Books

Dylan Evans
The Utopia Experiment

Had his Utopia Experiment ended differently – that is to say, had it ended well – Dylan Evans might have chosen to begin his story atop the Pyramid of the Magician. It was there in the ancient Mayan city of Uxmal, in 2005, that he had the epiphany that led to the venture. Evans described his job in robotics to his local guide, who wasn’t even certain where England was, as “trying to build machines that have feelings”, to keep older people company, for example. The guide responded, “But why can’t the old people keep each other company?” Evans realised he was as perplexed as his guide.

There, high above the Mayan plain, he meditated on the limitations of technology in solving social ills. He pondered the collapse of civilisations. He began to conceive of a grand social and scientific experiment. It would be an exercise in “collaborative fiction”. He and some volunteers would live for a time in a remote community they built themselves (“Utopia”), in the Scottish Highlands, as though global civilisation had collapsed.

As it turned out, Evans collapsed first. And so his story begins not on the lofty heights of a Mayan pyramid but within the confines of a psychiatric hospital, and on a far less sanguine note – with a bloodcurdling scream, to be precise. The scream jolts Evans awake. It is three in the morning on his first night in the hospital. He never does find out who screamed or why the person then cried out: “No, please don’t, NOOOO!” But the visceral cry leaves a haunting echo across the pages of The Utopia Experiment as Evans, a writer of popular science and philosophy now in his late 30s, examines how what appeared to be rational thinking took him down the path to madness.

The issues that put Evans on the road to Utopia confront us all: global warming, for example. On his return from Mexico, Evans searched out books by other scientists and technologists, such as Our Final Century by astrophysicist and Astronomer Royal Martin Rees, who gives humanity a 50-50 chance of surviving to 2100, and geographer Jared Diamond’s Collapse, which warns of “ecocide”. By the time Evans arrived at the manifesto of convicted ecoterrorist Ted Kaczynski, the “Unabomber”, he was primed to embrace Kaczynski’s “strange gospel”, which he admits he was soon “spouting… as fervently as a religious convert”. (He rejected Kaczynski’s call to violence, however.)

Evans studied the history of utopian communities and visited several, ranging from well-organised ecovillages to feral encampments. His research suggested that utopian communities with the greatest longevity and record of success tended to have a strongly religious foundation, such as those of the Amish. The worst were associated with apocalyptic cults, such as Jonestown. As an atheist and a scientist, he was determined that his utopia would be secular and democratic. 

Evans put out a call for volunteers for what he described as a time-limited scientific experiment, a learning and working community that he envisioned would become (as he wrote on his website) “a cross between Plato’s Academy and The Beach”. He reflects: “For some reason the ominous implications of citing The Beach as inspiration for my experiment escaped my mind at the time.” After all, the novel begins with a promise of paradise and ends in dysfunction, violence and disaster.

Among the first volunteers to present himself was Adam, a practised yurt-builder in his early 50s “dressed in a British Airways blanket and a cowboy hat, with a feather poking out of the hatband” and with a face like Gandalf. There was also the hyperkinetic Agric, another greybeard, a skilled baker and gardener. Evans closed his ears to the concerns of friends and colleagues, quit his job and sold his house to finance the project.

Evans would eventually discover that Adam had been homeless at the time and that he was a fervent believer in the Great Spirit which, whatever it was, did not approve of many of Evans’ ideas about the Utopia Experiment. Evans, in turn, did not approve of the Great Spirit. He would also come to realise that Agric was a committed believer in the imminent collapse of global civilisation – a “doomer”. Other volunteers of greater or lesser eccentricity would come and go.

The experiment began to slip, as Evans writes, from merely being a “simulation, a way of imagining what life after a crash might be like” into “preparation for the real thing”. When months later, a young volunteer named James Durston arrived, brimming with enthusiasm, Evans had become a fearful wreck. Durston, who could cook dandelion roots and stinging nettle, construct a bunk bed, carve a chess set, plant beans, bake bread and happily knock out a dinner for nine, wrote glowingly of the experiment for The Independent. His only reservation as expressed in the article was about Evans himself, whom he wrote, “has come and gone, physically and mentally, since the project began”. By the time Durston’s piece appeared, Evans had been institutionalised.

In this perceptive and self-critical memoir, which took him some seven years to write, Evans asks why utopias so often turn into dystopias and why, despite that, people so often invest their hopes in them. He examines the notion that a “return to nature” is any kind of real cure for what ails our civilisation, and if it is even possible. “While the institutions that the idealists wish to replace are often riddled with flaws, they also embody the accumulated wisdom of many generations, of hundreds of years of R&D. Their bugs may be easier to spot than their features.”

He considers the ethical implications of such a solipsistic quest, such self-inflicted hardship in a world where war, famine and disaster have left so many societies in desperate, genuine need of reconstruction. Examining the relationship between fear for the planet and anxiety surrounding personal mortality, he concludes that “There is no insurance policy against the collapse of civilization” – and that this, counterintuitively, is the insight that might save us.  CG

Picador, 256pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 14, 2015 as "Dylan Evans, The Utopia Experiment". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: CG