ON THIS WEEK’S episode of Have a Nice Future, Gideon Lichfield and Lauren Goode talk to Kristen Ghodsee, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Everyday Utopia: What 2,000 Years of Wild Experiments Can Teach Us About the Good Life. Ghodsee outlines why the traditional nuclear family is failing us and how we can restructure care to build a better future.
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Note: This is an automated transcript, which may contain errors.
Lauren Goode: Shall we give this a try? Should we give it a run-through?
Gideon Lichfield: I would like a badge.
Gideon Lichfield: Hi, I’m Gideon Lichfield.
Lauren Goode: And I’m Lauren Goode. And this is Have a Nice Future, a podcast about how terrifyingly fast everything is changing.
Gideon Lichfield: Each week we talk to someone with big, audacious, and sometimes unnerving ideas about the future, and we ask them how we can all prepare to live in it.
Lauren Goode: Our guest this week is Kristen Ghodsee, who heads the Department of Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She has written a new book, it’s called Everyday Utopia: What 2,000 Years of Wild Experiments Can Teach Us About the Good Life.
Kristen Ghodsee (audio clip): By studying communes, by looking at the ways in which people have always thought creatively and cooperatively about raising the next generation, we can learn something that is relevant to our lives today.
Gideon Lichfield: Lauren, I haven’t read Kristen’s book yet, but as I was listening to your conversation with her, I thought, I bet Lauren is saying to herself, “Gideon is just going to love this.”
Lauren Goode: I was thinking that actually, because in essence, the book is about communes. And ever since you joined WIRED, you’ve been pretty open about the fact that you have to split your time across the coasts, as a WIRED editor in chief often does. You live alone when you’re in New York. And then when you’re here in the Bay Area, you are in a … I mean, is it a commune? Would you call it a commune?
Gideon Lichfield: It’s a group house. It’s a community of a dozen people who live together. It’s a very Bay Area thing. It’s kind of almost a stereotype. But I have found it really, really fun. It’s just an amazingly interesting eclectic group of people who share common living space. And after years of living alone or with a partner, I didn’t think that I was ready to go back to living in a community until during the pandemic when I spent a lot of time bubbling with different groups of friends. And I discovered I really like living with people, and living with a large group has actually been incredibly enriching.
Lauren Goode: What’s your favorite part about it?
Gideon Lichfield: I think it’s that I come home at the end of a day, and even if I’ve had a bad day, there’s always somebody there to talk to. There’s usually somebody making food, and they’re usually having a conversation about something completely esoteric and utterly fascinating that I know nothing about, and I learn so many things.
Lauren Goode: So it turns out that both of us have had personal experiences living communally, which I talk a little bit about in my conversation with Kristen. So that is partly what drew me to her book, because she has researched group-living situations that span thousands of years, some that are religious in nature, many that are secularized, some that feel like they could never happen in modern times, others that are actually quite modern. But I was also drawn to the book because I wanted to understand what it means for the future of family structures, since our podcast is about the future. And I was hoping to get a sense of how we can incorporate some of her learnings about communes into our everyday lives, since most of us can’t run off and join an actual commune.
Gideon Lichfield: Yeah. I think this is a conversation about the future of living and the future of family. These questions are in the air, partly because a lot more nontraditional families are appearing—like queer people raising kids, for example. But also because with climate change and economic uncertainty, and especially since the pandemic, which left so many of us alone or stuck in tricky living situations, I think people are starting to ask themselves, how do you create a stable, secure living situation for themselves and the people who matter to them the most, which might not just be direct family members.
Lauren Goode: Right. The theme of her book is that if we really want to change the future, we have to change or at least challenge some of our ideals of domestic life. There are these big structures and institutions that are dictating the outcomes of climate change, the economy, inequality that a lot of us feel like we’re constantly fighting against. But her idea is, what if some of this change happened at home as well.
Gideon Lichfield: At home with a dozen other people?
Lauren Goode: Exactly.
Gideon Lichfield: Sounds fascinating. And right up my alley.
Lauren Goode: Well that conversation is coming up right after the break.
Lauren Goode: Kristen, thank you so much for joining me on Have a Nice Future.
