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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Scarcity and Sustainability in Utopia


For 40 years, environmentalists have strained every sinew to persuade society ‘to change its ways' to avoid the potentially fearsome consequences of accelerating climate change, resource depletion and pollution. ‘Scarcity' has been one of the recurring themes of this critique of orthodox models of progress and economic growth: if we go on growing both the number of people and the overall size of the economy, it has been argued throughout that time that the natural systems on which we depend will simply not be able to cope. 

Whilst hard to argue with from a scientific point of view, the cumulative impact of this alternative world view over forty years has been limited. ‘Business as Usual,' with a few relative painless environmental trimmings, remains the order of the day. 

So is it time for environmentalists to try a different tack: to seek to seduce society into ‘changing its ways' rather than hectoring and dragooning it?  Might we perhaps learn from the rich heritage of utopian writing, from Thomas More's original ‘Utopia' to Ernest Callenbach's ‘Ecotopia,' to develop a very different discourse based on aspiration, quality of life and a fairer, more efficient economy? The lessons are there to be learnt, but does utopian thinking have any part to play in the modern Green Movement?

The majority of environmentalists remain suspicious of utopian ‘visioning,' partly on account of their interpretation of the malign influence of utopian thinking on the events of the twentieth century, and partly (it is suggested) because of a natural predisposition on their part to dystopian mindsets and long-held scepticism about the role of technology in sorting out problems that are perceived to go a lot deeper than ‘the next convenient techno-fix' would be able to reach.

But what is there to lose? With more and more entrepreneurs and wealthcreators aligning their own interests with prospects for a cleantech, sustainable economy, it is argued that the conditions for a fundamentally different approach to environmental advocacy are better now than any time over the last 40 years.

Insights Paper