To mark the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s book Utopia we invited anthropologist Margarita Serje, sociologist Jane Hindley and literary and cultural critic Erna von der Walde to undertake a residency at the Chocó Base. Jane Hindley’s contribution addresses Utopia, in its literary, philosophical and political dimensions.
IMAGINING NEW UTOPIAS
By Jane Hindley
In the utopian imaginings of my mind, I transform material culture.
That word, ‘utopian’…
Makes it sound rather grand.
But it’s usually simple, often prosaic, and sometimes even lyrical.
I put solar panels on the roofs of all the homes I pass, install the best insulation, and then go inside and replace all those chemical cleaning uids with benign ecosolutions. And in Suffolk I plant hedges in the vast open fields, revive the sad soil with compost, before standing to pause… as the bugs and the beetles and wild owers return, to the songs of the birds celebrating.
Sometimes the imaginings are on a bigger, more political scale—especially when I travel. Since my trip last summer, for example, Chocó has declared independence from Colombia. Like the Ecotopians in Callenbach’s novel, or was it autonomy like the Zapatistas in Chiapas? Either way, now the corporates can’t get in to raze the forest and poison the land, in their relentless quest for profits.
The groundwork was laid about ten years ago. It was that seminar by the climate scientist. I was familiar with the terms ‘climate change’, ‘global warming’ and ‘greenhouse gas emissions’. They’d been around for a while, and were starting to appear regularly in public discourse. Still, I hadn’t grasped them as concepts or their true meanings and implications.
I don’t often use the word ‘epiphany’. But that’s what it was. The messages could not have been clearer. WE HAVE TO MOVE FROM A HIGH CARBON TO A ZERO CARBON SOCIETY BY 2050; the later we start the transition, the more difficult it will be; WE MUST STOP DRILLIING AND LEAVE THE COAL, OIL AND GAS IN THE GROUND. And the corollary: the consequences of continuing our current path are unthinkable.
Still, it took time to absorb them. It’s one thing to talk about ‘fossil fuel dependency’, ‘emissions reduction’ and ’transition’, quite another to think through all the ramifications: from the big structures and industrial processes down to the smallest details of daily life and consumption; energy, transport, food, agriculture, buildings, textiles, cosmetics… not to mention all that plastic.
It also took practice… switching over to thinking in alternative ways, with fresh metaphors and modes of reasoning. The most dif cult challenge was getting to grips with a systems approach and the logic of sustainability—not the of cial version of ‘sustainable development’ (business as usual plus a few token gestures), but the radical version that enriches people and nature.
It didn’t seem utopian when I started the research. It was about catching up with the changing times, current debates, and the new emerging consensus. Of course climate change was scary. But the science was clear: with so much at stake ‘reduce re-use recycle’ was not enough; doing nothing was not an option. There had to be a bigger collective project, everyone had to engage with it.
In fact, it seemed feasible. On the technical side, things had moved on; where once there had been problems, there were now ingenious solutions. Even UK politicians were grasping the nettle. The 2009 Climate Change Act was unanimously passed, new policies and programmes were starting, and with lots of funding coming on stream, down at the grassroots all sorts of experiments were mushrooming.
As for my thinking… Well, there was lots of information about why and how, useful manuals, and catchy mottos. Even that old ethnographer’s trick of making the familiar strange and the strange familiar proved surprisingly helpful. Then with so many interesting reports from people and projects all around the world to nourish my ideas and imagination…
That’s when the habit began to take root. Think global, act local acquired a new sense, and reducing carbon at home was easy. I lled all the cracks, blocked all the holes, then drew up a budget for the roof, the doors, and the windows. After that it was simple to keep scaling up, to my street, my neighbourhood…. or to change the theme from demand to supply, or from energy to food or transport.
I should have known better. It was inevitable really that the fight-back would come. Of course I understood green-wash. Yet there was a moment when even the oilmen were exploring renewables… I guess it came down to the bottom line… Whatever, the case, they launched their campaign when the Tories got in and with only the Lib-Dems to act as a brake… well it wasn’t a contest really.
It started quite slowly. At rst it was a matter of emboldened deniers gaining equal footing in public debates, spreading myths and lies—on TV and radio, websites and blogs and via their cronies in the papers. But, with hind- sight, it’s clear that behind the scenes in the corridors of power they were lobbying hard to change the laws, secure their dominance, and shore up high carbon normalities.
I didn’t realise how far they’d gone… until late 2014 when I read Naomi Klein and saw Damien’s slides on extreme energy. Those photos of whole landscapes laid to waste… the massive machinery and pipelines… the fracked homesteads and toxic pools… This was no longer a matter of ‘dominant trends’. This was extractivism on a whole new scale, enacted globally with impunity…
It was becoming just as bad on the ideological front. Well before Trump denounced the climate change ‘hoax’, the Tories were already using double-think and fossil-speak. In times of austerity, renewables are much too expensive and of course we don’t want wind-farms ‘destroying’ the countryside; so we’ll have ‘clean energy’ from fracked gas and spend billions on nuclear instead.
I couldn’t get those images out of my mind. They hurt my soul and haunted me: Deep Water Horizon, the Canadian tar-sands… the carrying on regardless… the dying rivers, the poisoned lakes and oily seas… and all those people being dispossessed… And once you’ve made the switch it’s alarming to listen to the daily news about expanding the airports, building new roads, record car sales…
Looking back, I think the imaginings have kept me sane—a sort of protective conditioned reflex. I see the roads at rush hour, full of traffic, belching noise and noxious fumes. But, rather than despair, I visualise an alternative with my mind’s eye: an avenue of trees, a bike lane or two, wide pleasant spaces for pedestrians and a few electric buses and community cars offering transport for free…
When the times are so dystopian, alongside protest and critique, it helps to imagine the transition here and now. Out there, kindred spirits are doing the same: fusing local knowledge and traditions with ideas from elsewhere; opening cracks left behind by the propaganda machines; and enacting alternative visions in small, local spaces… and who knows, sometimes big change comes unexpectedly.