Kristen Ghodsee: Thanks so much for having me.
Lauren Goode: So your new book is called Everyday Utopia. I have it here with me in-studio. I’ve been reading it. I’m completely fascinated by this book. I feel like a lot of different images come to mind for people when they hear the word “utopia.” And we hear it a lot in Silicon Valley too, like “techno-utopia.”
Kristen Ghodsee: Yep.
Lauren Goode: What does the word “utopia” mean to you?
Kristen Ghodsee: Yeah. So I think that “utopia” is a really fascinating word. When it was coined in 1516 by Sir Thomas More, he was playing deliberately on an interesting ambiguity in the ancient Greek. So “utopia” could mean a “no place,” but if you change the “u” to an “eu”—“eutopia”—it could also mean a “good place.” And so utopia has this wonderful ambiguity of being a really great place that doesn’t exist, but this great place, this ideal imagining of sort of social or political or technological perfection, is not necessarily something there to be achieved, but it’s a goal that we orient ourselves toward. So utopia for me is that dream on the horizon. It’s that place that we are hoping to get to, even though we don’t necessarily believe we can actually get there. And so utopia as a concept is, I think, essential for human thriving.
Lauren Goode: And your book really makes a case for how this idea of utopia is in some ways accessible to us if we’re just willing to consider our current social structures and rethink the way we live.
Kristen Ghodsee: Exactly. The thing that really struck me about the use of the term “utopia” and the concept of utopia, particularly as you mentioned in Silicon Valley, is how rarely it is applied to our domestic lives. So when it comes to the way that we organize our domestic lives, and particularly the way that we organize care, which is such an important part of what it means to be human, we are extremely conservative. We tend to hew quite close to the status quo. And so what I’m trying to do in the book is to look at 2,500 years of utopian experiments about how groups of people in different historical epochs and across cultures have reorganized their domestic lives in order to prioritize contentedness and connectedness.
Lauren Goode: And these experiments that you researched, I think people would refer to this as communes, right? Or communal living. Like it’s easy for someone to look at your book and say, oh, it’s a book about communes, and communes will solve everything. Is that an accurate representation of the kinds of communities that you looked into?
Kristen Ghodsee: The one thing I will say is that I’m looking at ways of living that are not about the single-family box, right? This idea that you have, that the appropriate container for parenthood is a romantic couple that then inhabits a particular space where they provide resources and care for their own biological offspring within the walls of a kind of private domestic space. So you have this really weird situation in which, when we are younger, we live—if you’ve gone to college, you might live in a dormitory where you’re constantly surrounded by people, you eat in the dining hall, you know, you walk to your classes, you live in basically what is sort of like a 15-minute city. If you didn’t go to college, maybe you lived in a flat or an apartment with a bunch of other 20-year-olds. But there’s this moment in the middle of our lives when we decide to kind of couple up and have children that we isolate ourselves away from—
Lauren Goode: We prioritize having those four walls.
Kristen Ghodsee: Yeah we prioritize those four walls, we isolate ourselves. And so in the first place, this is totally unnatural. It is a huge aberration from our evolutionary ancestors. It is not how we raised children. In the past, we were cooperative breeders. And in the second place, it’s incredibly detrimental not only to the children who need loving interactions with many responsible, caring adults in order to thrive, in order to develop cognitively. But secondly, it’s also really hard on the parents. You know, it’s so difficult—
Lauren Goode: It’s just crushing—crushing demands on parents.
Kristen Ghodsee: Exactly. All of this has to do with a particular decision that we have made about how we organize our family lives in order ultimately to uphold a system that perpetuates inequality. And that’s what I’m trying to get people to see when I’m talking about, you know, communes, right? I’m not saying at all that we should all run out and live in communes [laughter], but what I am saying is that by studying communes, by studying intentional communities and co-living facilities and co-housing communities, by looking at the ways in which people have always thought creatively and cooperatively about raising the next generation, we can learn something that is relevant to our lives today.
Lauren Goode: At what point did you start to really think about these alternatives to the idea of the nuclear family?
