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Sustainable Utopias

What is a Sustainable Utopia

 ‘The power of utopian thinking, properly conceived as a vision of a new society that questions all the presuppositions of the present-day society, is its inherent ability to see the future in terms of radically new forms and values’.Murray Bookchin, Toward an Ecological Society,1974

‘..present-day utopians can alert us to aspects of our reality that we have long failed to notice, but which may well be important. Utopians can thereby help us to observe more acutely’.                                       Marius de Geus, Ecological Utopias, 1999

This short paper (approx. 3.500 words) will set out the framework and understanding of what could constitute a sustainable utopia based on my knowledge and understanding gained from my career so far. I will be referring to and referencing sources which I have come across during my past work with sustainability.

I will firstly define what I understand by ‘sustainability’ and ‘utopia’. Then I will explain in a similar way what I understand a ‘sustainable utopia’ to be, hereafter called a ‘sustopia’ (an abbreviation of sustainability and utopia similar to ‘ecotopia’, which is an abbreviation of ecology and utopia).

‘Environmentalism is a broad philosophy and social movement regarding concerns for environmental conservation and improvement of the state of the environment.

Ecology is the scientific study of the relation of living organisms to each other and their surroundings.

Sustainability is the capacity to endure. Long-lived and healthy wetlands and forests are examples of sustainable biological systems. For humans, sustainability is the potential for long-term maintenance of well being, which has environmental, economic, and social dimensions.’ (, Oct 2010).


The first use of ‘sustainability’ to describe the context and link between environmental and social issues as we understand it to be today, was the Brundtland Report, Our Common Future, published in 1987. The Brundtland Report was the result of the work of the Brundtland Commission (originally called the World Commission on Environment and Development, WCED) set up by the UN General Assembly in 1983. Gro Harlem Brundtland was then Prime Minister of Norway and Chairperson of the commission, and subsequently both the commission and report were called after her. The commission was created to address growing concern ‘about the accelerating deterioration of the human environment and natural resources’ (Our Common Future, Oxford University press, 1987) and the negative impact of that deterioration on economic and social development. The commission established that environmental problems were global in nature and suggested that it was in the common interest of all nations to establish policies for sustainable development.

The Brundtland Commission formed and defined the concept of 'sustainable development'. Sustainable development meant that economic as well as social advance was necessary to assure human beings a healthy and productive life but it had to be an advance that did not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The Brundtland concept of sustainable development addresses and includes four important elements:
Human-related issues including basic needs (food, water, housing, education, health).
Social and ethical issues relating to life quality and dignity.
The concept of ’limitation’: there is a limit to non-renewable resources and that the present generation must limit the use of these to make sure that there are sufficient resources for future generations.                                                               4. The concept of ‘natural resources being vital to sustain life’.

For the first time it was publicly announced that man/woman must live in harmony with nature that they must do this in order that future generations can have the same conditions and possibilities to live fullfilled lives as people have today. The core of sustainable development is balance. Balance between the demands that humans make and the earth’s carrying capacity to sustain such demands. To achieve such a balance the following factors must be taken into consideration in all human activity: environmental and economic factors as well as human wellbeing (social and ethical issues). 

The understanding of sustainability most of us have today is based on the above and the most quoted concept of sustainability is The Triple Bottom (TBL) line also sometimes referred to as PPP (people, planet, profits) (Elkington 1995) or EEE (ethics, ecology, economy) (Valuing the Earth: Economics, Ecology, Ethics: Herman E. Daly, Kenneth N. Townsend). John Elkington describes in his 1997 book ‘Cannibals with Forks: the Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business’ what is meant by TBLs and talks about ‘the sustainable capitalism transition’, as he believes that business will be in the driving seat ahead of governments and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) in the third millennium.

The triple bottom line approach has since then become the popular model for sustainable development and is the model which most sectors of society refer towhen discussing sustainability.

The above outlines the background for the phrase ‘sustainability’ and what I understood by the term.

The most obvious, recent and clear result of a non-sustainable world which affects us all is ‘climate change’ and recent reports by the IPCC (The International Panel for Climate Change), a UN initiative, has described clear scenarios for how the world will be affected and the impact on people by the warming of both the land, air and seas of the earth. The EEA’s (European Environmental Agency) latest 5-year report of the state of the environment confirms this. Climate change affects biodiversity and desertification. The more intense and far-reaching climate change is, the greater will be the loss of plant and animal species and the more dryland and semi-arid terrain around the world will lose vegetation and deteriorate. It has been estimated by the IPCC and EEA that an increase in temperature of an average of 2 degrees Celsius can be carried by the earth’s systems without undue damage to the natural habitat and climate systems and therfore can be coped with by humans.

