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Ecotopias Now!

Tobias Rast

Are you interested in new avenues to address the global climate crisis? While research on the extent of environmental decline is valuable, to many it seems that we are missing the “how” next to the “what” there is to fix.

My master's thesis in Political Science addresses the problem that debates about concrete ways to address the climate crisis seem unclear to many and out of reach for most, as decisions are almost always made at an international (or state) level. The perceived failure of governments to adequately address the Covid 19 pandemic, for example, added to dwindling confidence in democratic institutions and processes, as well as growing disdain for the profession of politics, in Western liberal democracies.

"True global problem solving" is a new endeavor for humanity, and requires new ways of thinking.   To that end, I explore utopian thinking (UT). UT has remained underexplored at the same time as it has frequently been rejected out of hand both colloquially as well as in relevant scholarship. Why would that be the case, and is such dismissal justified? Below, I present my thesis’ findings.


Title woodcut of Thomas More’s world-famous Utopia (1516), a major inspiration for a literary tradition now spanning 500 years.

Cover picture of Ernst Callenbach’s Ecotopia (1975), arguably the first novel in the ecotopian tradition.

The Research Question

The decision to write about utopian thinking was all mine. With no substantive prior knowledge on the topic, it took time to find an angle on how to approach the research. As I examined the history of the concept of utopia, it became clear that “it” is constantly changing and evolving; utopian thought has never been static in its conceptualization.

In order to both satisfy the thesis requirements and set up an interesting research outline, I sought first to prove the political theoretical legitimacy of utopian thinking, to then assess its usefulness in the specific fight against climate change. I therefore used a political debate in the field of research and applied it to the here-and-now. I asked:

On what basis can we make the case for the enablement of eco/utopian thinking in addressing the global climate crisis?

The research question's guiding sub-questions, which helped structure the analysis, were:

  • What is utopian thinking (UT) and how does UT “work”?
  • On what grounds and why is utopian thinking opposed?
  • How can utopian thinking be utilized in tackling the climate crisis?

The Findings

Theoretical legitimacy: Realism vs Utopianism

I analyzed the works of Bernard Williams and Marius Geuss, two contemporary thinkers, both differing but highly influential political realists, and their stances on utopian thinking. Whereas Williams believes only realist politics is in tune with present day political structures and policy proposals, Geuss adds nuance to the realist opposition to utopianism. He believes that realism cannot be equated with anti-utopianism, nor does it stand in direct opposition to utopianism itself. Instead, it describes the antithesis of a situation in which an actor's vision has been limited, hindered, or distorted by either wishful thinking or ideology. Paul Raekstad’s and Benjamin L. McKean's critique emphasizes that the revelation of new potentials within institutional forms can present an opportunity for ambitious and utopian forms of realist political thinking, negating Williams' arguments against the usefulness of UT.

Theoretical legitimacy: Utopia and Ideology

The classification of utopianism as purely ideological is not only unfounded, but completely contradicts the ideas and theories of the political theorists mentioned above. While Frederic Jameson believes that ideology has the political power and task of suppressing utopian thinking, Mannheim sees ideological states of mind as a hindrance to social progress; moreover, depending on the bearer of the ideology, they also shape social existence and the status quo.

Application: Ecotopianism – what is it?

Ecological utopias, literary works with a focus on the environment and/or ecology, have as long a history as utopian thinking; “ecotopias”, a newer sub-categorization (1970s onwards) considers anthropogenic impacts on the planet as a central pillar of their ideas. Belief in the need for utopian visions of the future, guided by a desire to live in balance with nature, is the raison d'être for many ecotopian thinkers; "love and respect for nature" is the central value of ecotopian writings (Kumar, 2000).

Without “going too deep” in this blog post, I want to highlight my earlier point, which was that utopian writing has always changed and evolved. Ecotopias can be seen, to some extent, as a counter-movement to the “anti-utopian” movement in the 20th century, which argued that the mere engagement in, or the application of, utopian/dystopianism, culminates in certain disaster on earth. Ecotopianism challenges that idea, and is therefore anti-anti-utopian.

Dystopias being the flipside of utopias, as anti-utopias oppose the concept of utopian thinking entirely. Graph taken from article in the communemag.com.

By specifying the focus on anthropogenic climate change, ecotopianism offers an avenue for people to engage in utopian thinking as a means to envision an ecologically stable world to essentially motivate and stimulate people to take radical action in the here and now.

Application: Ecotopianism – how does it solve the climate crisis?

Ecotopian thinking need not remain merely theoretical; nonprofit and independent think tanks such as "Realutopien.de" show how ecotopian thinking can be transformed from literary and theoretical form into real tools for personal and/or community growth. Furthermore, the growth of networks such as the Foundation for Intentional Communities (FIC) demonstrates that ecotopian visions are scalable and generally embraced by people who feel alienated and disconnected from nature or are simply desperate for change.

The biggest obstacle to sufficient progress in the fight against climate change is an uninformed and disinterested public. I believe that eco/utopian thinking can be that tool to reignite people's ambitions, bring back the "spark" and engage them in a process that also sufficiently informs them.

Can you feel that spark? Is it a glimmer maybe? If you are interested in reading either my full argument in chapter 6, or the entire thesis then kindly follow this link to the Radboud Educational repository.