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The Utopia Experiment

From the review in the FT, this new book looks like great fun for those wanting an insight into just the mindset of the environmentalist.

Here's the blurb.

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.

You can buy it here.

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Reader Comments (48)

When the series Survivors was resurected by the BBC a few years ago, they ran an online poll about what society people would try to form after an apocalypse. The vast majority voted they'd try to recreate society as it is now. The energy, the technology, the politics, the police, the lot. They didn't have a yearning for utopia. The public may seem dumb but deep down they know which side their bread is buttered. The ones that don't believe the Guardian anyway.

Feb 13, 2015 at 11:50 AM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

If idiots start blowing up power plants- and YES, I have seen comments to that effect (Quote: 'we need to start blowing up power plants')- they will very quickly find out that they blew away 'utopia,' rather than gaining it.

Feb 13, 2015 at 11:55 AM | Unregistered CommenterOtter (ClimateOtter on Twitter)

He ended up in the local psychiatric hospital.
Bit nuts to begin with.
Don't say much for those that followed him.

Tiny CO2
A global holocaust that's one way to drastically reduce Mankind's Carbon Footprint.

Terry Nation wrote a classic episode of Survivors back in the 70s where they all got drunk and a guy with severe learning difficulties was accused of raping and killing a young girl and they had to vote on whether to execute or banish him. Still sticks in the mind.

Feb 13, 2015 at 12:01 PM | Unregistered Commenterjamspid

The ones that don't believe the Guardian anyway.
Or perhaps:
The ones that don't, believe the Guardian anyway.

Feb 13, 2015 at 12:02 PM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

Don't forget Lord of the Flies and The Beach. I lived in a couple of idealistic communes/eco-villages in my youth. More like Dystopias. Adam Curtis describes the communes inspired by Buckminster Fuller in the 60s and 70s- a million and a half young people left the cities over that time to seek to Utopian communal dream. None of them lasted. Is this Hayek's "Fatal Conceit"- that you can design a Utopian world?

Feb 13, 2015 at 12:09 PM | Unregistered CommenterGraham

Would it be better for everyone, if people seeking to profit by advocating such a change in lifestyle, were placed in psychiatric care. Tnis would minimise psychological damage for future generations.

It might even allow current generations to fully appreciate, and enjoy, their existing quality of life, without wrecking it first, in the hope it will get better.

Feb 13, 2015 at 12:16 PM | Unregistered CommenterGolf Charlie

Climate Change or some other impending disaster an Environmentalists chance to create a " Green Year Zero" and start over society again.
Pol Pot and Chairman Mao unsuccessfully tried that.

Feb 13, 2015 at 12:36 PM | Unregistered Commenterjamspid

Mike Jackson. Very subtle but true.

jamspid, the new series was a modern version of the first. We are at most risk from people who think that society needs to be started from scratch. Although we all moan about modern Britain, it's important we all take time to appreciate that it's actually a great place to be, especially if you place it in a global and historical context.

Feb 13, 2015 at 12:37 PM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

The FT review is paywalled, but this is in the Grauniad:

I have only read the intro, so won't comment on it yet.

Feb 13, 2015 at 12:39 PM | Registered Commenterlapogus

I'm looking forward to reading the book. But I also think we should give people who decide to go off-grid a break. After all, they're generally the people who decide to live by their beliefs, not necessarily inflict them on others. The failed Utopian experiments described by Adam Curtis in AWOBMOLG that Graham mentioned also serve as a wider lesson. Many who try to live in their own Utopia believe they are escaping a dystopia. As the book appears to show, this is how a more sensible understanding of what the utopian strove to escape really is.

Feb 13, 2015 at 12:49 PM | Unregistered CommenterBen Pile

"free from modern technology and comforts"

Perhaps 'comforts' is the key word there. You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone...

