Evans, D. (2015) The Utopia Experiment Picador ISBN 978 1 4472 6129 2
The Utopia Experiment is billed as: the story of an experiment in human psychology that goes horribly wrong. 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.
Well that might be the premise, but that’s really not what happened at all. The experiment faltered from the start, failed before it began, and never freed itself from the safety net of the modern world. A survivalist encampment that still made weekly trips to Tescos – really?
No, this isn’t a book about a grand experiment in post-civilisation survivalism but an exploration of one man’s mania and chaotic, ill-formed judgement and actions and about his argument that it was depression that fuelled it all.
Tobias Jones in a review of the book in The Guardian says:
“This book isn’t about what it seems to be about: the setting up of a survivalist community in the Scottish highlands. Believing that the collapse of civilisation was inevitable and possibly imminent, Dylan Evans decided to become an off-grid crusader, a pioneer for a future without fossil fuels, technology, communications and general comfort. But the real story of the book is about delusion and depression, about how the appeal of primitivism can so unhinge an academic that he sells a cottage in the Cotswolds to live in a damp yurt and bathe in a barrel.
Structurally, the book is smart: instead of beginning at the beginning, full of optimism and hope, it begins with Evans in a psychiatric unit, having been broken by the stresses of running his post-apocalyptic project. The psychiatrist reads back to Evans parts of his founding document – an imagined future of power cuts, martial law and cultural darkness: “Global supply chains snapped. Panic buying ensued, and within a day there was nothing left on the supermarket shelves. Looters took to the streets, and the army was deployed in all the major cities.”
In The Utopia Experiment Evans, and it can’t have been easy to write as it’s ultimately a tale of hubris and personal failure, tells the story of his own frenzied early enthusiasm for this unusual project and his rapid descent into disillusionment and ennui once it ceased to be a cultural sideswipe or intellectual exercise and became (quite literally) bogged down in reality.
As an experiment in post-crash survivalism, it all seems remarkably ill-thought-through, almost doomed to failure (was that the point?) from the start. For a so-called expert in artificial intelligence and robotics, what was Evans thinking when he posted his plans on the internet??? Perhaps it might have been best if from the start it had all remained a theoretical exercise undertaken by robots in his lab rather than launching his ill-conceived plans on the real world??? How he ever hoped that a misfit and mismatched loose collective of volunteers, each ‘donating’ a month or so of their time to the project (and therefore inevitably not seeing the fruits of their labours at harvest) could, in some way, bond into a post-apocalypse viable community is anyones guess…
The outcome of the experiment is as predictable as it is depressing, it’s more Alex Garland’s ‘The Beach’ or William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’ than Utopia. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to Evans that it failed so quickly and so completely. The volunteers confined, often cold, bored, wet, hungry and isolated are rudderless, leaderless and exposed to a drip-feed of rumour, wild speculation and home-spun philosophy/religion from those more articulate members of the patchwork community who fill the gap left as Evans recoils inward, and is soon lost in the badlands of his own mindscape. He becomes an inattentive, inarticulate shadow-figure in his own experiment, neither an arms-length observer nor a hands-on participant; until a breakdown, both physical and psychological frees him from the responsibility and accountability of overseeing the car crash of an experimental community he’s created.
He walks away, and in the process of recuperation, perhaps he learns some hard lessons about himself and about life, and comes to see the modern world he abandoned in a new light? Perhaps.
This is both a clever and contradictory book. Clever because Evans is clever, a polymath, engaging, an able storyteller, and there’s is genuinely interesting not to say terrifying information here; and contradictory because despite his intelligence and erudition, the whole enterprise is so obviously weak, utterly flawed and doomed from the outset.
There’s no doubt about the passion of his convictions when the plans for ‘the experiment’ are first formed, but then there’s the wilfulness, the ignoring the concerns of colleagues and family as he races forward. Perhaps he’s been too used to falling on his feet? He doesn’t listen but vitally he doesn’t lead either.
The book attempts to cast the villain of the piece as his ‘breakdown’, as if it drove the experiment but ultimately, that argument doesn’t quite ring true, there are too many excuses, too much flip-flopping and by the end he’s too dismissive of the alternative communities and the people who find our modern world a little too smug, insane, short-term and heading-over-the-cliffs.
Whilst Evans is back in the comforting arms of academia, in suitably exotic Guatemala and with a book about the experience being reviewed in the national press, I can’t help but think of the project he set up and the people (the boomers, the doomers the survivalists and the engagingly interested amateurs) who gave trust, time, energy, spirit and hard labour to the project to try to make it a success. Where are they now, and what’s their story?