Utopias, local value creation and the Inner Yes

Aug 10, 2020 by

On the last lecture day of the AEMS summer school 2020, the first topics that we dealt with surrounded utopias for the future, localism in a globalized world and the importance of an “inner yes”. These were topics we had not really touched before, and they required and promoted a very interesting shift of perspective. Instead of presupposing that we want to work towards a better world and that all of us have the same image of this future earth in our heads, we were taken out of our usual thought patterns (or at least I was) to recognize the importance of our personal attitude in the process of external change and to be inspired and inspire others to paint a picture of the world we all wish to live in.

The two lecturers who introduced us to these topics were Wolfgang Lalouschek and Lino Zeddies. Wolfgang Lalouschek is a neurologist, consultant and systemic coach, as well as the founder of the initiative “Planet Yes”. In his presentation, Wolfgang showed the trend of exponential increase of one’s ecological footprint with higher stages of human development (on the basis of the HDI index). This, he identified as one of his big five problems, the others being personal isolation and promotion of negative personality aspects, positive feedback loops (as opposed to negative ones in human bodies and much of nature), the missing presence of both, strategy and action and, finally, the often hidden agendas of people and businesses in power. He went on to present a few innovative approaches to deal with some of these problems and foster local economies. Markta stuck with me as the most aligned to Wolfgang’s approach: A platform where farmers can sell their regional products and consumers can order selected ones in a basket or go to some of the pickup stations to get their locally produced foods.

At “Planet Yes”, Wolfgang and his team strive to create an inner yes on a large scale through promoting and realizing local value creation and circuits, which are composed of many different factors such as a cooperative business culture, a sustainable infrastructure, fair and good education but also strengthened social cohesion and an increased personal life satisfaction. This is, I would daresay, the quintessence of the “Planet Yes” approach: Uniting internal, personal wellbeing with a strong community and local economies, while connecting regions on an informational level, to foster knowledge exchange.

Lino Zeddies, on the other hand, is an economist, an activist and an author. His presentation and the discussion with him, were mainly based on or at least inspired by his most recent book: Utopia 2048. In his presentation he stressed the potential of utopias, or rather eutopias which are, as he explains, the opposite of dystopias: The picture of a better world, rather than one which is falling apart. These eutopias (from the Greek eu = good) just sound the same as utopias (ou = not in Greek, so “no-place”) in the English language. Regardless of this disadvantageous sound feature, Lino tried to emphasize the importance of envisioning the former. Still, he also warns that we must be careful when we strive towards a Utopian world, as such a world can turn out to be at the very least problematic and at its worst, destructive and violent. Prominent examples include the Nazi regime or communism, especially in the Stalin era. As a less violent but also somewhat destructive Utopia, he mentions the narrative of the past decades: Science above all, continuous progress and never-ending growth.

Though we must bear the dangers in mind, Utopias can motivate, kickstart creative thought processes, provide a sense of meaning and unite people. It is therefore problematic that (pop) culture focuses so much on dystopian scenarios. Consequently, positive visions for the future are now more important than ever. This quote Lino derived sums up his main point quite well, I would say.

If you want to win people for the eco-social transformation, don’t criticize carbon footprints, inequality and environmental destruction, but show them how much more beautiful this world could be.”

We had a very lively discussion with the two and, even though they had already laid out their main points, opinions and strategies in their presentations, could get a better understanding of some interesting aspects and grasp more of their message. There are only a few additional questions and remarks from the discussion I want to touch upon.

First, there was a somewhat controversial question about “dreaming”, or envisioning outcomes that are still very far away, as according to psychological research, dreaming in such a way did not improve the likelihood of the outcome that is wished for, but rather the opposite. Barriers were mentioned too and how they should be included in visions. Lino Zeddies’ answer was that barriers were secondary, a thing to be worried about when there were clear visions or utopias. Throughout the whole discussion he kept emphasizing how important it was to create an image of a better and more beautiful world for ourselves as a very first step and how all implementation and overcoming of barriers had to come after that.

Wolfgang Lalouschek on the contrary, answered from a more practical neurologist standpoint and, in a way, confirmed the questioner’s doubts: For someone who wanted to lose weight, it was indeed more useful to take small steps rather than having the image of a perfect body in mind. As this imagination was too far away and seemed too unrealistic, people who focused a lot on it often stuck to the picture in their heads, while the ones that took “baby steps” were on average more successful in eventually reaching their goals.

This made me very curious and think a lot, but as of now, my opinion is that these two do not contradict one another: A “perfect” body or losing a certain amount of weight is a very clearly defined goal. If that is too far away and not partitioned into smaller goals, it seems plausible that people lose motivation when things do not go as planned or it takes much longer. However, a utopian vision, is by definition very far away and will probably never come into being in that exact way. Nevertheless, it seems to be more inspiring and motivating to me to work towards this vision, rather than not having one at all. The difference is that in this case, the route is really the goal.

We also came across the term propaganda and the question whether or not it should be employed to create a different world, and if yes, how. Obviously, everyone seemed rather uncomfortable with using that term as it is so tied to totalitarian regimes and the misuse of power. Still, it led to a very interesting discussion about the term and what aspects of it could and should be used. We more or less agreed on some points, but there also seemed to be a variety of opinions on it. So why is propaganda problematic? Of course, one had to influence people in some way if they wanted to bring upon some change in the world. Some underlying problems we found were: First, propaganda is an oversimplification of complex concepts and ideas (common root problem with populism). Secondly, and in my view most importantly, propaganda is not truthful. It is the means of a too powerful authority for manipulation on a large scale. Those who feel that the ends justify the means have unconsciously made the first step toward totalitarianism. Not all dictators and mass murderers in history started out with bad intentions, but power and megalomania eventually blurred their vision. One should be very careful when drawing final conclusions in that area.

Furthermore, the topics of localism versus globalism came up. Wolfgang Lalouschek tried to make clear, that he (and “Planet Yes”) did not aim for a completely deglobalized world of a totally protectionist nature. Rather, we should focus on local value creation, local economies, a strong and interconnected community, but all of that in combination with network-based increased information flow on a global level. Also, global governance, he meant, still played an important part in this future, as global problems could not exclusively be solved on a local level but required global action. As of my personal understanding and interpretation, he seemed to propose a world where information flowed globally, important decisions for the planet were discussed and partly decided on a global level too, while the community should be the centre of our daily lives and material goods and products should be produced and consumed as close to “home” as possible. The term of “Cosmopolitan Localism” was brought up to describe this by a student. We shortly talked about the role of culture in all of that too, basically only coming to the rather obvious conclusion that culture had to be taken into account in all utopian scenarios, but that there were certain identified global values that were regarded as essential in communities around the world.

To conclude, I would say that the session with these two lecturers was rather uncommon. Most of the AEMS summer school was about criticism of the state of the art, proposition of new models, measurements and ideas. In this case, even though there were obviously some new ideas (mainly from Wolfgang) and insights gained, it seemed to me that both of them mainly tried to transmit a message, an inner disposition, Wolfgang Lalouschek calling it the “Inner Yes” and Lino Zeddies emphasizing the potential of utopias. For me, this was the perfect amount of motivation, shift of perspective and focus on inner processes, which are too often excluded from the discussion. Thank you for the enriching day!

Written by: Paul

Based on the session with Lino Zeddies and Wolfgang Lalouschek during the AEMS 2020.