Feb 13, 2015 at 12:54 PM | Registered Commenterjamesp

Ben Pile
I'm more than happy to give these people a break, as I am people who choose to live on narrowboats or try, as best they can, to be self-sufficient, and anyone else who makes an attempt to put quality of life above standard of living. Where they are fortunate enough to have the means to make that choice, that is.
Where Evans and others lose my sympathy (and I haven't read the book so I'm generalising) is when they wish to force me to live their lifestyle or so order the world (as the environmentalists often try to do) that no other lifestyle is allowable or even possible.
I'm truly sorry that Evans ended up in a psychiatric ward but it would terrifying if we all had to go through that experience before the wannabe Pol Pots discover that the world and the human race have developed and evolved the way they have and that you cannot go backwards even though you might not always like what forwards means.
As TinyCO2 says, there are things about modern Britain that we dislike but overall it's about the best it has ever been in terms of health, wealth and (perhaps above all) choice.
A quote that keeps knocking at my brain whenever this argument crops up: "There are only two groups of people who laud subsistence farming: those who have never done it and those who have never known anything else." Maybe we need to coerce (why not; they would have no qualms about coercing us?!) the eco-warriors into spending a year living the way Evans and his group chose to. We might hear a bit less from them about the simple life they crave.

Feb 13, 2015 at 1:15 PM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

It sounds like an important book. The guy learnt the hard way that freedom from society is actually very hard. Much though we disagree with different bits of it the system, we need some system to prosper. The writer in the Guardian regrets that the writer didn't explore why some communes succeed and the first two comments point out that those which do work, do so because they have rules, often strict ones.

I've been reading about the early years of a city, divided by the church on one side and absentee lords on the other. Over time, the lord's men bought freedoms and rights in return for manpower in battles and cash. Those rights included trial by 'elected' officils, land and goods of their own and all sorts of other things we now take for granted. The church on the other hand didn't relax its ownership of the land and the people and kept a tight reign on everything. Needless to say the public resented the inequality between the two halves of the community. So right at the roots of our current freedom is consumerism.

Much is made in the environmental movements about over consumption but they never quantify what level is acceptable. Me thinks it's because their leaders and probably most of them would be on the wrong side of the line.

Feb 13, 2015 at 1:21 PM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

Is this Hayek's "Fatal Conceit"- that you can design a Utopian world?
Feb 13, 2015 at 12:09 PM | Unregistered CommenterGraham

We *have* Utopia here and now.

Show Britain of today to a typical person from 1915, from 1815, ..., from 1215.... Wealth, freedom, health, education, fulfilled lives, ... beyond the imagination of anyone from those centuries.

Feb 13, 2015 at 1:22 PM | Unregistered CommenterMartin A

Ok I have only read the Guardian review, but it sounds like Evans was an idiot long before he ended up in the psychiatric unit. That said off-grid communities in the Highlands can work - e.g. the Scoraig Community which has been going for about 30 years now. For any community to work in a remote area you need a good bunch of practical and pragmatic people, so I am not surprised it all went pear-shaped for Evans and his fellow urban refuge yurt dwellers from Islington or wherever. I'm sure the midges will have made some reconsider before they even got the campfire lit.

Feb 13, 2015 at 1:34 PM | Registered Commenterlapogus

Well, my first reaction was here is another victim of the eco-doomsters, another vulnerable youngster brought up on their awful diet. But then I found more info about him on the Amazon site. It seems he is at least in his 40s, and has had books published for at least 20 years, beginning in 1996 with a book on the mystical psychoanalysis methods of someone called Lancan. He has also written on evolution, risk, and emotion. Quite why he wanted to simulate post-apocalypse living at his age and why it drove him bonkers in only a few months is very curious, and I'm tempted to splash out on the Kindle book in the hope of finding out. He seems to be someone with a mind of his own, and not a passive victim of the doomsters. My first reaction does not look to have been a perceptive one!

Feb 13, 2015 at 1:46 PM | Registered CommenterJohn Shade

Any news on the guy who was going to live on an iceberg..?

Feb 13, 2015 at 1:55 PM | Unregistered Commentersherlock1

sherlock, I don't think he's started yet. I get the impression he's a professional nutter. He does extreme things and then talks and writes books about them. He's not going to be living in a tent, he has the equivalent of a lifeboat/escape pod.