Kristen Ghodsee: For me, I think a very formative experience happened when I first went away to college and I lived in a dorm, but also when I lived on kibbutz in Israel briefly and really began to understand that the way that my family raised me in a single family home, in a suburb in San Diego, you know, surrounded by our stuff and with our private cars or whatever, there was this, like—the scales fell from my eyes when I realized that had I been raised in a community with other loving, caring adults around, and these could have been godparents, these could have been grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, but they could have also have been neighbors that cared. They could have been friends of, you know, work friends of my mom or college buddies or whatever. There was this way in which the isolation of the nuclear family actually can create a lot—can hide a lot of negative things.
Lauren Goode: What was most significant about your kibbutz experience that opened your eyes to some of this?
Kristen Ghodsee: You know, I think it was just the way in which people had primary attachments to their romantic partners and to their kids. But the way in which people moved within a community that was a community, so that those individual relationships were submerged into this rich sea of lateral connection. So people had friends, people had colleagues, and these were all people by the way, that lived, like, in walking distance from you at any time. And then built into that is this idea of everybody’s contributing to the project of work, right? This is a kibbutz that had an agricultural part, there was avocado orchards, but then there was also an irrigation tubing factory. And there were jobs like in the dining hall, and there were jobs in the children’s center, and people sort of rotated through different jobs, and everybody contributed to the maintenance of this community. It was such an eye-opener to me that you could live in a community, a big community with a ton of other people, and you could have like a functioning sort of micro-economy and reimagine the way that you lived your daily lives. And that it would—it starts to sort of change the way you think about yourself and the world.
Lauren Goode: I debated whether or not to share this, but I actually grew up in something of a group living situation. My mother’s parents, my maternal grandparents, bought a cluster of houses. This was in a city and there were four houses all, you know, next door to each other or directly across the street from each other. And then eventually a great aunt bought a fifth house a couple doors down. And so I grew up completely surrounded by aunts and uncles and cousins and my maternal grandparents next door who really helped raise us. I mean, got us ready for school in the morning and cooked for us. And I like to say that my aunts were my Uber drivers to Catholic school [laughter], but I also, I think, found it overwhelming at times. You describe yourself as an introvert in the book. I think I too am an introvert. I think I was understanding from a young age that boundaries could be pushed, although I couldn’t perhaps articulate it then. And I think some of the conflicts that arose amongst family members are probably brushed on my brain just as well as the upsides of that living situation are.
Kristen Ghodsee: For each of us there’s going to be a balance between privacy and community that is gonna be individual. Like not everybody is gonna want the same thing. And that’s good. We shouldn’t impose the same thing on anybody. That’s not what I’m saying here. But what I’m saying is that our model of this sort of single-family home, you know, surrounded by our little postage stamp of an acre of land or whatever in our driveway with our car and our parking space, of course this is really, really isolating. It’s incredibly divisive, and it is eroding our society in really profound ways because people are lonely and isolated. On top of that, there are an increasing number of people who are just living alone. They are just completely cut off. And The New York Times had a great article about kinless adults. Like what happens when you have people that never got married, never have kids, and they don’t necessarily have brothers or sisters or parents around, like what happens to them as they age. And we do not have the built environment to accommodate those types of people. We have a housing stock in the United States that is really built around this idea of the nuclear family. And so while I’m very sensitive to the fact that for some people constantly being surrounded by others can be extremely draining and taxing—and we all need opportunities to recharge for sure. And that sometimes people are gonna push boundaries, and that those sorts of boundary border wars, so to speak, can be really difficult, especially if you don’t have a pre-agreed upon set of rules of how those conflicts are going to be dealt with.
Lauren Goode: Is monogamy a scam?
Kristen Ghodsee: No.
Kristen Ghodsee: No. That’s a weird question because first of all, there have always been people who are polygamous, and there have always been people who were celibate or asexual. If we look throughout the history of humanity, what we find is that human family forms are incredibly flexible and adaptive. Depending on the environmental, climatic, social, cultural, geographic, economic circumstances, we change. We have polyandry, which is where one woman has multiple husbands. We have things like portable paternity, we have polygamy, we have polyamory, but we also have, you know, just celibacy and monogamy is just one of many, many different options. What I would say is socially imposed universal monogamy, which is this thing that kind of comes to us from ancient Greece, is a part of the problem that I’m talking about here. But I don’t think monogamy on its own—it’s just one form of being in a relationship with somebody else, one among many other forms.
