The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

“The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” Is An Inapplicable Parable For Our Time

You’re probably familiar with Ursula LeGuin’s short story on Omelas. If you aren’t go read it now, it’s short and profound and you should know it.

Though a great story, Omelas is largely inapplicable to us, which is odd, because surely LeGuin wrote it, at least in part, as commentary on our society.

Omelas is a paradise, of sorts.. Many of us are well off, in some ways the majority of those of us who live in the developed world live in a paradise, with more access to food and pleasures than any society before us.

But Omelas’s prosperity is based on suffering. In Omelas’s case, the suffering of just one person, a tiny minority.

In our case, the number is much more, and our civilization is global. Our prosperity is based on slavery and poverty and degradation in developing and undeveloped countries. Blood minerals, effective slavery in mines and factories, children picking thru garbage dumps for food. It was born in mass genocide in the Americas, and mass conquest everywhere else.

At some point, every self-aware person with a smidgen of intellectual integrity becomes aware of these facts: that the good life is based on the suffering of others.

But we don’t leave, because we can’t.

Where would you go? There is no place left, no place that isn’t Omelas, where any good life is bought by the suffering of others. Even if you do nothing yourself, to participate in our prosperity is to eat of the fruits of the suffering of others, there is no avoiding it, save, perhaps, to become a hermit who takes nothing from our society.

Omelas is a powerful parable, but it isn’t applicable to our society because we are all locked in; there is no decent society to go to, no place to escape to. We cannot leave.

And so, if we are to be ethical, since we cannot leave, we must work to free those whose suffering our prosperity is based on.

Because whether we will it or no, our pleasures are always, to some extent, born from their pain.

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Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – October 4, 2020


Trump Covid Thread


  1. Stirling S Newberry

    I like almost everything that UKlG wrote, but for my money, the first 3 Earthsea novels, Dispossesed, and The Lefthand of Darknesss are much better.

    Off topic: Trump is infected will Covid-19.

  2. Plague Species

    There is one other option and don’t think I haven’t considered it long and hard. Apparently Brad Pascale has too, but for all the wrong selfish reasons. Suicide. With dignity. Suicide doesn’t have to be a violent act. Civilization heretofore has largely required it to be violent for all the obvious reasons, but self-euthanization can be a beautiful tranquil dignified final act of rebellion.

    Into this world we’re thrown, like a dog without a bone….

  3. Suicide isn’t painless

    Suicide as rebellion.
    Hmmm, it would take the suicide of hundreds of millions of westerners before they’d even notice. But, yeah, fuck it, I’m going to give it a try.
    That’ll show them.

  4. StewartM

    Ian, the (dare I say?) majoritarian American worldview (driven by Ayn Rand) is that it’s “immoral” for you to care more about even the suffering of your next door neighbor, someone you might see everyday, than your own creature comforts–let alone caring about children picking through garbage you don’t.

    No where do I see this more clearly is in discussions of the exercise of US military power. We were far from perfect, but in the past we seemed at times to actually want to limit the damage wreck on enemy noncombatants, even if it meant possibly more losses to our own forces. Now killing enemy babies is more preferable than harming a single hair of our ‘fine men and women in uniform’.

  5. StewartM

    “…damage wreaked”… not ‘damage wreck’.

  6. Whip

    Thank you for sharing her story. However, I want to offer a different interpretation of it.

    First, a minor point: to say the present civilization was founded on genocide of American natives ignores the likely but not-to-my-knowledge documented genocide of European natives and the terrible anti-feminist/anti-pagan waves of violence over many centuries. Not to downplay what happened in the Americas; I simply note that Europeans didn\’t suddenly become genocidal here.

    About my different interpretation of Omelas: as the story is told, the people who left weren\’t going to a clearly defined destination. They simply left Omelas. The story doesn\’t describe them reaching a more honestly good society as you hear in histories of early European colonists of north America running away from the colony and joining native tribes. Those few Omela-ans simply left everything they knew and ventured away for their own personal reasons. The story describes other towns that implicitly may be like Omelas with their own dark secrets (whence people came to join the celebration), and who knows whether those were temporary or permanent destinations of the Omelan emigrants.

