Solar power and smart farms: welcome to utopia

Green dream: The Soprema company’s new headquarters in Strasbourg has been hailed as “an ecological utopia”.

Can we build utopia? For hundreds of years, we have been captivated by the dream of a perfect society. Now, amid the climate crisis, is it time to build an “ecotopia”?

Los Angeles, 2121. The world’s oil supply is depleted, rendering cars useless. Instead, a network of trams powered by green energy stretches across the city. The abandoned freeways have been redeveloped into pathways of vegetation, full of wild plants and animals that were once pushed to the brink of extinction.

This is the future according to the “Ecotopia 2121” project, which seeks to imagine how better, greener societies could become a reality.

The project was launched in 2016 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s book, Utopia.

More was the first to coin the term from the ancient Greek word “ou-topos”, meaning “no place” or “nowhere”. Over time, it has come to mean a perfect, idyllic society.

On More’s fantasy island, gold — no longer highly valuable — is used to make chamber pots; armies are disbanded, and property is shared among people.

While More’s patriarchal, slave-owning vision is far from perfection, the idea of utopia was captivating and has inspired art, science fiction and debate for half a millennium since.

In 2019, we live in a dystopian age, writes lecturer Heather Alberro, under the shadows of climate crisis, mass extinction and extreme inequality.

Our bleak situation has reignited the search for utopia among environmentalists.

What would it look like? Energy resources that are renewably sourced and communally owned. Free healthcare and education, with meaningful employment available to all. Extreme wealth inequality ought to be eradicated through income caps and living wages.

Some of these cities are already being built.

Dubai’s Sustainable City includes 11 “biodome” greenhouses, organic farms in every garden, waste-water recycling, electric cars and solar energy on a large scale. It’s an idyllic vision of the future — for those who can afford it. Prices for one of its 500 houses start at $1 million.

“There has always been a protectionist element to fictional utopian societies — an interest in building walls and isolating themselves from the wider world,” writes literary critic Chloë Houston.

Thomas More’s island was accessed via a narrow passage protected by invisible rocks. Will a utopia on Earth be just as hard to reach?

Heaven on Earth?

Can we build utopia? Perhaps utopias are not supposed to exist — it’s written in the name. They are fantasies that push us to do better. From Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, to the high demands of Extinction Rebellion, we need their visions of a radically different world to make change happen.

But, perhaps, we don’t have a choice. If, as many experts argue, capitalism is incompatible with saving the planet, our future must include greener and fairer societies. And we must ensure that these ecotopias aren’t just enclaves for the rich, cut off from the world’s problems.

You Decide

  1. Is today’s world closer to a utopia or a dystopia?
  2. Could we ever build a perfect society?

Activities

  1. Define “utopia” in your own words.
  2. Make a plan for your own utopia. Does it have a government? Where do people live? How do they get food and power? What do people do with their lives?

Some People Say...

“Humanity is always landing. And when humanity lands there, it looks out and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of utopias.”

Oscar Wilde, Anglo-Irish playwright and poet (1854-1900)

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The idea of utopia first appeared in Thomas More’s 1516 work of the same name. On his utopian island, every family makes its own clothes and everyone learns a trade. Utopians rise early and work for six hours a day. The rest of their time is their own, but they are expected to spend it mostly on educational pursuits, like reading. Every group of thirty families elects a magistrate (Syphogrant) to rule over them.
What do we not know?
What a true utopia would look like. Aside from large, exclusive projects like Sustainable City, hundreds of so-called intentional communities and eco-cities are being formed around the world, focusing on communal, sustainable living. However, these are limited to small groups rather than larger societies.

Word Watch

Freeways
In England, known as motorways.
Thomas More
(1478-1535). He served as a councillor to Henry VIII, but was executed for refusing to acknowledge the king as Supreme Head of the Church of England after his divorce from Catherine of Aragon.
Ou-topos
It is also a pun on the ancient Greek “eu” which means “good”.
Chamber pots
Portable toilets.
Dystopian
An imagined society with great suffering and injustice as depicted in George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984.
Income caps
A rule that puts a limit on how much people (especially very high earners) are paid.
Dubai
An incredibly wealthy city in the United Arab Emirates.
Capitalism
Supporters of the Green New Deal argue that because capitalism focuses on growth and consumption, a purely capitalist society is not going to be green.

Subjects

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