Lauren Goode: Has working on this book changed your notion at all of romantic love or monogamy?
Kristen Ghodsee: I think for me, definitely—I came to realize that the romantic couple, the romantic attachment, although it is a common container for childbearing and child rearing, it is not necessarily the best one. And that was something that in my own life as a parent, I believed, you know, I really kind of believed that, that you had to have a romantic partner in order to decide to have children and raise those children. And while I agree with many people who will say that two parents are better than one, I also really believe that three parents or four parents are better than two. And that we should really think much more about cooperative breeding as a model, even if we stay monogamous, even if we stay pair-bonded. I think there’s a way in which we, if we could open up our families to wider networks of caring adults, you know, and again, these could be godparents, they could be grandparents, they could be aunts and uncles, they can be neighbors. There are all sorts of ways in which they could be kin or non-kin. Something really profound that hit me was how much I believed in this ideal of the romantic partnership being the appropriate container for parenthood. And I just don’t believe that anymore.
Lauren Goode: A lot of the ideas you’re presenting here, though, are still a third rail in Western culture, despite the unrealistic expectations, perhaps around monogamy or the crushing demands that these ideals put on parents. Why is this such a hot-button issue?
Kristen Ghodsee: I think in the United States, it’s partially to do with a particular subset of the population that is very conservative around the traditional nuclear family, especially the heterosexual nuclear family. That’s a big part of it. I think there’s also a really big part of it is that our nuclear families do uphold a particular set of economic relations that perpetuate inequality. And people understand that if we challenge the nuclear family, if we broadened our networks of love and support and care, we would really begin quite profoundly, I think, to challenge inequality. And that is a very difficult—people will say that they wanna challenge inequality, that they wanna have equality of opportunity, but the fundamental way in which wealth and privilege get transferred from one generation to the other is through the nuclear family. And so there’s a lot at stake here in questioning the way we organize our domestic lives.
Lauren Goode: It’s probably unlikely that in the near future all of us can run off and join communes or start our own. But I’m wondering what we can glean from people who are living in these kinds of communities, or what is a way that we can integrate some of this into our personal lives?
Kristen Ghodsee: I often find myself trading community for convenience. So especially during the pandemic, like everybody else, I was initially inclined to order my groceries rather than going to the grocery store, because I was afraid of getting Covid. But I realized that not going to the grocery store, even if I had to wait in line and have a mask on and everything, and be really careful, it was a moment to interact with other human beings. And as a very busy working mom, I definitely, in the United States, let myself always choose convenience over community. And after writing this book and doing these interviews and reading all of these different studies, I realized that one thing that we can really learn in our own lives is when and where we make those decisions to prioritize convenience over community and maybe to stop and rethink them, occasionally. We can’t do it all the time, but occasionally it’s probably worth making the choice the other way around.
Lauren Goode: What keeps you up at night?
Lauren Goode: That’s a lot.
Kristen Ghodsee: That’s a lot. Yeah.
Lauren Goode: It’s a lot to take on.
Kristen Ghodsee: Right. I think a lot of people are feeling that, which is why all of those things can be addressed slowly, incrementally. It’s not—I’m not talking about a revolution here, right? I’m not even talking about any kind of state-level reforms. I’m talking about making little decisions.
Lauren Goode: What are you most optimistic about right now?
Kristen Ghodsee: Joy. That sounds really strange, but I—when I went to see the Barbie movie [laughter], I went to see the Barbie movie in Berlin with my daughter, and it was like the night before it officially previewed, we went to this like pink preview or something, and there were all these people in the room together, mostly dressed in pink wild outfits, and people were having such a good time. And it was about the community. It was about being, like, in a movie theater again, full to the brim of everybody just super excited. And there was a joyousness in that, that I hadn’t felt in a really long time. I feel like joy is coming back, even though there’s so much despair, there are increasing moments of joy. And I think people are trying really hard to find joy and bring joy into their own lives. And to the extent that I think people are really consciously focusing on this cultivation of joy. I think that’s a good thing that makes me feel like people really want to live. And that part of wanting to live—part of the desire to bring joy into their lives is also a desire to make the future better. And there are people who are really committed to doing that, and I really admire them.
