I didn’t believe in utopias until recently. Utopias were like Santa Claus — a wonderful, make-believe idea that would be so nice if it were true, but the details of its realization were simply unachievable. Like Proctor and Berry discuss in their article, “utopias lie in the eyes of the utopian” and therefore they are impossible to create because everyone will be looking for something slightly different, and in that difference lies dissatisfaction. The idea of utopian seekers and dwellers also resonated with my skepticism of utopias. Kuhlmann’s description of the inhabitants of Twin Oaks joining the community and then leaving shortly thereafter made sense to me because utopias are for seekers, for idealist innovators who would never be happy settling down with reality. Utopias were impossible. And then I found one.
I should be clear: I found one, and also nuanced my perceptions of utopias. Pepper, in his article Utopianism and Environmentalism, describes constructive utopianism as needing to “sharpen our critique of existing society, and create ‘free spaces’ (Sargisson, 2000a and 2000b) in which we can carry out thought and practical experiments, working out the effects of enacting our utopian principles (Stillman, 2000)” (Pepper 2005).
Pepper lists “local currencies, micro-credit and saving, local food distribution schemes, community-owned businesses, agricultural and energy co-operatives and intentional communities (Douthwaite, 1996)” as qualities of potentially transgressive concrete utopias. Christchurch’s port town Lyttelton checks off most of these criteria: they have a system of utilizing social capital called the TimeBank, a community savings pool, local farmer’s market, vegetable box deliveries each week, a community co-operative, and waste minimization programs in place. It’s not perfect but it’s an interesting case study of a utopia stemming out of a dystopia. In 2011 there was a massive and devastating earthquake that left Lyttelton in shambles, but with the help of Project Lyttelton’s programs, people came together and created what they think of as a sustainable community. From dystopia rose utopia.
Recently we had a guest lecture from Liz Safran in our ENVS 330 class, where she talked about her work with educating the public about the impending Cascadia earthquake that is due in the Pacific Northwest. I think it’s interesting to connect this research to what happened in Lyttelton. Since Lyttelton already had much of the Project Lyttelton framework in place already, when the disaster struck they were able to go off of that. Many other communities don’t have that luxury, and many times people don’t even know their next door neighbor. After hearing Liz’s research, I am now wondering how to create these networks before disaster strikes. Is it even possible to create a utopia without dystopia? Do we need everything ruined before we feel capable of dreaming about building something perfect?
Proctor, James D., and Evan Berry. “Ecotopian Exceptionalism.” Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture 5, no. 2 (August 29, 2011): 145–63. doi:10.1558/jsrnc.v5i2.145.