    Nevertheless, that walking away is very much still possible – I left a job in the so-called defense industry 6 years ago earning 6 figures and with many other enticements. After walking away, I learned to live happily on far less money, to face fears I\’d never even known I\’d had, to love life and feel more alive in my body, to live in gratitude, to feel the hearts of the non-humans and listen to what they have to say, to seek out and integrate native wisdom into my life, and much more. Reading your blog along with a few others and many books helped open my eyes and motivated that big transition. I walked away, and just in the last couple years I went from \’walking away\’ to \’walking towards\’ as I\’ve found various native and other ancient traditions that have helped me walk a better path.

    I left the suburbs of DC and now live in the southern Appalachian mountains. To some it may look like I just moved, but I certainly identify with the people who left Omelas. It\’s still possible to walk away from your present role in maintaining the dark secret and seek a deeper path, though it\’s not possible to escape entirely or go somewhere where civilization will only be a bad memory. And of course, it seems impossible to me to totally avoid any role in maintaining the dark secrets. It is our journey to live in a good way in light of all this.

    This is my first ever comment on here after probably 8 years\’ reading. Thanks for your writing. I\’ve tried blogging but even when I have something valuable to say, I lose faith that more text-on-a-screen are what the world needs from me now, though others\’ words have helped me so much.

  7. Joan

    Why do none of the people who walk away try to take the wretched child with them?

  8. Ian Welsh

    Kicking it back to the top, since it was swamped by Trump, and he’s less important.

  9. Ché Pasa

    Chaos and incompetence characterize the current government in DC top to bottom — not just Trump, no, but throughout the governing class. It infects the rest of the high and mighty as well; our squillionaires and their handmaidens have no greater a clue to how to keep the ship afloat, do they?

    <a href="”Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.”

    So. What do you do? You can’t walk away because there’s no place to go? Really? Well, I think many millions would disagree strongly with that assertion. Walking away, starting over in some sense, is built in to the whole concept of “America” and there are still plenty of potential alternatives to explore. Putting as much distance between you and the chaos around you is imperative.

    It’s not salvation, no. It’s imperfect because of so many interdependencies in our lives, but still walking away from what is falling to pieces before our eyes is necessary for more and more Americans.

    How to do it is the question.

  10. Marcus

    Thanks for posting Whip,, it resonated, though through my own very different past. I spent most of my adult life living in a wilderness/indigenous-inspired intentional community that prided itself on helping humans reconnect with our inborn proclivity to live in balance with ourselves, each other, and nature. But then I, too, happened upon the dark secrets. Like you, the walking away I eventually did (after trying in my earnest but personally flawed way to change the system) wasn’t towards anything, but merely away from what I knew in my heart I could no longer take part in. So here I am, on my new course towards…. nowhere….but at least it’s not that.

    So maybe each of us have our own flavors of Omelas that, while they can seem opposite on the surface, are Underneath all they trappings the same thing.

  11. Plague Species

    I mean no disrespect, but the mere fact you’re reading this and posting comments here means you know, down deep, you can’t and haven’t walked away from Omelas. This thing called The Net is aptly named. it is, amongst other things, a net to catch the wayward who think they can escape.

    Omelas is the Black Hole that is our civilization. It absorbs everything in it sshpere of influence, its orbit, and the entire planet is in its sphere of influence and or orbit at this juncture. Wild is a thing of the increaingly mythological past. Even those who don’t live in it directly and even those who have no knowledge of Omelas (a handful of tribal folk) are affected by it and their fate is now fully in its hands with the advent of planet destroying nuclear weapons and biopshere destroying industrialization.

    The toxicity of civilization, quite literally in more ways than one, is everywhere now. In every nook and cranny of the planet. Yes, of course, you can cease to cooperate with it as much as possible and you can refuse to enable it as much as possible, but your mere existence within it, because there is no way out of it except self-euthanasia or your involuntary death, gives it succor and legitimacy, however paltry your offering. Sure, you can crawl to first base versus sprint and it may take you several months as part of your personal rebellion, but if you don’t make it to first base and beyond, you don’t live, and to live is to further this insanity.

  12. Marcus

    Plague species, I’m not disagreeing with anything you’re saying, but for the sake of exploring this: perhaps this whole “leaving Omelas” is a matter of degree? Or trajectory? From my experience in America right now, and with the above subculture I distanced myself from, there is indeed a way to “leave” something that actually reinforces a mirror image of it’s Omelas-ness. The Woke movement for example. Or, without getting into a long story, the people who left the community I lived at and then went on to tout their victim hood, and who go on and on about the narcissistic guru leader, thereby washing their hands of any self-introspection about the part they did and continue to play.

