Are utopias best left in fiction?

16 February 2015

In 2006, Dylan Evans gave up his job, sold his house, and moved to Scotland to start a post-apocalyptic commune. Together with an eclectic assortment of volunteers, he tried to live as if civilization had just collapsed, without the benefits of modern technology. He called the project the Utopia Experiment. But what happened, and did it work?

by Dylan Evans

Ever since Plato, Western thinkers have dreamed of ideal societies, utopias that could perhaps never be fully realised, but which at least gave us something to aspire to – noble, beautiful visions of what society might one day be like. Two thousand years after Plato, there was a resurgence of utopian thinking in the works of Thomas More, Tommaso Campanella and Francis Bacon. Like Plato, these three thinkers painted pictures of a future in which there is a strong sense of community, in which work is fulfilling and leisure is used wisely and creatively.

In the twentieth century, utopian thinking often took the form of science fiction. Writers like H. G. Wells imagined a futuristic techno-paradise in which gleaming machines would carry out all the dirty and boring jobs, leaving people free to indulge in abundant leisure. Technology, it was assumed, would be the key that unlocked the doors of heaven. Other science fiction writers were not so sanguine about the utopian potential of modern technology, and saw a much darker side to it. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s1984 (1948) the computers and other advanced technology are still there, but are seen as oppressive and sinister rather than enabling and liberating.

Although they take very different attitudes towards advanced technology, both the techno-utopian vision of H. G. Wells and the dystopian visions of Huxley and Orwell assume that modern technology is here to stay. But there is another sub-genre of science fiction that calls this assumption into question. So-called “future primitive” or “ecotopian” science fiction posits a future in which modern technology has either been abandoned completely, or partially rejected. Ecotopian fiction usually presents the rejection of modern technology as leading to greater human happiness. Ernest Callenbach’s novel Ecotopia (1975) is often held to be the first example of this sub-genre, but one can trace this theme back much earlier, to News from Nowhere (1890) by William Morris. In this novel, Morris sketches a vision of England in the year 2102, by which time it has reverted to a pastoral way of life in which all but the simplest forms of machinery have been eliminated, and the city of London has become a collection of villages.

“I thought there were good scientific reasons for the idea that abandoning modern technology would lead to greater human happiness”

It was this strand of ecotopian science fiction that I was thinking of when I embarked on the Utopia Experiment. At the time I thought there were good scientific reasons for the idea that abandoning modern technology would lead to greater human happiness. Evolutionary psychology teaches us that humans evolved to live in small bands of hunter-gatherers. Take an animal out of its natural habitat, however, and it usually becomes unhappy, stressed and ill. Our modern civilisation, with all its advanced technology, is an extremely unnatural habitat for us humans, who still have the same biological nature as our hunter-gatherer ancestors who lived on the African savannah some 100,000 years ago. I reasoned that this mismatch between our nature and our environment might be a significant cause of unhappiness. It followed, I thought, that if modern civilisation collapsed, the survivors might well be much happier than those alive today, because they would be living in a way much closer to that to which we are adapted: in small communities, where there is little division of labour, where everyone knows everyone else, and where there is no formal authority like a king, president or prime minister.

Even those who accept the ideas of evolutionary psychology would probably find the idea that global collapse might actually improve our quality of life hard to accept. They would need more than abstract arguments to convince them of such a counter-intuitive thesis; they would need evidence. The Utopia Experiment was supposed to provide such evidence. I hoped it would show people that life is actually better without modern technology, and that ecotopian fiction is right to look forward to a day when that technology has disappeared.

In the end, things turned out rather differently, for me at least. Many of the volunteers seemed to enjoy their experience, but I ended up becoming very depressed, and I had to spend a month in a psychiatric ward recovering. Some ideas are all very well in fiction, but acting them out in the real world is another story.

The Utopia Experiment

The Utopia Experiment

Imagine you have survived an apocalypse. Civilization as you knew it is no more. What will life be like and how will you cope?

In 2006, Dylan Evans set out to answer these questions. He left his job in a high-tech robotics lab, moved to the Scottish Highlands and founded a community called The Utopia Experiment. In The Utopia Experiment he tells his own extraordinary story: his frenzied early enthusiasm for this unusual project, the many challenges of post-apocalyptic living, his descent into madness and his gradual recovery. In the process, he learns some hard lessons about himself and about life, and comes to see the modern world he abandoned in a new light.

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