Book Review – The Utopia Experiment

dylanevansThe Utopia Experiment by Dylan Evans – Picador, $15.99, UK version €15.99

LIFE wasn’t so bad for author Dylan Evans in 2006. He was about to turn 40. He’d a good job at the cutting edge of artificial intelligence research, working in a robotics lab in Bristol. He lived in a cottage he’d bought in the Cotswolds and he’d found a girlfriend he fell in love with.

He tossed it all to one side, however, so he could live in a field in the Scottish Highlands.

Evans wanted to find out what it’d be like to live in a post-apocalyptic world — a real-life role- play where people had to make their own clothes, generate energy and forage for their food.

He packed in his job, and used the money from the sale of his house to fund the project, bringing a band of volunteers with him. The dream turned to nightmare. Within a year, he was sectioned in a psychiatric hospital. His mind had unravelled. He tells the tale in a book entitled The Utopia Experiment.

The impulse for the field test was in part driven by millennial fears over climate change, the barbaric frenzy that might ensue when oil runs out and an obsession with the ills of industrialisation, which, troublingly, Evans found echoed in the anti-technology writings of The Unabomber Manifesto.

The Unabomber, or Ted Kaczynski to give him his name, is a mathematician who carried out a 17-year terror campaign in the United States against modern technology experts, which he orchestrated from a remote cabin in Montana, until his arrest in 1995.

Evans didn’t share the Unabomber’s violent, nihilistic tendencies, but he did hanker after a simpler, pre-industrial life.

He explains the appeal of their Scottish retreat: “To contrast it with modern life, a lot of people do what David Gray called ‘the bullshit jobs’ — people who are stuck in office jobs that are meaningless.

We’re shuffling bits of paper around all the time. It doesn’t make any sense to us. OK, we get paid a cheque at the end of the month, which we use to buy stuff in supermarkets. It all feels so disconnected from our bodily needs.

But if you are growing your food, and chopping up your own wood for fire, it’s immediately obvious — I need to chop the wood to put it in a fire to get warm. It’s very direct. It doesn’t feel like bullshit. A lot of people would like to be outdoors more; when it’s not too cold or raining, of course. You feel healthier.

“There was some kernel of truth and value to what I was trying to do. There is a lot of self-created stress in the modern world and we fill our houses with so much stuff we don’t need. The average smartphone user apparently checks his or her smartphone 150 times a day.

“That’s the good thing about going back to a more simple way of life. That’s why a lot of people are doing that today — going and living in eco-villages and off-grid. It’s still only a small minority but you can understand why people choose to do that.”

Evans was flooded with requests online from volunteers wishing to join him. He set up camp in August 2006. An average of about eight to 12 volunteers stayed with him at any one time.

They included an ex-Royal Marine; a 67-year-old retired biology teacher; a former medical physicist; a Belfast graffiti artist; and a girl from Ecuador just out of school and looking to learn English, and who ended up at the camp because, she said, “I have nothing better to do.”

A few volunteers stayed indefinitely but the majority parachuted in for two weeks to three months, which was a flaw in the camp’s logic, as they inevitably looked on it as a temporary stay, “a low-budget eco holiday camp”. Why buy into the need to plant crops when you won’t be around to see them harvest?

Evans had other structural problems. They failed to deliver on their self-sufficiency mandate. They were supposed to simulate a post-apocalyptic world, but they made frequent runs to Tesco to top up their food provisions.

He once ordered 17 tons of logs from the Forestry Commission. He regularly left camp to stay over with his girlfriend, who he set up in a cottage nearby. The endeavour felt half-hearted.

Several novels flood the mind while reading his account, triggered by thoughts of what happens social order when the pretence of civilised layers are peeled away, including Margaret Atwood’s recent dystopian trilogy, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which Evans cites at one point. He also references Jean-Paul Sartre’s caustic maxim, “hell is other people”, and admits it was a mistake to shack up with strangers.

He explains that the close-quartered living they endured at camp is something people aren’t used to in the Western World. It grated.

“It’s only very recently in human history in rich countries where people have any degree of privacy. Children today have their own bedrooms. When couples get married they can sleep in their own bedroom without loads of kids and grannies and uncles and aunts walking around. For most of human history we lived cheek by jowl.

Even the very rich — kings and queens were constantly surrounded by people. Corridors weren’t invented until a few hundred years ago — a great palace like Versailles had no corridors; one walked from one room to the next room. People were almost never alone.

“You could argue we’ve gone too far the other way. A lot of people are very lonely in today’s society. But it is nice to be able to have privacy when you want it.

“If you’re used to having that privacy, of taking off to your room whenever you want, and then you don’t anymore, and you’re with strangers 24 hours a day, it’s like being in a pressure cooker.

That’s why we’re fascinated with programmes like Big Brother, where we throw people together and watch what happens when they’re forced to live together 24/7. What happens is that people get on each other’s nerves all the time. Little things get magnified. And there is always battles for power and status.”

Evans weaves the story of his mental breakdown through the narrative. He was falling sick before he even got to camp. He had a history of depression. At three stages earlier in his life he was on anti-depressant medication. “The world was in a terrible mess, not me,” he writes drily at one point in the book.

“The scales fell from my eyes,” he says, in April 2007. He had become listless and jittery. He shuffled around the camp like a zombie, unable to do any chores or engage in conversation with the other survivalists.

He was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, where he spent a month, being nurtured back to health by its nursing staff and a wise Asian psychiatrist.

Having burnt his bridges in UK academic circles, he landed a job with the Cork Constraint Computation Centre, which is an offshoot of UCC’s Computer Science Department, in January 2008. Today, he lives in Guatemala where cheaper living costs mean he can make a living from writing.

“My fascination with the collapse of civilisation at the time was a kind of way of deflecting the attention from my own psychological private collapse,” he says.

“In some ways, the two are related even for people who don’t go through a psychological breakdown. When we think about the extinction of humanity it’s like my friend Nick [Bostrom, a noted philosopher], says: ‘That’s just a way of thinking about your own mortality.’

That’s what’s behind it all. I was struggling with something much more personal and subjective. I just deflected it onto something external as a way of dealing with it.”

From the Irish Independent

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