Entropia: Life Beyond Industrial Civilisation

by Samuel Alexander

When industrial civilisation collapsed in the third decade of the 21st century, a community living on a small island in the South Pacific Ocean found itself permanently isolated from the rest of the world. With no option but to build a self-sufficient economy with very limited energy supplies, this community set about creating a simpler way of life that could flourish into the deep future. Determined above all else to transcend the materialistic values of the Old World, they made a commitment to live materially simple lives, convinced that this was the surest path to genuine freedom, peace, and sustainable prosperity. Seven decades later, in the year 2099, a narrator emerges to describe the results of this remarkable living experiment. That is the premise of my new book, Entropia: Life Beyond Industrial Civilisation, and I’d like to briefly address the question: why did I write it?

In recent decades, much has been written in criticism of growth-based economics, and ecological economists have been leading the way in developing the most coherent alternative model — the steady state economy. However, with very few exceptions, little has been written on what daily life would actually be like in an ecologically sustainable economy. This makes it difficult to envision the alternative society that a steady state economy implies, and this is problematic, I feel, because if people cannot picture the alternative society, it is very difficult to desire it. And if people do not desire it, no social or political movement will arise to bring it into existence. For this reason I attempted, in Entropia, to describe in detail what everyday life might be like in a steady state economy. How would we feed ourselves? What clothes would we wear? What forms of transport and technology would we use? How much and what types of energy would we require? And what material standard of living would we have if we were to successfully decarbonise the economy? Most importantly, perhaps, what would the quality of daily life be like? Those are some of the questions the narrator addresses as he documents the economy, culture, and politics of Entropia, in the aftermath of the industrial age.

EntropiaIn answering those questions, the narrator highlights the point that sustainability proper, as opposed to greenwash, implies an extremely radical agenda for change. True sustainability is not merely about taking shorter showers, composting, and turning the lights off; nor is it about a carbon tax here, and a few wind turbines there. It requires a fundamental reorientation of the nature and purpose of economic activity. In particular, Entropia labours the point that a steady state economy must be based on lifestyles of material sufficiency, with the focus being on providing ‘enough, for everyone, forever,’ not universalising consumer affluence. Presently, the global economy is in gross ecological overshoot, while billions of people still live lives of material deprivation. To achieve sustainability in the overdeveloped world, the richest nations need to go through a process of planned economic contraction — or degrowth — on the path to a steady state economy. Technology will never be able to globalise consumer affluence, and the sooner we can introduce this point into public discourse, the sooner we can begin reimagining ‘the good life’ beyond consumer culture. A central theme of Entropia is that working toward sustainability in an age of converging crises, far from being a hardship, is actually an opportunity to rethink the nature of human progress. It suggests that the Great Transition needed will actually be in our interests, provided we work together and negotiate the changes wisely.

One criticism that may be levelled against the book is that it is set on small island and therefore lacks relevance to the rest of us, especially to those of us who live in dense urban or suburban contexts. Although I feel it would be a terrible misreading to take the book so literally, it is an objection that is worth anticipating. Of all literary genres, utopian writing is the genre that readers must always read metaphorically. Utopias are never about the society itself — utopia, of course, means ‘no place.’ Beneath the surface, utopias are always about the place that is not utopia — which is here and now. In writing Entropia it was certainly my intention to speak to our present situation, and this should be perfectly clear to all those who are prepared to read between the lines.

A second objection that may be worth anticipating is the objection that the genre of Entropia is confusing. To be honest, it probably is a confusing genre, because it is a book of fiction, and yet not a novel, as such. When people pick up a book of fiction, they tend to expect a novel, with all that implies, but I would rather call Entropia a fictional documentary, with a twist. When reading other works of eco-fiction, I generally felt disappointed with the author’s attempt to turn ideas into a narrative, and so I wanted to avoid that literary pitfall. Ecotopia, by Ernest Callenbach, for example, has many interesting and worthy ideas in it, but it tries to be a novel and, let’s face it, it is a terrible novel. In a similar vein, William Morris’s, News From Nowhere, which is the best in its genre, may well deserve its place in the history of ecological literature, but one can hardly deny that in many places Morris forces an essay into a narrative, without being able to disguise this clumsy literary technique. In my book, I was a bit more honest about the fact that what I wanted to do was describe a way of life, rather than tell a story. Again, Entropia is a fictional documentary not a novel, and should be read as such – not as entertainment (although I hope it entertains), but primarily as an attempt to enrich the conception of a steady state economy.