Feb 13, 2015 at 2:28 PM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

A 2007 Daily Mail article about the experiment: The aim was to set up an idyllic rural commune, so how did things go so horribly wrong?

So this is Utopia. A couple of scraggy acres hidden down a dirt track in a windswept corner of Scotland. There's an old potato shed, three damp Mongolian-style circular tents, an outside loo and a clutch of pigs and hens scratching about among broken bikes, piles of paving stones, stacks of wood and flapping plastic sheeting.

Everything is damp and cold and rather musty. It is not quite as I'd expected. After all, this is supposed to be a highly technical futuristic experiment by research scientist Dr Dylan Evans, 41.

Feb 13, 2015 at 2:56 PM | Unregistered CommenterGareth

"had books published for at least 20 years, beginning in 1996"

John Shade, shurely shome mishtake.

Feb 13, 2015 at 3:01 PM | Unregistered Commentersteveta_uk

Another hit from Google: Beyond Current Horizons blog with a summary of the experiment including a series of comments from Evans himself in response to comments from a participant.

From the sounds of those Evans seems to have had a dreamy idea of a hippy commune all living under his values and hoped his experiment would create that but, he then drew back from the role of influencing the group. Evans is clearly aware of past failures such as the Stanford prison experiment.

I wonder how many journalists were invited over the course of it too. There is Jimmy D in those comments, plus the one there when the Daily Mail reporter was visiting.(though they could be the same)

Going by Web Archive Evans was detailing the experience for The Times too.

Latest News from Utopia

I've started writing a fortnightly column for the Times about the experiment, so rather than repeating myself here, I suggest you now follow the progress of the experiment by going to their website! For the first column, click here.

Feb 13, 2015 at 3:18 PM | Unregistered CommenterGareth

I lived I a tipi on a French hillside for 10 months in 2010. I didn't totally eschew the modern world. I allowed myself a trip to a supermarket once a fortnight.

Some would say I was mad before I started but I found the experience very therapeutic and I intend to repeat it possibly this year but in Transylvania or the Plovdiv mountains.

The fact is that we cannot wind back tens of thousands of years of evolution and ever increasing expectations. It took us generations to get where we are, Why do we think we can unwind that?

I also teach people about living in the country. It is surprising the number of otherwise intelligent people who expect our ancient woodland to be supplied with hot water, lighting and and electricity,

Feb 13, 2015 at 3:27 PM | Unregistered CommenterClovis Marcus

Reminds me of the reality show Alone in the Wild, where the guy was going to survive on his own for 3 months in a remote spot in Canada but had to be evacuated about halfway through because he pretty much had a nervous breakdown.

Feb 13, 2015 at 3:52 PM | Unregistered CommenterBloke in Central Illinois

Btw I can see the article with my free FT account.. The first 3 articles per month are free

Feb 13, 2015 at 4:03 PM | Registered Commenterstewgreen

Not to get religious about it all, but the original book about 'Utopia' was written by a man who was rather fond of burning heretics. That was no barrier to sainthood of course.

Feb 13, 2015 at 4:18 PM | Unregistered CommenterJamesG

Checkout The Teachers commune, Bangor, North Wales from the 1980's. I remember visiting it as a student (once!). They believed in free love, no marriage, lived a rural subsistence on a farm etc. Utopia...or maybe not.

Then try googling The Teachers and Sex/child abuse....

Feb 13, 2015 at 4:24 PM | Registered Commenterthinkingscientist

It consistently astounds me that there is such astounding, seemingly obstinate ignorance on the part of those seeking to re-create their imagined Utopias that in the pre-industrial societies they apparently want to re-create life for all but a tiny elite was one of grinding, relentless, miserable poverty, a daily struggle to survive in the face of disease, famine and a capricious nature. Why are they so willfully blind to the immense benefits industrialisation has brought to so many? Are they really so dim that they cannot understand that it is precisely such a transformation that would have so liberating an impact on the Third World?

