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Lisa Schulze

Europe: Utopia Is Dead – Long Live Utopia

All over the world it’s clear: the 21st century will be one full of challenges such as climate change, loss of biodiversity, and pollution – especially of the oceans. Since these largely man-made phenomena have never occurred before, let alone with such intensity, we must adopt alternative ways of thinking and acting to protect our common future.

A growing number of people are already seeking alternative lifestyles that reduce their consumption of goods and resources. More and more people are even forming communities based on this goal. These actions can be best described as a return to the notion of utopia.

Over the last quarter of the 20th century, however, the idea of utopia all but disappeared in the tumultuous transformation processes of Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Utopia seemed to be a worn-out ideal, discredited by the harsh political and societal realities of these regions.

But now, many initiatives are launching a new transformation of their own, proposing and demonstrating alternatives to contemporary social conventions and norms. Their guiding model is that of a utopian society. As a result, utopia has once again become a relevant notion for the 21st century.

What is utopia?

A “utopia” is a model for imagining the “finality of the world.” It is a teleological concept of progression to a world that is authentic and ideal – both for the individual and for society at large. In essence, the current state of reality is being juxtaposed with an idealistic future state that would result from a series of positive developments. At the same time, this notion of universal perfection also implies that utopia will never be fully realized. Therefore, it will always remain a fictitious ideal type.

Utopia in the 21st century

Upon first glance, one of the foremost principles of today’s economy – growth – appears to be oriented towards the future. But, a closer look reveals that current actions, both individual and collective, hardly promote sustainability – especially in regards to natural resources and the earth’s delicate climate. Therefore, it is safe to say that today’s economic activities are not building the foundation for future societies. For example, on August 13th 2015, we reached “Earth Overshoot Day,” also known as Ecological Debt Day, marking the point at which the ecosystem’s renewable resources are depleted. This scarcity of resources will undoubtedly lead to social uprising and war – a veritable dystopia.

Since modern utopian movements are primarily focused on the economy and its ecological impact, the issue of individual consumption is of utmost importance. One of the keywords in this discourse is “sustainability”. To name a few examples, shareconomy initiatives aim to preserve resources by replacing individual ownership with the shared usage of goods and services such as drilling machines, cars, and even flat. Further, movements such as Do-It-Yourself activities and upcycling are gaining more and more followers.

Another keyword is  ”less.” Followers of minimalism, for example, strive to reduce waste, personal possessions, and also work-related obligations not only to consume fewer resources, but also to gain the resource of time. However, minimalism in particular highlights one of the pitfalls of utopia-inspired projects, which is that they are available largely to those who are already wealthy enough to make this deliberate lifestyle choice. Therefore, such models are not applicable on a global scale.

In addition to ecological concerns, these movements often include a social component promoting solidarity. The commons movement, for example, stresses that cultural and natural resources should be accessible to all members of a community, rather than being owned by single individuals or corporations. Another initiative gaining popularity is community-supported agriculture. In this scheme, a certain number of consumers support a local farm by acquiring shares of the farm’s production, sharing risks as well as benefits. On a regular basis, participants invest a certain amount of money into the farm, but do not directly receive its products. During harvest season, however, the share of profits (i.e. crops) are distributed.

The new utopians – what do they actually want?

Today’s utopias are bottom-up, grassroots movements that concentrate on individual action. In lieu of yesterday’s “collective,” modern utopian movements hinge upon cooperative communities that support the efficacy and responsibility of the individual. At the same time, this also means that lifestyles such as these are primarily feasible on the individual level. At present, it still seems far-fetched to completely transfer these models to the macro level of society. Nonetheless, these movements may spark new interest in utopian societies, prompting people to question and reflect upon economic and societal conditions, relationships, and beliefs.

Perhaps in response to the violence of the 20th and 21st centuries, today’s utopians are embracing more moderate forms of dissent, as opposed to dogmatically imposing their beliefs and lifestyles onto others.

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In the near future, we’d like to explore some pan-European but also local transformative initiatives in more detail. We will examine the movements’ models for societal alternatives, as well as their methods for achieving them. Our goal is to identify and share sources of inspiration for regional and global change.

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Photo by Dennis Jarvis / Flickr

Holds a degree in Eastern European Studies. During her studies she focused on the interdependence of culture and politics especially in the fields of identity and memory. Throughout her studies she has been active in civil society promoting student exchange as a means to educate an intellectually and socially open mind. Now, she shares her fascination for the triad Theory - Culture – Activism, their interplay and cross-fertilization here at Eastbook as author and editor.


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