Why is it that so many utopian visions take the shape of islands? From the ancient Greek myth of the island Atlantis, its modern adaptation by Francis Bacon (New Atlantis), Thomas More's Utopia, Aldous Huxley's Island, to - most recently - the dreams of Silicon Valley billionaires of create floating islands as solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems.
The Western strand of utopian thought, at least, is obsessed with islands. There are many possible approaches to explaining this phenomenon. It is important to point out, for example, that the European utopian imagination was shaped by the onset of European colonialism and imperialism, the contrast between “mainland” Europe and the faraway “islands” that were “discovered” during this historical period.
But there is another interesting aspect to be considered: the influence of epidemics on the Western utopian imagination.
Lothar Müller argued in a recent article for the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung that much early utopian literature was deeply influenced by the spread of the plague in Europe, an epidemic that had killed about 30-60 percent of the European population in the fourteenth century, and which continued to recur until the twentieth century.
Take Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, one of the most famous island utopias of the eighteenth century. Defoe did not only write Robinson Crusoe, he was also the author of A Journal of the Plague Year, in which he recalls the outbreak of the Plague during his childhood in London 1655.
As a journalist, Defoe even regularly published articles reporting on the plague, including an outbreak in Marseille 1722, calling for prevention and quarantine measures. Müller further argues that Thomas More´s Utopia and Francis Bacon's New Atlantis, too, were designed “bulwarks” against the plague.
Visitors to Bacon's Utopian island, Bensalem, for example, who happen to have an illness, are put in quarantine until they have recovered.
In the wake of the outbreak of the covid-19, many have pointed out that the twenty-first century will be yet another century shaped by epidemics – not least due to the influence of climate change.
In an article for Time magazine, Justin Worland asks: “When Arctic permafrost melts, what pathogens that have been buried for millennia will be released into the atmosphere—and can we combat them? What will the loss of entire communities, countries and ways of life do to the human psyche? How far will disease-carrying mosquitoes currently isolated to the tropics roam as their range shifts?”
Under such circumstances, insular visions are likely to come to the fore once again. We are going to hear such rhetoric not only from the political right, which for a long time has embraced a politics of the “armed lifeboat”, of militarising borders, criminalising migration and mobilising racist and nationalist rhetoric.
The latest incidents at the Greek border is just one expression of this logic: police and fascist militias are hunting and shooting refugees (many of whom are fleeing climate-related conflicts for which the bear absolutely no responsibility), and are backed by a European Commission that prides itself for passing a “Green Deal”.
If we are not cautious, a similar logic of “insularity” is also going to gain a foothold in the language of the political Left in the guise of a rhetoric of “rootedness”, “community” and the “local”. Such an escapist vision of Utopianism that focusses on cutting oneself of from an unhealthy and unsustainable society rather than attempting to change it is not only morally questionable but is also unlikely to succeed.
There surely isn't anything wrong with being rooted and connected to a place, but ecovillages, communes, political groups and movements must be careful to reject a language that justifies strong physical and other barriers. Because if history has shown us anything then it is that insularity is ultimately an illusion.
The utopian writer Ernst Callenbach acknowledged this in his work Ecotopia, which describes a utopian ecological community. The Ecotopians in Callenbach's book have made great progress, yet they are powerless in facing pollution from their neighbouring states.
We ought to recognize that ecosystems and humans are interconnected, no matter how hard we try to split them up. The repeated failure of utopian communes and projects in the anarcho-utopian tradition also shows that we might be able to escape a place or a society, but it is much harder and sometimes impossible to escape the attitudes that we were raised with.
Alienation is hardly overcome by means of separation.
Thus, in devising future visions in an age that is likely to be characterized by the climate crisis and epidemics, let us not resort to a language of insularity, as deeply as it may be anchored in the Western utopian tradition.
We need a vision that works for everyone, not just our own communities. The good news is that the very process building a world of solidarity rather than insularity is likely a very effective remedy for another kind of epidemic that seems to have accompanied the advent of neoliberal capitalism – the mental health crisis.
Philosopher Rupert Read calls this a “beautiful coincidence”: “The beautiful coincidence is that the very things we need to do in order to address the climate and ecological emergency are in almost every case the very things we need to do in order to improve our lives and livelihoods from the sorry state—indexed by the huge increase in mental ill-health over the last two generations—that they are currently in.”
Elias König is a philosophy student at the Free University of Berlin. His research is in non-Western environmental philosophy.
Image: More's Utopia. British Library.