“Imagine you have survived an apocalypse. Civilization as you knew it is no more. What will life be like and how will you cope?
In 2006, Dylan Evans set out to answer these questions. He left his job in a high-tech robotics lab, moved to the Scottish Highlands and founded a community called The Utopia Experiment. There, together with an eclectic assortment of volunteers, he tried to live out a scenario of global collapse, free from modern technology and comforts.
Within a year, Evans found himself detained in a psychiatric hospital, shattered and depressed, trying to figure out what had gone wrong. In ‘The Utopia Experiment’ he tells his own extraordinary story: his frenzied early enthusiasm for this unusual project, the many challenges of post-apocalyptic living, his descent into madness and his gradual recovery. In the process, he learns some hard lessons about himself and about life, and comes to see the modern world he abandoned in a new light.”
A non-fiction book fora change. I heard part of “The Utopia Experiment” when it was book of the week on BBC Radio Four some time back, and was intrigued enough to seek it out.
The author, Dylan Evans, was born in Bristol and over the past thirty years has pursued a number of different paths in life. These include training as a priest, undertaking a PhD in philosophy, training and practising in psychoanalysis and working in evolutionary robotics.
Evans became alarmed by the prospect of peak oil and the collapse of civilisation as we know it, and also interested in the manifesto, titled “Industrial Society And Its Future” penned by Ted Kaczynski (aka the Unabomber). As a result, in 2006 he decided to set up an eighteen month long experiment in the Black Isle area of Scotland with some volunteers to role play a survivalist community after an imagined collapse of society.
That experiment was dubbed The Utopia Experiment, as seems to have been set up initially by Evans and a volunteer named Adam, later joined by Agric and a revolving cast of volunteers.
I was interested in the project as I have read other books – fictional, such as “Last Light” by Alex Scarrow – that are inspired by the prospect of peak oil, and also because there is a romantic streak in me that wonders if mankind would be better of with a less technologically based existence and a greater appreciation of a simpler lifestyle and so hoped that the experiment would produce some positive results.
Things don’t start promisingly, with Evans in a psychiatric hospital at the start of the book. From there on in there is an element of moving backwards and forwards in time between the experiment itself and the author’s stay in hospital afterwards.
Unfortunately the author doesn’t make a particularly sympathetic character. He spends his time either talking about how well things are going and how he really wants it all to work out, or how he’s losing his sanity and really regretting the whole venture – and for most of the book you’re not really sure which point of view he will end up with.
I’m not too sure how reliable a narrator he is either. This is because he seems to have remarkable recall of conversations and events that took place when he claims to have been barely able to think straight. Is that credible or is it artistic licence?
In addition, there are plenty of mentions of him spending nights away from the experiment with his girlfriend, visiting other communities and events, and feeling guilty for spending so much time absent from Utopia. However, in an online exchange with one of the volunteers he states that “For most of the project, from July 2006 on, I was there 24/7”. To me, those things are completely at odds with each other.
Perhaps I’m being unfair. I am sure that when Evans set up his experiment he did so with the best intentions, and he certainly invested in it heavily, both financially and personally.
On the plus side this was a fascinating read, and raised some interesting points that you might well not consider when thinking about starting again after a collapse as imagined, such as medical care, toothpaste, soap, etc.
Ultimately, the entire experiment was ill thought out from the start and so was, perhaps, doomed to a certain level of failure. That said, some of the volunteers kept the experiment running after Evans left, re-christening it The Phoenix Experiment, so there was clearly some level of success after all.
As a book, I found “The Utopia Experience” to be a very interesting, if somewhat frustrating, read and would certainly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the area of self-sustained living etc…