Lauren Goode: Kristen, it’s been such a joy speaking to you on this podcast. So, thank you for joining me on Have a Nice Future.
Kristen Ghodsee: Thank you so much for inviting me. It’s been so fun to have this conversation as well—quite joyous.
Gideon Lichfield: Lauren, when you were talking to Kristen, you said that you’d had this experience of community living with your family or extended family that you found overwhelming. How do you feel about it now?
Lauren Goode: I mean, I very much appreciate it now, looking back on it. And I’m sure that it was really helpful to my parents as well. I still don’t know if I would want to live that close to family all of the time, particularly like sort of the number, the cluster of family members that were around. If you had to choose between living alone in your place in New York versus communal living full-time, you had to choose one of them full-time, which one would you go with?
Gideon Lichfield: If I now had to choose one of them full-time, I would choose communal living. And the question is where.
Lauren Goode: Really?
Gideon Lichfield: Yes, I feel like I’m ready for that stage in my life now. At the moment, I’m really enjoying having a bit of both. But if you were—if you forced me to choose, I would say, OK, it’s time to make the leap and go for a community. This whole conversation is making me wonder whether we naturally just see-saw between wanting to live in large groups and wanting to have some aloneness. That tension between the collective will and collective needs versus individual desires and desires of people to go their own way—that tension’s always gonna be there.
Lauren Goode: Yeah. I mean, one of the themes of her book that we didn’t get to talk about very much, but seems so obvious when she points it out, is that a lot of these communal living situations can benefit women, right? Because she talks about how the way we currently live in modern post-industrial societies, like down to the very designs of our individual homes, perpetuates the social norm that care work happens within the individual home and that a lot of that care work is done by women. And she talks about how a nuclear family is—it is mostly the women who end up tending to the emotional needs of children. And some of the earliest examples she gives, like for example, she talks about Plato as a proto-feminist like as early as 375 BC. Plato was taking issue with the structure of private family relationships and was suggesting that children should be raised collectively, which gives women more freedom.
Lauren Goode: And the idea I think is that you unburden women, the more you create the kind of structures that you currently live in, in Berkeley or that I grew up in, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, [laughter] where you have like lots of family around who share those responsibilities, and it’s not just one woman and, let’s assume it’s a heteronormative family structure, who has to do like all of the cooking, the cleaning, the child rearing—maybe adopting a more communal approach to raising children could benefit women.
Gideon Lichfield: Would it necessarily do that? Wouldn’t you, might you not end up with still a split in gender roles where the women in the community are the ones doing the child rearing and the men are going out and hunting oxen or not ox—
Lauren Goode: As you do.
Gideon Lichfield: Not oxen. Oxen are not hunted. Whether men go out and hunt stags, or you know, trap bears or whatever these men do.
Lauren Goode: As as you do in Berkeley. Yes. The men in Berkeley and your commune, I’m sure go out and hunt the stags. And no, she—I mean she does mention that communal living does not always translate to this. And once again, brings up the kibbutz because she observed that kibbutzim actually hews much closer to traditional gender roles. So it doesn’t necessarily mean that just because you’re all living together that everything’s hunky-dory and there’s equality, yay. But at least like if you have a—if you have that shared purpose, the intentional part that you mentioned, and there are sort of rules to prevent conflict and to prevent overburdening one party in the commune, and then yeah, theoretically maybe women wouldn’t have to do all the work, which is a nice idea. I mean, some people hearing this are just gonna be allergic to the word feminist and, like, turn off from this idea. But I think it’s at—it’s at least worth considering.
Gideon Lichfield: OK. Well, given that, as you said, most people can’t just run off and join a commune, how do you think someone who is living in a more traditional situation might nonetheless start to integrate more aspects of community living?
