A place of ideal government, good judgment and a perfectly cared-for ecology. It is an important idea because it is a way of thinking afresh not only about what society ought to be, but what it will need to be, for it is argued that the world has become too dangerous for anything less than Utopia—as the futurist William Koetke puts it: “Creating a utopian paradise, a new Garden of Eden, is our only hope.”U32

Utopias do not have to be realistic to be interesting. They lift the spirits. Here, William Morris is being driven gently—in a carriage with the graceful and pleasant lines of a simple Wessex wagon, and pulled by a strong grey horse—through an area of rural forest called Kensington:

It was exceedingly pleasant in the dappled shadow, for the day was growing as hot as need be, and the coolness and shade soothed my excited mind into a condition of dreamy pleasure, so that I felt as if I should like to go on for ever through that balmy freshness. My companion seemed to share in my feelings, and let the horse go slower and slower as he sat inhaling the green forest scents, chief amongst which was the smell of the trodden bracken near the wayside.U33

In the Utopia of Morris’ News from Nowhere, industry, slums and suburbs had all been swept away, leaving an idyll of villages, meadow and woodland. The much-reduced population consisted of friendly, laughing people, given to festivals and handcrafts, and needing no laws: anyone who did wrong would be quickly overcome with remorse. Even the weather was better. Oh, and the women were lightly clad and affectionate, enjoying nothing better than waiting on and cooking for the men.U34

Shaped by personal fantasies, Utopia belongs to an ancient tradition. It was often lyrical, especially with the ancient Greeks: once upon a time, wrote Hesiod, people lived free from sorrow, work and the pain of old age; the harvest yielded abundantly of its own accord. Yes, and it was eternal spring, added Ovid, and yet luscious autumnal harvests presented themselves to be gathered; golden honey dripped from the trees—and Edmund Spenser, too, made sure that in his Garden of Adonis,

There is continuall spring, and harvest there
Continuall, both meeting at one time.

Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, 1596.U35

The people in this land of perfection, according to Pindar, delight themselves with horses, wrestling, music and games of draughts, while all around them blooms the fair flower of perfect bliss. And from there, of course, there was plenty of scope for going seriously downhill. In the long, varied and outrageous tradition of Cockaigne Utopias, fish come to the house, bake themselves, and serve themselves on the tables; parties of young monks come across groups of willing young nuns bathing in the river . . . This, we are assured, is better than Paradise.U36

More recently, Utopias have tended to be rather more practical than this, and focused on the writer’s favourite subject. There have been proposals for population control: for reproduction being taken over entirely by state baby-factories; for a virtual prohibition of heterosexual sex; and a lyrical description of a depopulated landscape reverting to the wildwood after an apocalyptic population collapse. Other Utopias propose the abolition of money, psychological conditioning, total surrender to the passions, the replacement of commerce by a state-controlled industrial army, a single global language, a literary education, the greening of Europe, subsistence farming and the simple life, a return to manual skills, and a happy innocent land inhabited by the noble savage.U37

And after all that, it is reassuring to come across a prediction which actually came true, though a little short on excitement. In The Diothas (1883), John MacNie predicted the general use of the horseless carriage—capable of reaching twenty miles an hour—and the hero of this life in the fast lane deserves credit for accuracy:

“You see the white line running along the centre of the road,” resumed Utis, “The rule of the road requires that line to be kept on the left, except when passing a vehicle in front. Then the line may be crossed, provided the way on that side is clear.”U38

But take heart, for the pace picks up again with J.D. Bernal and Freeman Dyson’s technology of immortality, with its self-replicating machines capable of infinite work, and the colonisation of space by the forestation of giant asteroids with trees growing hundreds of miles tall, amongst which the human species would find once again the wilderness and freedom that it lost on Earth.U39

But then there are the darker Utopias. The states which see themselves as delivering a wonderful future and are prepared to put up with pain and tyranny as the price of getting there. Tyranny’s diet, a mixture of good intentions, fantasy and terror, was there in the Soviet Union, the Third Reich, the People’s Republic of China, Orwell’s Oceania and Huxley’s Brave New World. It was there, too, in Tzarist Russia, and we get an eye- and ear-witness account of it from the observant French tourist of the 1840s, Astolphe de Custine. Its most impressive accomplishment, he tells us, was the silence—it was quite a peaceful place, in fact:

Russia is a nation of mutes; some magician has changed sixty million men into automatons who await the wand of another magician to be reborn and to live. Nothing is lacking in Russia . . . except liberty, that is to say life.U40

It is a mistake to try to build a heaven on earth. This is the Millenarian Fallacy, and you can recognise it from its lack of rational aims, the support it gets from a dislocated and rootless population, and its catastrophic reality (see “The Millennium” sidebar below). The turbulent decline of the market economy could stir these ingredients into action.