Feb 13, 2015 at 4:47 PM | Unregistered CommenterAgouts

Oddly you you will find those seeking such Utopias are never keen to ditch the type of medical resources not only exist because of the very modern world they claim to hate . Not for them bleeding and rubbing with cow dug , its 999 and the local GP when things so often go wrong. Funny that has you would have though that those that wish to be 'one with nature' would just accept natures way of dealing with sickness and injury, which is often painful , ineffective and terminal .

Feb 13, 2015 at 5:31 PM | Unregistered CommenterKnR

steveta_uk (3:01 PM) 20 = 2015-1996.

The 'at least' was in case he had published books before 1996 that were not mentioned on the Amazon site.

Or am I missing a nuance here?!

Anyways, I bought the e-book and have started reading it. He writes very well. Only other observation so far is that he seems to be an unreconstructed Malthusian. Being scared by population growth was one of the Eco-Buffoon Ehrlich's pitches in the late 1960s. Anyone born since about 1950 is liable to have been touched at an impressionable age by that so widespread was the publicity for his stuff, and in the UK anyone born since about 1990 is liable to have been exposed to that scare in school as part of the diet of scares inserted into the curriculum by visionaries in the Labour Party enjoying the notion of a global climate crisis as a vehicle for their dreams.

Feb 13, 2015 at 5:41 PM | Registered CommenterJohn Shade

Why is it that those trying to start their own little utopia always forget the one essential ingredient - POWER.

All utopia require very cheap, constant, reliable power in vast quantities to be able to work. In the past that was supplied by the serfs and, before that, the slaves that supported the chosen few in their idealistic lifestyle.

When they forget that they end up as the power suppliers in grinding poverty and conditions.

When will they ever learn?

Feb 13, 2015 at 7:24 PM | Unregistered Commenterivan

John Shade,

...with a book on the mystical psychoanalysis methods of someone called Lancan.

Aren't all psychoanalysis methods (at least somewhat) mystical?

Feb 13, 2015 at 7:29 PM | Unregistered CommenterPhil R

"Any news on the guy who was going to live on an iceberg"

Rockall mate!

Feb 13, 2015 at 7:45 PM | Unregistered CommenterMartyn

Interesting. Having read some of the links kindly supplied by commenters, I agree that this guy was a few sandwiches short of a picnic at the outset. For example, he sold or gave away everything he owned, quit his job and split up with his wife for what he later claimed was meant to be a "temporary experiment". Hmmm. What's more he chose the Scottish Highlands as a place to camp out because of impending heat and drought in the south, again for a "temporary experiment" that he later claimed was only meant to run for 18 months. Very odd.

But my favourite bit was how, like so many green fantasists, he couldn't hack the reality. He spent a lot of time at his sister's nearby B&B, while the village and the pub were just a few minutes' walk away from this settlement of hardy pioneers.

Like others here, I have spent short periods roughing it in the bush with no electricity or stored water. But you can be sure that we brought the comforts of civilisation with us, like portable gas lights, non perishable food and a tip-top first aid kit. It was very pleasant and relaxing - but at least we had the sense to do it in a sub-tropical climate!

Feb 13, 2015 at 8:55 PM | Registered Commenterjohanna

No sympathy for this moron whatsoever.
What possessed the idiot?
How did he get a job in the first place?

Feb 13, 2015 at 11:03 PM | Unregistered CommenterBitter&Twisted

The man is completely mad, he should have been detained in a psychiatric hospital before starting this experiment. No one in their right mind would try and start a Utopian society free from all the modern technology and comforts in the Scottish Highlands. They have no idea just how hard it is to keep warm and well when you rely on your own efforts and "renewables". On a beach in the Maldives it is perhaps just about doable from a soft city dwelling western green..

Unfortunately in order to save us from the ecomentalists we need them all to try an experiment like this to learn just how much they depend on "Carbon" and "evil fossil fuels". One winter in the Scottish Highlands should be enough.

Feb 14, 2015 at 8:35 AM | Unregistered CommenterSandyS

Sandy, as I said above, this seemed to be a particularly bizarre aspect of this "project."

