A new review of my book Entropia: Life beyond Industrial Civilisation has appeared in the journal, Environmental Values. The review is written by an academic from the Netherlands, Dr Marius de Geus, who is the world’s leading scholar on ecological utopias. He has written several (highly recommended) books, including Ecological Utopias: Envisioning the Sustainable Society and The End of Over-Consumption: Towards a Lifestyle of Moderation and Self-Restraint. I’ve posted the review below, which originally appeared here.
REVIEW OF SAMUEL ALEXANDER’S, ENTROPIA: LIFE BEYOND INDUSTRIAL CIVILISATION
In the western world most citizens have grown up with the narrative that ‘the good life’ can best be achieved by satisfying unlimited material desires and leading an affluent lifestyle. Human flourishing is sought in a spectacular degree of technological progress and the benefits of economic growth. Overall, the dominant idea has been that leading a luxurious lifestyle is the only way to happiness and fulfillment. However, this assumption is showing cracks and is producing numerous negative results, such as scarcity of natural resources, climate change, and feelings of stress.
In fact, these problems are becoming more and more serious and lead to a questioning of the way our society, economy and political system are organised. Critical authors such as Theodore Roszak, Ivan Illich, Friedrich Schumacher and Rob Hopkins of the Transition Movement have exposed the dangers of the mythical belief in economic growth and ‘consuming our way to happiness’. Will this striving eventually lead to a collapse of our civilisation, a cultural breakdown and a shortage of energy sources, materials, food, etcetera?
In his utopian novel Entropia, Australian environmental thinker Samuel Alexander takes the reader on an intriguing journey to a small island somewhere in the South Pacific Ocean. In this isolated community, life is based on material sufficiency, simplicity and ecologically sound lifestyles. Clearly, Alexander’s book stands in a long tradition of utopian ecological thinking, which runs from William Morris (News from Nowhere), Henry Thoreau (Walden), Aldous Huxley (Island), Bernard Skinner (Walden Two), and Ernest Callenbach (Ecotopia). In these ecological utopias a detailed sketch is given of a green society, in which human life has been simplified, the addiction to economic growth has been conquered, and levels of consumption have decreased to sustainable levels.
Generally, these ecological utopian novels have been written to make contemporary citizens conscious of the negative consequences of the capitalist economy and society. In his Entropia, Alexander has definitely learned from such thinkers as Morris, Thoreau and Skinner, but he succeeds in taking the utopian narrative to the next level. Alexander shows good insight by understanding that basically human beings are story-telling creatures. He emphasises that many myths and narratives shape our perceptions of current society and frame the ways we observe and interpret possible futures.
He starts his exposé by analysing the myths and narratives which are dominating our modern industrial civilisation. As such, he formulates a revealing critique of our social, economic and political system. By the large majority of people, economic growth, technological innovation, working hard and concentrating on luxuries are seen as quintessential for living ‘the good life’. In the first three chapters of the book Alexander meticulously dissects the cultural and ideological ideas on which contemporary western society has been built. Moreover, he examines the norms and beliefs that are contributing to widespread feelings of existential emptiness.
Contrastingly, in Alexander’s Entropia, people have created the foundations for a self- sufficient and environmentally sound community, based on an anarchist system of ‘self- government’. In this small-scale utopian society people actively participate in politics and are committed to the principles of sufficiency and moderation. For their happiness the inhabitants have learned to become independent of consuming incessantly and primarily focusing on the possession of material goods.
As eminent political philosophers have stressed previously, in today’s western world a disproportionate number of people have become addicted to materialism. As a consequence, many have become greedy and look for status and identity mainly in material wealth. The value of Alexander’s analysis is that he successfully tests his hypothesis of the vital importance of material sufficiency to human flourishing in a critical, well-informed and open- minded way.
His vision of a self-sufficient society grounded on lifestyles of simplicity, moderation and self-restraint is evocative and imaginative. The author presents an elegantly written narrative of how fulfilling and meaningful life can be. Fortunately, Alexander is well acquainted with both the possibilities and the dangers of using utopian storytelling. For instance, he realises that his utopia should not be used as some detailed ‘blueprint’ for starting a new society. Carrying out practical experiments first is a necessity, since the world is highly complex and policies often have unintended consequences. Other aspects which are well taken into account are the role of upbringing and education, the enhancement of individual creativity and the significance of aesthetics in society.
Writing a utopian novel is a difficult task, though. Although the text has been written with wisdom, the author is very positive about human nature. A main assumption is that humans are changeable and will be ‘able to live freely, peacefully and happily, under some system of self-government’ (p. 12). It remains uncertain, however, whether maintaining order, peace and liberty is actually feasible within a small-scaled and self-governing community. It can be doubted whether individual liberty is only possible in such an intentional community, since in such communities the role of social control, normalisation and mutual coercion may endanger individual liberties.
A next point of critique is related to the issue of the strategies towards an eco-society. Not enough attention is paid to the issue of long-term strategies which could actually stimulate the building of a self-sufficient economy relying on renewable energy. What is also missing is a more comprehensive view on the human activities which would lead to happiness and fulfillment. Much attention is given to activities involving the creative, artistic and spiritual development of Entropia’s inhabitants. It seems fair to argue that not everyone will be primarily interested in these forms of activity. Many will just prefer to play games and be active in the field of sports or any other form of physical or mental exercise.
Another flaw of the book is that it lacks a larger introduction and separate bibliography about previous ecological utopias and utopian thinking in general. In my view, this would have been appropriate and very useful to those readers studying a utopian novel for the first time. Nevertheless, the book is really inspiring and it provides plenty of hope for all those who have tended to become pessimistic about the viability of an ecologically sustainable society. The book is full of insights and contains many fascinating details about the organisation of an ideal, green community. In addition, a substantial number of counterarguments and critiques regarding this kind of green intentional community are discussed intelligently, and are well thought through by the author.
In sum, the book shows that writing a utopian novel is still one of the best ways of learning to reflect critically about the nature of the good society and living the good life. As such, it provides a valuable instrument, for students and citizens alike, to understand the shortcomings of our growth economy and discover the promising idea of giving meaning to our lives by opting for material sufficiency.
MARIUS DE GEUS University of Leiden, The Netherlands
Entropia is available here.