The climate crisis is quite literally heating up around the world. Furious opposition is mounting in response to continued inaction and obfuscation by those in power, as evidenced by the global demonstrations and direct action taken in the weeks leading up to and during the COP26 conference in Glasgow, where so-called leaders are making agreements they’ve already made and failed to live up to, while expecting us all to just go about the business of mass consumption as usual.
Meanwhile, weather patterns grow increasingly erratic as continued fossil fuel use causes the effects of climate change to intensify. Year-over-year wild fires, floods, droughts, and other natural disasters increase in size, frequency, and cost. The worlds poorest and most marginalized—as usual—shoulder the brunt of the impact as privileged, colonialist nations hem and haw over doing the right thing to clean up their mess.
This is the milieu from which increasing calls have emerged for more optimistic and hopeful narratives in our storytelling culture. Over the past year, the word utopia and even the word solarpunk itself has become something of a buzzword. Solarpunk, climate fiction, and other genres that flirt with utopianism are certainly having a moment in the sun. Given the current cultural and socio-political context, its worthwhile to take a look at the word utopia. It will be valuable to look at where the word comes from, how it has been defined and used over time, and how it can be defined and used in the current moment in a way that’s both meaningful and useful in the struggle to create a better world.
The idea of building a better society has likely existed as long as societies have. The word utopia itself, however, isn’t all that old as far as words go, many of which are thousands of years old and more. Sir Thomas Moore coined the term in 1516 with his book by the same name. He derived the word from the Greek roots οὐ (“not”) and τόπος (“place”). Joined together, they translate in the most literal sense as “no place.” As generally used by Moore and his contemporaries, the new word referred to any non-existent, imaginary society. For centuries, the concept of utopia has inspired visionaries to dream of possibilities and dare to imagine new and better worlds.
Most commonly, when people think of the word utopia is they think of an imagined, non-existent, perfect society. If you search the word online, that’s the definition offered by the Oxford English Dictionary as well as Merriam-Webster. The problem with this definition is that actual perfection—the state of being complete beyond all practical and theoretical improvement—is utterly unachievable. That sense of impossibility is even implied, rather directly, in this standard definition through the use of adjectives such as “imagined” and “non-existent.”
We all learn the maxim as young children, and it’s undeniably true: nothing is perfect. This might not be a problem if we were only concerned with fiction and entertainment, but the concept of utopia is much more than a literary trope alone. It’s a vision that we aspire to, that has inspired economic and political philosophers, activists, and leaders for centuries. It’s also a vision that is useless if it can’t ever be real.
The word utopia then, needs a new definition. Luckily for us, as tends to happen with all language, the meaning of the word has already begun to shift and change in a way that is more practically useful. Dictionary.com, for example, still defines utopia as a perfect society, but it also offers another, looser definition as well. That secondary definition is “an ideal place or state.”
The shift from perfect to ideal might seem small, but it’s significance is actually kind of monumental. I’m not trying to be hyperbolic. That shift represents the difference between something that is achievable and something that isn’t. No matter how you parse it, that’s huge.
An ideal society might be perfect, sure. But if it is, then its perfection is only and forever theoretical Why? Because as we established, perfection is impossible, at least outside of theory and imagination. A society need not be perfect though to qualify as ideal. Rather, it only needs to be significantly better than the real-world status quo.
Wikipedia goes a step further and defines the term utopia as “an imaginary community or society that possesses highly desirable or nearly perfect qualities for its citizens.” While the inclusion of the term imaginary still gives excuse to keep the concept within the realm of the impossible for those who desire it to remain so, this definition is also much more useful to those who seek to development a more nuanced and practical definition. Indeed, the shift from the word perfect to the phrases like “highly desirable” and “nearly perfect” is even bigger than the change from perfect to ideal.
As mentioned, the word ideal includes, though not necessarily, the concept of perfection. However, “nearly perfect” will never, in fact, be perfect. It will always fall short. “Highly desirable,” on the other hand, doesn’t even pretend to aim toward anything unattainable. It is firmly rooted in the achievable and practical. In that way, “nearly perfect” and “highly desirable” are much more useful definitions for those who seek to build a better and dare we say, utopian society here in the real nonfictional world.
Yes, we have to imagine it before we can build it. That’s true. But when it comes to adapting and solving the climate crisis, defeating fossil fuel empires, and creating a relationship of harmony rather than conflict between humanity, technology, and nature, then we have to move from the imaginary to the real, from theoretical to the practical. We need science fiction to be not just entertainment, but a light toward real and possible better futures. We need utopianism is both visionary and practical. Otherwise, there may not be a future for us to imagine much longer.
Utopianism doesn’t have be to pie in the sky and impractical. It doesn’t have to be unachievable. Real utopia can exist. We can imagine a better future and create a new world for the next generations.
It’s time to demand utopia.
Join us, and let’s build a solarpunk future together.
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.