A brief history of utopia

Utopias are appealing because they give people an opportunity to withdraw from their problems and enter a world of bliss.

by Ornella Sinigaglia

Culture 16 October 2020

Equality, peace, and universal access to food, education, healthcare, and employment: No matter which ideals they’re inspired by, utopias are characterized by these crucial elements. Utopias are far from reality, so much so that the term itself means “nowhere,” as Sir Thomas More wrote in 1516 when he combined the ancient Greek words “ou” (no) and “topos” (place) for his novel’s title, Utopia. In Amaurot, More’s capital of the island-state of Utopia, all streets are identical, all buildings are the same three stories high. All houses are public because no house is private, and there are no locks. For Utopians, this architectural uniformity is bliss, as every decade they move and by doing so, don’t have to adjust to their new places. So it’s clear that the Utopian society is founded on reason and organized rationall—and its ultimate benefit is good and proper pleasure.

Even before More, a plethora of writers, philosophers, architects, and intellectuals toyed with the idea of imaginary worlds where society is driven by harmonious living. In Plato’s Republic—a Socratic dialogue written around 375 BC—the Greek philosopher discusses justice, order and the character of the just-city-state, and just-man. In 421 CE, Chinese poet Tao Yuanming drifted away from the political instability and national disunity that characterized his time by depicting an ethereal utopia in his fable The Peach Blossom Spring. After haphazardly sailing up a river in a forest of blossoming peach trees, a fisherman reached the river’s source through a narrow passage in a grotto, then a village where people had led an ideal existence in harmony with nature, unaware of the outside world for centuries.

One of the most commonly-known concepts of a utopian place is the Judeo-Christian Garden of Eden. There, Eve and Adam lived free from hunger, worries and clothes. Similarly, Islamic texts describe life for the immortal inhabitants of the Jannah as happy and without hurt, sorrow, fear or shame. They are young, in their early 30s, living a life of bliss that includes wearing sumptuous robes, bracelets and perfumes.

Utopias are appealing because they give people an opportunity to withdraw from their problems, and enter a world of bliss. As Marius de Geus wrote in Ecological Utopias, “it is extremely attractive to dream of an ideal world free of social injustice, hunger, poverty, criminality, pressure, violence, and pollution.” Utopians examine the roots of these problems and attempt to expose the ingrained structural mistakes of society, and on the clean canvases that they create, they paint a place that consistently breaks from the past by holding up a mirror to their contemporaries. The result is a happy world in the imagined past or the distant future. Or, sometimes, it’s just off the beaten path, like in the project Jungle 2 Jungle. Started in 2014, and still in the concept phase, Jungle 2 Jungle’s intentional community is inspired by feminist writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novel Herland. While Herland’s society was composed entirely of women who reproduce via parthenogenesis and live free of war, conflict, and domination, Jungle 2 Jungle’s organizers acknowledge that there would be several differences from this century-old novel—including accepting trans people and the Internet, and of course not embracing parthenogenetic reproduction elements. What makes this ecovillage utopian for the general public? It would be cashless, with no rent, fees, or money charged to its inhabitants; all food needs would be met through permaculture, and of course, members would do as much as they could to be sustainable in providing for their needs in the long term and protecting the environment.

This is one of the most recent women-only land co-ops of its kind, while others, like the Sugarloaf Women’s Village in the Florida Keys, aim to combine the concept of non-violence with feminist practice, and the Susan B. Anthony Women’s Land Trust, a women-centered intentional living and educational community in rural Ohio.

Since Herland, feminist utopian literature has flourished. Take Wonder Woman, for example: created by psychologist and self-help writer William Marston in the 1940s, with a main character based on the unconventional, liberated, and powerful modern women of his day. In a 1943 issue of The American Scholar, Marston wrote: “Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are. Women’s strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with the strength of Superman plus the allure of a good and beautiful woman.” So guess what? Marston’s Wonder Woman comics feature Paradise Island, a matriarchal all-female community of peace, loving submission and bondage.

Fast forward 30 years, when radical feminist Shulamith Firestone wrote the classic The Dialectic of Sex, which positions her as an isolated visionary, as writer Noah Berlatsky pointed out in an article published by The Atlantic in 2012, shortly after her death. In her work, Firestone argues that gender difference (or “sex class”) is rooted in biology. It is, furthermore, the basis of all inequity. Without the tyranny of biological reproduction, monogamy and even the incest taboo would be unnecessary. Eroticism, intimacy, and joy could then be liberated from the realm of romantic love and permeate our culture. If in Firestone’s words “pregnancy is barbaric” as it’s a “temporary deformation of the body of the individual for the sake of the species,” then advances in science might change material conditions enough to finally make equity possible. New reproductive technologies will eliminate the need for giving birth, and cybernetics will eliminate the need for work. And once manual and female labor is eliminated, society can be reformed—so rather than nuclear units, people can live in larger households where childcare can be shared among everyone.

We could consider the 1970s the decade of ecological utopias. One of the most influential is the society described in Ernest Callenbach’s book Ecotopia, published in 1975. The story is set in 1999 and consists of the reports and diary of reporter William Weston, the first person to enter the new nation of Ecotopia, comprised of Northern California, Oregon, and Washington after they secede from the United States. This effort sounds close to the movement for Cascadia, which would stretch from Canada’s British Columbia down to Oregon, and is fostered by a sense of connection based on environmentalism, bioregionalism, privacy, civil liberties, and freedom. Ecotopian citizens are described as creative, free-thinking, liberal, and energetic people, who place value on team configurations and social responsibility.

Like other utopians, Callenbach provides the reader with detailed information about Ecotopia’s lifestyle, politics, sexual freedom, education, and gender relations, but his main focus is on the community’s ecological aspects: virtuous waste cycle, ecological food production, car-free living, and producing energy from sun and sea. What makes Callenbach’s novel seminal is the fact that it collected an alternative vision of interconnections among humans and nature supported by many authors in the 1970s. Ecotopia contains the same ecological critique of Marge Pierce’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), and Sally Miller Gearhart’s The Wanderground (1979), both of which are concerned with the corporate and technological exploitation of nature and environmental degradation.

What makes utopias so fascinating and impossible to reach is the same element that, pushed to the limits, would create dystopias. All of these ideal worlds are based on the sometimes blind, and certainly willful acceptance of social norms that can’t make everyone happy. Think of The Wizard of Oz, written in 1900. We should abandon utopias to embrace protopias, and leave behind the quest for perfection in favor of incremental improvement. We could follow the lead of the mantra, “Be the best version of yourself,” as futurist Kevin Kelly said: “Protopia is a state that is better today than yesterday, although it might be only a little better.” This makes protopia much harder to visualize—not like entertaining utopian novels. And just because a protopia contains as many new problems as new benefits, this complex interaction of working and being broken is hard to predict—but also more realistic. To quote Michael Shermer, author of Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia, “A protopian future is not only practical, it is realizable.”