In all movements for change, including the movement for a steady state economy, it is important occasionally to hold up for examination what one understands to be the clearest expression of one’s highest hopes and ideals. That is what I have tried to do in Entropia, and that is how I would defend the inevitable charge of idealism. It is not that I think Entropia, as I describe it, will ever be achieved. It is just that unless we know where we want to end up, we can’t know in what direction we should be moving. My hope is that Entropia will provide some guidance on what it will actually take to transition to a steady state economy, as well as provide some deeper insight into what life might be like if we were ever to succeed.

Entropia was written by Dr Samuel Alexander, who is a lecturer with the Office for Environmental Programs, University of Melbourne, Australia. He teaches a course called ‘Consumerism and the Growth Paradigm: Interdisciplinary Perspectives’ in the Masters of Environment. He is also co-director of the Simplicity Institute and co-founder of Transition Coburg. He writes regularly at the Simplicity Collective and posts most of his academic essays at the Sufficiency Economy.

Sir Thomas Enough: Utopia and the Steady State

by Christian Williams

Editor’s note:  The connotation of utopia has become somewhat negative over time.  Utopians are often labeled as being overly idealistic or impractical.  Yet the very point of formulating policy or running an economy is to strive for a better society – to move in the direction of utopia.  This essay was first published on Smacademia.

Sir Thomas More’s Utopia was written almost 500 years ago, in the early 16th century.[1] The book has since influenced many a philosopher interested in the concept of Utopia, in theory or in practice. It is an attempt to outline the workings of an ideal state – in this case a small island state in the New World. Written originally in Latin, the book was dangerous in that it directly challenged the authority and wisdom of the ruling Crown – a standpoint that later resulted in the author’s execution by King Henry VIII. As I began to read this book, I was startled by the early realization that this book is nothing short of a 500-year-old vision of a steady state economy. In this article, I will review the book and show the many parallel aspects between the two visions; comparing Utopia with the vision of a steady state economy as outlined recently in the report from the Steady State Economy Conference, Enough is Enough. [2] (The following headings are chapters from the report, followed by comparisons with material in Utopia).

Enough Throughput: Limiting Resource Use and Waste Production [2, pg 42]

The Utopians are careful not to be wasteful, thereby minimizing their consumption and waste. They live a non-materialistic way of life with a focus on simplicity and quality. For example, “among the Utopians… men very seldom build upon a new piece of ground; and are not only very quick in repairing their houses, but show their foresight in preventing their decay.” [1; pg 36]

Enough People: Stabilising Population Growth [2; pg 50]

Maintaining a stable population was a priority in Utopia. The way they achieved this, however, is only possible in an “empty world” rather than today’s “full world.” Their cities are limited to 6,000 families. [1; pg 37] To aid in maintaining this balance, “they supply cities that do not breed so fast, from others that breed faster; and if there is an increase over the whole island, then they draw out a number of their citizens… and send them over to the neighbouring continent”. In essence, they use fertile colonies where the land has spare capacity to house any excess people. They likewise recall people from the colonies in the event of plague or any other natural disaster that reduces the population. This would not work in the modern world where all spare productive regions of the world are now populated, yet the importance of a stable population is recognized by the Utopians, as it is within a steady state economy.

Enough Inequality: Distributing Income and Wealth [2; pg 57]

In Utopia, even their chiefs are barely distinguishable from the general population, and all are considered equal. “There is no man so much raised above the rest of mankind as to be the only favourite of Nature, who, on the contrary, seems to have placed on a level all those that belong to the same species. Upon this they confer that no man ought to seek his own conveniences so eagerly as to prejudice others”. [1; pg 48-49] In a “full world,” excessive wealth for one means taking opportunity from another (e.g., one of the one billion people who are not getting enough food).

Enough Debt: Reforming the Monetary System [2; pg 64]

In this respect, the Utopians go far further than the proposals of the modern steady state movement. These proposals aim for currencies issued by public institutions and without being created by debt as a loan from a bank. The Utopians live without any currency in an economy along the lines of a resource-based economy as proposed by Jacques Fresco, where resources are distributed freely among the population according to their needs.  There is no debt in Utopia. Furthermore, “since they content themselves with fewer things, it falls out that there is a great abundance of all things among them.” [1; pg 37]

Enough Poor Indicators: Changing the Way We Measure Progress [2; pg 34]

“We who measure all things by money, give rise to many tasks that are both vain and superfluous, and serve only to support riot and luxury.” [1; pg 34] Residents are not particularly concerned with measuring anything in Utopia, for there is little need for it, but this quote from the narrator’s perspective describes the folly and consequence of a poor indicator (GDP was still more than 400 years short of its invention).