    It seems possible to picture oneself “leaving” Omelas while actually, on he whole, strengthening it, diversifying it’s portfolio. And it also seems possible to, at least in part, withdraw. I think taking the difficult route to circumvent self congratulatory delusions is a pretty big step, especially considering how rarely I come across it.

  13. Dan

    What you oppose is what you maintain.

    So walk away. But there is no place left to walk to. More accurately, the places one may walk to are increasingly all the same. And the beast follows you wherever you go.

    That’s the conundrum.

  14. Plague Species

    Marcus, I agree we are talking matters of degree in regard to the enabling of it. It’s moral to resist it and refuse it to the extent it allows, but the message is clear. You can check out any time you like, but you may never leave. So long as you live — and I sure hope to hell you/me/we can leave upon death, otherwise suicide, in dignified fashion or not, isn’t even an option.

    Speaking of that, the most unnerving theory I have ever run across is that we live our lives over and over again for all eternity where nothing changes. What an absolutely horrific notion. It sure would explain deja vu.

    Death created time to grow the things it would kill — over and over again.

  15. Marcus

    PS i was thinking while I was out chainsawing -ironic i know- and i guess what i was getting at is that there’s an internal component to being trapped in Omelas. And trysts Thebault one place where there actually is quite a bit of freedom – despite our physical dependence on Omelas- to investigate and break free. My hope for myself, my wife, and my daughter (and anyone who’s willing to play they Russian roulette of becoming a close friend) is that we can decolonize our minds of the self serving beliefs and mental dependency of Omelas, such that when we get the chance to actually make something different we’ll be better prepared.

  16. Willy

    Long ago I had a friend, a granola type, who’d say that “America is living on the backs of the world”. This was during the relatively good times when anybody could find a job for life, along with home and family, if they were reasonably hardworking and stayed off the drugs.

    She was the first to plant the seed in my mind that there are evil people who are born to enjoy doing evil entirely for the rush which power provides them, and that there are also others who while evil isn’t their nature, will do evil after reaching a certain breaking point. I wish I’d paid attention. The seed she’d planted didn’t sprout until years later, the incident of 911, the first time I’d thought again about her story.

    She told the tale of a small Bering sea fishing boat which had burned at sea, with all lives lost.
    She had known some of those people personally. She “knew” that the burning hadn’t been accidental. First she described a typical fishing boat pecking order culture where in even the best of situations, the greenhorns do most of the work while the experienced get most of the shares, next to the owner who rules his boat.

    She said that sometimes a fishing boat’s culture turns dysfunctionally evil. A low status member may be singled out for continuous harassment which goes well beyond anything which a normal person can psychologically handle. The instigator usually isn’t the boats owner, for obvious reasons of reputation and productivity, but a sociopath who’s been unwittingly promoted into a position of authority. The sociopath takes over the entire boats culture and once in power, gets their daily supply of narcissistic power jollies through the remorseless manipulation of the entire crew. She believed that the chosen target was driven to destroy the boat because they had nowhere else to go, and had come to believe that the enablers were every bit as evil as is the manipulator himself, and lost their mind.

    I’m not implying that the boxcutter pilots of 911 had been sociopathic targets or had much in common with the crew of that death boat, but it awakened me to similar dynamics which likely happen on a global scale. Maybe America did once lived on the backs of the rest of the world. But this problem has only gotten worse with globalization. But at least we know who’s to blame.

  17. GlassHammer

    There are many forces pulling Americans back to our decayed culture our Omelas, far too many to list here and far too many to adequately prioritize.

    But in my American life I have encountered three drag forces often (in most conversations with friends and family):
    -A material life masquerading as a spiritual life, which is functionally the same as not having a spiritual life at all.
    -An inability to accept death, decay, loss, and misfortune as not only part of your material life but that it is quite literally half of your material life. (This lack of acceptance comes from the “progress/growth forever” narrative.)
    -An inability to see stages in life at all. (We act as if what we can and should do at ages 20-35 is not what we can and should do from 35-50. This is tied directly to the lack of spiritual life which should play a larger role as you mature.)

  18. GlassHammer

    Meant to say

    “We act as if what we can and should do at ages 20-35 is what we can and should do from 35-50.”

