H/T to John Ray
How living a “Green” life can drive you insane
Dylan Evans built a community without technology and home comforts in the Scottish Highlands and called it Utopia
BOOK REVIEW of “THE UTOPIA EXPERIMENT” by Dylan Evans
How many thousands of books and films are there containing stories about visionaries who set up utopian societies — with untoward consequences?
This book addresses the same subject, but it is not fiction. Dylan Evans tried it for himself, and it drove him mad.
Less than ten years ago, Evans was a professional scientist, conducting research into robotics and artificial intelligence. But during a holiday to Mexico in 2005, he perceived striking parallels between the collapse of the Mayan empire 1,000 or so years ago and the state of civilisation today. Could our certainties founder in the way theirs did?
As he describes, many societies collapsed in the past ‘because their energy requirements began to outstrip their energy resources’.
But what if a community could rise from the rubble and exist without technology and the home comforts we take for granted? He returned, determined to create such a community as an experiment, simulating what life after an apocalypse might be like. He built it in the Scottish Highlands, mainly from sticks and canvas, and called it Utopia.
Alarmingly, but intriguingly, his book starts with a 3am scream in a psychiatric hospital. The scream isn’t his, and it’s at the end of the experiment, not the beginning, when — for his own safety — he has been detained under the Mental Health Act.
He recounts how Utopia tested, and finally broke, his sanity. It is a fascinating, troubling and, at times, hilarious tale. The inescapable truth is that Evans wasn’t entirely stable to start with.
He became a committed ‘doomer’ — someone who thinks the end of the world, if not exactly nigh, is approaching. He began to envisage his self-sufficient, post-apocalyptic community, not just as an exercise in social observation, not as The Good Life writ large, but as a kind of dress rehearsal for the real thing.
Inevitably, once news of the project spread, it attracted a motley collection of fellow-utopians: from engaging idealists to raging crackpots, with a few blissed-out hippies in between. But he didn’t blunder into the experiment unprepared. Evans checked out other ‘eco-villages’ and ‘alternative communities’, including one near where I live in Herefordshire. Indeed, parts of this book reminded me of my own family’s move to the sticks some years ago.
Like Evans, I had a romantic notion of becoming ‘a horny-handed son of toil’, only to be completely at a loss the first time I had to wring an ailing chicken’s neck. For Evans, the killing of a pig called Fatso proved similarly traumatic.
Very quickly, he also found the utopian ideology was about as watertight as one of his leaky yurts, and the egalitarianism lasted about as long as it took for one volunteer to be more forceful than another.
Evans does note, perceptively, that ‘utopias also attract misfits, whose inability to integrate may not be due to the society they blame, but to their own cantankerous personalities’. Adam, given to ululating late at night, was a prime example.
Moreover, the society on which they were all trying not to rely had a nasty habit of encroaching on their commune. Terrified that one of his volunteers might get hurt, or worse, Evans took out third-party liability insurance. Which, he concedes, ‘felt like cheating, like I wasn’t fully embracing the radical uncertainty of primitive living’.
And though they resourcefully made their own toothpaste by mixing baking powder, sea salt and peppermint, they had no idea how to make the baking powder, so bought it from a local supermarket. Not very hunter-gatherer.
Evans’ relentless self-questioning about these small, but forgivable, transgressions against the spirit of his own experiment did nothing for his mental health, which further deteriorated as he realised he had invested so much thought and energy into a project that was doomed to failure.
But this book is much more than an account of a naïve undertaking in the life of a rather strange man.
For one thing, it radiates an intense intelligence and a candour that is never less than touching and, sometimes, downright heartrending.
To have written so elegantly and often humorously about his mental health means Evans must now, to a great extent, be ‘better’. But it’s still an exercise in agonised soul-searching.