Taking this onboard a sustainable planet is then a planet where we, the human population, live within the carrying capacity of the earth and its resources and one in which our activities do not cause the global average temperature to rise more than 2 degrees. A sustainable planet is also one in which people worldwide have their basic needs for food, water, housing, education, and health taken care of and where everyone has the opportunity to enjoy a life of dignity and quality. A sustainable planet is one where we acknowledge that nature and natural resources are essential in sustaining of life and where we live and work in accordance with that fact. This forms the basis for what, in my opinion, a sustainable utopia is about.


Utopia means literally: no place, from Greek ou not + topos a place.  It has become to mean:

  • an ideally perfect state; especially in its social and political and moral aspects
  • an imaginary or real place considered to be perfect or ideal
  • an idealistic scheme for social and political reform
  • ideally perfect place or state of things

The above are definitions from a variety of sources (Thesaurus, Free Online Dictionary and Encyclopedia, The Concise Oxford Dictionary, 1982). The first words mentioned in Chambers Thesaurus (W&R Chambers 1990) are ‘bliss’, ‘Eden’, ‘Elysium’.

Utopia then essentially means nowhere, a nowhere place. The concept of utopia as mentioned in early literature up to 17th century seemed solely a place or state which  existed purely in theory as described in literary works, articles, papers and books. However, from the 17thth century many societies, mostly small (less than 5.000 inhabitants) have been set up and many hundreds exist today which have been created from some vision of utopia (Malcolm Miles, 2008), (Douglas Farr 2008), (Jackson and Svensson 2001).

Some believe that utopian ideas came about as a result of political change and historical developments, ‘ The discovery of the new World, the Age of Enlightenment, the French revolution, the rise of Science’, John Carey, (1999).  Some believe that utopian ideas can influence key desicionmakers, Marius de Geus, (1999). Others that utopian ideas rarely receive any recognition by politicians, and are merely seen as some kind of fantasy without any real purpose or meaning (Malcolm Miles (2008).

My personal opinion is that utopian thought and ideas act in a similar way as art. It  documents aspects of the society we live in and is often seen as a reaction to it, especially the political or social make-up of a country. Utopian writing has been a reaction to or metaphor for the society that existed much in the same way art is seen to visually reflect current society. Where art can be personal and introverted and document the microcosm i.e. Kiefer Amseln, utopias can be reflections of the make-up of complete societies i.e. George Orwell’s ‘1984’ or ‘Big Brother’, Huxley’s Brave New World, Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, Ernst Callenbach’s Ecotopia, to name just a few more recent visions. Another personal opinion is that we are influenced by utopian thought and ideas. The most currently accessible ideas of utopian societies and thought are presented by the filmmakers i.e. Waterworld, Avatar, where we are introduced to different world scenarios, some positive as in the recent film Avatar and some with a negative construct as in Waterworld.  Negative utopias are called Dystopias. Without basing this on known research I believe that we are influenced by what we see, read and hear and consciously or unconsciously can create a future based on the images and thoughts we have been exposed to.

Utopias                                                                                                                 Utopias take the form of political manifestos or constitutions, earthly or heavenly paradises, imaginary voyages. However the main and most wellknown are the political utopias that set out to reform the society or the world (John Carey, 1999). Plato’s The Republic (427-347 B.C.) is famous for being one of the earliest political utopias.

Social utopias                                                                                                      Among social (and political) utopias were depicted in i.e. William Morris etc…..Karl Marx’s, Das Kapital. Even though Lenin and Marx renounced utopian thought, the ideals of communism fit very well with what we understand utopia to be.

H.G. Wells’s books (‘The Time Machine’, ‘The First Men in the Moon’, ‘When the Sleeper Wakes’, etc) are other examples of social utopias, where class divisions prevail and grim descriptions of i.e. working classes living in the dark underworld is the order of the day.

Among the first living utopias with a social but mostly religious bias were f.ex. the ones set up in the US and UK in the mid 1600’s by the Diggers, Levellers, Ranters and Quakers. They wanted to transform society and the individual with a mixture of rational thought and religious beliefs going against the values and ways of governance of the countries in which they established their alternative communities.

Many ‘living’ utopias have been manifested through a religious beliefsystem. Communities like the Quakers, the Menunites, Auroville, Findhorn are examples of religious or spiritually based utopias, some originating back to the 17th century and some have been established in the 20th century.

Ecological Utopias                                                                                                Many attempts to create utopias, have been made over hundreds of years in the evolution of mankind to describe or create that which is perfect, a perfect solution to how humanity organizes itself into communities.

From Mid17th century till now also many hundreds of utopian communities have been established around the world, some based on religion, some on social and political ideas, some of the more recent (1900 onwards) with an environmental bias.