Where I live in Australia has a much milder climate than the Highlands, although it is below zero every night during four months of the year. But, you would be nuts to choose this as location for people to live without decent heating and relying on growing their own food. Especially a bunch of townies.

I know that people in the Highlands developed, over centuries, ways of surviving their winters. But they didn't do it by living in yurts, singing kumbaya and hoping for the best. In fact, as I understand it, it required backbreaking labour, a myriad of finely honed skills, and immense self-discipline. Even then, people starved in bad years.

I can't help thinking that the availability of his sister's B&B had more than a passing effect on his choice of location. The guy's just a fantasist.

Feb 14, 2015 at 9:59 AM | Registered Commenterjohanna

So green ideology ends in psychosis. Who is surprised?

Feb 14, 2015 at 10:05 AM | Unregistered Commenterhunter

Sir Terry Pratchett wrote, in 1980's "Good Omens" of an idealist's 'return to nature' in:
"A muddy valley field that contained three sick sheep and a number of leaky polythene tepees. Six months later, sick of the rain, the mosquitoes, the men, the tent-trampling sheep who ate first the whole commune's marijuana crop and then its antique minibus, and by now beginning to glimpse why almost the entire drive of human history has been an attempt to get as far away from Nature as possible, Pepper's mother returned to Tadfield."

Terry got it right - that kind of person will be forever with us! (except probably with goats...)

Feb 14, 2015 at 2:18 PM | Unregistered CommenterRuss Wood

Like the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy "B Ark"

Feb 14, 2015 at 2:41 PM | Unregistered CommenterPeter

I grew up in Perthshire, southern part of the Scottish Highlands, virtually on the fault line which separates the Central Lowlands from the Highlands. We had no electricity, water from a spring, Calor Gas for limited cooking and lighting otherwise paraffin and candles. No Solar PV or 1KW windmills. But it was a proper house, but four miles (wlak or cycle usually) from nearest shop and bus. Any of my children moving there tomorrow would be unable to cope. No chance of popping out to buy a ready meal, no hot water without lighting a fire. But worst of all no Internet so no YouTube to see how to light a fire.

As Lapogus has said it can be done but you need to know what you are taking on, it certainly isn't Utopia.

Feb 14, 2015 at 4:53 PM | Unregistered CommenterSandyS

Russ Wood, when I read this I thought of another Terry P's characters - Cohan the Barbarian who when asked what the best things are in life, instead of saying the wind blowing through his hair on the steppe answered ""Hot water, good dentishtry and shoft lavatory paper."

Feb 14, 2015 at 5:04 PM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

This classic episode of Survivors relevant to this thread.


So the survivors community are deadlocked whether to banish or execute the guy with learning diffulculties whose accused of murdering and raping the young Girl.this guy has no understanding of the severity of the crime and what's going to happen to him.Even if the community decide to banish him he wouldn't survive on the outside for long anyway.
Abbie the dominant Alpha female leader of the community orders Greg her deputy to take him out next morning with a shotgun before everyone is awake and deal with him. So on the pretext of hunting rabbits and digging a big hole Greg shoots and burys him in the near by woods.
When Greg returns to their base which is an abandoned Monestry which crucailly has a fresh water spring he discovers that it was not the original accused but a local cantankerous farm labouror refugee who had murdered the girl.
Obviously in their anger and recrimation the enraged Survivors drag him out and ready to lynch him but Abbie intervenes ordering the farm labouror to be kept alive under constant watch because out of their number he's the only one with any farming experience and they needed him.

Unfortunately it seems Dylan Evans and none of his disciples did,nt have any farming experience either.

Feb 15, 2015 at 9:04 AM | Unregistered CommenterJamspid

I bought the Kindle version yesterday and read it in a single session. I had to buy it substantially costlier than the 3 pounds at the UK shop, as I dont have access to it, only the US one.

It is well written and thought - the man is a philosopher, actually.

The bottom line is: you cant go back to nature, after the neolithic agricultural revolution, unless there's a Tesco nearby. The corollary is: in order to realise this is a fact, you may have to go just a little mad.