Fantasies of wealth, equality and happiness

The historian Norman Cohn tells us three things we should know about millenarian movements, those waves of populist belief about the complete transformation in society, often involving the second coming:

No rational aims. It is characteristic of this kind of movement that its aims and premises are boundless. A social struggle is seen not as a struggle for specific, limited objectives, but an event of unique importance, different in kind from all other struggles known to history, a cataclysm from which the world is to emerge totally transformed and redeemed.

Springing from dislocation and rootlessness. Revolutionary millenarianism drew its strength from a population living on the margin of society—peasants without land or with too little land even for subsistence; journeymen and unskilled workers living under the continuous threat of unemployment; beggars and vagabonds—in fact from the amorphous mass of people who were not simply poor but who could find no assured and recognised place in society at all. These people lacked the material and emotional support afforded by traditional social groups; their kinship-groups had disintegrated and they were not effectively organised in village communities or in guilds; for them there existed no regular, institutionalised methods of voicing their grievances or pressing their claims. Instead, they waited for a propheta to bind them together in a group of their own.

Prompted by disaster. Because these people found themselves in such an exposed and defenceless position they were liable to react very sharply to any disruption of the normal, familiar, pattern of life. . . . The greatest wave of millenarian excitement, one which swept through the whole of society, was precipitated by the most universal natural disaster of the Middle Ages, the Black Death; and here again it was in the lower social strata that the excitement lasted longest and that it expressed itself in violence and massacre.

The old religious idiom has been replaced by a secular one, and this tends to obscure what otherwise would be obvious. For it is the simple truth that, stripped of their original supernatural sanction, revolutionary millenarianism and mystical anarchism are with us still.

~ Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium, 1957.U43


Utopia’s Golden Age

Once, there was a time when Utopia-invention could be taken seriously. In the summer of 1509, the scholar and lawyer Sir Thomas More (1478–1535) invited his friend Desiderius Erasmus (1467–1536) to stay with him at his house in Chelsea, while he recovered from a visit to Italy. They talked at length about what he had seen on his travels. The Pope at that time was the multitasking Julius II, who combined the careers of pope and general. As Erasmus explained, he rode off to battle followed by a retinue representing a range of skills and support services which maybe you didn’t know were needed on military campaigns: whores, lawyers, cardinals, bankers and spin doctors who could prove that plunging a sword into your brother’s vitals was an act of supreme charity in accordance with Christian teaching.U41

For Erasmus, the only thing to do about this was to laugh at it, and his Praise of Folly (1511) is a carnival of irony and sarcasm, the portrait of a society of erotic aggression, held together by little more than a web of mutual flattery—the habit, common in all the courts of Europe, of never daring to tell the truth. The book was a bestseller. The Pope himself is said to have enjoyed it, but for More it was a shock and a reason to think about a better way of doing things.U42

By comparison with the lunatic brilliance of Rome, More’s Utopia (1516) comes as a relief. Here was the ideal state, calm and sensible, a haven of sanity and groundedness. The first thing to do, he tells us, is to make Utopia an island, decisively separate from continental Europe, and with the guarantee of freedom to decide for itself. If God hadn’t already provided for this island status, then the omission should be corrected as soon as possible by a massive feat of collective digging. Now there would be a chance of a society that made sense, and More’s Utopia duly defends religious toleration and promotes lifelong education; small towns are surrounded by the land from which they derive food and fuel, in a model quite similar to that of Ebenezer Howard’s Social City; the houses have gardens, loved and cared for as sources of food and delight; there is a supply of clean water and proper drainage and sewage systems.

And yet, there is another side to this Utopia. It includes a bundle of ideas which suggests to us that even in this most benign paper-Utopia-creator, there is a controller who likes things done in his way: no private property; all houses reallocated by lot every ten years and built to a uniform design which would extend to town planning, dress and permitted games. The inhabitants even get up and go to bed at the same time, they eat in public halls, and discussion of politics is punishable with death.U44

It’s disappointing, really. Why the retreat to teenage-authoritarian fantasy? Well, you can see More and Erasmus’ problem. An earnest prescription of how life might really be lived, if measured, advisory and credible, would actually have been incredible. The storm of destruction in the Reformation to come—which included the sack of Rome by the Holy Roman Emperor’s own army in 1527—was to be a shock as yet unmatched, perhaps until the greater storm to be expected at the end of the age of fossil fuels. The mockery and exaggeration in their books signalled that this was not the time for policy prescriptions. Better to tease and goad: we, the readers, must work out our Utopias for ourselves; the responsibility lies with us to do the thinking. Sanity does not run towards us in the form of spectacular ideas; we have to go looking for it. It matures in the minds of citizens. This Utopia is lean.