Lauren Goode: I really liked what she said about the grocery store during the pandemic—how it would just be so easy to disappear behind a screen and do all of your ordering online. But by going out into a store, you have to be face-to-face with people and you’re interacting with people in your community. And sometimes it’s not as fun or it’s uncomfortable or you have to wait in lines and aisles are small or whatever, but like, you’re literally bumping up against other human beings. And that’s an important part of being in a community. I think in general, like we, we can just do so much from our screens these days that I think we have to start reminding ourselves to put down the screens and to go out there in the real world whenever, whenever it’s possible for us, whenever it’s accessible to us.
Gideon Lichfield: I feel like there you are talking about neighborhood, which is something that was lost in part during the pandemic because we had to, or we were able to go and order our groceries online instead of risking the store. And some of us just enjoyed that convenience and have not gone back to going out. And when you see the resurgence of things like farmer’s markets and pop-up stores, that’s a way in which neighborhood is starting to come back, or restaurants for example. What this is making me think a lot about is the distinction between intentional and unintentional community. And back before the pandemic, back before the internet, back before upward mobility and urbanization, we had a lot of unintentional community. People lived in large families, multi-generational family homes. They lived in neighborhoods or small towns and villages. They were forced to get to know the people around them and make relationships with them. And that was unintentional community that could become very tight knit. Today we have much more opportunity to travel, to uproot ourselves and move to a different place, to seek out the people with whom we have things in common online. We have opportunities to create intentional community, but it’s harder in some ways, or at least it’s harder, I think, to make it lasting. And so maybe one of the things that we need to get better at also is rediscovering how to fit into unintentional community, which is to say the neighbors, the family, all those opportunities that actually are right on the doorstep, to have community that maybe we’ve neglected or taken for granted or forgotten about. Because we’re so obsessed with seeking out the perfect community of people who exactly share our interests, our politics, our lifestyles, our favorite games or whatever.
Lauren Goode: I think that’s part of it, but I also think that what Kristen is proposing is a little bit more radical than that too. It’s a whole shift in thinking around both our family structures and our romantic relationships. I mean, I thought it was really interesting when I asked her if monogamy was a scam, and she responded like, no, that’s a weird question. We are meant to pair-bond. But then she also has this really expansive view of what relationships could and maybe should look like, depending on environmental, climatic, social, cultural situations. She talked about things like portable paternity, polygamy, polyamory, and also mentions that people are celibate or asexual and there are all these different ways to live and relate to other human beings. And, so she’s proposing a radical shift, not to the point where we all just all of a sudden adapt these standards. Like we may still be in a pair-bond and monogamous relationship, but that we shift our thinking about them.
Gideon Lichfield: So It sounds like she’s saying, let’s divorce the idea of what kind of romantic relationship you should have, and whether that’s with just one person or multiple people, from the idea of who you should live with and how you should share the tasks and responsibilities of living.
Lauren Goode: Exactly. Or how you should necessarily raise a family. You mentioned earlier some friends who are alloparents—that’s the phrase that she uses throughout the book—people who are not necessarily the biological parent but have taken on a parental role, and, like, she thinks we should embrace that.
Gideon Lichfield: Yeah, I think you would make a great alloparent.
Lauren Goode: Well, I thank you. I mean, that’s just called an auntie, but yeah, I’m a pretty good auntie. [Laughter] I completely agree with you.
Gideon Lichfield: Oh, really? So in that case, we should live in community, Lauren.
Lauren Goode: Yeah, we should probably—
Gideon Lichfield: Clearly, we get along far too well.
Lauren Goode: Yeah. [Laughter]
Lauren Goode: That’s our show for today. Thanks for listening.
Gideon Lichfield: Have a Nice Future is hosted by me, Gideon Lichfield.
Lauren Goode: And me, Lauren Goode. If you like the show, we would love to hear from you. You can leave us a rating and a review wherever you get your podcasts. And don’t forget to subscribe so you get our new episodes each week.
Gideon Lichfield: You can also email us your comments at [email protected]. Tell us what you’re worried about, what excites you, any questions you have about the future, and we’ll try our best to answer them with our guests.
Lauren Goode: Have a Nice Future is a production of Condé Nast Entertainment. Danielle Hewitt from Prologue Projects produces the show. Our assistant producer is Arlene Arevalo.
Gideon Lichfield: We’ll be back in next Wednesday and until then, have a nice future.
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