Not so long ago, nearly everyone lived in abject poverty. Most people had barely enough food to survive. Many children died of diseases that we can cure today. In 1651 the philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote that man’s life was poor, nasty, brutish, and short.1 And there were only 600 million people at the time. Yet, a few centuries later, a miracle had happened. Nowadays, eight billion people live on this planet, but only 250 million are starving. And the life expectancy in the poorest countries exceeds that of the Netherlands in 1750, the wealthiest country in the world just before the Industrial Revolution.
In 1516 Thomas More wrote his famous novel about a fictional island named Utopia. Life in Utopia was good. The Utopians had a six-hour workday and had enough because everyone took not more than they needed. Utopia means nowhere, but the name resembles eutopia, which means a good place. The pun may have been intended by More. His book inspired writers and dreamers to think of a better world while leaving the hard work to others. Today, many people have more than they need, but still, we work hard and feel insecure about the future. So what went wrong?
The miracle that lifted billions out of poverty is capitalism with the help of fossil fuels, first coal, and later oil and natural gas. But it came at a price. The capitalist economy must grow, but the resources of this planet are limited. It is not enough that we work and buy the products we need. We must work harder to buy more so capitalists can make money. And now resources are running out, and we will have to face the Great Collapse.
More’s Utopia supposes people are unselfish and public-spirited. If we all contribute what we can and take not more than we need, we could live in Paradise. Humans can be selfless and public-spirited but also selfish and greedy. Most of us are willing to contribute to a cause, but without incentives and rewards, many things that must be done remain undone. So should we forget about Utopia? Perhaps not. Much more is possible than we might think when a cause inspires us. And religion can make that happen.
Latest update: 13 May 2023
Featured image: Illustration for the first edition of Utopia by Thomas More.
1. Leviathan. Thomas Hobbes (1651).