A New World: Can we Build Utopia in the Real World?

For most the Recession is a depressing prospect, one of a tide of history going out carrying with it a lot of dead fish, driftwood and garbage. For me, it is a tide coming in full of opportunities… Incoming tides can also, of course, swamp the unsuspecting and the unready and I still worry about the hordes I see pouring of the commuter trains every morning who seem to think or hope that they live by a tideless and unchanging sea. They don’t. Nor do these tides keep to neat tables. They come in surges. It is truly an age of uncertainty and of unreason…The future is not inevitable. We can influence it, if we know what we want it to be…We can and should be in charge of our own destinies in a time of change.” Charles Handy, 1989

When we dream of another way, of a possible future society, it is so easy, so tempting to start with a blank slate, as though the Monopoly game board has been swept clean of playing pieces. 


The dream is to start from scratch: perfect people in a perfect idyll at a perfect time in history and with all the tools and funds we need at our fingertips. Whereas the reality of any vision of social change is that we are starting with a huge variety of quirky people, in a landscape which has been moulded by human ways of life and history for hundreds, even thousands, of years. We are dealing with ingrained systems, which, though we may believe do not work, are still the fall back prototype of people’s way of being in the world. 

Although trying to make a world anew, we are not dealing with a new world. This is often the largest challenge of change. But also perhaps a comfort. 

If we do not have to start from scratch, it means we have a pool of wisdom and skills, built up and passed through hundreds of generations of humans to draw on. There have been many ways of addressing the issue of how to live in this world. Some may have been successful with certain groups of people or in certain places in the world or times in history, some may be more appropriate to now. But what is not needed is for us to reinvent the wheel. There is a vast pool of resources, knowledge and research waiting out there which needs to be applied and synthesized, recycled so to speak.


We are facing unprecedented levels of change. Throughout history, long periods of relatively slow change have been interspersed with more traumatic, or joyful periods of rapid change. For hundreds of years change happened in most countries and cultures gradually, at “human” speed.  Each generation had time to adjust to the new ways. Cultures were held together by traditions and unchanging beliefs, handed down from one generation to the next. 

At certain points in our culture a massive jolt has sent shock waves through the whole society, leaving people stranded, uncertain of what to believe and how to respond: the discovery that the world was not flat, the Holocaust, the Industrial Revolution. At these times what has gone before no longer holds true. What was previously taken as indisputable fact is shown to be fiction, the rug is pulled from under people’s collective lives, the fabric of their existence is rent in two. We like to work things out, take our time, meander, dawdle and carry on much as before. But what happens when we can’t, when the external circumstances, or our own personal belief structure has been so deeply shaken that carrying on as before is simply not an option? Times of major upheaval can cause enormous physical and mental hardship as many familiar ties are broken and are only gradually replaced by a new order.

Barrack Obama was elected on the promise of a single word: change. Ireland today is facing the same political chorus, but there is no charismatic leader waiting in the wings. The continuing financial crisis has shaken the confidence of a people already doubting their leadership. The same is happening around the Middle East. People are struggling for change, needing change, demanding it… but not knowing what we need instead, unable to vision a better way forward.  We know that the ways of the recent past do not work for the majority of the world’s population. But we do not know how to instigate root and branch reform. We do not trust democracy but know no other way. We do not trust our leaders but do not want anarchy. 

Why is change happening now? Why so crucial? And why so challenging? As people we pass through many transitions in our lifetimes. Change when it happens too fast can leave us feeling stressed, anxious and out of control. We like stability, inertia even, and certainly predictabliltiy, it allows us to get comfortable in our habits and then not have to change. Change challenges us, pushes us up against our discomfort, our comfort zone is threatened. We are forced to live with uncertainty. We have a number of responses open to us, we may shrink back in fear and try to hide and run away, we might deny change is needed or happening, we may enter into it, trying to use old behaviours in new circumstances, or we might step forward acting creatively, responding not reacting to the circumstances.

It is up to each of us to choose how we respond to change, and how we use our power to influence those around us and those in positions of  responsibility to use their power with great awareness for the benefit of all. We are living the Great Change, may we participate consciously.



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