In the shadow of looming climate crisis and political failures to tackle climate change in the wake of the Paris climate agreement it might seem that there is not much hope around for a better, greener future. But visions of sustainable and satisfying societies have emerged in strange places over the last 50 years, and I argue have endured to form a distinct but changing eco-utopian tradition. I’ve been thinking about environmental utopias for a long time and my changing thinking is reflected in the new book Green Utopias. It explores green hope from the announcement of environmental crisis and the limits to growth in the early 1970s to the slow response to climate change in the early C21st. I follow Levitas’s broad definition of utopianism as ‘the expression of desire for a better way of living and being’ and position utopias as doubly social – products of specific social, cultural and political contexts, and critical interventions into the kinds of societies that we have and might want.
In the early stages of environmentalist politics and social movements, projections of imminent crisis cleared a space for the exploration of new ways of living and social forms beyond economic growth, anthropocentrism and consumer cultures. Richly critical utopian novels brought these ideas to life in complex, engaging narratives and enabled the imagination of what it might feel like to live in a really sustainable society. Since then we have seen claims that nature has ended, whether because of physical pollution and destruction or as a category for useful ecological thought. Environmentalist challenges to modern societies have been internalised, and crisis arguably been normalised as a way of life. Climate change challenges older ideas about the prospects for green futures in part because of its distinctive temporal logics and in part because of the proliferation of images and narratives of apocalypse and collapse that accompany it in popular media and culture.
So how are we to imagine greener societies, after nature and when the environmental future feels suspended between imminent apocalypse and everyday indifference? The book explores theoretical utopianism in science studies and new materialism; the slow working of hope in policy discourses of environmental reform and climate adaptation; and new expressions of green desire in contemporary science fiction – albeit ones framed by narratives of loss and disaster, effects of mourning; and spectacles of cosmic connection. There are few positive depictions of alternative green societies.
For me the hermeneutic of utopianism is a valuable way of tracing the persistence of green hope into the Anthropocene. Green utopias continue to matter in the cultivation of ecological values and the emergence of new forms of human and non-human well-being. And I think that the traces of utopianism that continue to connect possible and desirable futures with lived contemporary experience in science fiction narratives are particularly rich and important. But plenty of people – in the book I talk about the unlikely pairing of Bill McKibben and Bruno Latour – urge us to apprehend environment and climate crisis now in the register of a new realism, turning away from speculation and fantasy, away from the consolations of both an organic nature that can be saved and the critical consciousness that can imagine social alternatives. So do we need – and should we still want – utopian desire and speculative fiction in the face of contemporary ecological dilemmas?
Lisa Garforth is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Newcastle University