  19. Thomas B Golladay

    The real lesson of Omelas is: Will you courageously feed, bath, and cloth that child, knowing full well you will lose everything? Walking away is a cowards way. You must face the tyrants head on. Take the story of Dune. If the spacing guild had any courage, they would have told Paul Atriedes off and nuked Arrakis flat, saving 61 billion plus lives. They themselves would have died, but the reign of terror the Atriedes unleashed, would have been ended.

  20. Arthur

    It reminds me of one of my favorite characters from literature: Starbuck in Moby Dick. He knows what he should do; at the very least put Ahab in chains and sail post haste back to New Bedford. But he hasn’t the courage for that, let alone when he points the musket at Ahab and can’t pull trigger. A coward? Maybe. Or as Ahab puts it: “Starbuck, you are too good a man.”. Either way Moby Dick wins, the ship is lost, and only one survives to tell the tale.

  21. Willy

    @ Thomas B Golladay

    I’d think that the ingestion of radioactive spice would’ve mutated the guild navigators into these even cooler looking bizarre creatures.

    The question begged there, is why didn’t the guild just cut off all travel and supplies to Arrakis (under some fictional galactic security mandate) and quietly work to make it their own home planet? Such a thing wouldn’t need to be done in one big nuclear holocaust.

    As our current kleptocratic social control technologies suggests, the guild might first gain influence over the major media sources either overtly (like Fox News), or covertly (MSNBC or CNN). News reports to the rest of the galaxy would include never ending coverage of the diversionary and controversial, such as the Bene Gesserit sisterhood turning lesbian, that lying idiotic Emperor, and how elections were being influenced by those dangblasted Harkonnens.

    The purpose would be to create two “clans” of galactic citizenry which would waste time and energy focused on bickering with each other. Meanwhile, the Guild would slowly but surely take control of Arrakis.

    Maybe I could write a sequel. “Dune, The Neoliberal Order.”

  22. different clue

    What is the “average Omelan’s” individual per capita consumption of matter and energy . . . in the non-physicist’s folk-layman sense?

    If you are consuming more than that average level, you are worse than the average Omelan. If you are consuming less than that average level, you are better than the average Omelan. If you are consuming half what the average Omelan consumes, then you are half as bad as the average Omelan.

    What level of consumption would make you an Omelan-lite? What level of consumption would make you a pre-Omelan or a post-Omelan or some other kind of functional non-Omelan equivalent?

  23. KT Chong

    That idea is incorporated into Snowpiercer, a sci-fi dystopian movie about classes directed by Bong Joon-ho. Boon is the Korean director who won the Academy’s Best Director Award (i.e., Oscar) for Parasite.

    I actually did not like Parasite all that much, but it is a visually stunning movie. Snowpiercer is actually my favorite Boon’s movie.

  24. KT Chong

    Snowpiercer, the 2014 movie, not the inferior TNT series, which I think is the prequel to the movie.

  25. Thomas B Golladay


    Folding space without navigators is possible, but only over short distances as you have to account for stellar drift which requires a lot of math that even the Mentats struggle with. Spice allows the navigators to use prescience to see where objects are and avoid collisions. This is what makes the Imperium possible instead of multiple competing empires.

    This is why their monopoly was protected, that and thinking machines were banned.

    However, said monopoly was not worth the bloodshed the Fremen unleashed.

  26. Stirling S Newberry

    Roger Penroes is off the list for a Nobel Prize, well he got half.

  27. someofparts

    My childhood took place in the Jim Crow South. The despicable people who ran the place saw to it that half the community lived like dogs to protect the presumably privileged.

    People who lived there never talked about it in front of children, so as a child I just thought my entire community was white. Learning the real story of the places where I was raised came after I left and continues to this day.

    But as the age approached when I could make decisions for myself I knew I was going to leave, even though I did not know the full story of my aparteid town back then. What I did know was the the world I was raised in felt dead and I could not imagine myself settling down and spending an adult life there.

    What I found by leaving has hardly been a paradise because in my adult lifetime predatory capital has made life hellish for most of us. As to culture however, leaving an aparteid world has made things much better.

    So, okay, maybe a person doesn’t know where they are going or what they are looking for when they leave a community that depends on egregious mistreatment of others, but speaking from personal experience I would say it it absolutely worth doing. The other communities you find won’t be perfect, none of them are, but they may still be much better and you will be glad you made the journey.