Enough Job Losses: Securing Employment [2; pg 80]

In Utopia, they work little, yet almost everyone is employed. “[The chief] is to take care that no man may lie idle… yet they do not wear themselves out with perpetual toil, from morning to night, as if they were beasts of burden…” [1; pg 34] They appoint only six hours for work – sufficient because it is not wasteful. As is proposed within this chapter of the report, they use working time policy to moderate production and maintain full employment. “When no public undertaking is to be performed, the hours of work are lessened. The magistrates never engage the people in unnecessary labour, since the chief end of the constitution is to regulate labour by the necessities of the public, and to allow all the people as much time as is necessary for the improvement of their minds, in which they think the happiness of life consists” [1; pg 37]

Enough Excess Profits: Rethinking Business and Production [2; pg 87]

In Utopia, most production is done for the community, and is distributed freely to all. It is a society based on cooperation rather than competition, where people support those in need, yet demand an honest contribution from all, achieving this through strong social institutions. This is a vastly different model than our current society. “In all other places… while people talk of a commonwealth, every man only seeks his own wealth.” [1; pg 81]

Enough Unilateralism: Addressing Global Relationships [2; pg 95]

The Utopians are a peaceful society, yet they are still forced to deal with threats from abroad. They maintain close ties with their neighbors although they do not enter into formal leagues or alliances. “[They] believe that if the common ties of humanity do not knit men together, the faith of any promises will have no great effect.” [1; pg 62-63] The Utopians strive for peace, provide help to neighbors when needed, and require unassailable justification for entering into war. The steady state movement recognizes the importance of international cooperation, including the need for overly consumptive nations to enact reforms and support those nations where people are not consuming enough to meet their needs.

Enough Materialism: Changing Consumer Behaviour [2; pg 101]

The Utopians are an extremely non-materialistic society, a prerequisite for it to function without scarcity. There are many examples of this shown in the text. “They take care, by all possible means, to render gold and silver of no esteem.” [1; pg 44] “The Utopians wonder how any man should be so much taken with the glaring doubtful lustre of a jewel or a stone, that can look up to a star, or the sun himself; or how any should value himself because his cloth is made of a finer thread… as if he were a thing that belonged to his wealth.” [1; pg 45-46]

There are also many instances where the general principles of sustainability are visible, aside from those described above.  “They define virtue to be living according to Nature” [1; 48].  They shun short term benefits over long term costs, and think to the future: “No pleasure ought to be pursued that should draw a great deal of pain after it… They take great care that… pleasure may never bread pain.” [1; 47] Meeting all the needs of the population, without compromising future welfare is easily achieved.

Certainly some concepts in the book are less applicable and would be less readily accepted today. For example, it was a surprise to find mention of slaves within this egalitarian society, but after reading further, I realized that their slaves are what we call prisoners or criminals. Even in Utopia, some people in society break the laws and customs of the land, and punishments are handed down. In another example, the uniformity of Utopia – of its towns and its people – seems to under- value diversity. “He that knows one of their towns, knows them all, they are so like one another.” [1; pg 30]  And having “no taverns, no alehouses” [1; pg 42] may be hard to swallow for some.

Regardless of the details, it is hard to miss the similarities between Sir Thomas More’s vision of Utopia and modern recommendations for a steady state economy.  The question is whether it is achievable, and beyond this there are questions of whether it can exist without an opposite. Without hate, would there be love? Without sickness, could we feel healthy?  The Utopians could only appreciate their society through observing the follies of their neighbors. Maybe we can only appreciate the hopeful possibilities of a steady state economy once we’ve observed the profound ecological and economic problems of the growth paradigm.  All the same, both Utopia and Enough is Enough provide striking visions for achieving a better future.

[1] More, Sir Thomas (1997); Utopia. Published by Dover Publications Inc (Dover Thrift Editions), Toronto, Canada.

[2] O’Neill, D.W., Dietz, R., Jones, N. (Editors), 2010.  Enough is Enough: Ideas for a sustainable economy in a world of finite resources. The report of the Steady State Economy Conference. Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy and Economic Justice for All, Leeds, UK.
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Christian Williams is a New Zealander working in Sweden on a master’s degree in sustainable development.  His thesis is about the benefits of a shorter working week, based partly on the need for a new, non-growing economic model.