9 min read

Make Utopia Great Again

"A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of utopias."
- Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism

Utopia is defined as an "imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect". It should be clear how closely this concept aligns with our vision of an ideal future yet many would roll their eyes I defined the mission of WFW? as 'envisioning utopia'. Many more would deem it distasteful. I believe that's a mistake.

In this article I'll explain how utopia gained its negative connotation, discuss how we are from the conditions necessary for a realistic utopia, and suggest that greater discussion of utopia - of an ideal future vision - will help us overcome our biggest barrier to achieving it: societal cohesion.


Once upon a time it was popular to debate ideal future visions for society. Sir Thomas More coined the term 'Utopia' for his book of that title in 1516, in which he asks a traveller to recount every detail of his trip to the land of utopia, appreciating everything he might learn from such a story. The quote from Oscar Wilde that opened the article was from 1891, and was described as "typical of the attitude towards utopianism that existed among the avant garde" at the time by writer George Woodcock in his journal article Utopias in Negative.

By the 1950's however, sentiment had shifted completely. 1932 saw the publication of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, possibly the greatest example of the utopia-turned-dystopia sub-genre, and according to Woodcock, writers of the 1950s would be more likely to agree with what Nicholas Berdiaeff wrote in the foreword to the book: "perhaps a new century is beginning, a century in which the intellectuals and the cultivated class will dream of the means of avoiding utopias and of returning to a non-utopian society, less 'perfect' and more free."

Negative sentiment

This duality in utopianism has been there from its inception. Sir Thomas More in part coined the term as a pun. Utopia translates from Greek as 'no place' or 'impossible place' but is identical in pronunciation to Eutopia which means 'good place'. He implied that an ideal world is an impossible concept - an idea that has been at the heart of utopian debate ever since. As it can't be proven to be impossible, belief in the possibility of an 'ideal world' is exactly that; a belief. It seems that the pessimist view of utopianism has endured.

The adjective "utopian" is now used most frequently to discredit ideas as too advanced, too optimistic, or too unrealistic. Though this seems to be for good reason. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the emergence of 'utopian communities' primarily in the United States, a tradition that evolved into communes and cults. The mainstream was sceptical of these communities, in large part as they offered greater freedoms than the strict religious societies of the time. Those communities that fostered evil under a utopian veneer - for example the Colonia Dignidad cult in Chile - were highlighted to discredit the entire utopianist movement and way of thinking.

Utopianism - dreaming of an ideal, and therefore superior, future - is an inherently anarchist idea, in that it must fight against the status quo. It is therefore unsurprising that the ruling classes, be they religious or political elites, sought to undermine the practice.

If that is how the sentiment toward utopianism was turned negative, it is simply the distance we have found ourselves from any utopian ideals that has kept it that way. A snapshot of the BBC homepage on 7th December 2022 - an otherwise unremarkable date - shows headlines of economic turmoil, government corruption, worker exploitation, and someone throwing an egg at the king despite the country having an egg shortage. This malaise is manifesting as helplessness; a lack of desire to dream of a better way. The idea of utopia seems laughable.

Overcoming the bias

There are two things I think we ought to do to overcome this negative bias - popularise and normalise the term eutopia to replace utopia, and clarify that we define eutopia as a direction rather than an end state. Being clear that our vision of eutopia is dynamic will overcome the critique of utopianism that it is impossible to know what ideal looks like. And yes, the name change is sleight of hand - they mean effectively the same thing - but 'utopia' now has so much negative association that it is easier to replace it than it is to shift public opinion. The field needs a rebrand. And we should start this rebrand now, as we might not be too far from eutopia.

The necessary conditions for eutopia

One way to forecast how far we are from a desired state of the world is to identify the set of things that need to be true for that state to be possible and analyse our progress towards each component. I believe there are three: technological capability, energy abundance, and societal cohesion. If we had the tech to ensure we never needed to work and abundant energy such that we could allocate resources to whatever we like, we could live in whatever world we as society choose.

Technological capability

A world where someone has to manually unblock sewage systems would unlikely be defined as eutopian, particularly not by the person whose arm is in the pipe. While certain visions of utopia have challenged this assumption - through a belief in community fulfilment through the sharing of undesirable tasks - I think it is fair to say that a world without undesirable tasks is superior and I believe we can be ambitious in our vision. And for our visioning purposes we are at this technological frontier by definition. Our envisioned future is a post-work world with ubiquitous, human-level AI taking care of our needs and solving our problems. With this technology, which experts currently believe has a 50% chance of being developed by 2040, we will have one condition necessary for eutopia.

Energy abundance

Energy is the global resource. We can't solve world hunger, for example, without enough food (an edible store of energy) and it's hard to imagine a eutopia where anyone goes hungry. It's also vital for the sustainability of the eutopia. It's possible to imagine a eutopian world that has high-yet-not-unlimited energy that falls apart as soon as those accustomed with paradise have to choose between various desires as there is insufficient resource for all of them.

How far are we from this goal? It is hard to say. I'll be dedicating some focus to precisely this topic sometime soon. One indication that it might not be too far away: Even with our current solar power technology, the sun provides 35,000x the amount of energy we currently consume as a planet. That is, we could cover 14,500 sqkm (roughly one Timor-Leste, for comparison) with solar panels and have sustainable, abundant energy for our existing society.

