Embracing Protopia: An Optimistic Path Toward a Better Future

Filed under: Meaningful, Rightsized, Sustainable

It is said if you look long enough you will find what you are looking for—or it will find you.  So, after a couple of months of not feeling inspired or excited to write much, I finally stumbled upon an idea that just won’t let go. Of course, that idea will take a while to completely unfold, but ever since I first heard it I felt captured and inspired by a new way of looking at things—a new way of looking at life.  That idea is an optimistic protopia.  What is protopia? It is the middle way between a dystopia or a utopia.  It asks, will our futures look like a dystopian disaster where the planet and humans are fighting tooth and nail to survive?  (Think of the movies Terminator or Mad Max.)   Or will it look like a utopian dream where everything is perfect, all people are “perfect”, and nothing ever changes? Until recently no one really talked about a third alternative.  A middle way.  And that future is protopian.  I’m guessing most people never even heard of it just like me.

I discovered the idea of protopia while listening to a podcast interview of a man named Kevin Kelly.  Considered a “futurist,” Kevin is an author and cofounder of the magazine Wired and former editor of the Whole Earth Review.  The podcast where I first found him was an interview by Tim Ferris and the title was, “Excellent Advice for Living.”  Not only did his discussion include his new book (with the same title) he also discussed AI and where it is headed. Then, more importantly to me, he introduced the concept of protopia. And now I’m introducing it to you.

What first caught my attention is that Kelly considers himself an optimist.  He says, “Pessimism sounds smart. Optimism sounds dumb.  Don’t fall for it.”  Then he goes on to explain that optimists shape our future because believing something is possible is a necessary requirement to make anything new. He goes on to point out that human history is filled with optimists that, in spite of the odds, created new things that most could not even imagine—but obviously someone did and now it has become our reality.  He says, “In the long run, optimists shape our world.”

Another reason that Kelly believes in the power of optimism is that with a long view, progress shows that humanity has slowly but surely progressed through the ages.  It requires that we view the slow growth and advantages made century after century that required us to build things that we might never see ourselves.  It allows us to pay the current price for things in the present time so that in the future we will be ready for inevitable disaster and harm that always comes.  He also explains that though we typically do (eventually) solve our problems—in the long run once we solve a problem, those very solutions will create new and different problems.  With an acceptance that problems will never end, the optimist strives forward knowing and trusting in cooperation, the goodness of people and the power of creativity.

Of course, Kelly admits that optimism is sometimes harder to see.  That’s because he believes bad things happen fast and good things take longer.  The news today (and most people’s attention span) sees only things that happen in the last few hours (if not minutes.)  Good takes longer than that—not only a longer view–but a longer time frame.  And think about it, progress is mostly about what hasn’t or didn’t happen.  Millions of children went to school today and came home without incident.  Thousands recovered from serious accidents (and COVID). Today over 90,000 passenger plans flew without calamity. People moved into homes and got new jobs—babies were born. Things happen all the time but unless it is bad, we seldom hear or even think about it.

Plus, Kelly is convinced that optimism produces both happier and more resilient people.  After all, it takes hope to believe that your actions will eventually produce favorable results.  But Kelly is clear that “the psychological temperament of an optimist is not a sunny disposition or a Pollyanna delusion that everything is ideal.”  Instead, he claims that as optimists we believe that bad things or situations created by temporary causes will be overcome.  Therefore, in order to adapt and thrive when challenges arise, it is the optimist that will prevail.

So where does protopia fit into all this?  Kelly is clear that “Optimism is not utopian.  It’s protopian—a slow march toward incremental betterment.”  He asks us to imagine that the world is only 1% better than last.  Then each year 1% better than that.  By all appearances it doesn’t look like anything much, but very slowly betterment is happening. That is protopia. It requires that although it may appear that things are sometimes taking a negative turn, over time things will get better.  But the key is time.  It seldom happens fast.  He also believes that “…as bad as the world’s future problems will be, the reason we can and should be optimistic is that our estimates of future woes don’t take into account our ability to solve them.” He cautions about letting our minds sink into dystopia.  Instead take the protopian view.  If we want things to be better we have to begin by believing they will be.

I’ve only scratched the surface of what Kelly teaches about optimism and protopia. But having listened to several of his interviews, watched YouTube videos and read several of his articles, his outlook on life has given me a new perspective and yes, even more optimism than I’ve had in a while.  Let’s all do ourselves a favor and turn off the media news once in a while and seek out the good news in our world.  Let’s talk to each other and find common ground.  Let’s take the long view of history and look back through the years where we’ve come from.  Most importantly, let remember that the SMART thing to do is to start imagining an optimistic protopian future where we become the ancestors that future generations will be proud of claiming as their own.



Disclosure:  The title of this post was generated by AI, but the article itself was created solely by personal human creativity.

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