The imagination as natural resource

artist's rendering of Shangri-La

artist's rendering of Shangri-La

Shangri-La is a fictional place described in the 1933 novel Lost Horizon by British author James Hilton. In the book, “Shangri-La” is a mystical, harmonious valley, gently guided from a lamasery, enclosed in the western end of the Kunlun Mountains. Shangri-La has become synonymous with any earthly paradise but particularly a mythical Himalayan utopia—a permanently happy land, isolated from the outside world.

Hilton is said to have taken his inspiration for Shangri-La in part from the writings of the eccentric botanist Joseph Rock, whose tales of exploration and adventure in remote Yunnan, Tibet, and elsewhere appeared in this magazine from 1922 to 1935.
National Geographic Magazine

Originally, Shangri-La was a mythical place, but today Shangri-La is a bustling tourist town way out in the Chinese boonies. Ten year ago, this town was a derelict village, but they changed its name to “Shangri-La” and now it has growth, economy, an airport even.

While anyone who fell in love with Hilton’s Shangri-La will be sorely disappointed in the actual Shangri-La, the fact of the matter is, its now an opportunity for backwoods Chinese to raise their standard of living.

And isn’t this the fate of all our mythical places and beings? The imagined, the ideal, the mysterious after attaining some special place in the collective unconscious is turned into an economic opportunity. And while that opportunity may helpful to many people, it somehow cheapens the ideal, it ruins it. What happens then? Is the imagined still profitable? It’s almost like any other natural resource…


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