Societal cohesion

To achieve eutopia, we have to agree on what eutopia is. Eutopia is not in the eye of the beholder as a eutopia for some and not for others is not a eutopia at all. Even a 'democratically determined' eutopia might not be good enough if 49% of the population could disagree with the definition. A practical difference between eutopia and utopia may arise here. Maybe More was correct: if we can't all agree then 'utopia' is impossible. 'Eutopia' is our realistic near-perfect.

It is easy to imagine a world of technology capability and energy abundance that is far from eutopian without societal cohesion. There could be battles for power between factions with different beliefs or an autocracy with the global population oppressed with surveillance drones, for example. It is a vitally important component.

It could also preclude the other two. As eutopia is defined through this process of societal cohesion, we would not need 'abundant energy', for example, if we collectively lowered our energy demands. This might not meet everyone's definition of utopia, but many would suggest the environmentalist goal of reducing fossil fuel use to zero - if living standards could be equalised - would represent a eutopian ideal. Similarly, we would not need post-work technological capability if we all agreed to contribute to 'necessary' work, as in Le Guin's eutopian vision in The Dispossessed. Again, this might not meet everyone's definition of utopia but it could make for a significantly more desirable world than the one we currently live in.

Sadly we are far from the necessary societal cohesion, and are trending in the wrong direction. While it is very difficult to define and measure, there are general principles of eutopia that we can look to for this conclusion. The first is democracy. For the reasons discussed above, eutopias must reflect the will of the entire population. The exact form of democracy is not important here, we just need to know where we sit on a scale from democracy to authoritarianism (where the general population do not get a say in the outcome of the society). The Democracy Index by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), a measure of the state of democracy in 167 countries and territories, has been falling consistently every year since its peak in 2014. The fall is consistent across all seven regions in the index and, most frighteningly, is accelerating.

The other principle is one of global cooperation. I'll soon discuss how a global society is likely a component of our ideal future vision and I'd argue that it's a necessary component of a eutopia for the same argument as the democratic case - it wouldn't be a eutopia if one continent, for example, didn't believe it were. The KOF Globalisation Index - a leading measure of global cooperation - has plateaued after fifty years of consistent growth. The leading article on its website is titled: Is Globalisation at its End?.

Societal cohesion is clearly our biggest barrier to realising a eutopian vision, a limited version of which could be possible today and a full realisation not too far in our future. So how might we get there?

Discussing eutopia

I find it alarming that we don't have a coherent vision for the human race. You would never start an entrepreneurial endeavour without a vision of what you hope to achieve (and is human society not the greatest entrepreneurial endeavour of all?). This isn't just to hang a coherent vision for humanity on our global office wall. The process of co-creating this vision has great potential to increase societal cohesion.

Co-creation of organisational vision statements is related to a greater likelihood of achieving goals as they increase understanding, engagement, and motivation in those needed to achieve them. While it is highly unlikely that the process and experience of co-developing a organisation vision statement would map directly to co-creating a vision statement for humanity, I think that a lot of the benefits would carry over. I think it seems likely enough that experimenting with a conversation about eutopia is better than our current approach of dismissing utopianism.

Done well, such a conversation could catalyse development on global societal cohesion akin to the rapid progress we are making on energy abundance and human-level artificial intelligence. Rather than cannibalise our rich, unique cultures around the world, a global discussion of eutopia would show us all just how much we have in common, both in our current state but more so in our desired future. This could be one tool to help bring greater unity to an increasingly fractured and tribalistic global society.

Of course not everybody will agree on a shared vision of eutopia. This is okay. It's arguably preferable! Through this conversation we will identify areas of clear agreement - the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for example - and the methods needed to inform those who don't currently see such things as ideal. It will also identify areas where there is little alignment, leading to discussion of how competing ideas can co-exist in our eutopia. This discourse could also spur individual behaviour change by sparking cognitive dissonance in individuals who realise that they currently act out of accordance with values they believe to be 'eutopian'. For example, someone who currently protects their wealth may be convinced to give a lot of it to charity upon realising they value equality in eutopia. This possibility of behaviour change makes the discussion of eutopia such a vital part of our strategy for achieving it. We can begin making the necessary changes today.

Imagine how a greater conversation around eutopia could change politics. In theory, politics should be the arena in which we discuss future visions and work to move towards them. In practice, we can all appreciate we are far from that ideal. The manifestos of political parties, at least in the UK and the US where I am most familiar, deal in incremental change with little attention given to the ultimate goal of the party. I hypothesise that very few individuals engage in future visioning when engaging in politics, anchored by the options they have available to think incrementally. There's a case to be made that the recent rise of populism was driven in part by the relevant political leaders presenting a radical vision of the future for the first time in decades. What could an engaged democracy look like with the electorate co-creating their vision of the future with governing leaders who help make it a reality? Could the mere act of discussing eutopia make people more thoughtful in the present, and make it a good - not impossible - future?

There are huge benefits from bringing eutopian discourse back to the cultural mainstream. Not only will we refine a collective vision of the future, we will likely feel more motivated to make it a reality through our personal actions and our political engagement. There is significant negative sentiment to overcome, but I'm confident that by rebranding to eutopianism and being clear that our vision is dynamic, we can shift sentiment back to being positive and hopeful. I'm excited for What Future World? to catalyse this movement.

Please share your thoughts if you have any feedback on this article, or leave a comment below.