Every age has its utopias. In theoretical terms utopian dreams span from Plato’s Republic Ca. 360 BC to Micho Kaku’s technological book ‘Visions’ (1998).

The majoritiy of utopias were created as an alternative to the current society’s norm and values, mostly relating to societal and political issues….

Environmental issues were not considered  relevant or  important until the 20th century where a new kind of utopia was described in which the state of the natural environment became as important as human wellbeing. Until then there are only a few examples of utopia which included consideration for nature i.e……….


The following outlines key elements of a sustopia. It is personal rather than general. It is not possible to include all societal infrastructures and systems in this paper but a general outline of the most essential principles and focus areas will be mentioned or described in the following:

A sustopia could be a society, place, region, country with a set of founding principles or with a constitution based on or similar to the current South African Constitution (which is the first in the world to have included the aspect of nature and the human’s relationship to it).   The Constitution was instigated by Nelson Mandela in 2004 and inspired by the Brundtland Report and its definition of sustainability. The Bill of Rights embraces both human rights as well as rights for the benefit of the environment and the future generations.  It states ‘This Bill of Rights is a cornerstone of democracy in South Africa.

It enshrines the rights of all people in our country and affirms the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom’. Regarding the environment its Chapter 2 in Bill of Rights states the following:

‘Everyone has the right... ­

1. to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being; and

2. to have the environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations, through reasonable legislative and other measures that ­

1. prevent pollution and ecological degradation;

2. promote conservation; and

3. secure ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development’.

A society able to implement the above bill of rights and enable a way of life that in reality embraces the four pillars of the UN declaration on sustainable development, could constitute a sustopia.

It would be the society’s aim to achieve a reciprocital balance between human activity and nature. Its citizens to live within the carrying capacity of the earth. The ecological footprint of each citizen is measured and adhered to and decision-making that takes resource limits into account is central to the platform on which legislation and policies are developed and implemented. The aim is to halt loss of species and enabling biodiversity to thrive and expand. The society would therefore promote services which ensure a balance between what is demanded with what nature can supply in a natural renewable way.

The issues focusing on basic needs, social and ethical issues and rights to a dignified life would play an equally important role in the make-up and infrastructural development of the place or society in question. The GDP measurements would change into something else i.e. a measurement of resilience capacity, GRC (Gross Resilience Capacity) rather than the outdated GDP, which only measures a country’s economic.

Life-long education of all citizens would be fundamental to the achievement of the above.  As well as classical subjects and studies in how to gain access to information, communicate and expand the field of knowledge students would also have to deal with topics such as wisdom and ecology. Research and development would be as important in the sustopian society as in our current society. The focus might be slightly different i.e. research in healthissues might focus on how to retain a state of natural health rather than developing more resourcebased medicines, which only relieves symptoms rather than addresing the underlying problems. The hospitals in this utopia would i.e. contain three areas of healing: the physical, the emotional and psychological and the spiritual.

Diseases are related to some form of imbalance in all three areas and a new healthsystem dealing with the whole person rather than superficial symptoms would be part of the human well-being sector in sustopia .

Key competences and focus areas in education would be resourcefulness, resilience, flexibility, changeability.

Why these? Due to the inability of governments worldwide to reach agreement on contraction and conversion policies and implementation of these in time to control the increase of global warming. IPCC expects that global temperatures may increase further by 1.8 to 4.0 ºC by 2100. This means that temperature increase since pre-industrial times would exceed 2 °C. Beyond this threshold irreversible and possibly catastrophic changes become likely in the form of flooding, drought, storms, desertification (

Climate change and adaptation coping with those impacts that cannot be avoided. This is both a matter of need, as climate change is now underway and a matter of equity, as its impacts fall disproportionately on those least able to bear them. It also may be a condition for further progress on mitigation. Indeed, substantial

new mitigation commitments post-2012 may be politically feasible only if accompanied by stronger support for adaptation. Ambitious mitigation efforts can lessen, but not prevent, future climate change. While steep reductions in emissions could stabilize atmospheric GHG concentrations at lower levels than under “business as usual,” they

likely would be well above current, let alone pre-industrial, levels.2 With higher concentrations will come further rises in temperatures and sea level, changes in precipitation, and more extreme weather. The early impacts of climate change already are being felt worldwide.3 Future impacts will affect a broad array of human and natural

systems, with consequences for human health, food and fiber production, water supplies, and many other areas vital to economic and social well being. While certain impacts may in the nearer term prove beneficial to some, in the long term, the effects will be largely detrimental.4 Anticipating and adapting to these impacts in order to minimize their human and environmental toll is a significant challenge for all nations. Meeting it requires action at multiple levels, from the local to the international, within both public and private spheres. This paper explores one critical dimension of this multifaceted challenge—how adaptation can be best promoted and facilitated through future multilateral efforts.