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Utopia: The ancient discoveries that point to the ideal human society


Mt. Fuji and Tokyo skyline

In an evolutionary eyeblink, cities such as Tokyo have transformed Earth

Jackyenjoyphotography/Getty Images

Faced with litanies of bad news, it is easy to become disheartened about the future of human society. But there are two reasons to think that change for the better is possible. First, enormous social change has taken place in the recent past. More people live in cities than ever before. In many countries, women can now vote, obtain abortions and become heads of government. Outspoken bigotry is increasingly viewed as unacceptable. Poverty and Malnutrition has become less common, at least on some measures. Support for strong action on climate change is growing. Social media exists. Whether or not one approves of all these changes, they have happened, and fast.

Second, anthropology and archaeology are revealing that a human society can take myriad forms. This is “both disorienting and inspiring”, says David Wengrow at University College London, who believes the diversity of past societies opens up possibilities for reshaping our modern ones. Stefani Crabtree at Utah State University agrees. “We can look at the past as experiments with sustainability, as experiments with governance structures,” she says. “We are just experimenting with making life better.” What, then, might we change?

“One thing that’s fairly new is the degree of systemic racism and oppression that’s baked into some of our societies,” says …

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