In our recent article, “Utopia in the Age of Climate Crisis,” we examined the origin of the word utopia, the way definitions utopia have changed over time, and what a useful definition of the word looks like for us today and in the future world of climate crisis. That discussion revolved around the idea that a useful definition would continue along the word’s current trajectory away from notions of a state or society that is now and forever perfect with no need or room for improvement. Such a definition is utterly useless in the real world, and solarpunk is concerned not only with building fictional utopias, but also in how we can make them real in our nonfictional world.
One of the definitions we looked at, the one that was most useful to us today, is provided by Wikipedia. Their definition states that a society is utopian if it possesses highly desirable or nearly perfect qualities. It further states that the term utopia can also “denote actual experiments in what participants regard as a vastly superior manner of living, generally in what are termed intentional communities.” The Wiki entry on utopia also points out something important that many of us fail to recognize when we think of the concept, one person’s utopia can be another person’s nightmare.
People of all types, backgrounds, and ideologies have imagined what a utopia might look like within the context of their belief system. There are socialist and anarchist utopias, environmentalist utopias, feminist utopias, and queer utopias. There are visions of utopia to be found in every religion on the planet. There are also visions of capitalist utopia, patriarchal and hierarchical utopia, racist utopia, and others that use the term in an extremely dubious and questionable ways. The Nazis in World War era Germany are an example of a vile ideological group that believed it was building a utopia, one that to the rest of the world was indeed a dystopian nightmare and much worse.
So how do we know if the utopia we are building, either in story or in the real world, is in fact a utopia rather than a twisted dystopian nightmare? Is there are a blueprint for how to build a utopia? Not particularly. However, there are a number of questions we believe it is important to ask and keep a critical eye on when engaging in either fictional or nonfictional utopian world building. Paying attention to these questions and letting them guide you will help ensure your world is at least as utopian as possible.
How inclusive is the world you’re building?
In general, if people are left out of the world you’re building, either by purposeful design or by accident of systemic development, then it isn’t utopian. If your society isn’t accessible to people with disabilities, then your society isn’t utopian. If people of color don’t feel welcome, or if LGBTQIA+ folks are systemically discriminated against, or if either in fact aren’t welcome in your world at all, then it sure as hell is not utopian. That means that in general, the more inclusive the world you’re building is, the more likely it is to truly be utopian.
Is the world you’re building a safe space?
Of course, it is also true that if you are building a world in which people and communities—particularly those that have been marginalized under the current system of capitalism (BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, women, immigrants and refugees, disabled and neurodivergent people, etc)—have to fear the genocidal aspirations of their neighbors, that world is decidedly not utopian. Essentialists and supremacists need not be tolerated. It stands to reason then, that in addition to being as inclusive as possible, it is important that the people who live in your world have a feeling of general safety as they move about and navigate that world and social relationships in their society. Societies in which things like racism and white supremacy, ableism, sexism and patriarchy, and xenophobia are tolerated or encouraged are not utopias. Full stop.
Who are the leaders in the world you’re building?
If your world is truly going to be a safe space for everyone, including those who have been marginalized under the current capitalist system of exploitation, then movements for change, and the building of that world, must be led by those same marginalized communities. If those who have most benefited and privileged from the current systems of corruption, exploitation, and imperialism are the leaders in your stories or in your prefigurative community, then it isn’t all that utopian, and it isn’t really even building toward a utopia. Rather, it’s simply making the same mistakes that have led us to the real-world dystopia in which we currently live.
What is the relationship between technology and nature in the world you’re building?
We currently live in a dystopian world in which humanity, technology, and nature are increasingly in conflict with one another. It’s a world in which technology is used by humans with wealth and power to dominate and control both nature and other humans who don’t have wealth and power. If the world you are building replicates this same dynamic and relationship of conflict, abuse, oppression, and destruction for the sake of profit and power, then the world you are building can’t be called utopian. A utopian society is one in which humanity, technology, and nature live in harmony rather than in conflict, or in which such a harmonious relationship is at least being genuinely strived for by the communities in your world. A world based on exploitation and oppression isn’t utopian, which is why most solarpunks tend toward anti-capitalist politics.
Are resources distributed in an equitable way in the world you’re building?
Speaking of anti-capitalism, if the world you’re building has unreasonable gaps between the wealthy and the poor, and if it’s based on systems where one group of people oppress and exploit other groups for profit and power, then it isn’t utopian. Utopian worlds have achieved, or are at least working hard to achieve an equitable distribution of resources. In a world that produces more than enough for everyone, there is no good reason why anyone should ever go without basic necessities and comforts that include but aren’t limited to things like plenty of food, warm shelter, access to quality healthcare and education, and the opportunity to participate in our community in a meaningful way.
This list of questions is not necessarily exclusive or exhaustive. There are certainly other questions that could and perhaps should be on this list. But it’s a good start at least in assuring the utopian worlds we’re building aren’t, in fact, dystopian nightmares.
Justine Norton-Kertson (they/he/she) is the co-editor-in-chief of Solarpunk Magazine. They live in rural Oregon with his partner, puppies, cats, goats, and beehives. She can be found on Twitter @jankwrites.