a lie. I don’t have the new urban utopian vision; just an idea for the basis and a desire for one to exist. I won’t pretend to be as knowledgeable or accomplished as Ebenezer Howard, Frank Lloyd Wright, or Le Corbusier. I don’t have a fully thought out new city as of yet. Trust me, though. I’m working on it. Maybe one day, I’ll make a post describing it. But not today. Today, just know that we need to change.