More was right: Utopia really did get people thinking, not least by giving a name to the literary form, and the century of turbulence in Europe that followed produced a library of utopian writing. Anton Doni’s The Wise and Mad World (1552) outlined the role and responsibilities of the state; Francesco Patrizi’s The Happy City (1553) included an early exploration of the arguments in favour of eugenic breeding. By the early seventeenth century, utopian writers were getting the hang of this, with practical suggestions about sanitary arrangements, which at the time consisted of, well, almost no arrangements at all: sewage, garbage and waste from abattoirs and fishmongers were piled in the streets, scavenged by the “tossers”, assisted by pigs, geese and rats. When the Catholic councillors were thrown out of the window of the chancery tower in Prague by an angry crowd of Protestant deputies on 23 May 1618, their lives were saved by the piles of waste of various kinds heaped up against the walls of the building sixty feet below.U45

The consequences of these conditions for water supply and health were regrettable, and the solutions proposed by the utopians were exactly what was needed: fresh water conduits, reservoirs, a regular programme of flushing away sewage, garbage collection, gardens, orchards, fresh air. In The City of the Sun (1602), Tommaso Campanella described a system of pumps, cisterns and rainwater collection; Ludovico Zuccolo (The Republic of Evandria, 1625) among many others, insisted on water stewards and inspectors of public health. Robert Burton (The Anatomy of Melancholy, 1621) recommended that the most polluting and smelliest trades such as dyers, tanners and abattoirs along with the fire-using trades such as smiths, brewers, bakers and metalworkers should be out of town, and that every city should have its fire brigade.U46

There were recommendations for personal hygiene and exercise (Johann Andreae, Christianopolis, 1619); proposals for a healthy diet, for midwives, prenatal and neonatal care, care for old people, euthanasia for the terminally ill if suffering extreme pain, and arrangements for burial and cremation. The anonymous I.D.M. (The Kingdom of Antangil, 1616) argued for the reform of medical training, ending the (then) unhelpful distinction between surgeons, apothecaries and physicians. Other matters of vital concern for these down-to-earth utopians included education—especially in science (Francis Bacon, New Atlantis, 1624)—and vocational training, to be included as part of the school curriculum (Campanella). They deliberated on the legal structures of society, on property, the family, crime and punishment, including the option of community service as an alternative to prison; they recommended improvement in agricultural methods, economic policy, monetary policy and social justice.U47

It was all too much for Shakespeare’s Gonzalo: he decided to design a Utopia of his own:

GONZALO: I’ th’ commonwealth I would, by contraries,
Execute all things; for no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation, all men idle, all;
And women too, but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty—
SEBASTIAN: Yet he would be king on’t.
ANTONIO: The latter end of his commonwealth forgets the beginning.
GONZALO: All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavour: treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine,
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth,
Of it own kind, all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.
SEBASTIAN: No marrying ’mong his subjects?
ANTONIO: None, man; all idle; whores and knaves.
GONZALO: I would with such perfection govern, sir,
T’ excel the golden age.

William Shakespeare, The Tempest, c.1611.U48


The Lean Economy is set at a time when the potential for the extremes of disorder and tyranny is increasing. The default position—the failed state, extending to terror on a scale too large for a coherent response—is in prospect even in nations which at present are orderly. Whether it is with a view to preventing such an outcome, or designing a liveable sequel to it, we need to think now about what kind of political economy might have the best chances of life after oil—that is, of the Wheel of Life.

Does that make the Lean Economy a Utopia? Not quite: it is more interested in the feasible than in the ideal; it is about advocating diversity, not promoting the best; its aim is reflection, rather than persuasion. Local lean economies are unique expressions of particular places, and lean thinking says that the people who live there are best able to work out what to do, if given the chance. Utopia has a universalist, one-size-fits-all tendency; it also means, ambiguously, “no-place” and “good-place”. But the philosopher, Northrop Frye, suggests a way to interpret this:

The question, “Where is Utopia?” is the same as the question “Where is nowhere?” and the only answer to that question is “here.”U49

And “Uchronia”—“no-time”? When is that? The only answer to that question is “now”.


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Community > Utopian Communities, Rationalism.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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