  28. Ché Pasa

    I doubt many of us think we live in a paradise at all. Many more of us are coming to understand how the Advanced Countries in the Western World got to be that way, and it’s not a pretty picture. Staying that way — or so we think — is in some way worse than what it took to get “advanced” in the first place. For one thing, no matter how rich the nations are, living standards for the lower orders are ratcheting down. Life expectancy for all but the very best off is ratcheting down. Environmental degradation for all but the very best off is ratcheting up. The virus sweeps away plenty of excess population — particularly the old, sick, infirm, unwise, as well as the browner and blacker residents. And of course climate change is affecting everything and everyone unescapably. Ah but not so much the very best off among us.

    So why not go colonize Mars, eh? Pristine new territory, uninhabited (so far as they know or will acknowledge), a Paradise to be made through technology and main force. Why the devil not? Proof that Man can become God.

    Many indigenous people have wondered why the “advanced” are so bent on a course of destruction for everyone else and for the planet. What drives them? Were their ancestors so badly mistreated that they and their descendants must continue mindlessly mistreating and destroying everything and everyone standing in their way? What is wrong with them? And is there any way to correct their path before it’s too late?

    No one has come up with an answer yet.

    And yes, one reason for the absence of an answer is that we have too much information.

  29. anon y'mouse

    almost all responses ignoring the thrust of this post, seeking so badly to claim that they are exempt through some kind of redemptory exercise as a personal spiritual sojourn.

    sounds like a lot of pseudo-religionists. actually, it sounds like the kind of egotism that is truly prevalent in a society like this. “i am not complicit. i recycle and bought new light bulbs and drive a prius!” or “i live on an organic farm. i am doing my part!” etcetc. when the ABILITY to entertain such fantasies (most of these “solutions” require ill gotten gains) about personal redemption in a fully exploitative system like ours means that one might be even more predatory than someone who simply lives in it and accepts it for what it is–a “dull normal” if you will.

    the self-stroking impulse is either amazing, or a frightening example of our need to compensate psychologically.

  30. Willy

    Well, they gays just did something which might be considered amusing and even powerful, without raising a single weapon, with their #ProudBoys “Stand bi” campaign.

    If only we could be so clever.

  31. I went off and read Sapolsky\’s _Behave_ at Ian\’s recommendation, and while it is true in a sense that \”testosterone is about status\”, we do not live in a world without invidious status.

    This Omelas is where testosterone becomes about aggression. Punching down and gloating over the suffering of others.

    We white men can take little acquittal in Sapolsky\’s suggestion that testosterone in and of itself does not cause aggression.

  32. someofparts

    Has anyone else noticed how our literature keeps coughing up madmen – Ahab, Dr. Strangelove, Colonel Kurtz. Maybe we are just ruled by madmen paying lip service to death gods.

    Before we got a look at the leadership of women like Hillary or Maggie Thatcher I would have said to put women in charge and see if we do any better than the guys have. Now I see how foolish I was to think that would change anything.

  33. different clue

    If readers here decide that Wealthy World is real life Omelas, then they can either decide to do something, nothing, or something else about that. If the “thrust” of this essay is that the real life Wealthy Worlders owe it to “ethics” and “the conquered victims” to “set them free”; then readers here might think about how to do that.

    I notice that some commenters just want to use the Omelaform nature of Wealthy World as a conceptual stage upon which they get to strut their moral superiority stuff by bragging to the other commenters about how guilty their own superior moral sensitivity allows them to feel. Their sneering condemnation of other commenters’ suggestions about how to de-Omelafy
    Wealthy World are just an expression of their own moral superiority stuff-strutting display.

    I read somewhere that the Amish have a phrase for boasting about how humble you are . . . prideful humility or something like that. I wonder if they have a word or phrase for boasting about how guilty and ashamed you can display yourself as feeling.

  34. different clue

    Several decades ago I remember reading a science fiction micro novella on a theme sort of like this. I forget the title. There were human nobility living in a few huge super-fortress castles, served by an enslaved life-form called “meks”. The meks slave-rebelled and the story was about the castles falling one by one, till only Castle Hagedorn was left.

    Somewhere in there, a mek rebel leader, bigger than the average mek and able to talk with the humans, explained the Mek Rebellion to its human captors. Also, somewhere in there, we read about some humans who called themselves The Expiationists who left the slavery-based rich castle life for a hard poor life in the wilderness.

    That’s all I can remember. I think it was in a collection of “Hugo Winners”. A Yahoo-search calls up these entries which I suspect are for this story.

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