Feb 15, 2015 at 9:54 AM | Unregistered CommenterJosualdo

A guy called John Seymour wrote the definitive book on self sufficiency in the 1970s, it is bloody hard work and if you broke your arm you were bu**ered. A good read if you can find a copy.

Feb 15, 2015 at 1:21 PM | Unregistered CommenterRoger Tolson

It all puts me in mind of the commune in Easy Rider (pretty obviously a real place, fairly honestly portrayed).

The stoned young idealists had picked a place in the desert, land that even the local Native Americans wouldn't attempt to farm. It's a long time since I watched it, but I seem to remember one of them had scraped together some dust and were trying to grow a crop on it, and Peter Fonda was saying something sententious like "I think these kids are going to make it..."

What struck me is that if they had each borrowed $100 off their parents, or saved it out of their allowance, they could have bought some real farm land. Fed themselves, at least, if they had political or philosophical objections to turning a profit. Apparently, impossiblism was an intrinsic part of their creed. It had to be too good for this evil world, or it just wasn't good enough.

Feb 15, 2015 at 7:25 PM | Unregistered CommenterUncle Gus

A sorry saga of serial incompetence and breathtaking alienation from society, but told with courage and an appealing sense of frank disclosure. His lack of confidence in industrial society is part of it. Somehow he failed to see that a society that has coped with massive challenges in the 20thC is scarcely going to be troubled by the overwhelmingly beneficial gentle warming of the last 100+ years, nor from that which is projected even by politically-driven bodies such as the IPCC as being plausible for at least another 50. Of course such a projection over decades is beyond the competence of current scientific knowledge and is merely speculation. The illusion that our knowledge is stronger has been widely spread, and so vulnerable individuals, as this chap surely is, can readily fall for the notion that a climate crisis is all but certain and not far off.

The question arising is just how many others like this troubled author are out there in universities as he was? Dozens, hundreds, thousands in academia? His response was gentle and only harmed himself and upset his friends and family. At the other extreme , the unabomber (who gets many mentions in the book) was another troubled intellectual who murdered a few and plotted to kill more. We know of the academic in an Austrian university who thought those he designated as 'climate deniers' should be executed (Parncut, who retracted his words to save his job). And how many non-academics are out there similarly disturbed by their acquired convictions, but without as many opportunities for research, discussion, access to expertise, and time for reflection that these three academics failed to make decent use of?

This is a mess that will take some clearing up. Counselling, and other pastoral care will be required.

Feb 16, 2015 at 5:36 PM | Registered CommenterJohn Shade

Recommend Radio3 prog (podcasts) - He was humble and rational, perhaps a BH reader. He and the mature presenter were on the same wavelength. Spoke of being very very sure that Catastrophe was coming, without doubt and that feeling comes in tandem "we'll be the heroes creating utopia".
Now he uses phrases "We just don't know enough" (to justify big actions)
- "oh he was mental to begin with" is the kind of low class comment I expect from "Denier Shouters" at SkS.
- Part 2 Wow , the Transition Town Crystal Palace guy was expecting the normal free ride from the eco-faithful BBC .... but they put him on after this guy and alongside the expert on cults. and all said "it's a sort of faith" (Transition to no oil economy to beat Climate Change)
This guy (Irish accent maybe PR professional) struggled on in their normal enthusiasm, but didn't win any new recruits in the studio.

- The cult expert wasn't entirely damming of greens , but spoke of people from a wide spectrum of belief systems right wing as well getting hooked into the ldea that catastrophe is coming , And she spoke of more ideological phenomenon that such cults/communities CAN last if there is a strong rule system or leader.
.... Al Gore and rules which ban skeptical viewpoints perhaps ?

Feb 24, 2015 at 3:10 AM | Registered Commenterstewgreen

Bought the book, read the book, happy to pass it on if anyone wants it. It makes you wonder how so many people have forgotten all about the massive infrastructure that supports our society.

Feb 25, 2015 at 10:32 PM | Unregistered CommenterDMcNeil

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