Utopianism for a Dying Planet – toward a post-consumer society

This new book published by Princeton University Press in 2022 is probably the most important volume in utopian studies for quite some time. The author is Gregory Claeys, professor emeritus of the history of ideas at Royal Holloway (University of London) and chair of the Utopian Studies Society (Europe). He is one of the best experts in this field, and the book reflects this vast knowledge: it is such a treatise that does not simplify anything, but attempts at presenting phenomena in their complexity – hence the length of 516 pages.

Reading this book is a great intellectual experience, but also a demanding one. In the following (and also in some future episodes), I will try to share with you some of the treasures of the book – and also reflect on some of its shortcomings as I find particularly the treatment of issues of religion and spirituality brief, out of proportion compared to their importance.

Most of the book is a history of utopianism, from antiquity to the present age – or in other words, a detailed account of the history of human thought and practice in the field of improving societies. Utopia, for Claeys, is neither an unattainable dream, nor a dangerous plan for perfecting humanity (though he does acknowledge the existence of these trends), but “a timeless desire for human improvement … a constant, ongoing conversation about humanity’s potential” (p. 13). Yet Claeys does not look at these processes in a void – he has a clear position: at present, humanity is in a serious crisis. We have depleted the resources of Earth and a climate emergency is imminent, which jeopardizes the future of human civilisation. He identifies consumerism as the chief cause of the danger, the attitude that most of humanity equates happiness with material consumption, and thus threatens nature’s resources.

According to Claeys, the way out of this situation, “exiting consumerism” means adopting radically less material and energy consuming, sustainable practices. He claims that this will necessarily involve a significant amount of frugality, and especially for the rich, a less opulent lifestyle will need to be appropriated. But he also argues that this is not only possible, but it may as well improve our lives, and the history of utopianism can be of guidance in this change. In fact, at present, most of humanity, despite their large material spendings, are unhappy: “The greatest paradox of modern progress is that it creates a depressed and unfulfilled populace who are increasingly isolated from others” (381). So a post-consumer society, despite the short term losses, may be a double gain: we not only save our future, but in fact, a more sociable world may be a happier place than the one we have now. “The core of the ideal society is social relationships, not material plenty… exiting consumerism is greatly expanding opportunities for sociability to help compensate for diminished material consumption” (p. 10).

The book includes a detailed set of suggestions in the form of a positive utopia, or as he puts it, applied utopianism, a guide as to how this post-consumer society might be structured, where the reduction of material consumption is compensated with a heightened level of sociability to the benefit of all. In short, we shall have fewer things (definitely fewer cars and airplanes), but more friends, warmer personal relationships, and more fun with each other. As Donella Meadows put it: “People don’t need enormous cars; they need respect. They don’t need closets full of clothes; they need to feel attractive and they need excitement and variety and beauty … they need something worthwhile to do with their lives.”

Utopianism for a Dying Planet tells us how the history of utopianism, or in other terms, the way humans have been thinking about their societies, can help us achieve this state of affairs. The book also makes it clear that our choice now is limited: we either change our habits globally and quickly, or the climate emergency will force us to do so. But there is a reason for moderate optimism: it is possible, and it may also be better in many ways.

To be continued…

Zsolt Czigányik, with the generous support of the Gerda Henkel Foundation

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